What’s the real bottom line?
The Wrecking Crew
How Conservatives Rule
Metropolitan Books: 372 pp., $25
How CAN we explain the incompetence, the scandals, the corruption, the waste, the giveaways, the bridges to nowhere and the no-bid contracts in Washington, D.C., today? “Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident,” Thomas Frank writes in “The Wrecking Crew,” “nor is it the work of a few bad individuals.” Those who run our government “have not done these awful things because they are bad conservatives; they have done them because they are good conservatives.” They want government to fail, he argues, because that gives them a stronger argument for cutting regulations and taxes that reduce corporate profits. Some may see this as a powerful argument for electing Democrats this November.
Frank’s last book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” answered the question liberals were asking after President Bush was reelected in 2004: How did the Republicans do it? How did they get ordinary people to vote for tax cuts for the rich? His answer was that Republicans confused ordinary voters with a phony kind of class-war rhetoric and with the culture wars. Close a town’s factory, he observed, and the next week the unemployed workers are picketing the local abortion clinic -- as if that was the source of their problems. The book was widely debated.
In his new book, Frank has shifted the focus from the metaphorical Kansas to the real Washington, from the voters to those who govern -- not just the president and Congress but the lobbyists, government contractors and political operatives who have shaped so much of what has gone wrong in the last eight years. The challenge of writing a book like this is to avoid wearing the reader down with gloom and outrage. Frank acknowledges this problem at the outset, in one of his characteristically glorious sentences: “We climb to the rooftop, but we cannot find the heights of irony from which we might laugh off the blend of thug and pharisee that is Tom DeLay. . . .” Nevertheless from his rooftop, he has met the challenge, often brilliantly. He tempers his rage with bitter sarcasm, and his gloom is leavened by an eye for the unexpected and the absurd.
The heart of the book examines conservatives in power: “the leviathan of waste and misgovernment that is the glory of conservative Washington.” I thought I knew a lot about how Republican rule worked. I knew that the man in charge of disaster preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned out to be incompetent and unqualified. But I didn’t know that appointing unqualified people to run federal agencies has been an announced principle of conservative government: Frank calls it “sarcastic staffing,” and it shows its fullest flowering at the Department of Labor. I didn’t know that the man appointed to oversee the Employment Standards Administration had previously written a report titled “How to Close Down the Department of Labor.” I didn’t know that the man in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had previously worked at “a union-busting law firm.” I didn’t know that the chief economist of the Labor Department was “not only a ferocious enemy of unions but an advocate of allowing entrepreneurial prison wardens to bring back convict labor” and that he now runs a 9/11 conspiracy website.
Conservatives don’t want excellent people in government, Frank writes, because that would make government look good; it would make people like government. That principle was stated explicitly starting with the Reagan administration. Lyn Nofziger, Reagan’s political affairs director, said in 1981, “we have told members of the Cabinet we expect them to help us place people who are competent. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who supported Reagan is competent.”
The next step in conservative government is contracting out work -- the source of truly big money for corporations and the lobbyists who represent them. Government contractors today not only build submarines and fighter planes; they also collect income taxes and write budgets for federal agencies; at policy meetings about the Iraq war, contractors take the minutes. There are many more people working under government contracts than there are federal employees. And the real goal of federal employees who are conservative is to get out of government and into contracting -- or lobbying for contractors.
“The Wrecking Crew” also examines how conservative principles are regularly contradicted by conservative practices. Thus conservatives are anti-communist -- until Red China opens the gates to employing super-cheap labor. Conservatives are for the free market -- until they need a bailout for the mortgage industry. Conservatives are anti-government -- unless they can get no-bid contracts from the government.
What explains this hypocrisy? It’s simple: Conservatism is “an expression of American business,” Frank writes, and thus “a movement that is about greed, about the ‘virtue of selfishness’ when it acts in the marketplace.” When conservatives say they are for getting the government off our backs, they are talking about the backs of employers who don’t want to pay the minimum wage or comply with worker health and safety regulations. The hypocrisy is necessary because “people like the liberal state. They like the prospect of a secure retirement, a guaranteed education for their kids, pure food, clean air, crash-free airplane trips, safe working conditions, and a minimum wage.” So it has been hard work for conservatives to take apart the liberal state.
It might seem as if conservatives got everything they wanted during the last eight years. But they lost their biggest battle: the campaign to privatize Social Security (although it’s still on John McCain’s agenda). That was the real conservative nirvana -- to get ordinary folks to put their Social Security contributions into the stock market. The campaign, led by Bush, argued that everyone would benefit, because the stock market was going to keep going up. Remember that 2000 bestseller “Dow 36,000"? Eight years later, with the Dow closer to 11,000 than 36,000, first editions of the book are selling on Amazon.com for a penny -- I guess that’s the free market at work.
Conservatives reply to arguments such as Frank’s by claiming “Everybody does it” -- Democrats appoint cronies, Democratic lobbyists make millions and Democratic donors milk the system too. It’s true that downsizing and outsourcing were practiced by the Clinton White House. But Frank has strong evidence that the scale of corruption, waste and mismanagement of the last eight years dwarfs anything that came before.
Will electing Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress change all this? That’s not really Frank’s subject, so he devotes only a few paragraphs to his answer: not necessarily. What is needed is “a revival of the social movements of the left that brought liberalism into being in the first place.” That’s because “liberalism is a philosophy of compromise, and without a force on the left to neutralize the tremendous magnetism exerted by money, liberalism will naturally be drawn ever further to the right.” It may have been hard work for conservatives to wreck the liberal state, but it’s going to be harder putting it back together.
Jon Wiener teaches history at UC Irvine and is a contributing editor of the Nation. His most recent book is “Historians in Trouble.”