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Thomas Frank: How the Right Wing Hijacked Rage Over the Economic Collapse and Swindled America

Frank discusses one of the most important political developments of the Obama presidency: how the crash of 2008 served to strengthen the political right.

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There wasn’t even a Rooseveltian scheme, which was not utopian but very practical. Just to talk about Roosevelt would have been fantastic. One of the research points in the book that I thought was really interesting … was the history of the bailouts in 1932 and 1933 — when the Hoover administration did a lot of bailouts. We don’t remember that. [These bailouts] were massively unpopular for the same reason they were unpopular this time around: really blatant cronyism. We don’t remember that a big part of Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign [in 1932] was to be against these bailouts. There were maybe five newspaper articles in 2008 that mentioned this pre-history of the bailouts. It just never came up.

It was like the party’s muscle memory of the New Deal was lost. With Obama the muscle memory of the Democratic Party is the Clintonian technocracy of the 1990s.

That’s exactly right. Their message was: The technocratic way is going to solve our problems. Just leave it up to the experts who are going to figure a way out. [Obama and the Democrats]  seemed to think they didn’t need to dirty their hands by making a populist appeal. They did a lot of good things — the stimulus package of 2008 was good thing — but they didn’t realize you have to sell something like that. They were like, “We know what the answer is: Keynesian stimulus. So let’s just do it.” They didn’t understand that this nation only adopted Keynesian stimulus spending back in the 1930s amidst this terrible wrenching experience, the Depression, and an enormous campaign [by FDR] to tell the nation why this was necessary.

If you don’t sell it — if you just do this spending — well, people have a lot of suspicion of government handouts. Government debt bothers people for very obvious reasons. [Obama] didn’t make any effort to make the argument. It was just “listen to the experts.” I have a quote from [Obama economic advisor] Christy Roemer where she says, “Things would be better if we listened to the experts.” And she’s one of the good guys, one of the best people in the Obama administration. That’s their view.

You have an interesting discussion about how the Tea Party movement mimics what was once the left-wing style. This seems to be the dominant mode: The right is saying, “We’re the revolutionaries. We’re taking on the powers that be.”

At first I thought it was a peculiarity of Glenn Beck, and then I noticed it across the board. They picked up this 1930s style and language, complete with utopianism, with this intense faith in an economic system that will solve all your problems and that represents you perfectly, this miraculous economic system … So [the right] is constantly talking about this infernal elite that controls  government, controls corporations, and controls the academy, and that we have to wrench ourselves free.

So maybe it is true that the Obama technocracy is the infernal elite. Maybe not in the hellish way it is portrayed on the right, but in the sense that these are the defenders of bailouts, the defenders of the system.

I wouldn’t go too far with that, because I don’t think that is a way of understanding our modern world that can bear a lot of the weight. It is true that the Democrats completely imagine themselves as being the party of the professional class, and that is an elite. It’s not the elite, but it is an elite. The Democrats very definitely identify with academia. That’s the home of the professions, where they come from.