Near the beginning of The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, Thomas Frank describes Washington in the ‘30s as the home of competent New Dealers determined to create “a first-rate bureaucracy” to rescue the nation from the excesses of business and industry that brought about the Great Depression. Here, Frank writes, young liberals lived in modest neighborhoods that symbolized the America they worked to bring into being, where everyone would have “a safe place to raise kids, a good public school, an easy commute, and a shopping center nearby.”
Frank means this image to stand in contrast to the ultra-rich D.C. suburbs of today, where conservatives, grown fat at public expense, live in ostentatious displays of tasteless luxury. And the point is taken. But his depiction of a prelapsarian middle-class liberal paradise, innocent in its devotion to the public good, is misguided in exactly the manner of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 images of a peaceful, sunny Baghdad the morning of the invasion.
Those scenes of happy children and smiling men drinking espresso exposed Moore to easy criticism from right-wing critics and sowed doubt in the minds of nonpartisan viewers. I fear Frank’s portrayal of liberals as all good, and conservatives as all bad, will have the same effect.
Apart from its primary-colors hyperbole, The Wrecking Crew is an important book. Frank easily proves his thesis—that the corruption, excesses and incompetence of the Bush administration are not examples of failure and ineptitude, but the fruit of a deliberate ideological strategy.
“Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident,” Frank writes, “nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction.”
Frank goes back to Grover Cleveland—a Democratic president, but a devoted friend of business—to show the remarkable consistency of conservativism’s dedication to profits at the exclusion of all other considerations. “Conservatism was then, as it remains now, an expression of American business.”
Like Moore, Frank is more of a satiric polemicist than a journalist, and he has great fun scoring points against such recent villains as Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, Howard Phillips, J. Peter Grace, Richard Viguerie and Ted Stevens, among many others. Also like Moore, Frank is an angry man. His joy at bashing the piñata of triumphant conservatism—which offers up such fat targets as Iraq and Katrina—barely conceals a seething, clenched-teeth fury.
Frank takes care to differentiate the ideological conservatives in Washington from the honest grass-roots conservatives from What’s the Matter With Kansas?, his 2004 look at why working-class citizens vote against their own economic interests by electing Republicans.
But a little more acknowledgment of Democratic malfeasance—indicted Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, anyone?—would have strengthened, not weakened Frank’s argument. When Democrats steal or take bribes, it’s corruption. When Republicans do it, they’re acting on principle.
As Frank writes, “This wave of misgovernment has been brought to you by ideology, not incompetence.”
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