Why We Got Ayn Rand Instead of FDR: Thomas Frank on How Tea Party 'Populism' Derailed a New New Deal
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Editor's note: In late 2007 and early 2008, the house of cards came crashing down around us, and all of the economic doctrine we'd been fed by the pundits and politicians of both parties over the past few decades was laid bare for all to see. The deregulated cowboy capitalism that was supposed to release unbridled prosperity had led instead to widespread economic pain – hardship that would spread globally and remain with us to this day.
It was a moment ripe for a populist uprising. Many observers expected the pendulum to swing back from the rightward lurch authored during the “Reagan Revolution” – perhaps a new New Deal would emerge as America elected its first black president in a dramatic rejection of George W. Bush's business-friendly ideology.
But something happened on the way to this much-anticipated swing back to the left. Instead of FDR, we got Ayn Rand. Rather than calling for programs that might alleviate some of working America's suffering, we saw the emergence of the Tea Parties, which demanded that ordinary Americans feel every bit of pain they had coming to them – and also that we leave the Wall Street hustlers who had precipitated the crash alone.
It was an ahistoric reaction to a recession caused by Big Finance, and it captured the imagination of author and columnist Thomas Frank. In 2005, Frank wrote the now-classic book, What's the Matter With Kansas? in which he detailed how the “Backlash Right” used social issues to hoodwink many Americans into voting against their economic interests. It was a classic bait-and-switch – they voted for politicians who promised to overturn Roe v. Wade , and got tax breaks for the ultra-rich, deregulation for Wall Street and trade deals that took down barriers to corporate offshoring.
In the aftermath of the crash, Frank returns to the topic to discover that the “New New Right” had once again offered Americans a bait-and-switch, but of a different kind. The result is Frank's new book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Come-Back of the Right. AlterNet is proud to bring you this excerpt from the book.
An appropriate metaphor for the conservative revival is the classic switcheroo, with one fear replacing another, theoretical emergencies substituting for authentic ones, and a new villain shuffling onstage to absorb the brickbats meant for another. The conservative renaissance rewrites history according to the political demands of the moment, generates thick smokescreens of deliberate bewilderment, grabs for itself the nobility of the common toiler, and projects onto its rivals the arrogance of the aristocrat. Nor is this constant redirection of public ire a characteristic the movement developed as it went along; it was present at the creation. Indeed, redirection was the creation.
Drawer of Water, Hewer of Bullshit
The call that awakened the rebellion came not from some itinerant IWW organizer but from a TV “rant” delivered on February 19, 2009, by one Rick Santelli, a business reporter standing on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade— a reporter ranting, let us be clear, not against the traders who surrounded him but on their behalf. In retrospect, there would be few better examples of the spirit of inversion that drives the conservative revival.
Rick Santelli had criticized many aspects of the bank bailouts over the preceding months, but on that day in February when he had the ear of the nation, the part of the TARP that drew his disgust was, significantly, the element designed to help homeowners modify the terms of certain underwater mortgages, making payments more affordable and thus preventing foreclosures. It was the only part of TARP that was intended to directly benefit individual borrowers rather than institutional players, and thus it was supposed to help make the program popular. Instead, it brought down the wrath of this man Santelli, who found it inconceivable that such an initiative was even under consideration. “This is America!” he yelled, working himself into a rage.