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Tom Frank: Mocking the Right's 'Free Market' Agenda Is Almost Too Easy -- A Real Problem Is That the Dems Don't Challenge It

Dems "never seem to be able to fight back, never seem to be able to figure it out," argues the famous author and critic in this interview.
 
 
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Cultural critic Thomas Frank loves a paradox. Why has the worst economic crisis in generations led to a resurrection of free market orthodoxy? How can Budget chairman Paul Ryan, Republican from Wisconsin, rail against “corporate cronyism” and then enjoy $700 worth of wine with hedge fund manager Cliff Asness?

In his provocative new book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right , Frank looks at the conservative arguments for austerity in an economic downturn. In the aftermath of the collapse of Wall Street, the Republican Party morphed anger at big business into anger at big government.

The GOP’s “anti-big-business message catches the bitter national mood,” Frank writes. “What the Right actually does is deliver the same favors to the same people as always.”

Even though deregulation played a major role in creating our economic woes, conservatives have been calling for more deregulation—and winning office on this platform. “The reborn Right has succeeded because of its idealism, not in spite of it,” Frank says. “This idea that we can achieve a laissez-faire utopia, where everything will work perfectly, is very attractive to people.”

And the Democrats? Where are they in this debate over government intervention in the market?

“The liberals could not grab the opportunity that hard times presented to advance their philosophy,” Frank argues, noting their technocratic talk turned people off.

Frank may be best known for his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America . His other books include The Wrecking Crew and One Market Under God . A columnist for Harper’s and a founding editor of The Baffler , he is also a former opinion columnist for The Wall Street Journal . He lives in the Washington, D.C., area. I spoke to him by phone.

Q: What are your thoughts on Occupy Wall Street?

Thomas Frank: I wish them success. They’ve brought a lot of ideas into the national debate that were completely outside the debate before, and that’s so important. Speaking from personal experience, I wrote a book twelve years ago where one of the main points began with the concentrations of wealth in this country. And that was regarded as an unacceptable, stigmatized topic back then. It was outside the consensus. Well, it’s inside the consensus today. The President is talking about it; even the Republican candidates are talking about it. We have Occupy Wall Street to thank for that. That is a great thing.

Q: Do you think that there’s a space for a populist alliance between the tea party and Occupy Wall Street?

Frank: No, I don’t think there is. You’re not going to get the tea party leaders to sign up for something that demands we re-regulate Wall Street. That’s just not going to happen. These guys are laissez-faire ideologues at the end of the day. But you can fight for the support of the voters that were swayed by the movement. You can do that, and you should do that.

Q: You covered many tea party rallies and one of the big mantras you heard early on was, “Let the failures fail.”

Frank: “Let the failures fail.” It’s attractive, isn’t it? It sounded good to me when I heard it at the very first tea party rally in Washington, D.C., in February 2009. A protester had that on a sign he was carrying. At that moment, people were infuriated by the bank bailouts.

The bailouts were just an outrage, straight up. An abomination. “Let the failures fail” was a good slogan for that anger. Let all the losers go down. Why prop them up? At a certain gut level, that sounded exactly right to me.

 
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