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Crawling through the Wreckage

Thomas Frank, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (Metropolitan Books, 2008)

Tom Frank is a well-respected journalist and Wall Street Journal columnist, whose 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? gained notoriety for positing that Republicans had duped those in the Red States to vote against their economic interest in favor of hot-button social issues like abortion and gun-control. In The Wrecking Crew, he delves into the dire consequences brought about by conservative policies that are actually inimical to the desires of the majority of the American public.

Photography: Jon Winet and Allen Spore.  The Electoral College,
Photography: Jon Winet and Allen Spore. The Electoral College,

While Frank’s tone can sometime verge on the snarkish, after nearly eight years of the Bush Administration’s disastrous policies, it’s hard to fault his incredulity. Because the Bush Administration has dismantled the U.S. government so effectively, Frank thinks it will take years, if not generations, for the damage to be undone. We can only hope he’s wrong.

Recently, I spoke with Frank on the phone about his new book.

Vincent Rossmeier (Rail): One of your main assertions in the book is that conservatives loathe government but have realized that the best way to destroy government is to corrode it from within. One example you give is when you write, “Putting federal operations under the direction of people who are hostile to those operations’ existence is the second main tactic of conservative governance.” Can you explain how this actually works?

Tom Frank: This is a really commonplace thing. To put operations under the control of people who don’t believe in the operations. When I wrote the book, I believe the number two guy at the Social Security Administration was one of these guys who really believes in privatizing social security. The Labor Department is probably the worst example, where it’s filled with people who are hostile to organized labor or certainly don’t care about and end up doing a really bad job, like giving Wal-Mart advanced warning before they come into inspect for child labor. It’s not that it’s planned to increase public cynicism but public cynicism is not a disadvantage for these people. If you think it’s a really good thing to make people cynical about government, what are you going to do when you’re in charge of the state?

Rail: What does the conservative movement now stand for?

Frank: There are two ways of looking at that. On the one hand, they have the movement’s essence, which never changes, which is a laissez-faire state, a merger of the state and business, sort of anti-government ideology. And then on the other hand, there’s all the stuff that gets accredited and tossed away for the requirements of winning elections, things like the family values stuff and the red state stuff. That stuff has very little place in Washington. You very rarely hear about it.

Rail: So focusing on issues like family values is just a cynical maneuver Republicans use to win elections?

Frank: I think so. I think that might be too harsh a way to put it. There are plenty of people out there who really believe this stuff but the movement itself, just the way it functions, that stuff has a low priority.

Rail: You also write that a goal of conservatives has been to put business in government, but isn’t this true of both parties at this point? Both John McCain and Barack Obama’s campaigns have ties to lobbyists.

Frank: It is true. I think it’s less so in Obama’s case. But you don’t exempt Democrats from criticism. The magnetic power of money has exerted itself on both parties. A lot more so on the Republicans. The Republicans have changed a lot more than the Democrats, but the Democrats have moved to the right as well. In my opinion, Bill Clinton was the most conservative Democrat president since Grover Cleveland. At the same time, Obama seems to understand that if you’re going to be a party of the people, your rhetoric at least has to be populist.

Rail: I know your last book [What’s the Matter with Kansas?] covered this, but how do Republicans keep winning elections then when, as you state, the majority of the American people don’t actually agree with their policies and practices?

Frank: It’s funny, isn’t it? What you say is true. There’s a reason that Republicans don’t outright repeal the Department of Labor and they certainly could have when they had their majorities. There’s a reason they don’t repeal the Environmental Protection Act. It’s because the public likes those things and expects those things, as in every advanced, Western industrialized society, the public expects to be protected by government.

How do they keep winning elections? They’ve developed this very, very effective campaign narrative, it came up in the Nixon years and is still around to this day. Sarah Palin gave a perfect iteration of it at the Republican Convention—the Red State, Blue State thing. Where you redefine elites and you present yourself as class warriors on behalf of the little guy. And this might work again, though it would be strange for it to work in an economy as bad as the current one. One of the reasons they’re so successful with this is that the Democrats have a lot of trouble responding to it.

Rail: One of the things I found mind-boggling while watching the Republican convention was how many of the speakers, John McCain and Sarah Palin included, railed against Washington. This seems to be territory that’s best suited for Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert—I mean, how can a party that has been in control for the last eight years make these claims with a straight face?

Frank: Right. Who’s been running Washington for the last thirty years? And Mitt Romney said, essentially, that George Bush was a liberal. He didn’t say it by name, but he said the government in Washington is liberal. This is a common theme. On my book tour, I’m on the radio all the time, and I get a lot of calls and no one stands up for the Bush Administration. They’re deeply unpopular. And this is a man who they adored, worshipped four years ago. It’s pure opportunism. But the stereotype has been hammered home for so long. The idea that Washington is conservative is so counter-intuitive. That’s one of the reason, I wrote the book, because the idea is so strange to people. They’ve outsourced and privatized every imaginable kind of work. And the lobbying industry has expanded in terms of the number of people employed and what lobbyists earn. Now that’s very strange if you think about that in economic terms. It doesn’t make economic sense. There’s only one way that it does. And that’s if the quality of the influence being delivered is getting better, that’s the only way they can be charging more for the product. But it’s been really bad for the lobbying industry since the beginning of ’07 when the Democrats came in.

Rail: Then, despite how you often hear people say there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats, you do think there is a difference between a Washington ruled by Democrats and one ruled by Republicans?

Frank: The parties are different. That’s not to say one is perfect and one is imperfect. One of the myths here in Washington is that the parties are exact, mirror images of one to another. If one party does something wrong, the other party is also guilty of it. You can never say that conservatism is in some way different than liberalism. It’s a myth that’s made necessary by the structure of the journalism industry. And you can’t defy this myth.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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