One of the more unfortunate aspects of campaign season is that the ceaseless coverage of the campaign has a tendency to crowd out news about the actual world, information that would, under different circumstances, dominate the headlines and might aid voters in deciding just who they want to run the country. A perfect example was last week’s shocking New York Times exposé about the sex, drugs and corruption scandal inside the Department of Interior. (Yes, you read that right.) It’s a lurid story of moral rot, lack of oversight and official malfeasance, though, sadly, after eight years of Bush-Cheney it has a certain dog-bites-man-quality.
The central thesis of Thomas Frank’s new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, is that the kind of obscene depravity witnessed at the Department of Interior is the natural result of the conservative philosophy of governance. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Frank’s fifth book is the much-anticipated follow-up to his 2004 bestseller, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Since writing that book he’s moved to Washington, DC, where he now chronicles the city’s turpitude in a column for the Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed page. (Yes, you read that right, too)
In July, before he left for an extended book tour, I had the chance to have lunch with Thomas Frank in Washington. We talked about the immutable cynicism of the conservative worldview, Jack Abramoff’s time as a quasi-foreign agent, and the Marxist strain of modern conservatism. An edited transcript follows.
How do you describe what your new book is about?
The book is about conservative governance. Republicans have been in power for a long time, but according to their own mythology they’re never in power, never really running government. They have circle upon circle, rings upon rings of deniability. That’s what intrigues me.
One of the points the book makes is that when you scrape away all the rhetoric, the conservative movement has been a front for the interests of business since before the New Deal. And yet you have people like Grover Norquist saying they basically have to bully business into being conservative. What gives?
This is one of the things that puzzled me, too. On the one hand, Republicans are the party of big business. But on the other hand, the real hardcore right-wing part of the movement has all these criticisms of business. The one we associate with Tom DeLay is that business gives money to the Democrats, and therefore supports a kind of liberal agenda. Which used to be true to a certain degree. If you go back and read John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State, the idea was that we’re gonna get healthcare through the corporations, and pensions through the corporations rather than through the state, which was what they were doing in Europe. There were plenty of corporate people who agreed with that.
In the 1970s, people on the right began seeing it was their role to force corporations back into the paths of corporate righteousness. To force capitalists to be more capitalist. This was part of a larger critique of capitalism developing at the same time, which was that capitalism had gotten soft: no more having these nice negotiations with the workers, you gotta kick some ass, deliver shareholder value, and if you can’t, we’ll have a leveraged buyout and get guys who can. The Norquist/Abramoff/DeLay form of politics is the political analog of the leveraged buyout.