Thomas Frank

How free markets killed capitalism: Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, Walmart, Amazon and the 1 percent's sick triumph over us all

Monopoly is back: Barry Lynn on the concentration of American economic power -- and how we can restore fairness

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Thomas Frank: We're Still Aghast at Donald Trump - but What Good Has That Done?

It has been one year since the US slipped through a hole in the space-time continuum and chose as its leader the most unpopular presidential candidate of all time. Every now and then you get a bracing reminder of the crazy that has been transpiring ever since.

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While Offshore Billionaires Are in Paradise, Our Kids Are In Underfunded Schools and Overcrowded Classrooms

It’s not enough to say, in response to the Paradise Papers revelations, that we already knew that rich people parked their money in offshore tax havens, where their piles accumulate far from the scrutiny of our government. Nor is it enough to say that we were already aware that we live in a time of “inequality.”

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Thomas Frank: It's Sickening to Hear My Words Come Out of Steve Bannon's Mouth

There was a moment in Steve Bannon’s recent 60 Minutes interview when the former presidential advisor was asked what he’s done to drain “the swamp,” the Trumpists’ favorite metaphor for everything they hate about Washington DC. Here was Bannon’s reply: “The swamp is 50 years in the making. Let’s talk about the swamp. The swamp is a business model. It’s a successful business model. It’s a donor, consultant, K Street lobbyist, politician ... 7 of the 9 wealthiest counties in America ring Washington, DC.”

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Thomas Frank: Hillary Blames Everybody for Trump's Triumph But Herself

How do you lose the presidency to a man like Donald Trump? He was the most unpopular presidential candidate of all time, compounding blunder with blunder and heaping gaffe upon gaffe. Keeping him from the Oval Office should have been the single-minded mission of the Democratic Party. And it should have been easy for them.

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Thomas Frank: Democrats Just Might Have Figured Out How to Save Their Failing Party

At the end of July, the leadership of the Democratic party bestirred themselves from their comfortable Washington haunts and paid a visit to a small town in Virginia, where they assumed a populist guise and announced before the cameras of the world that they were regular folks just like you.

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A Community of Corruption: How Obama's Promise to Reduce the Influence of Lobbying Failed Miserably

Although it’s difficult to remember those days eight years ago when Democrats seemed to represent something idealistic and hopeful and brave, let’s take a moment and try to recall the stand Barack Obama once took against lobbyists. Those were the days when the nation was learning that George W. Bush’s Washington was, essentially, just a big playground for those lobbyists and that every government operation had been opened to the power of money. Righteous disgust filled the air. “Special interests” were much denounced. And a certain inspiring senator from Illinois promised that, should he be elected president, his administration would contain no lobbyists at all. The revolving door between government and K Street, he assured us, would turn no more.

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Thomas Frank: Wealthy Liberals Don't Seem to Care About Inequality

This piece has been adapted from Thomas Frank's new book, Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books).

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Thomas Frank: Why Does Everything Have to be Shiny and "Vibrant"?

The following article first appeared in the current issue of The Baffler.

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The Plot Against Liberal America

The most cherished dream of conservative Washington is that liberalism can somehow be defeated, finally and irreversibly, in the way that armies are beaten and pests are exterminated. Electoral victories by Republicans are just part of the story. The larger vision is of a future in which liberalism is physically barred from the control room -- of an "end of history" in which taxes and onerous regulation will never be allowed to threaten the fortunes private individuals make for themselves. This is the longing behind the former White House aide Karl Rove's talk of "permanent majority" and, 20 years previously, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's declaration to the Republican convention that it's "the job of all revolutions to make permanent their gains."

When I first moved to contemplate this peculiar utopian vision, I was struck by its apparent futility. What I did not understand was that beating liberal ideas was not the goal. The Washington conservatives aim to make liberalism irrelevant not by debating, but by erasing it. Building a majority coalition has always been a part of the program, and conservatives have enjoyed remarkable success at it for more than 30 years. But winning elections was not a bid for permanence by itself. It was only a means.

The end was capturing the state, and using it to destroy liberalism as a practical alternative. The pattern was set by Margaret Thatcher, who used state power of the heaviest-handed sort to implant permanently the anti-state ideology.

"Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul," she said, echoing Stalin. In the 34 years before she became prime minister, Britain rode a see-saw of nationalization, privatization and renationalization; Thatcher set out to end the game for good. Her plan for privatising council housing was designed not only to enthrone the market, but to encourage an ownership mentality and "change the soul" of an entire class of voters. When she sold off nationally owned industries, she took steps to ensure that workers received shares at below-market rates, leading hopefully to the same soul transformation. Her brutal suppression of the miners' strike in 1984 showed what now awaited those who resisted the new order. As a Business Week reporter summarized it in 1987: "She sees her mission as nothing less than eradicating Labour Party socialism as a political alternative."

In their own pursuit of the free-market utopia, America's right-wingers did not have as far to travel as their British cousins, and they have never needed to use their state power so ruthlessly. But the pattern is the same: scatter the left's constituencies, hack open the liberal state and reward friendly businesses with the loot.

Grover Norquist, one of the most influential conservatives in Washington and the "field marshal of the Bush plan," according to the Nation magazine, has been most blunt about using the power of the state "to crush the structures of the left." He has outlined the plan countless times in countless venues: the liberal movement is supported by a number of "pillars," each of which can be toppled by conservatives when in power. Among Norquist's suggestions has been the undermining of defense lawyers -- who in the US give millions of dollars to liberal causes -- with measures "potentially costing [them] billions of dollars of lost income." Conservatives could also "crush labour unions as a political entity" by forcing unions to get annual written approval from every member before spending union funds on political activities. His coup de grace is that the Democratic Party in its entirety would become "a dead man walking" with the privatization of social security.

Much of this program has already been accomplished, if not on the precise terms Norquist suggested. The shimmering dream of privatizing social security, though, remains the great unreachable right-wing prize, and the right persists in the campaign, regardless of the measure's unpopularity or the number of political careers it costs. President Bush announced privatisation to be his top priority on the day after his re-election in 2004, although he had not emphasized this issue during the campaign. He proceeded to chase it deep into the land of political unpopularity, a region from which he never really returned.

He did this because the potential rewards of privatizing social security justify any political cost. At one stroke, it would both de-fund the operations of government and utterly reconfigure the way Americans interact with the state. It would be irreversible, too; the "transition costs" in any scheme to convert social security are so vast that no country can consider incurring them twice. Once the deal has been done and the trillions of dollars that pass through social security have been diverted from the US Treasury to stocks in private companies, the effects would be locked in for good. First, there would be an immediate flood of money into Wall Street; second, there would be an equivalent flow of money out of government accounts, immediately propelling the federal deficit up into the stratosphere and de-funding a huge part of the federal activity.

Business elites

The overall effect for the nation's politics would be to elevate for ever the rationale of the financial markets over such vague liberalisms as "the common good" and "the public interest." The practical results of such a titanic redirection of the state are easy to predict, given the persistent political demands of Wall Street: low wage growth, even weaker labour organisations, a free hand for management in downsizing, in polluting, and so on.

The longing for permanent victory over liberalism is not unique to the west. In country after country, business elites have come up with ingenious ways to limit the public's political choices. One of the most effective of these has been massive public debt. Naomi Klein has pointed out, in case after case, that the burden of debt has forced democratic countries to accept a laissez-faire system that they find deeply distasteful. Regardless of who borrowed the money, these debts must be repaid -- and repaying them, in turn, means that a nation must agree to restructure its economy the way bankers bid: by deregulating, privatizing and cutting spending.

Republicans have ridden to power again and again promising balanced budgets -- government debt was "mortgaging our future," Ronald Reagan admonished in his inaugural address -- but once in office they proceed, with a combination of tax cuts and spending increases, to inflate the federal deficit to levels far beyond those reached by their supposedly open-handed liberal rivals. The formal justification is one of the all-time great hoaxes. By cutting taxes, it is said, you will unleash such economic growth that federal revenues will actually increase, so all the additional government spending will be paid for.

Even the theory's proponents don't really believe it. David Stockman, the libertarian budget director of the first Reagan administration, did the maths in 1980 and realised it would not rescue the government; it would wreck the government. This is the point where most people would walk away. Instead, Stockman decided it had medicinal value. He realized that with their government brought to the brink of fiscal collapse, the liberals would either have to acquiesce in the reconfiguration of the state or else see the country destroyed. Stockman was candid about this: the left would "have to dismantle [the government's] bloated, wasteful, and unjust spending enterprises -- or risk national ruin."

This is government-by-sabotage: deficits were a way to smash a liberal state. The Reagan deficits did precisely this. When Reagan took over in 1981, he inherited an annual deficit of $59bn and a national debt of $914bn; by the time he and his successor George Bush had finished their work, they had quintupled the deficit and pumped the debt up to more than $3trn. Bill Clinton called the deficit "Stockman's Revenge" -- and it dominated all other topics within his administration's economic teams. With the chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan himself speaking of "financial catastrophe" unless steps were taken to control Reagan's deficit, Clinton was soon a convert. He got tough with the federal workforce.

So-called virtues

George W Bush proceeded to plunge the budget into deficit again. Indeed, after seeing how the Reagan deficit had forced Clinton's hand, it would have been foolish for a conservative not to spend his way back into the hole as rapidly as possible. "It's perfectly fine for them to waste money," says Robert Reich, a former labour secretary to Bill Clinton, summarizing the conservative viewpoint. "If the public thinks government is wasteful, that's fine. That reduces public faith in government, which is precisely what the Republicans want."

In 1964, the political theorist James Burnham diagnosed liberalism as "the ideology of western suicide." What Burnham meant by this was that liberalism's so-called virtues -- its openness and its insistence on equal rights for everyone -- made it vulnerable to any party that refuses to play by the rules. The "suicide" that all of this was meant to describe was liberalism's inevitable destruction at the hands of communism, a movement in whose ranks Burnham had once marched himself. But his theory seems more accurately to describe the stratagems of its fans on the American right. And the correct term for the disasters that have disabled the liberal state is not suicide, but vandalism. Loot the Treasury, dynamite the dam, take a crowbar to the monument and throw a wrench into the gears. Slam the locomotive into reverse, toss something heavy on the throttle, and jump for it.

Mainstream American political commentary customarily assumes that the two political parties do whatever they do as mirror images of each other; that if one is guilty of some misstep, the other is equally culpable. But there is no symmetry. Liberalism, as we know it, arose out of a compromise between left-wing social movements and business interests. It depends on the efficient functioning of certain organs of the state; it does not call for all-out war on private industry.

Conservatism, on the other hand, speaks not of compromise, but of removing its adversaries from the field altogether. While no one dreams of sawing off those branches of the state that protect conservatism's constituents -- the military, the police, legal privileges granted to corporations -- conservatives openly fantasize about doing away with the bits of "big government" that serve liberal ends. While de-funding the left is the north star of the conservative project, there is no comparable campaign to "de-fund the right"; indeed, it would be difficult to imagine one.

"Over the past 30 years, American politics has become more money-centered at exactly the same time that American society has grown more unequal," the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have written. The resources and organizational heft of the well-off and hyper-conservative have exploded. But the organizational resources of middle-income Americans ... have atrophied. The resulting inequality has greatly benefited the Republican Party while drawing it closer to its most affluent and extreme supporters."

In this sense, conservative Washington is a botch that keeps on working, constructing an imbalance that will tilt our politics rightward for years, a plutocracy that will stand, regardless of who wins the next few elections. And as American inequality widens, the clout of money will only grow more powerful.

As I write this, the lobbyist-fuelled conservative boom of the past ten years is being supplanted by a distinct conservative bust: like the real-estate speculators who are dumping properties all over the country, conservative senators and representatives are heading for the revolving door in record numbers.


The Democrats who have taken their place are an improvement, certainly, but for the party's more entrepreneurial leaders electoral success in 2006 was merely an opportunity to accelerate their own courtship of Washington's lobbyists, think-tanks and pressure groups staked out on K Street. Democratic leaders have proved themselves the Republicans' equals in circumvention of campaign finance laws.

Throwing the rascals out is no longer enough. The problem is structural; it is inscribed on the map; it glows from the illuminated logos on the contractors' office buildings; it is built into the systems of governance themselves. A friend of mine summarized this concisely as we were lunching in one of those restaurants where the suits and the soldiers get together. Sweeping his hand so as to take in our fellow diners and all the contractors' offices beyond, he said, "So you think all of this is just going to go away if Obama gets in?" This whole economy, all these profits?

He's right, of course; maybe even righter than he realized. It would be nice if electing Democrats was all that was required to resuscitate the America that the right flattened, but it will take far more than that. A century ago, an epidemic of public theft persisted, despite a long string of reformers in the White House, Republicans and Democrats, each promising to clean the place up. Nothing worked, and for this simple reason: democracy cannot work when wealth is distributed as lopsidedly as theirs was-and as ours is. The inevitable consequence of plutocracy, then and now, is bought government.

Red-State America Against Itself

That our politics have been shifting rightward for more than thirty years is a generally acknowledged fact of American life. That this rightward movement has largely been accomplished by working-class voters whose lives have been materially worsened by the conservative policies they have supported is a less comfortable fact, one we have trouble talking about in a straightforward manner.

And yet the backlash is there, whenever we care to look, from the "hardhats" of the 1960s to the "Reagan Democrats" of the 1980s to today's mad-as-hell "red states." You can see the paradox first-hand on nearly any Main Street in middle America – "going out of business" signs side by side with placards supporting George W. Bush.

I chose to observe the phenomenon by going back to my home state of Kansas, a place that has been particularly ill-served by the conservative policies of privatization, deregulation, and de-unionization, and that has reacted to its worsening situation by becoming more conservative still. Indeed, Kansas is today the site of a ferocious struggle within the Republican Party, a fight pitting affluent moderate Republicans against conservatives from the working-class districts and the downmarket churches. And it's hard not to feel some affection for the conservative faction, even as you deplore their political views. After all, these are the people that liberalism is supposed to speak to: the hard-luck farmers, the bitter factory workers, the outsiders, the disenfranchised, the disreputable.

Democrats Shed the Language of Class Warfare

Who is to blame for this landscape of distortion, of paranoia, and of good people led astray? Though Kansas voters have chosen self-destructive policies, it is just as clear to me that liberalism deserves a large part of the blame for the backlash phenomenon. Liberalism may not be the monstrous, all-powerful conspiracy that conservatives make it out to be, but its failings are clear nonetheless. Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we can say that liberalism lost places like Wichita and Shawnee, Kansas with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over.

This is due partially, I think, to the Democratic Party's more-or-less official response to its waning fortunes. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues. The larger interests that the DLC wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and – more important – the money of these coveted constituencies, "New Democrats" think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it. Such Democrats explicitly rule out what they deride as "class warfare" and take great pains to emphasize their friendliness to business interests. Like the conservatives, they take economic issues off the table. As for the working-class voters who were until recently the party's very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go; Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues than Republicans. Besides, what politician in this success-worshiping country really wants to be the voice of poor people? Where's the soft money in that?

This is, in drastic miniature, the criminally stupid strategy that has dominated Democratic thinking off and on ever since the "New Politics" days of the early seventies. Over the years it has enjoyed a few successes, but, as political writer E. J. Dionne has pointed out, the larger result was that both parties have become "vehicles for upper-middle-class interests" and the old class-based language of the left quickly disappeared from the universe of the respectable. The Republicans, meanwhile, were industriously fabricating their own class-based language of the right, and while they made their populist appeal to blue-collar voters, Democrats were giving those same voters – their traditional base – the big brush-off, ousting their representatives from positions within the party and consigning their issues, with a laugh and a sneer, to the dustbin of history. A more ruinous strategy for Democrats would be difficult to invent. And the ruination just keeps on coming. However desperately they triangulate and accommodate, the losses keep mounting.

Curiously enough, though, Democrats of the DLC variety aren't worried. They seem to look forward to a day when their party really is what David Brooks and Ann Coulter claim it to be now: a coming-together of the rich and the self-righteous. While Republicans trick out their poisonous stereotype of the liberal elite, Democrats seem determined to live up to the libel.

Such Democrats look at a situation like present-day Kansas where social conservatives war ferociously on moderate Republicans and they rub their hands with anticipation: Just look at how Ronald Reagan's "social issues" have come back to bite his party in the ass! If only the crazy Cons push a little bit more, these Democrats think, the Republican Party will alienate the wealthy suburban Mods for good, and we will be able to step in and carry places like super-affluent Mission Hills, Kansas, along with all the juicy boodle that its inhabitants are capable of throwing our way.

While I enjoy watching Republicans fight one another as much as the next guy, I don't think the Kansas story really gives true liberals any cause to cheer. Maybe someday the DLC dream will come to pass, with the Democrats having moved so far to the right that they are no different than old-fashioned moderate Republicans, and maybe then the affluent will finally come over to their side en masse. But along the way the things that liberalism once stood for – equality and economic security – will have been abandoned completely. Abandoned, let us remember, at the historical moment when we need them most.

Movement Building on the Right

The true lesson for liberals in the Kansas story is the utter and final repudiation of their historical decision to remake themselves as the other pro-business party. By all rights the people of Wichita and Shawnee should today be flocking to the party of Roosevelt, not deserting it. Culturally speaking, however, that option is simply not available to them anymore. Democrats no longer speak to the people on the losing end of a free-market system that is becoming more brutal and more arrogant by the day.

The problem is not that Democrats are monolithically pro-choice or anti-school-prayer; it's that by dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans they have left themselves vulnerable to cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the sneers of Hollywood whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns. We are in an environment where Republicans talk constantly about class – in a coded way, to be sure – but where Democrats are afraid to bring it up.

Democratic political strategy simply assumes that people know where their economic interest lies and that they will act on it by instinct. There is no need for any business-bumming class-war rhetoric on the part of candidates or party spokesmen, and there is certainly no need for a liberal to actually get his hands dirty fraternizing with the disgruntled. Let them look at the record and see for themselves: Democrats are slightly more generous with Social Security benefits, slightly stricter on environmental regulations, and do less union-busting than Republicans.

The gigantic error in all this is that people don't spontaneously understand their situation in the great sweep of things. Liberalism isn't a force of karmic nature that pushes back when the corporate world goes too far; it is a man-made contrivance as subject to setbacks and defeats as any other. Consider our social welfare apparatus, the system of taxes, regulations, and social insurance that is under sustained attack these days. Social Security, the FDA, and all the rest of it didn't just spring out of the ground fully formed in response to the obvious excesses of a laissez-faire system; they were the result of decades of movement-building, of bloody fights between strikers and state militias, of agitating, educating, and thankless organizing. More than forty years passed between the first glimmerings of a left-wing reform movement in the 1890s and the actual enactment of its reforms in the 1930s. In the meantime scores of the most rapacious species of robber baron went to their reward untaxed, unregulated, and unquestioned.

An even more telling demonstration of the importance of movements in framing people's perspectives can be found in the voting practices of union members. Take your average white male voter: in the 2000 election they chose George W. Bush by a considerable margin. Find white males who were union members, however, and they voted for Al Gore by a similar margin. The same difference is repeated whatever the demographic category: women, gun owners, retirees, and so on – when they are union members, their politics shift to the left. This is true even when the union members in question had little contact with union leaders. Just being in a union evidently changes the way a person looks at politics, inoculates them against the derangement of the backlash. Here, values matter almost least of all, while the economy, health care, and education are of paramount concern. Union voters are, in other words, the reverse image of the Brown-back conservative who cares nothing for economics but torments himself night and day with vague fears about "cultural decline."

Labor unions are on the wane today, as everyone knows, down to 9% of the private-sector workforce from a high-water mark of 38% in the 1950s. Their decline goes largely unchecked by a Democratic Party anxious to demonstrate its fealty to corporate America, and unmourned by a therapeutic left that never liked those Archie Bunker types in the first place. Among the broader population, accustomed to thinking of organizations as though they were consumer products, it is simply assumed that unions are declining because nobody wants to join them anymore, the same way the public has lost its taste for the music of the Bay City Rollers. And in the offices of the union-busting specialists and the Wall Street brokers and the retail executives, the news is understood the same way aristocrats across Europe greeted the defeat of Napoleon in 1815: as a monumental victory in a war to the death.

While leftists sit around congratulating themselves on their personal virtue, the right understands the central significance of movement-building, and they have taken to the task with admirable diligence. Cast your eyes over the vast and complex structure of conservative "movement culture," a phenomenon that has little left-wing counterpart anymore. There are foundations like the one operated by the Kochs in Wichita, channeling their millions into the political battle at the highest levels, subsidizing free-market economics departments and magazines and thinkers. Then there are the think tanks, the Institutes Hoover and American Enterprise, that send the money sluicing on into the pockets of the right-wing pundit corps, Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, and the rest, furnishing them with what they need to keep their books coming and their minds in fighting trim between media bouts. A brigade of lobbyists. A flock of magazines and newspapers. A publishing house or two. And, at the bottom, the committed grassroots organizers going door-to-door, organizing their neighbors, mortgaging their houses even, to push the gospel of the backlash.

And this movement speaks to those at society's bottom, addresses them on a daily basis. From the left they hear nothing, but from the Cons they get an explanation for it all. Even better, they get a plan for action, a scheme for world conquest with a wedge issue. And why shouldn't they get to dream their lurid dreams of politics-as-manipulation? They've had it done to them enough in reality.

Kansas in the Vanguard?

American conservatism depends for its continued dominance and even for its very existence on people never making certain mental connections about the world, connections that until recently were treated as obvious or self-evident everywhere on the planet. For example, the connection between mass culture, most of which conservatives hate, and laissez-faire capitalism, which they adore without reservation. Or between the small towns they profess to love and the market forces that are slowly grinding those small towns back into the red-state dust – which forces they praise in the most exalted terms.

In this onrushing parade of anti-knowledge my home state has proudly taken a place at the front. It is true that Kansas is an extreme case, and that there are still working-class areas here that are yet to be converted to the Con gospel. But it is also true that things that begin in Kansas – the Civil War, Prohibition, Populism, Pizza Hut – have a historical tendency to go national.

Maybe Kansas, instead of being a laughingstock, is actually in the vanguard. Maybe what has happened there points the way in which all our public policy debates are heading. Maybe someday soon the political choices of Americans everywhere will be whittled down to the two factions of the Republican Party. Whether the Mods still call themselves "Republicans" then or have switched to being Democrats won't really matter: both groups will be what Kansans call "fiscal conservatives," which is to say "friends of business," and the issues that motivated our parents' Democratic Party will be permanently off the table.

Sociologists often warn against letting the nation's distribution of wealth become too polarized, as it clearly has in the last few decades. Societies that turn their backs on equality, the professors insist, inevitably meet with a terrible comeuppance. But those sociologists were thinking of an old world in which class anger was a phenomenon of the left. They weren't reckoning with Kansas, with the world we are becoming.

Behold the political alignment that Kansas is pioneering for us all. The corporate world – for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness – blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skechers flout the Man; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading "FCUK" snicker at the suits who just don't get it. It's meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge. Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. And when two female rock stars exchange a lascivious kiss on national TV, Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars' taxes.

As a social system, the backlash works. The two adversaries feed off of each other in a kind of inverted symbiosis: one mocks the other, and the other heaps even more power on the one. This arrangement should be the envy of every ruling class in the world. Not only can it be pushed much, much farther, but it is fairly certain that it will be so pushed. All the incentives point that way, as do the never-examined cultural requirements of modern capitalism. Why shouldn't our culture just get worse and worse, if making it worse will only cause the people who worsen it to grow wealthier and wealthier?

Adapted from the book: What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank. Copyright (c) 2004 by Thomas Frank. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

The Elitism Myth and Right-Wing Populism

February 2004: A commercial airs on Iowa television in which the then-front-runner for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Howard Dean, was blasted for being the choice of the cultural elites: a "tax hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show" who had no business trying to talk to the plain folk of Iowa.

The commercial was sponsored by the Club for Growth, a Washington-based organization dedicated to hooking up pro-business rich people with pro-business politicians. The organization is made up of anti-government economists, prominent men of means and big thinkers of the late New Economy, celebrated geniuses of the sort that spent the past 10 years describing the low-tax, deregulated economy as though it were the second coming of Christ. In other words, the people who thought they saw Jesus in the ever-ascending Nasdaq, the pundits who worked themselves into a lather singing the praises of new billionaires, the economists who made a living by publicly insisting that privatization and deregulation were the mandates of history itself are now running television commercials denouncing the "elite."

That's the mystery of the United States, circa 2004. Thanks to the rightward political shift of the past 30 years, wealth is today concentrated in fewer hands than it has been since the 1920s; workers have less power over the conditions under which they toil than ever before in our lifetimes; and the corporation has become the most powerful actor in our world. Yet that rightward shift--still going strong to this day--sells itself as a war against elites, a righteous uprising of the little guy against an obnoxious upper class.

At the top of it all sits President George W. Bush, a former Texas oilman, a Yale graduate, the son of a U.S. president and a grandson of a U.S. senator--the beneficiary of every advantage that upper America is capable of showering on its sons--and a man who also declares that he has a populist streak because of all the disdain showered upon him and his Texas cronies by the high-hats of the East. Bush's populism is for real. His resentment of the East-coast snobs is objectively ridiculous, but it is honestly felt. The man undeniably has the common touch; his ability to speak to average people like one of their own is a matter of public record. And they, in return, seem genuinely to like the man. Bush shows every sign of being able to carry a substantial part of the white working-class vote this November, just as he did four years ago (although 90 percent of black Americans voted Democrat in 2000).

Right-wing Populism

There was a time, of course, when populism was the native tongue of the American left, when working-class people could be counted on to vote in favor of stronger labor unions, a regulated economy and various schemes for universal economic security. Back then the Republicans, who opposed all these things, were clearly identified as the party of corporate management, the spokesmen for society's elite.

Republicans are still the party of corporate management, but they have also spent years honing their own populist approach, a melange of anti-intellectualism, promiscuous God-talk and sentimental evocations of middle America in all its humble averageness. Richard Nixon was the first Republican president to understand the power of this combination and every victorious Republican since his administration has also cast himself in a populist light. Bush is merely the latest and one of the most accomplished in a long line of pro-business politicians expressing themselves in the language of the downtrodden.

This right-wing populism works; it is today triumphant across the scene; politicians speak its language, as do newspaper columnists, television pundits and a cast of thousands of corporate spokesmen, Wall Street brokerages, advertising pitchmen, business journalists and even the Hollywood stars that the right loves to hate.

Right-wing populism takes two general forms. What we saw the most of during the 1990s was the populism of the market, which has its origins in the PR strategies of Wall Street. Here the basic idea is that the free market is in essence a democracy. Since we all participate in markets--buying stock, choosing between brands of shaving cream, going to movie X instead of movie Y--markets are an expression of the vox populi. Markets give us what we want; markets overthrow the old regime; markets empower the little guy. And since markets are just the people working things out in their own inscrutable way, any attempt to regulate or otherwise interfere with markets is, by definition, nothing but arrogance.

When times are good, as they were a few years ago, this idea expresses itself in all manner of lurid evocations of the common man at one with his corporations. Television viewers in the '90s saw constant mini-dramas of the stock market as a maker of revolution; of little old ladies swapping investment tips; of bosses becoming one with the ancient rhythms of acquisitiveness; of little kids realizing their true selves through products and of ordinary people basking in the glow of all the fine new millionaires their investments were producing. Even Enron got into the act, comparing its campaign for electricity deregulation to the Civil Rights movement of the '60s. During the boom, politicians of both parties reached consensus on the idea that privatization and deregulation were the correct way to let the people have their say over matters economic; and newspaper columnists of every persuasion came to agree that every time they busted a labor union, a worker somewhere cried out for joy.

Backlash Against Liberals

But market populism doesn't play too well in hard times. It slowly retreats to the wings and yields center stage to the old, reliable populism of the backlash, the collection of gripes that faults leftists not because of their lack of faith in the free market, but because of the cultural monstrosities they have imposed on the good people of middle America: they have legalized abortion, stamped out prayer in the public schools and are now threatening to sanction gay marriage. Again the enemy of the common people is the liberal elite, and again they are identified as a class of intellectuals whose trademark sin is hubris, thinking they know better than everyone else. Again it is the little guy against a sneering, disdainful, cartoon version of the upper class; and again the main beneficiary is the Republican party.

This populism, ever present on the radio and on Fox News, is obsessed with the symbolism of the consumer culture. Instead of rebuking the powerful directly, it vituperates against the snobbish and delicate things that the powerful are believed to enjoy: special kinds of coffee, high-end restaurants, Ivy League educations, vacations in Europe and always, always, imported cars.

Against these maddeningly sissified tastes, backlash populism posits a true-blue heartland where real Americans eat red meat in big slabs, know all about farming, drink Budweiser, work hard with their hands and drive domestic cars. (In November 2000, the Democrats lost in the heartland but won in cosmopolitan California, New York and Massachusetts.) Why the focus on consumer goods? It switches the political polarity of class resentment: the items identified with the elite are also identified with people who have advanced degrees, a reliably liberal constituency. Liberals become the snobs, and Republicans become the plain people in their majestic millions. That right-wing oil millionaires in Houston or Wichita might also vacation in Europe, drink fancy coffee and drive Jaguars is simply not considered, as if contrary to nature.

The all-Americans despise the affected elites with their highfalutin' ways, and that's why they vote for plainspoken men like George Bush, or his dad, or Ronald Reagan, or Richard Nixon, that ultimate victim of East Coast disdain. Each of whom, once elected, did his level best to shower the nation's elite with policy gifts of every description.

The massive distortions and contradictions between these two right-wing populisms should be plain to anyone with eyes. (The founding conceit is the preposterous assertion that the upper class is a collection of leftists.) One populism rails against liberals for eating sushi and getting pierced; the other celebrates those who eat sushi and get pierced as edgy entrepreneurs or as consumers just trying to be themselves. One despises Hollywood for pushing bad values; the other celebrates Hollywood for its creativity and declares that Hollywood merely gives the people what they want. And yet the same organizations--often the same individuals--are advocates of both.

Why aren't these contradictions crippling for the right? Partly because liberals refuse to take backlash populism seriously. They simply don't bother to answer the stereotype of themselves as a tasteful elite, seeing it as a treacherous and obvious deceit mounted by the puppetmasters of the right. A smaller coterie of liberals don't bother with it because they believe that conservative populism is merely camouflage for racism, which they believe to be epidemic in the United States. The problem, they think, is neo-Nazis or right-wing militia types like Timothy McVeigh. That's the real expression of middle America, the thing we ought to be investigating.

I encountered a spectacular version of this pathology at a progressive gathering in Chicago. After listening to a devastatingly accurate critique of the media business, I stood up and pointed out that dozens of regular, church-going people across the Midwest shared the premises of the critique without knowing it--they simply mistook "liberalism" for the economic and corporate forces that actually do control things. I encouraged the speaker to make an effort to connect with those regular people and to try to turn their class resentment right-side up. I was corrected almost immediately by another audience member, who angrily said that she wanted no part of any effort to make an outreach to the Ku Klux Klan.

Truth In Stereotype

There is a grain of truth in the backlash stereotype of liberalism. Certain kinds of leftists really do vacation in Europe and drive Volvos and drink lattes. (Hell, almost everyone drinks lattes now.) And there is a small but very vocal part of the left that has nothing but contempt for the working class. Should you ever attend a meeting of a local animal-rights organization, or wander through the campus of an elite university, you will notice that certain kinds of left politics are indeed activities reserved for members of the educated upper-middle-class, for people who regard politics more as a personal therapeutic exercise than an effort to build a movement. For them, the left is a form of mildly soothing spirituality, a way of getting in touch with the deep authenticity of the downtrodden and of showing you care. Buttons and stickers desperately announce the liberal's goodness to the world, as do his or her choice in consumer products. Leftist magazines treat protesting as a glamour activity, running photos of last month's demo the way society magazines print pictures from the charity ball. There is even a brand of cologne called Activist.

Then there is that species of leftist who believes that being on the left is an inherited honor, a nobility of the blood. There is little point in trying to convert others to the cause, they will tell you, especially in benighted places like the deep Midwest: you're either born to it or you aren't. This species of leftist will boast about the historical deeds of red-diaper babies or the excellent radical pedigree of so-and-so, son of such-and-such, utterly deaf to the repugnant similarities between what they are celebrating and simple aristocracy.

Leftists of these tendencies aren't really interested in the catastrophic decline of the American left as a social force, in the drying up and blowing away of leftist social movements. If anything, this decline makes sense to them: the left is people in sympathy with the downtrodden, not the downtrodden themselves. It is a charity operation.

For them, having fewer people on the left isn't a problem that might one day affect their material well-being, cost them their healthcare or their power in the workplace. Those things aren't on the line for this species of liberal. Quite the contrary: having fewer people on the left makes the left more alluring to them. Superficial nonconformity is what the creative white-collar class values above all else, and the lonelier you are in political righteousness, the more nonconformist, the more rebellious you are. Standing up against the flag-waving masses is the goal for this variety of liberal. Being on the left is not about building common cause with others: it's about correcting others, about pointing out their shortcomings.

Like the American left, many Europeans also misunderstand American conservatism, and by assuming that politics in the United States works the same way as it does elsewhere--that material issues are important, that reason matters--they step blithely into the minefield of political symbolism and are promptly blown up. The most spectacular recent instance of this came during the UN debate prior to the war against Iraq. You will recall that the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, clearly believed he was making progress every time he slapped down some U.S. misrepresentation or pointed out some U.S. error.

De Villepin at the UN

Here he was, a well-dressed and accomplished man, soundly refuting the arguments of the Americans, speaking several different languages, even receiving open applause from the UN representatives of much of the world as he berated the U.S. Secretary of State, who stoically endured the abuse of his social superior, for this obvious error or that.

What the brilliant De Villepin missed utterly was that American conservatives don't care when their arguments are refuted. The United States is the land of militant symbolism, the nation of images, and in the battle of imagery Bush played De Villepin for a sucker. For Bush the task at hand was obviously not winning over the UN, but rallying domestic support for the war, and in doing so Bush couldn't have asked for a more convincing populist drama.

Saddam Hussein was a monster right out of central casting, and for opposing him the poor unassuming Americans were being castigated by this foppish, over-educated, hair-splitting, tendentious writer of poetry (De Villepin's dabbling in verse was much reported in the American media). And a Frenchman to boot! The French are always characterized in American popular culture as a nation of snobs: they drink wine, they eat cheese, they're polite. This man was the hated liberal elite in the flesh: all that was missing was the revelation that he wore perfume or carried a handbag.

In his erudite, principled opposition, De Villepin thus sold the war to Americans far more effectively than did Bush himself. Indeed, had the foreign secretary of any other nation led the fight against the United States, the war might not have happened. If Bush is really smart, he'll engineer a repeat confrontation with De Villepin just before the elections.

Meanwhile the genuine cultural power of the backlash goes unplumbed and undiscussed by political commentators. It returns promptly every four years, to deliver landslides out of nowhere and rightwingers where there should be leftwingers and grassroots anger where there ought to be contentment. Until the American Left decides to take a long, unprejudiced look at deepest America, at the kind of people who think voting for George Bush constitutes a blow against the elite, they are fated to continue their slide to oblivion. For Europe and the world the failure is costlier still, dooming them to the wars and the policy impositions of an America they refuse to understand.

Tom Frank is the author of "One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism and the End of Economic Democracy" (Doubleday, New York, 2000).

This piece originally appeared in the February 2004 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique.

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