I’ve got an interview with Thomas Frank later this week that I’ll probably be publishing later, but I thought I’d review his new book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, especially in the light of his depressing conclusion, which is that there’s almost no way that Obama or any living Democrat would have the guts to dismantle the conservative movement the way conservatives dismantled the liberal state.
I liked this book a lot more than What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, which I think was weak insofar as Frank pulled the classic error of considering culture war politics not as real as economic politics, which I think is a bit short-sighted. Frank sees the struggle for women’s liberation (which tends to be reduced to “abortion”, a right wing framing to distract from their larger agenda) as a distraction from the real issues, with his classic quote about how working class voters vote to ban abortion and get estate tax cuts. From my view, though, the link between the two is unbroken—it’s all about hanging onto a status higher than someone else, to begin with. It’s also about squeezing as much labor out of people without paying for it. The elite do it to the working class, and anti-feminist men are intent on maximizing the support and services they get out of women without giving back. But I digress.
This book’s biggest strength is that it’s intensely well-researched. Frank is a historian, and he kind of wallows in it. As he should. I understand that some people have criticized him for dwelling on the history of the empire that Abramhoff built, but thank god he did. Conservatism can only exist in our media with its politely short memories. If the average voter was as acutely aware of how much the modern conservative movement owes to a long-standing project of defending apartheid in South Africa, they’d probably sour on them. The libertarian bleating that people take as legitimate political opinions now were created to defend first apartheid, and then to protect the assets of the white elite when apartheid fell apart. And politely pretending that this isn’t true is why the country is as fucked as it is.
The story is straightforward: Conservatives are the defenders of the strong against the weak, of the elite wealthy against everyone else. The problem is that democracy empowers everyone else to defend our own interests. So the secret is how to wreck the system so that it’s destroyed beyond democracy’s ability to fix it. The program is to demonize liberals to get elected, and once elected, run up deficits, dismantle and sell off the public’s property to private interests as a fraction of what it’s worth, and wreck the agencies designed to serve the public by putting incompetents or people that are openly hostile to the agency’s purpose in charge. So you have anti-union activists head up the Department of Labor, and as we’ve seen with the contraception-is-abortion HHS debacle, a misogynist nut in charge of Health and Human Services. Leave everything such a mess that, when Democrats are elected to clean up your mess, they either can’t get the job done or spend all their time doing it and can’t get anything else done. Now that you’ve expanded the gap between the rich and everyone else so much, go knocking on the doors of the rich and get money to build think tanks and other infrastructure so you can lull the public into voting for you again. Rinse, and repeat.
What Frank really adds to the discussion is an emphasis on how the people who push this agenda are true believers. We see corruption, but they think that corruption is the way of the world and hardly can be called corruption at all. We really see this in how right wingers tend to project all their ugliest urges onto The Left—convincing themselves that they aren’t immoral so much as that’s just the way of the world and everyone else is as bad as they are. It’s a chilling portrayal. People who know they’re in the wrong and don’t care are easier to understand than people who really do convince themselves that true morality is the strong picking on the weak, that bullying is the pinnacle of human existence. That stealing from the public is not just acceptable, but a moral good, because might literally makes right.
The thing I share with Frank—and this might be a little corny, but what the fuck—is a true belief in the American Dream. It’s why Obama’s speech in 2004 did in fact give me goosebumps, when I’m usually impervious to that stuff. You can get a taste of it in this video of Frank showing off the rowhouses in DC:
The huge American middle class is disappearing, and it makes punk rock geeks like Frank and myself long for the days when the main thing to rebel against was conformity. But even the conformists are entitled to a 3 bedroom house and a park where their kids can play and a retirement fund worth working for. And so are the non-conformists, dammit. Keeping it capped at a 40-hour work week gives you time to have a family, or to write that novel you’re brewing in your head. Or to spend all your time supporting your local punk rock bands, if that’s what you want. But in the ideal conservative world, no matter who you are and what you believe and what you like to do in your free time, they have the same plan for all of us, and it doesn’t include free time. It includes working until you collapse just to stay alive, and even then failing to keep up because more and more of the money you earn goes straight to the top.