Monday, November 24, 2008

Review - The Wrecking Crew

I'm a fan of Thomas Frank. His 2000 book One Market Under God is one of the most potent pieces of work that attempts to demonstrate the extent to which democracy has been corrupted by extreme capitalism, views which now seem quite prescient. Much of what Frank wrote them has quickly become "conventional wisdom," no matter how against the tide he seemed to be swimming at the time.

I found 2005's What's the Matter with Kansas? somewhat less compelling, perhaps (paradoxically) because it represented a better job of pure reporting. In it, Frank goes home to Kansas to try to understand why the people of that state consistently vote for candidates who represent their interests spectacularly badly. Don't get me wrong, this is a great book, well worth reading, but I found that the details at times got in the way of the larger points. The obvious conclusion, that Kansans had become convinced that social issues outweighed immediate economic concerns, is something of an article of faith; you may not believe, and Tom Frank may not believe, that this is sufficient, but the people obviously do, and any attempt to change them will depend on someone's ability to turn that attitude around.

And The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (2008) continues the trend. Meticulously reported, Frank sets out to show us how conservative ideology and effective organization has brought a certain world view to prominence, one which essentially calls for the reduction of government in any arena in which it might conceivably help people, while steering its resources to the well-connected.

There are essentially two parts to the book. The first, Insurgents, delineates the organizations that were built by the right wing to frame the nation's discussion in an essentially conservative way. The second, Saboteurs, explains how the power that was built by the insurgents was then used to tear down the very foundations of our government, existing mainly to divert resources into the hands of fewer and fewer people.

The main bad guy here is Jack Abramoff, who is presented as an opportunist. We never really find out if Abramoff has any core beliefs; he's just someone who was in the middle of building organizations that grabbed power and money, then moved into a lobbying role so that the people who had been steeped in the ideology could become his advocates (in return for which he, and so many others, became extravagantly wealthy). And it's quite clear that, despite Abramoff's current residence (federal prison), the culture remains the same and government continues to be a place that shovels out money to the few.

TWC is well-researched and quite convincing, but its main points are pretty obvious to anyone who's been paying attention. If you haven't heard of what has happened on Saipan, an island which has essentially been turned into a pure free-market laboratory, you will probably be shocked and appalled by the details. Clearly, Frank wants us to see potential parallels to trends in the United States, and there are enough of them to be frightening.

There is one disquieting omission, though, and that's the underlying assumption that conservatives have somehow been uniquely disposed to manipulate government in this way. To be sure, the far right did discover the propaganda tools (most notably sophisticated direct mail campaigns) first, and, coupled with a Reagan-inspired philosophy that government is invariably the problem in any situation, it did get there first.

One wonders whether, had Democrats held sway as technology came of age and had the intelligence to take advantage of it, results would have been all that different. Greed is a natural part of too many people, and I suspect that the left might have well been as susceptible to the same scurrilous behavior if it had been in the ascendancy. Our vigilance actually needs to increase right now, as Democrats are coming to power at a time in which we have all quietly accepted the idea that government exists to funnel funds to private hands. The potential for funny business actually seems higher now than it has before.

Something interesting in TWC is the lack of appearances by Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. This may seem to be a flaw in a book that speaks of the rise of an essentially amoral political class, but it's actually a strength that Frank explores the movement without delving into the larger figures as much. A comprehensive history of this time will have to integrate these two threads, but Frank is putting forth the less obvious side, and this will be greatly appreciated by future writers.

What I suppose I'm saying is that TWC is not so much a book you must read right now; Republicans have already been put in their place in this election cycle, and we'll just have to see if the culture is really changing. But it is an important piece of reporting, presenting in detail a side of the rise of the conservatives that gets away from the electoral narratives.

2 comments:

Citizen Carrie said...

This is my night to show that I'm not caught up with the latest news developments.

How current is Thomas Frank's book on what is going on in Saipan?

Before tonight, I thought it was a capitalist paradise for the garment industry, where thousands of Chinese and Filipinos were brought in to work in appalling conditions for below US minimum wage rates.

Now I find out that the garment industry has collapsed (starting in 2005 or 2006, I believe?) due to competition with China. And, if I interpret things correctly, it seems like the Marianas want to turn back away from the Abramoff era and, among other things, bring back the U.S. minimum wage.

www.saipantribune.com/newsstory.aspx?newsID=85735&cat=1

Does Frank just talk about the Abramoff era, or does he also talk about the collapse of the garment industry?

Androcass said...

What you wrote is pretty much what he covers as to the appalling conditions. Frank takes it up to the point where some people are rebelling, but the reader is left with the impression that the power brokers are likely to regain control. He doesn't offer anything on the collapse of the industry; perhaps he didn't stay with the story that long. I'll have to take a look and see what's going on currently. Thanks.

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