No figure on the American left knows more about the American right than Thomas Frank: columnist, editor, and hawkeyed observer of conservatism high and low.
In “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” his scathing 2004 classic on the politics of the American heartland, he shone a klieg light on the strange triumph of the right in what was once the epicenter of the American populist movement. In the Kansas of those days, wedge social issues from abortion to flag-burning served as the grease that helped the rich and powerful ram through spectacular tax cuts for themselves, normally at the expense of the very voters who'd put them in office.
But in Pity the Billionaire:The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, his new book, Frank shows how thoroughly conservatism has mutated in the past few years. Coastal observers of the Tea Party phenomenon often assume that the tacky tri-cornered hats and elevation of the Constitution to holy writ function as a cover for the same old right, obsessed with the traditional God-guns-gays trifecta. In fact, as Frank saw during months on the road, "the fog of the culture wars has temporarily receded" – and in its place, the foot soldiers of the right now focus their energy on the defense of radically free markets, exhorting capitalism at its most rapacious and government at its least effective.
What makes this new "hard-times conservatism" truly bizarre is that it arose in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the greatest failure of free market principles most Americans have ever lived through. Three years ago, every laissez-faire warrior from Alan Greenspan on down prostrated himself before Congress and the press, conceding that the system was broken. And yet from the ashes of the crisis arose not a third way, but a shrill, purified movement of hardcore anti-government activists. For Frank, it's as if "the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster."
Until Obama's election, this kind of purist market worship was the preserve of political and economic elites – "propaganda," to use Frank's blunt term, to keep
wealth in their own hands. Who knows if even they believed it? And yet in 2009 and 2010, a whole swath of Americans turned to "the sole utopian scheme available" to them, with effects that can only be called perverse. It's one thing for a CEO to declare that "corporations are people," if such an obscene claim leads to greater profits or power. Now, amazingly, the same line could be heard from ordinary voters. Even more strangely, middle- and working-class Americans were defending precisely the multinationals that had triggered the crisis and received the universally reviled bailouts. In the trough of the 2009 recession, Americans whose livelihoods had been destroyed by far-off bankers were actually rallying "to demand that bankers be freed from 'red tape' and the scrutiny of the law." At one surreal moment, Glenn Beck urged his followers to give away their cash to the US Chamber of Commerce, "the biggest, baddest business lobby in all of DC." They donated so much that they crashed its servers.
How on earth did this happen? For Frank, you can see "the movement's most essential obfuscation" in the division of all Americans into two groups: "ordinary people" and "intellectuals." This latter category includes everyone from professors and bureaucrats – "or that unholy cross of the two, President Obama" – to the entire media and publishing industries, whose influence the Internet has almost totally negated. (If you wanted to learn about the Great Depression you once went to the library to read Arthur Schlesinger; now, your first Google results will teach you that the New Deal was an utter failure and that "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" is a Hooverite screed against government handouts.) By this binary logic, everyone trying to make a buck is united against big bad Washington and its attendant elite institutions. The absurdity that such elite figures as bank CEOs, four-star generals, and Alaskan governors are somehow men and women of the people goes unmentioned.
Frank is not afraid to call this victory of Wall Street and big business a "swindle," and like many liberal critics he faults the president for fighting too little and
compromising too much – for, in sum, "choosing the path of Herbert Hoover." But I'm not sure it could have been otherwise, at least not immediately. What was
required was not just the right policy – Christy Romer, the now-departed chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, largely laid that out in 2009 – but an ideological frame in which to advocate them. The Democrats, incapable of discussing class or even society, thought that expertise was enough. The right gave us "movements and ideas and manifestoes" instead, and they won.
After 30 years of Reaganism, you can't just effect an epistemological shift in a day, not even when it's the day Lehman Brothers collapses. But something of the sort has begun. The Occupy movement and other protesters – the sort of people Frank dismisses as "the world's teenaged anarchists," a snide digression that marks this book as already dated – are transforming the terms of American economic discourse more profoundly than any Tea Party hallucinator, while Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have faded into obscurity with surprising speed. In this election year, “Pity the Billionaire” has the virtue of describing how we got to this grim pass in our political and economic system. But it does not describe the state of the nation. Not anymore.
Jason Farago is a Monitor contributor.