Thomas Frank Interview
Cultural critic Thomas Frank loves a paradox. Why has the worst economic crisis in generations led to a resurrection of free market orthodoxy? How can Budget chairman Paul Ryan, Republican from Wisconsin, rail against “corporate cronyism” and then enjoy $700 worth of wine with hedge fund manager Cliff Asness?
In his provocative new book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, Frank looks at the conservative arguments for austerity in an economic downturn. In the aftermath of the collapse of Wall Street, the Republican Party morphed anger at big business into anger at big government.
The GOP’s “anti-big-business message catches the bitter national mood,” Frank writes. “What the Right actually does is deliver the same favors to the same people as always.”
Even though deregulation played a major role in creating our economic woes, conservatives have been calling for more deregulation—and winning office on this platform. “The reborn Right has succeeded because of its idealism, not in spite of it,” Frank says. “This idea that we can achieve a laissez-faire utopia, where everything will work perfectly, is very attractive to people.”
And the Democrats? Where are they in this debate over government intervention in the market?
“The liberals could not grab the opportunity that hard times presented to advance their philosophy,” Frank argues, noting their technocratic talk turned people off.
Frank may be best known for his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. His other books include The Wrecking Crew and One Market Under God. A columnist for Harper’s and a founding editor of The Baffler, he is also a former opinion columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area. I spoke to him by phone.
Q:What are your thoughts on Occupy Wall Street?
Thomas Frank: I wish them success. They’ve brought a lot of ideas into the national debate that were completely outside the debate before, and that’s so important. Speaking from personal experience, I wrote a book twelve years ago where one of the main points began with the concentrations of wealth in this country. And that was regarded as an unacceptable, stigmatized topic back then. It was outside the consensus. Well, it’s inside the consensus today. The President is talking about it; even the Republican candidates are talking about it. We have Occupy Wall Street to thank for that. That is a great thing.
Q: Do you think that there’s a space for a populist alliance between the tea party and Occupy Wall Street?
Frank: No, I don’t think there is. You’re not going to get the tea party leaders to sign up for something that demands we re-regulate Wall Street. That’s just not going to happen. These guys are laissez-faire ideologues at the end of the day. But you can fight for the support of the voters that were swayed by the movement. You can do that, and you should do that.
Q: You covered many tea party rallies and one of the big mantras you heard early on was, “Let the failures fail.”
Frank: “Let the failures fail.” It’s attractive, isn’t it? It sounded good to me when I heard it at the very first tea party rally in Washington, D.C., in February 2009. A protester had that on a sign he was carrying. At that moment, people were infuriated by the bank bailouts.
The bailouts were just an outrage, straight up. An abomination. “Let the failures fail” was a good slogan for that anger. Let all the losers go down. Why prop them up? At a certain gut level, that sounded exactly right to me.
But if you look into it a little bit deeper, that’s actually the philosophy that the United States did not accept in the Great Depression. That’s the opposite of the road that we actually went. That’s what Hoover’s Treasury secretary wanted to do. Just let the Depression take its course. Let everyone get ruined. And then, people will recover and things will be fine on the other side. Hoover rejected that advice, and, of course, Roosevelt did the very opposite of that. But the leading protest movement was urging us to accept that advice.
Q: You write in Pity the Billionaire that the tea party’s actual function was to ensure the economic collapse caused by Wall Street did not result in any unpleasant consequences for Wall Street. We see that happening now. No one’s gone to jail and there’s little new oversight over Wall Street.
Frank: Look at what Republicans are doing. They’ve all sworn to reverse the Dodd-Frank law that set up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If they can’t overturn the law, they say, they won’t fund the office, they won’t appoint anybody to run it. They’ll disable it somehow. They’ve all sworn to do this.
That’s how conservatives actually run the government here in Washington: They run it by running it into the ground. They sabotage it. Sabotage is the word for their governmental philosophy.
Q: In 2008, the American right was supposedly finished, yet by 2010, the right was in ascendancy all over again. What happened?
Frank: That’s the big question of our times. You have this financial catastrophe that was directly a result of ideology as anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, with the possible exception of the collapse of the Soviet Union. You have this largely deregulated financial sector and these fly-by-night mortgage lenders who are outside anybody’s regulatory purview. You have this shadow banking establishment, and between them, they contrive to completely destroy the global economy.
When that happened, pundits here in Washington assumed this was the end of the road for conservatives, that they’ve had their thirty years and we did what they wanted and it ended in disaster. The pundits said that the Republican Party had to moderate itself or face irrelevance. The Republican Party didn’t do that; they did the opposite. They swung hard to the right, and enjoyed one of the greatest victories of all time in the 2010 elections.
They declared that conservatives had really never gotten a chance. We had never gone all the way with conservative ideology. We’d never completely done away with government, or the liberal state, so conservatism was in no way responsible for what happened, they claimed. Therefore, the only alternative was to double-down on our commitment to the free market ideal. This became a utopian faith on the right. You especially saw this at tea party gatherings.
Q: But the right also depicted itself as an enemy of big business. Can you talk about that?
Frank: This is the secret to conservatism’s success. The right was able to recast itself as a populist movement. Well, they’ve been doing that a lot in the past thirty years, but it was even worse this time around. They became a protest movement for hard times. Sometimes they pretend to be protesting the enemy—big corporations and big banks. If you read their literature, they say things like that all the time.
Congressman Paul Ryan wrote an article in Forbes magazine called “Down with Big Business.” If you read it, it sounds like he’s very critical of capitalism and the big corporations that run this country. But at the end of the day, he thinks the way to bring big business down is by going after big government. Very fascinating, this sort of twist that they always do. You can say all you want about how the banks screwed everybody over, but the culprit is the same as it ever was: government. That’s who you’re supposed to be rising up in anger against.
Q: Meanwhile, Ryan is raking in big money from these big corporations that he’s supposedly denouncing.
Frank: They fund him extravagantly. It’s not really a surprise to find out that these people who are doing all the denouncing are also the favorites of people like the Koch brothers, the oil billionaires in Wichita, Kansas.
One PAC that supported Newt Gingrich made a video attacking Mitt Romney for being a venture capitalist. It really went after him in a very strong, populist way, talking about how many workers’ lives Romney and Bain Capital ruined over the years. It’s very powerful, but what’s funny is that they also claim that this is not real capitalism. What Mitt Romney does is not real capitalism. [Laughing] You know, if we could just get back to real capitalism, the authentic thing, then we wouldn’t have Bain Capital out there buying up steel mills and firing everybody. Which is completely absurd.
Q: Ideology trumps reality.
Frank: That’s right. And all of that stuff is taken from the literature of the 1930s. There are a lot of cultural patterns that are repeating themselves.
One of the stranger ones is this ideological blindness that people would inflict on themselves in the 1930s. I’m specifically talking about the left here, the far left. We’re talking about the Communist Party. Either the Communist Party members or people who sympathized with it would go on trips to the Soviet Union, a famous set-piece of ’30s literature. And they would somehow never manage to notice all the disasters that were going on around them. They were completely conned. They would blow off all the reporting that they had seen when they were back home here in America. They would not believe anything bad about their heroes in the Soviet Union, right up until the day that Stalin went out and signed a treaty with Adolf Hitler. It took them all by surprise.
That ideological blindness is repeating itself. But you see it now on the right, which similarly has a utopian idea, a utopian political solution that we’re supposed to be working toward. Some of these guys deliberately mimic Communist language and Communist strategy from the old days, such as Dick Armey’s group, FreedomWorks, which is funded by the Koch brothers.
Their utopia is a different one. It’s a free market one. If we could just get to that point where government completely drops out of the picture and the business class is completely unshackled from the restraints of the liberal state, then we will finally reach economic utopia.
The idea of my book is that this should not be attractive to people in the middle of a recession that just won’t go away because this is the very philosophy that got us into trouble in the first place. But in some ways, this is exactly what people reach for in hard times: A philosophy that removes doubt and that offers you some reassurance in what is frankly a very frightening time.
Q: So where were the Dems when all of this was happening? The tea party spent the summer of 2009 talking about death panels.
Frank: It’s all well and good to sit around and make fun of the funny things that conservatives say and the hilarious gaffes that they make, but one of the only reasons that it works is that the Democrats let it happen. They never seem to be able to fight back, never seem to be able to figure it out. They really cannot talk about the philosophy that motivates their actions and their legislative deeds.
Look, I’m very liberal. I support a lot of the things that the Democrats have done. I want some kind of national health care. I don’t think they went anywhere close to far enough on that. I liked the stimulus. I’m really glad that the Obama Administration had a big stimulus package.
However, the Democrats, from President Obama on down, have been almost completely unable to tell us why it is that government needs to get involved in these sectors of the economy. They just can’t talk about it. And when they do talk about it, they always defer to the experts. “We need to do this because the economists say we need to do it.” That’s not going to convince anybody.
The politics of it, they think, will take care of themselves. People will naturally want a stimulus package. People will naturally be happy that they bailed out the banks and kept Great Depression II from happening. It never occurs to them that they have to go out there and fight for these things.
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