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Lords of Misrule: Thomas Frank Takes on the GOP | The Nation

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Lords of Misrule: Thomas Frank Takes on the GOP

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AP ImagesJack Abramoff, an unidentified man, Ralph Reed, David Safavian, and Ohio GOP Rep. Bob Ney (from left) in Scotland, August 2002.

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Jefferson Decker
Jefferson Decker is a lecturer in American history at Columbia University.

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How did Wal-Mart become so successful that its merciless economic model could threaten its own bottom line?

In 1928 Homer Ferguson, a former president of the Chamber of Commerce, took to the pages of the Nation's Business to complain about the federal government. The problems he addressed were not the usual bugbears of red tape, inefficiency and waste. Rather, Ferguson argued that government sometimes worked too well. "A thoroughly first-rate man in public service is corrosive," he said. "He eats holes in our liberties." Even worse was an "enthusiast," that "bright-eyed madman who is frantic to make this the finest government in the world." Ferguson was candid about his animus toward good government. He was a military contractor, building warships for the Navy, and he feared that bright and talented public officials might figure out how to build boats faster and cheaper than he could. Much better a government unworthy of that trust. "The best public servant," he concluded, "is the worst one."

In The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Frank argues that the spirit of Homer Ferguson is alive and well in the Republican Party. It was resurrected in the 1980s, when President Reagan appointed an Environmental Protection Agency administrator who opposed most environmental regulation and eviscerated the agency's enforcement division. It lives on in the hapless cronies and inexperienced ideologues the Bush administration has elevated to positions of authority, of whom Michael Brown and Monica Goodling are only the most famous examples. And its presence explains, at least in part, according to Frank, the triumphs of misgovernment to which Americans have been subjected during the past eight years: the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, the failure to plan for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, various scandals involving military contracting and regulatory snafus in matters ranging from food safety to financial markets.

Frank argues that the public failures of the Bush administration are the very essence of conservative government--the predictable outcome of the anti-Washington, free-market ideology that has triumphed within the Republican Party and in national politics over the past three decades. Conservatives won elections by arguing that government is an oversized and unaccountable drag on the economy; they proceeded to starve agencies of funds and replace public-sector employees with private, for-profit contractors. The result is a demoralized, hollowed-out state that does not work very well, except to redistribute wealth from taxpayers to corporate lobbyists and interest groups. "Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals," Frank writes. "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."

A journalist and cultural critic with a gift for polemical writing, Frank peppers his account of the evolution of antigovernment governance over the past three decades with observations about life in Washington, from the sartorial tastes of its lobbyists ("these days...orange or lavender" neckties) to the absence of mall rats at the underground shopping center in Arlington's Crystal City ("just army officers in camo and executives in suits"). Such entertaining reportage does not quite conceal a scattershot approach to history, an irritating prosecutorial tone and a cartoon portrait of American conservatism. Still, The Wrecking Crew is a useful introduction to a world of pricey lobbyists, crackpot theorists, bought legislators and hapless government. And, in part through these very caricatures, the book gets at some essential questions about politics and markets in a democratic society.

At its heart, The Wrecking Crew is about two long-term developments in American government. The first is the rise of entrepreneurial politics--of people figuring out how to make big money from the basic stuff of American civic life. The second is what Frank calls the "marketization" of government. This includes the privatization of government functions by for-profit contractors, from the Blackwater guards doing the jobs of soldiers in Iraq to the faith-based charities that were recently supposed to supplant the welfare state. But for Frank, it also includes the broader economy of lobbying, influence peddling, fundraising and fine dining in which public policy gets made. As Frank argues, these two developments have a symbiotic relationship. The entrepreneurial turn in American politics is sustained by the lucrative business opportunities that emerge when private enterprise bores its way into functions that had previously been the exclusive job of the state. When big money can be made from securing government appropriations, Congressional campaigns require ever larger war chests, and when legislators rely on lobbyists to write legislation, new industries and interest groups emerge to cash in.

Frank catalogs a range of behaviors, once beyond the pale, that have become commonplace in Washington. Companies in the contracting business pay enormous bonuses to their employees when they leave for government jobs, in essence keeping staff on retainer even as they formally serve the American people. Lobbyists advertise their record securing "earmarked" appropriations--which legislators insert into spending bills with little oversight or independent assessment of need--on behalf of specific clients. A prominent politician encourages Americans to "invest in politics" as they might in stocks or bonds. A university president whips out a calculator in front of a journalist to figure out the "return on investment" that his institution received from playing the earmark game. In one relatively modest deal, lobbyists charged the University of Alabama $1.5 million for making $123,500 in contributions to Senator Richard Shelby, who in turn earmarked $150 million for the university during the appropriations process. The university multiplied its investment 100 times over, while the lobbyists earned a 1,100 percent return. Everyone won, except the taxpayers footing the bill.

Marketized government can be observed in the raw at restaurants like Charlie Palmer Steak, across the street from Constitution Avenue's premier lobbyist hive. The menu features miniature lobster corn dogs--"a nod to the deep-fried treats of your red-state youth," Frank writes--the décor an "ostentatious glass 'wine cube' perched on a platform over an indoor pond, like a Richard Neutra building in captivity." Frank marvels that with such transparency, a "dedicated, score-keeping fan of lobbying, if such a thing exists, could actually determine which particular vintage was being uncorked to advance which particular political cause." The rewards of the system are on display in Loudoun County, in northern Virginia, where lobbyists have been parking their new wealth. New mansions sprout "like brick-colonial mushrooms" behind "white rail fences of the kind that denote 'horse country.'" As Frank observes, "Every few miles you pass another castle going up, sometimes with stone posterns so large they are seemingly meant to serve as a defensive perimeter. Battlements are very much in vogue; one house I saw had matching his 'n' hers turrets on either end."

According to Frank, these developments have been made possible by the ideological triumph during the past thirty years of "the market" as a means of organizing society over its primary competitors--namely tradition, organized labor and the state. Believing that markets are always more efficient and fairer than government, conservatives pushed to deregulate the economy and reduce the size of the state. When that was not possible, the right pushed for the next best thing, as they saw it: handing government over to business and letting it regulate itself. This is hardly the same thing. Privatization still requires that some government official dole out contracts; business often wants protection or subsidies from government, not a competitive marketplace. It is, rather, what political scientists would call the "capture" of a liberal state by corporations and their representatives. Helpfully, though, faith in the market could justify this process as well, since it presumed that the private sector, battle-tested by competitive markets, would always be lean, efficient and competent compared with government, and because it elevated risk-taking, entrepreneurial businessmen over those petty, grasping bureaucrats. (The idea that the private sector might want to enrich itself at public expense was conveniently forgotten.)

As the market triumphed, the idea of competent government or disinterested judgment waned. And so, Washington embraces the revolving door between military contractors and government procurement offices as a positive, since business experience trumps independence. And anyway, notes Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein, every major contractor takes part in the revolving door, so nobody should get an unfair advantage. The Post has also celebrated the lobbying fortunes that have accumulated in metro Washington as an example of local enterprise--not the organized bilking of taxpayers. Libertarian pundit Doug Bandow defends himself for receiving payoffs from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for puffing Abramoff's clients in print. "The number of folks underwriting the pursuit of pure knowledge can be counted on one hand, if not one finger," he scoffs. Of course, the triumph of the market also provides electoral rewards. While Americans like a government that provides clean air, pure food and a safe workplace, they are much less fond of bumbling. So voters reward wrecking crews for their incompetence, angrily electing people who will hack the state down further.

Frank builds his case through a combination of observation, historical anecdote and close attention to the ideas and agendas of some of the conservative movement's chief operators. He returns repeatedly to Grover Norquist, the anti-tax advocate and Republican strategist. Norquist is a libertarian and a political obsessive given to violent metaphors; he once said that he wanted to shrink the government until he could "drown it in a bathtub." In his main public gig, he heads up Americans for Tax Reform, but he also has a career as a lobbyist and political strategist, dating back to the early 1980s. That was when Norquist, fresh out of Harvard Business School, teamed up with a young conservative activist named Jack Abramoff to take over the College Republicans and turn an ineffectual group of résumé padders into a lightning brigade of the new right. (Among other things, they changed the group's slogan from "The Best Party in Town" to "Join the Revolution.")

Since then, Norquist has worked tirelessly to persuade business groups to support conservative Republicans rather than spread money around to both sides. Norquist sees politics as ideological warfare, and the conservative position on markets gets undermined when corporate America treats liberal government as a legitimate player in a pluralistic system instead of a cancer on the body politic that needs to be excised. The problem, for Norquist, is that many corporations are run by "morons, idiots" who do not understand their financial stake in an ideological war and thus fail to act ruthlessly or strategically. Indeed, for Norquist, the usual Washington discussion of how to get money out of politics is "turned upside down," with Norquist determined "to get money into politics in large enough amounts that [the cash] starts to behave rationally" and corporations seek the highest return on investment. For Norquist this means defending free-market capitalism and the Republican Party in practical and ideological terms while avoiding defensive or PR-oriented spending on Democrats or liberal public-interest groups.

Norquist is a perfect foil for Frank, since both men are political pugilists with a taste for grand strategy. And they share a basic assumption about American politics: that conservatism is, at root, the political philosophy of the business class. Norquist thinks the philosophy virtuous; Frank deems it chicanery. "Conservatism-in-power is a very different beast from the conservatism we meet on the streets of Wichita or the conservatism we overhear talking to itself on the pages of Free Republic," Frank writes. Although conservatives are culture warriors on the campaign trail, they get down to business and follow the money when they reach office. And Frank believes that Norquist's agenda--reducing regulations, weakening labor unions and the liberal nonprofit sector, eliminating progressive income taxes and cutting the welfare state--satisfies the needs of the business community. "Money gravitates to right-wing pressure groups like Norquist's--as well as the Club for Growth, and the Chamber of Commerce--because that is the rational thing for money to do," he writes. "That's how you deliver shareholder value."

In many ways, this argument is an extension of the ones made by Frank in two previous books, One Market Under God (2000) and What's the Matter With Kansas? (2004). The former was an account of the varieties of "market populism" that took hold during the 1990s, while the latter described the political and social transformation of Frank's boyhood home as social conservatives took over the state's Republican Party. Both held the general view that conservatism is a political philosophy of the minority of Americans who stand to benefit economically from low wages, regressive taxes and an unregulated economy--and who need to make a broader pitch to the electorate to stay in power. In One Market Under God, Frank argued that in the '90s, market populism--the idea that markets are a perfect reflection of our human desires and an engine of self-creation and liberation--had replaced "backlash" as the primary argument of the right. In What's the Matter With Kansas? backlash made a dramatic return, with Frank describing the war on liberalism as it took place at gun shows, on talk radio, through Operation Rescue campaigns and in the rants of "bitter self-made men." But the shift was only in the set of ideas that won over a majority. Conservatives still governed the same way: opening markets, cutting taxes, repealing the New Deal and expanding the gaps in income and wealth.

This is an oversimplification of conservatism. For one thing, Frank summarily writes cultural traditionalism out of the history of the right's philosophy of governing. It may be true, as he suggests, that unrestrained capitalism is the primary force eroding the small towns and faith-based values that social conservatives insist they want to defend. But that has not prevented cultural conservatives from using the state to promote traditionalist ends (for example, in the myriad rules thrown up to restrict access to abortion in the federally funded parts of the healthcare system) or allowing theological judgments to bias public policy responses (for example, in the Reagan administration's sluggish initial response to the AIDS crisis). For another, Frank relies on "the market" to explain too much and to stand for a variety of quite different processes. There is a significant distinction between a competitive free market and a government-run contracting bazaar, even if the ideas used to promote the former can help justify the latter. Privatized government is still government. It is funded by the state's exclusive authority to tax; it relies on public officials (whose personal interests in a new job or campaign contributions are often at odds with the public interest they are supposed to represent) to make "consumption" decisions on behalf of everyone else; and it ultimately responds to political instead of market pressures. As a result, it is prone to informational failures and inside dealing that are not present in a standard consumer marketplace. In fact, much of what Frank describes as the "marketization" of government strikes me as the opposite: if you do away with the rules and regulations that created standards and required competitive bidding, you end up replacing a competitive marketplace with lucrative handouts for the well connected. Nor is there anything particularly marketlike about, say, a GOP Congress ordering business to hire Republican lobbyists and threatening to use the state for revenge if they fail, another bill in Frank's indictment of the right. Rather, it is state power in the service of partisan politics.

As a historian Frank also ignores a number of subtleties. He does not address the good-government tradition in conservatism--the idea that government is most effective when it does a limited number of things very well--which was well represented as recently as the Reagan administration. His evidence for a hollowed-out state rings true to me, but it is nevertheless largely anecdotal. He ignores the various ways American government has long been a "public-private partnership" and takes an idealized view of the government's autonomy and professionalism during the post-New Deal era. And he gives only a sketchy account of the entrepreneurial government that preceded the conservative ascendancy. Frank notes in passing how former New Dealers like Thurman Arnold cashed in on their expertise by helping corporations navigate the regulations they had written, and how the person who pioneered the marketing of legislative earmarks (and built a $125 million lobbying fortune out of the business) was a Democrat and former McGovern staffer named Gerald Cassidy. (He might have added that American tort law has helped to create a privatized regulatory state, with health and safety standards held in place by threat of lawsuits, with a handful of plantiffs' attorneys becoming fabulously wealthy in the process, which is another reason those fortunes drive people like Grover Norquist to distraction.) But he does not give a full enough account of these other forms of political entrepreneurship for his readers to make meaningful distinctions between the liberal and conservative versions. The right did not invent machine politics, and it is hardly the only movement that discovered it could further ideological objectives, help out its constituent interest groups and sustain its future electoral prospects at the same time.

Most of these faults are the result of the format--Frank is here to prosecute a case against the right, not to explore exculpatory evidence. And that allows him to focus on dissecting the right's ideas and pushing them to their logical conclusion. In What's the Matter With Kansas? this method led Frank to suggest that whatever their decency, honesty and good faith, many Americans from all walks of life believe some pretty incoherent things about politics, science, religion and economics. There, Frank described an entire political culture of psychological projection, in which the privileged daughters of New Canaan believe themselves to be tribunes of the working man, middle-class Kansans think that free trade and a flat tax will save their home and church, liberal movie stars sport lifestyle liberalism in People magazine and artists think that dunking a likeness of Jesus in urine (or the equivalent) sticks it to the man. In The Wrecking Crew, this same interest in normative extremes eventually leads Frank to South Africa and the South Pacific, where he believes the principles of conservative government have come closest to their idealized form.

During the 1980s, some of conservatism's leading lights had a fondness for apartheid South Africa. For most, the country was a victim, its human rights abuses singled out by the left merely because it was a staunch anti-Communist ally of the United States. (What about human rights horrors within the Soviet bloc? conservatives parried.) Others, including the young Jack Abramoff, seemed to find something genuine to like about South Africa, and they spent significant time and energy trying to defend it from international sanctions and opprobrium. Except for a few racist cranks, conservatives held that the system of race-based oppression that was apartheid was not a positive but did provide a means to an invaluable end. By excluding the majority of the population from exercising basic rights, government stayed in the hands of the relatively powerful few, business got the help it requested, the expansion of the welfare state could be resisted and wealth could flow to a few winners. It was, in short, a sort of wrecking crew utopia.

The contemporary equivalent, Frank writes, is the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a legal netherworld on the edge of American sovereignty where the local economy is built around its exemption from minimum-wage laws, immigration policies and federal legal protections. Much of the working population consists of imported "guest workers" from mainland Asia who are never expected to become citizens. Native-born islanders use the local government to promote the tourism and sweatshop industries, shut out labor unions and keep taxes on business low. Visitors come to Saipan for its golf courses and its thriving sex trade, the latter serving as the night shift for many of the low-wage workers the island has imported for its textile factories. Police help local businessmen maintain order by beating and deporting troublesome employees. "All must adopt a pro-business mindset," one local politician declared, or "be prepared for a permanent reassignment elsewhere." Here the spirit of Homer Ferguson must be perplexed: an enthusiast on the side of business?

And yet for some on the right, the place is a paradise. Abramoff organized a campaign to save the Commonwealth from reformers in Congress; libertarians called it a "laboratory of liberty." Tom DeLay suggested that the United States, rather than thinking about reforms, should begin emulating the islands' immigration policies. The idea, as Frank writes, of a "corporate labor camp, with wages free to fall as low as the market sees fit, an electorate drawn only from the winners, a wildly pro-business government, and savagely pro-business newspapers" has philosophical appeal to part of the population. Even if this idea represents only one component of the conservative coalition, The Wrecking Crew provides an entertaining and engaging account of the road to Saipan.

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