Thomas Frank has earned a reputation as the H.L. Mencken of what passes for the contemporary American left. Beginning with The Baffler, the journal of cultural criticism he founded as a graduate student in 1988, he has wielded his wit as a scalpel to dissect the credulity, fecklessness and self-destructive delusions of wide stretches of the American public. His first book, The Conquest of Cool (1997), explored corporate America’s embrace of the rebellious, “anti-establishment” political and cultural movements of the 1960s—which often ridiculed the business world—and its alchemization of them into so many marvelous ways of huckstering its wares. Rebellion was leveraged to turn a profit, and thereby subdued. In his books and journalism since The Conquest of Cool, Frank has mainly lampooned the right, but in that first book he diagnosed a malady that crosses cultural and party lines: the attempts of the high and mighty to harness legitimate popular discontent in order to neutralize anger that otherwise might be directed at their own privileges and malfeasance.
Pity the Billionaire is the latest installment of Frank’s study in the arts and crafts of political derangement. Specifically it is a sequel to What’s the Matter With Kansas?, his 2004 bestseller about a classic Republican tactic from the culture wars: issuing jeremiads about the liberal assault on family values to persuade those Americans who benefit least from a Republican platform favoring big business to vote for Republican candidates. Pity the Billionaire examines a similar conundrum. In the teeth of the most monumental collapse of the capitalist financial system since the Great Depression, trailing wholesale economic devastation in its wake, something completely unexpected happened. Common sense and historical precedent foretold an upswell of resistance from the left—a demand that free-market capitalism be replaced, at the very least, with a tightly regulated market economy. That didn’t happen. Instead, in the past three years we have witnessed a populist uprising on the right, with the Tea Party insurgency having mobilized millions on behalf of the idea that what the country needs is the restoration of the laissez-faire global order that went down with Lehman Brothers.
This development defied the liberal, leftist and even the conservative political imagination. Frank notes that when the economic crisis hit, writers from Sean Wilentz to Francis Fukuyama were prophesying the marginalization of the Republican Party and a new day for progressives. Pity the Billionaire tries to answer the question of how what Frank calls “The Great Backlash” came to be and, implicitly, asks another: Why did the left turn out to be not just ineffectual but quiescent? He doesn’t really address this second question, except to imply that if only Obama had been more like FDR the left would have come back from the dead. The rise of the right today is arguably due, at least in part, to a vacuum on the left. As we all know now, but Frank didn’t at the time he wrote the book, that vacuum has been filled, at least for the moment, by the Occupy movement, although it’s hard to know what its lasting influence will be. Still, the animating question of Pity the Billionaire remains relevant, because the Tea Party continues to deploy enormous throw-weight within the GOP, and the movement’s credibility remains high among madder-than-hell “tenthers” and “birthers,” idolaters of the founding fathers, constitutional fundamentalists, creationists and other flat-earthers, free-enterprise zealots, guardians of moral correctness and all those vigilant patriots convinced we are but one stimulus package or tax hike away from some version of socialism.
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Frank argues in Pity the Billionaire that the Tea Party represents a break with the cultural populism that galvanized the Republican counterrevolution during and after the Reagan era. As in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Frank contends that ordinary people have been gulled by conservative elites into voting contrary to their own economic interests. But in Pity the Billionaire he claims that what he calls the “newest Right” veers away from proxy wars over family values and instead mounts the barricades in defense of free-market economics. Tea Party activists harbor the delusion that the bubble-driven economy that collapsed in 2008 was some approximation of state socialism rather than the closest thing to a free-market economy one might encounter anywhere on earth.
At various points Frank uses a motif familiar from Kansas and Conquest, that of the con artist, to describe this faux right-wing rebellion. “If we watch closely,” he alerts the reader, “we can see the cards being switched,” the “sleight of hand,” the “flimflam” perpetrated by upper-echelon power brokers. He is mainly committed to the proposition that the Tea Party is a creature of the corporate and financial establishment; Tea Party speakers and writers may raise a hullabaloo about big business, but it’s only a pretense, functioning as “a mask for privilege,” and “behind the mask stands the hated mega-corporation itself.”
Pity the Billionaire is seductive in its acerbic wittiness, anecdotal color and Olympian perspective. Frank can be sharply observant, as when he describes the blundering, bravado and bullying of financial overlords gorging on extravagantly expensive “tacky souvenirs” purchased with their bonuses; or when wickedly poking fun at the snake flags, tricorn hats and “even the epidemic of spelling errors” on signs and banners all likely to turn up at any Tea Party rally. To the extent that Frank has resorted to the old script, however, Pity the Billionaire is confused and simplistic. Ambiguity may be unavoidable when attempting to pinpoint a phenomenon as protean as the Tea Party, but Frank’s easy divorcing of the cultural from the economic right wing is misguided if not plainly wrong. Tea Party favorites like Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry have been tireless in whipping up the social and moral anxieties that helped create and sustain the cultural counterrevolution of the last quarter-century. The point here is not to catch Frank in a momentary synaptic misfire, or a rhetorical simplification gone awry. Rather, it’s to note that his characterization of the Tea Party leads to more confounding but also more fruitful dilemmas.
Here’s one: the benighted folk who populated What’s the Matter With Kansas? had been blown off course by the headwinds of moral paranoia sent gusting their way by the tacticians of the Republican high command, men like Karl Rove who were looking to protect the Fortune 500. But in Pity the Billionaire, Frank depicts Tea Party rank and filers, lineal descendants of those duped Kansans also living out a bad dream of political madness, as nonetheless heading straight into those economic headwinds, jettisoning all the extraneous culture-war preoccupations from the past. If fleeing confrontations with economic power is a form of political irrationality in one case, why is denouncing bailouts to bankers in another also an indicator of the need for clinical intervention? Frank might answer that Tea Party types don’t really mean it, and, in some sense, he would be right.
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Frank’s most astute observation in Pity the Billionaire—a real contribution to our understanding of the breathtaking recent rise of the “newest Right”—is that the Tea Party represents, in many if certainly not all respects, the cri de coeur of small business, hence its preoccupations with low taxes, balanced budgets and onerous government regulations, and its entrepreneurial esprit and infatuation with the free market. Frank’s anecdotal evidence for his case is strong. For example, he discusses how burdensome regulations can be for small businesses like hardware stores and restaurants, while corporate behemoths use fleets of lawyers and large treasuries to circumvent them, and how new entrepreneurs often rely on the equity in their homes to raise start-up capital, which has left them especially vulnerable to the financial crash and resentful of bailed-out monster banks. Unfortunately Frank is so preoccupied with proving his case about the Tea Party’s political pathology that he spends little time examining the social anatomy of what might be termed “family capitalism.”
Family capitalism solders together property and marriage, and the union creates conflicting imperatives. Family capitalism is eager to grow but only within the confines of the propertied, morally disciplined individual or dynastic household, modest as it may be, or for that matter, how grand (Henry Ford would no doubt have become a Tea Party charter member and crustily damned the bailouts, probably with a heavy dose of anti-Semitism). Entrepreneurs and those who aspire to their station link their pecuniary behavior and ambitions to a whole social universe: distinct local communities, regional identities, family continuity, ideals of manhood, concrete historical traditions (however mythological), religious values, ethnic enclaves, the hearth, the homeland and the sanctity of hard work. Family capitalism is part of a whole social universe. It is not only distinct from but is in some ways at odds with the cosmopolitan, deracinated world of faceless men in suits. Such conflict can tilt to the left or right. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, resistance on the left to the rise of corporate industry and finance, among populists or within the antitrust movement, drew some of its energy from the petite bourgeoisie. In midcentury, populism’s center of gravity began shifting to the right, its animus increasingly directed at “limousine liberals.” That richly evocative metaphor vividly captures the integral mix of cultural and economic resentments that underlie elements of the “newest Right.”
Family and corporate capitalism, though descended from the same genus, do not possess identical economic and cultural DNA. Once the organic and hallowed connection between private property accumulation and the family is severed, anything is possible. Anonymous, impersonal and amoral corporate capital is in a profound sense radical in the way suggested by Marx’s famous adage about how “all that is solid melts into air.” (The argument of The Conquest of Cool implicitly rests on this axiom of modern life.) In the end, nothing, no matter how ancient or revered, can stand in the way of corporate capital’s drive to accumulate. Its commitment to the family, to religious and traditional values, even to patriarchy and racial hierarchy, is subject always to the higher power of the bottom line.
In the universe of the family enterprise, moral convictions and social aspirations are not easily separable from economic ones. Those who voted Republican during the Reagan era and afterward were, like Tea Party constituents today, a varied lot. They were probably more blue-collar (although not as much as Frank assumed) than the tonier supporters of Rick Perry. But it is misleading to sever the “newest Right” from the older right, especially if you take into account that many struggling workers imagine escaping hard times through a bootstrap start-up, and sometimes even manage to do so. The 2010 elections suggested how artificial the separation of the “economic” and “cultural” right wings may be; both contributed to the Republican and Tea Party triumph, and to insist on this distinction hampers a full accounting of contemporary politics on the right.
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In the end Frank is reluctant to credit the Tea Party movement with its own internal logic and social momentum, and to grant that its conflict with the powers that be is anything more than a “mask” for the political and corporate elite whose manipulations he has been exposing for years. But is the Tea Party really a manufactured hallucination? It hardly bears saying that enthusiasm for capitalism is something the Tea Party shares with the bipartisan power elite. At a fundamental level, establishment conservatives and the Tea Party are not working against each other, as Frank notes, but rather are partners, with the Tea Party playing the distinctly junior role. Tea Party enthusiasts may not exactly pity the billionaire, but they are often dependent on him as a creditor, investor, customer or supplier. They may even admire him, although less so financiers, who exude the sulfurous aroma of Shylock.
But how to explain the very real and acrimonious battles within the Republican Party over such matters as free trade (the Tea Party hates NAFTA) and immigration? What about the brinkmanship of Tea Partiers in debates about resolving the deficit and extending the debt ceiling, which pitted zealots on the right against the Chamber of Commerce and other powerful business and financial organizations? Or their denunciation of the lifesaving billions received by the titans of finance? Glenn Beck is a lachrymose liar and paranoid demagogue, but when he blames the Federal Reserve for collapsing the economy and calls for its extinction, how is he helping those “too big to fail” banks for whom the Fed is a favorite watering hole? Frank provides samples of Tea Party language about “the inevitable rise of tyranny from the greed and gluttony of a ruling class,” which can’t be music to the ears of the banksters. These skirmishes are not taking place on Astroturf.
For the country’s Fortune 500, free market ideology and the conflation of freedom with limited government is a tactic, not a philosophy of life. That elite (whatever party they happen to be funding on any given day) depend heavily on government assistance, including contracts, tax abatements, subsidies, federally funded research and, above all, a muscular “bailout state.” Further down the food chain, however, among men and women who have struggled to create their own businesses (or dream of doing so), and whose determination is an affirmation of their self-reliance, ingenuity, discipline and moral stamina, conflating the free market with freedom is instinctive. It is a passion, blind as passions can be. Consequently, they are reluctant to credit their material dependence on an array of local, state and federal government programs and bureaucracies. Nor will they accept that the cultural “permissiveness” they condemn originates foremost in the corporate boardrooms of consumer capitalism.
Instead, Tea Partiers see more vulnerable enemies that appear to threaten their way of life: illegal immigrants; the morally dissolute; unions (hostility to organized labor is a knee-jerk reaction among hard-pressed small-business owners operating on paper-thin margins); and those perennial scapegoats, the “pointy-headed intellectual” and government bureaucrat from the leviathan state, poking their noses where they don’t belong. Economic hard times and the cultural snobbishness of bicoastal elites have left millions in small-town and rural America seething with resentment. They live in fear of the future, feeling the precariousness of their economic “self-reliance” as well as their place in the nation’s demographic political and moral majority. Overcome with a sense of impending or actual loss, many yearn to reassert a fabled “manly” independence and muscularity stretching all the way from the home to the homeland.
Occasionally Frank seems willing to accord the Tea Party a certain measure of self-creation and independence as the voice of petty (or one might add “dynastic”) rather than corporate business. Although clearly the Tea Party is more complex than the epiphenomenon of family capitalism, the latter is the subject of an important, alternative story. But Frank’s plot lines run along parallel tracks, never converging. For Frank, even if the Tea Party articulates the views and aspirations of small-business owners and entrepreneurs, their commercial ideal is an anachronism. It has been out-of-date for a century, at least, supplanted by the mega-corporation.
Frank is right to attack the idea, shared by everyone from Obama to Glenn Beck, that petty enterprises are by far the biggest “job creators”; their efforts are dwarfed by those of the largest, often globalized enterprises. But the tumultuous evolution of capitalism over the past hundred years—especially during our age of “flexible capitalism,” with global corporations offloading all sorts of functions once performed internally onto a menagerie of contractors, subcontractors and “free agents”—has repeatedly offered fresh possibilities for small and medium-sized family businesses, even while power and wealth are being concentrated elsewhere. This world can’t be consigned to some museum of early capitalist curiosities just yet.
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Even if they aren’t an anachronism, Tea Partiers are diagnosed by Frank as living in denial. After all, they want to deregulate almost everything in sight. But Frank knows better: it is precisely deregulation that got us into this mess; that, and greed. Pity the Billionaire points to the “tacky souvenirs” of bankers “as the reason for the whole mortgage catastrophe.” After all, bankers’ voracious appetites for vulgar high living allowed them, with the help of sleepy regulators and corrupt lobbyists, to “cut corners and break rules,” until the whole system came tumbling down.
Toward the end of Pity the Billionaire, Frank indulges in what has become an obligatory celebration of the New Deal and FDR. Before the recent financial cataclysm, the story goes, Wall Street was properly regulated and the system functioned well enough so long as the watchful eye and guiding hand of the government were allowed to do their work. Surely this view is preferable to the free-market flights of fancy and embittered dreams of vengeance that have sustained the Tea Party. Still, it is a stance infected with the irony of a “progressive” yearning to restore the past, something that in its own way the Tea Party also desires.
Frank’s wistful evocation of the New Deal legacy leads him to exclude some crucial factors from his story of what caused the current mess. Long before deregulation commanded the scene in the Reagan and Clinton eras, the American economy was in serious, systemic trouble. New Deal liberalism still dominated government policy, but the country’s industrial core was rotting away. Keynesian ideas were no longer able to stabilize an economy ravaged simultaneously by unemployment and inflation. In the 1970s the standard of living of many Americans began a decline that has endured for more than a generation. The shift to finance was driven not by greed—always a feature of capitalism, no doubt more so now than at other times—but rather by a quest for high rates of return on capital no longer available in the domestic industrial economy. Deindustrialization and all that followed in its wake—including the financial sector’s rise to economic pre-eminence—were not caused by deregulation. On the contrary, deregulation was a response to the crisis of capital accumulation. Reinstal-ling the New Deal regulatory apparatus, enhanced to bring within its purview the global flows of speculative capital, would certainly strengthen the economy, but not nearly enough. Today we are stuck in a deepening hole, trapped in an economy that has survived for decades, long before bankers invented credit default swaps, by eating itself alive.
No matter the type of political derangement under Frank’s microscope, his gaze has always been an ironically superior one, often deliciously so, but his caustic air of “can you top this for ridiculousness?” is more than a literary style—it’s an intellectual position. The irony of Pity the Billionaire is that the critic of liberal consumer capitalism who made his name with The Conquest of Cool has here become its defender.