The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule
By Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books, 384 pages, $25
Call it the Thomas Frank Problem: Since What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2005), the journalist and polemicist has become a figure of irresolvable promise and consternation to the American left. Kansas, of course, put in straight and strident words what liberals previously felt compelled to dance around: that the conservative revolution was won, in large part, by convincing anxious citizens to vote directly against their economic interest. Four years later, and the Problem raises clamors on least two fronts.
The first is factual. As a number of academic number-crunchers have discovered, class—and especially the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses issue of “relative deprivation”—remains a fairly good indicator of political behavior, as long as you’re asking the right questions. Yes, red states are, on average, poorer and less educated than blue states, but within the nation’s vermillion Kansases, the relatively well-off are still much more likely to identify with Republicans than their comparatively impoverished neighbors. As the Princeton professor Larry Bartels detailed in a paper titled (naturally) “What’s the Matter With What’s the Matter With Kansas?“—which stirred left-liberal discussion from Alter to vanden Heuvel—it’s the rich who in fact cling most tightly to amorphous cultural issues; in the past 50 years, working-class whites have actually become more consistent Democrats.
Over on tcfrank.com, you’ll find an extensive rejoinder to Mr. Bartels’ debunking; to contest statistics, after all, there are always more statistics.
The second front is altogether more fraught. Or as Ellen Willis, the late feminist icon, asked in 2004, “What’s the Matter With Tom Frank (and the Lefties Who Love Him)?” The shift from book to author is crucial: Rather than a piecemeal questioning of facts, Ms. Willis’ corner of the left pursued a wholesale denunciation of Mr. Frank’s first principles. To insist on the fundamental reality of economic interests over “cultural politics” is not merely to throw minorities and gays and women under the bus (though it is that); the matter with Thomas Frank, his critics insist, is a “disregard for history”—”the intellectual equivalent of criminal negligence.” As Willis put it, “Leftists’ refusal to take on the culture war has more to do with their own conservative impulses than with any rational strategy for a progressive revival.”
A HARD-HITTING, HIGH-STRUNG follow-up to What’s the Matter With Kansas?, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule would seem an unlikely locus of intra-left warfare. Given our existing constellation of flaccid “on-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” political commentaries, Mr. Frank’s motives are difficult to assail. And more than that, he’s a writer: His sentences inhale and unfurl with a wit and verve rarely seen in this most workmanlike of prose genres; if he occasionally pounds points home with a bludgeon, at least it’s a stylish one.
Turning from the Midwest to inside the Beltway, Mr. Frank’s basic claim is that the iniquities we ascribe to non-ideological or bipartisan abuse of power—e.g., spoils-system appointments, Katrina-style incompetence and lobbyist largesse—are in fact integral components of the conservative philosophy of governance. He has enough respect—or revulsion—for his targets not to portray them as mere power-hungry party bosses in the idiom of the old Democratic machines; his conservatives are principled nihilists, with a peculiarly Marxist (or rather, Maoist) interest in permanent revolution.
In Mr. Frank’s telling, the ideological bases of the New Right are not incompatible with, say, the revisionist histories of Charles Beard. Echoing that beloved leftist, movement right-wingers believe “all states are built to steal and exploit, including the American state founded in 1776.” The only difference is the endgame, or lack thereof: “Conservatives merely take away the hope. For them there is no conceivable instance in which the state might be reformed or function morally: only oppression succeeding oppression all the way to the far horizon.” Might as well be the oppressors, then—seize the state and extract the dividends. Better yet, the worse they govern, the more folks will buy in to the project of “limited government.”
The Wrecking Crew traces such toxic cynicism from early-’80s campus conspiracy theorists to the McMansions of Northern Virginia, part of a Greater Washington that has turned into the “perfect realization of the upper-bracket dreams of a white-collar universe, where economies run on the information juggling of the ‘creative class’ and where manufacturing is something done by filthy brutes in far-off lands.” Mr. Frank provides, along the way, a definitive account of what might be called the ironic style of political appointments—whereby Republicans put in charge of regulatory agencies “wingnuts” who deny said agencies’ rights to exist—and, in a virtuoso bit of muckraking, guides the reader on a tour of 101 Connecticut Avenue (“101 Con”), ground zero of the D.C. lobbying apparatus.