What follows here is a synopsis, simplification, and to some extent an interpretation of a recent Truthout interview with author Thomas Frank, who a few years back wrote the seminal book, What's the Matter With Kansas?, which is about why so many middle-class Americans vote against their economic interests.
Now, Frank has returned with an equally important book about how the super-rich were able to double-down on economically disastrous policies and thereby push those policies to ever greater extremes.
Even by itself, the subtitle of his new book says a lot: "The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right." So here we have a brilliant expose of the most breathtaking ruse in American political-economic history: How right-wing multimillionaires, with the help of hucksters like Glen Beck and astroturf organizations like the Tea Party, were able to turn the biggest capitalist breakdown since 1929 into a huge opportunity . . for themselves!
If you're confused about how people with ever lower incomes and ever more indebtedness, living from day to day, can be made to come to advocate for lowering taxes on the super-rich (which inevitably raises their own taxes), let Frank be your guide. For we desperately need to better understand how it is that groups like the "Tea Party" can successfully lead millions of low-information voters to embark on such insane ideation. Get this book shipped directly from Truthout, by clicking here.
Hucksters like Glenn Beck played a huge role in the rise of the Tea Party and the broader shift of the nation to the right. As chief huckster, with an audience of millions, Beck was on the cover of Time as well as the New York Times Magazine; he was also the subject of two separate biographies. Whether we liberals can accept it or not, he was the face of a political moment, the voice and persona that caught the public imagination. In fact, it's hard to make any sense at all of the Tea Party movement absent Glenn Beck's weird views of history and his ridiculous dread of the Obama Administration. Go back and look at footage of Tea Party events or interviews with Tea Party participants and you will find that they often echo, sometimes word for word, the crazylessons taught by the mad "professor' Beck.
Three Main Concepts in This Analysis
Market populism is the idea that markets speak with the voice of the people, i.e. that markets are a sort of naturally occurring democracy, that whoever is attuned to the holy spirit of the market is one with the spirit of the people themselves. In a phrase, Vox populi, vox dei. Back in the 1990s, this was the straight-up propaganda ideology of management theorists and other corporate shills. Today, thanks to Beck and associates, it's everywhere.
Social conservatives are often working-class people who are uninterested in the grander conservative rightwing project of reversing the New Deal. Instead they are steeped in what is called the culture wars.
The Tea Party says that all they're interested in is trying to create an unregulated free-market utopia. This shift has been, amazingly enough, a response to hard times, which has pushed the culture wars off the front burner, just like hard times did in the early 1930s. (In those days the social issues were evolution and prohibition).
What unites the two (culture wars & the quest for free-market utopia) is the crushing irony of populist conservatism. In both cases you're talking about a movement that empowers the powerful but that does so by insanely imagining that it's standing up for the little guy a.k.a. the common man.
In "Pity the Billionaire," Thomas Frank marvels that the Ayn Rand myth of the free market could make such a sweeping comeback with "free market" deregulation which even then was almost cratering the US economy. On page 118 of this new book, Frank brings up Naomi Klein's shock doctrine theory and the irony that the right claimed that the Obama administration was trying to take advantage of the economic crisis to move America to the left. In reality however, the conservatives and their captive economists apply the shock doctrine to America's economic meltdown to invent an even more utopian vision of a free market.
What Naomi Klein was talking about were deeply unpopular policies forced on nations at moments of crisis. The irony here is that the Wall Street bailouts of 2008-09 fit this pattern: At a moment of supreme danger, the country was asked to prop up the banks that had basically spent the previous decade in an orgy of fraud and wholely unwarranted bonuses. "Give Wall Street what it wants, we were told, or else."
But what is really spectacular is how this alarming historical episode got processed through the right's "upside-down machine' and came out as the story of how power-hungry leftists trying to "transform America," by force, during a crisis: Rather than a story about how Hank Paulson and Co. bailed out their friends, it became a nutcake story of how "Big Government" was trying to get its fingers around the throat of free enterprise! This was the moment, you will recall, when sales of "Atlas Shrugged" spiked, and the great fear of a "crazed government reacting to hard times by grabbing economic power' really got going. The year after that (i.e. 2010) saw the publication of Glenn Beck's surprisingly influential novel, "The Overton Window," with its big central idea of liberals using fake crises to grab power. Masterful propaganda all this. We at least have to give them credit for that, disgusting as their achievement might be to us.
The funny thing about the "Righties" is that they too want to imagine themselves as the victims of the "shock doctrine." Even the parties that were manifestly the beneficiaries/architects of it want to imagine that!
Despite being organized by Americans for Prosperity (Koch brothers) and FreedomWorks (Dick Armey), the Tea Party has taken on a life of its own and that's driving the GOP presidential primaries. Although "Pity the Billionaire" focuses on the sleight of hand that the right successfully pulled off by doubling down on disastrous economic policies, some say that many of the "free market" populist backers are crossovers with the religious and "social-values" white "American-entitlement" movement.
On the other hand, the Tea Party movement has been pretty forthright about not wanting to discuss culture-war issues. This was especially the case in 2009-2010, when economic issues drove everything else off the front pages. The Tea Partyers are primarily small business people for whom the culture-war issues are secondary, while attacking "red tape" and organized labor are primary. As EJ Dionne has pointed out, the communitarian spirit that drove culture-wars populism for decades is very different from the individualistic spirit of the free-market creed. If anti-evolution types suddenly got the old-time religion of the free market, that's fairly remarkable. Which is not to say it can't happen or it won't happen even more broadly -- Lord knows these groups have come together before. Anything is possible when you don't have a vigorous left challenging these people's views and thereby making their contradictions obvious. People might even start to believe that Jesus was a great venture capitalist or something. Never underestimate the powers of brilliantly well-planned and well-funded propaganda when it is focused on a large population of low-information voters!