Book Review: 'Pity the Billionaire' by Thomas Frank
Review by Susan Grigsby
Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, by Thomas Frank.
Thomas Frank was an opinion columnist for the Wall Street Journal until he left and became the founding editor of the Baffler. A monthly columnist for Harper’s, he is the author of The Wrecking Crew, What's the Matter With Kansas?, One Market Under God, and The Conquest of Cool.
How hard is it to like the work of an author who confirms all of your opinions? Yeah.
Back in the dark ages, around 2004, before I had even heard of Daily Kos, I got my hands on What's the Matter With Kansas? It felt like someone had offered a fresh dose of oxygen to one who had been surviving on the bitter dregs of The Clear Skies Act. He used a dry wit to explain conservative Republican success in a state as populist as Kansas has traditionally been.
Simply put, the GOP used hot button items like God, guns and abortions to get people to vote against their own economic interests. I recognized this thesis when Candidate Obama got himself into a little hot water four years ago when he talked about small town folks who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them..." Pure Thomas Frank.
Pity the Billionaire is the dropping of the other shoe; the follow up to What's the Matter With Kansas?. And it will likely be enjoyed by most members of Daily Kos, as Thomas Frank summarizes what has been common knowledge around here for some time.
Until the final chapter.
Frank opens by reminding us all of the Great Depression and how Americans reacted to the failure of Wall Street and the banks and the lessons we thought we had learned. We took it as a matter of faith that when the economy suffers a catastrophic drop, the government steps in as a spender of last resort, extending unemployment insurance, instituting public works programs and investigating the causes of the disaster. The people will rise in righteous anger to demand that the guilty be punished and the innocent protected. Unions will become strong to protect the working class.
So what happened this time? Instead of blaming Wall Street banks for their excesses and wild gambles, the blame has been placed on the government. And not for failing to help those who need it, or for failing to investigate and prosecute the wrong doers, but for interfering with the free market.
How did they do this? How did they so completely change the conversation and head off in a direction that leads directly to the cliff?
Maybe a more 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.
In order to take advantage of the financial collapse, the right had to shift public’s anger from the Wall Street bankers who caused it, to the government. That was a challenging assignment to pull off when bankers continued to dole out multi-million dollar bonuses to staff members. But the right has always been particularly competent at manufacturing and disseminating propaganda.
The first step was to muddy the waters. Make the people unsure of exactly what caused the financial meltdown. This was far easier that one would think. Most Americans to this day, have no idea what a credit default swap is; in 2009 they had never heard of it. Unless you hung out around here, or read books, magazines or newspapers you would not know that deregulation turned Wall Street into a high stakes gambling casino.
But if your information was coming from Rush Limbaugh and Fox news you only knew that disaster was fast approaching because people defaulted on their mortgages and somehow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were government agencies that forced responsible bankers to loan money to people who could not pay it back. And it was, of course, all the fault of liberals and their incessant demands to regulate the free market.
Franks lays out a convincing case against Glenn Beck as being the number one muddier of the waters. He was “one of the network’s biggest stars, drawing in unprecedented numbers of viewers for his 5 p.m. time slot.” He drew in viewers the same way that Orson Welles did on his Mercury theater radio program. He scared the hell out of them. And Americans were already afraid. It wasn’t that hard for Glenn Beck to confuse them as to the source of their fears. If the times hadn’t been so hard and the future so bleak it is doubtful that he would have had any success at all as shown by his prior three year tenure at CNN.
The proposed solution was to allow the free markets to function the way God intended them to: with no interference from the government. If the liberals in government hadn’t pushed the lenders so hard to give mortgages to people the crash never would have occurred. (The fact that the “home ownership society” was a pet project of GWB is airbrushed from consciousness.) The solution was obvious. If we just get the government to keep its hands off Wall Street and stop forcing the banks to take TARP money (seriously) the markets will immediately become responsible and return us to prosperity.
The second notable that Frank takes down is Ayn Rand. In a delicious chapter Thomas Frank simply eviscerates Atlas Shrugged. Wonderful, beautiful must read.
Franks traces the growth of the Tea Party movement, its almost immediate merchandising moves, and its spread and influence in the healthcare debate and the 2010 elections and the growth of the “small business” worship. Since, according to the new Right, big business, big labor and big government were all working hand in glove, our salvation could only be found in the ethic of small business owners, the true job providers. (Like Bush’s home ownership society, the Koch brother’s financing of the Tea Party is conveniently ignored.)
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Left should feel very well complimented as Franks exposes how the Right has ripped off the methods of the left for their own use. Up to and including the use of the song “Buddy Can You Spare a Dime?”
After muddying the waters, it became necessary to create and sustain a different reality for the Right:
But more disturbingly, there is a certain remoteness from reality, a kind of politicized groupthink that seems to get worse each year as the Right withdraws ever farther into a world of its own. ...
These days Americans are ever more busily “self-segregating” into enclaves filled with people who think and vote just as they do—little Galt’s Gulches scattered all across the fifty states. The Internet, of course, has provided a gigantic playground for self-segregation—that’s the reason it exists; those who don’t follow the rule are “trolls.” There are separate sites for conservative social networking and conservative dating. Like-minded bloggers often link only to one another—it is considered a political sin to reference the other side—so that their readers’ minds won’t be contaminated by exposure to contrary views.
I have to admit that when I read this I immediately thought of a mini pie war that broke out the other day when a poster had the temerity to quote an FDL post. We really should be careful that we don't become as insular as our opponents, lest we too become easily bamboozled.
Conservatives inhabit a “very separate world,” declared the Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in 2009; a place of intense group identity where Fox News is the medium of record and the president is believed to follow a “secret agenda” that is invisible to the rest of the nation. This culture of closure also gives us the phrase “Don’t Believe the Liberal Media”—the slogan of the Media Research Center, an important player in winger Washington. When you consider that, by the standards of the MRC, virtually all traditional media is liberal media, you begin to understand that the center is calling for a deliberate cognitive withdrawal from the shared world.
And finally, the last chapter.
The reasoning you used to hear on the Glenn Beck show seems like something from a brainwashing session at Lubyanka prison. It is preposterous. It is contemptible.
But you know what it’s better than?
It’s better than nothing.
Frank takes the Democrats and the Obama Administration to task for allowing the Right to shape the narrative by remaining silent. Or by offering technical explanations when the nation hungered for emotional leadership. He suggests that the current Administration did everything that Washington DC felt was correct. Unfortunately, Washington wisdom was wrong. And bi-partisanship was not as important as leadership. And that Obama kept compromising with the wrong people.
Sentiments that will have some around here nodding in agreement and others up in arms.
However, his conclusion, depressing as it may be, tells us what we need to do:
But the scenario that should concern us most is what will happen when the new, more ideologically concentrated Right gets their hands on the rest of the machinery of government.
Because truly, no matter how you feel the Obama Administration has performed, the alternative is so very much worse that we cannot allow it to happen. We cannot allow the people who pushed the debt limit fight to the point of default to have access to the full power of our nation.
Personally I enjoyed Frank's work especially since I could use an e-reader which made it much easier to check the footnotes that are heavily used. Much easier to click than to hold a paper edition open while thumbing through the end of the book to find the number of the note.
And I always like a writer who agrees with my conclusions. There were times when it felt like he went a little over the top, but then, if I had wanted reasonable apolitical analysis I wouldn't have been reading Thomas Frank.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.