Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule by Thomas Frank Metropolitan Books, 369 pages, $25.00

Thomas Frank's widely discussed What's the Matter with Kansas opens with a paradox, namely that "the poorest county in America isn't in Appalachia or the Deep South" but rather in Kansas, a county that George W. Bush carried by more than 80 percent. Frank's follow-up, The Wrecking Crew, opens with a similar paradox, namely that "the richest county in America isn't in Silicon Valley or some sugarland preserve of Houston's oil kings; it is Loudoun County, Virginia, a fast-growing suburb of Washington, D.C." Likewise the third, sixth, and seventh richest counties are all in the D.C. area. This remarkable fact, Frank says, is explained by his book, a work that sets out to detail "the very particular, very predictable things that happen when the faction that calls itself ?conservative' manages to squeeze behind the controls of the state."

Readers entranced by the vivid prose and sweeping themes of Kansas won't be disappointed. In his new book, Frank weaves the stories of individual villains such as Grover Norquist and Jack Abramoff into a broader political history of recent decades. Michael Brown's Federal Emergency Management Administration and Monica Goodling's Justice Department aren't, Frank explains, the work of bad apples or even a single super-rotten president. They are, instead, the inevitable results of what happens when power falls into the clutches of a political movement that believes government can't work and then sets about doing its best to prove it. The civil service is squeezed, public functions are handed over to well-connected contractors, industry foxes are put in charge of the regulatory henhouses, corporations write the bills that congressmen vote on, profits soar, lobbyists get big paychecks, and the "public servants" who implement the heist get paid once they're on the other side of the revolving door. It's a familiar story told with an unfamiliar verve.

But those troubled by a certain lack of precision and rigor in Kansas won't find their doubts dispelled here. Less turns out to be "the matter" with Kansas, for example, when one considers that even though poor areas tend to vote Republican, poor people tend to vote Democratic. Similarly, the idea that lobbyist lucre accounts for the prosperity of greater Washington doesn't make sense. The richest of lobbyists can't hold a candle to New York's titans of finance, the tech moguls, and Hollywood stars and executives of the West Coast. The prosaic reality is that Washington was never a center of manufacturing and has thus avoided the problems of deindustrialization that plague other metro areas, even those with richer rich people. More consequentially, dismissing Bill Clinton as "the most probusiness Democrat since Grover Cleveland" helps construct the narrative of a 30-year conservative reign of error but distracts attention from a critical difference between the Clinton administration and its successor -- the total absence of anything like a "wrecking crew" mentality from a team that, whatever its limits and flaws, was strongly focused on trying to restore a skeptical America's faith in the possibility of an activist public sector. The specific criticism that Clinton should have been more skeptical of the virtues of contracting out government seems fair, but there's little doubt that Clinton produced a well-managed, competent administration, a contrast with Bush that, given Frank's main subject, seems significant.

Frank's fundamental aim, however, is to make the point that the depredations of the Bush years aren't an accident or, as many on the right would now have it, a consequence of insufficient ideological rigor. Rather, he sees the current mess as a logical result of conservative principles.

According to Frank, the American right-wing is dominated by the high priests of the cult of the market, and corruption -- the sale of public policy to the highest bidder -- is nothing but the application of market principles to government itself. Thus, something like the 2003 Medicare-reform bill is not a perversion of conservative principles but their culmination. A prescription-drug benefit was provided to America's seniors in a manner that was less generous to beneficiaries than the Democratic alternative, but it was also much more costly, with the difference accounted for by the fact that the Republican alternative was vastly more friendly to insurance and pharmaceuticals firms. Shortly after its passage, the main author of the law went to work as a lobbyist for health-care firms as did "fifteen other public officials involved in crafting that drug law, including one powerful House committee chairman, all of whom departed for Big Pharma's green pastures once the job was done." Some would see this as a betrayal of right-wing principles, but Frank sees it as the highest form of conservatism.

It's an interesting conceit, and it captures some important elements of the truth. But there are also some problems here. The Medicare bill in question was denounced at the time by rock-ribbed right-wing outfits such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and National Review as, yes, a betrayal of conservative free-market principles. Similarly, the Republicans who voted "no" on the bill weren't the moderate squishes but rather, the hardened ideologues. On the right, just as on the left, it turns out that ideological politics coexist somewhat awkwardly with interest-group politics.

To Frank, however, Washington is the yin to Kansas' yang, and if heartland voters ignore their interests in favor of voting on "values," conservatives inside the Beltway have no commitment to values except greed. Nonetheless, his book's most entertaining and insightful passages -- extended explorations of the conservative mainstream's lurid fascination with some of the most violent and depraved elements of the international scene -- seem to undercut this thesis. Frank tells the tale of the International Freedom Foundation at some length. This now-obscure outfit was an Abramoff-founded front for apartheid South Africa that boosted free-market principles at home and around the world and touted support for the white supremacist regime as integral to this mission.

Near the end, Frank returns to this theme, observing that "it seems as though our Washington wingers are drawn by some weird ideological magnet to every morally indefensible cause of the last thirty years. They have cheered for Jonas Savimbi, admired the Contras and the Central American death squads, and when Saipan needed help defending its monstrous labor system, virtually the entire movement answered the call." He swiftly pivots, however, back to free markets and political corruption. Aristotle wrote that men do not become tyrants to keep out the cold, and we should ponder that although Abramoff found a way to make money shilling for South Africa, apologetics for racism and lobbying on behalf of death squads hardly suggest themselves as the most obvious money-making schemes. People looking to get paid go into advertising or help telecom firms in their endless regulatory wrangling with other corporations. The hardcore right isn't merely greedy, it's genuinely morally perverse. Frank implies at one point, following Naomi Klein's argument, that the Bush administration's primary interest in Iraq can be understood through Paul Bremer's effort to reconstruct the country along free-market lines. A simpler explanation is that Bush and company invaded Iraq because of totally genuine, if also totally wrong, ideas about national security and tried to rebuild Iraq along market principles for the same reason the Truman administration rebuilt Europe as a social democracy -- they did what they thought would work.

Even within the domain of economic policy, there is reason to doubt that the kind of casual corruption that Frank emphasizes gets at the heart of the matter. "Dramatic economic inequality of the kind conservatism has engineered," he observes, "inevitably brings political inequality with it." The broad, pro-inequality macroeconomic measures the right has pushed since the dawn of the Reagan era -- regressive tax cuts, anti-union policies, the rollback of the war on poverty, and a monetary policy that seeks to cut off growth at the slightest hint of broad wage increases -- differ qualitatively and quantitatively from the crass cash-for-favors graft on which Frank focuses.

If anything, it's the reverse. The scandalous behavior for which Abramoff et al. have become infamous is a useful political cudgel for the opposition -- a case against the GOP that voters disinclined to consider serious disagreements over economic policy, and a political press corps indisposed to explain them, can understand perfectly well. Just as the right was able to discredit "big government" more broadly by blowing out of proportion the misuse of the congressional post office, so the wrecking-crew mentality and the scandals are a rhetorically useful synecdoche for the entire conservative project. Frank, a masterful rhetorician, deploys the scandals to just this end with great aplomb. Fundamentally, however, it's wrong to mistake the trees of corruption for the forest of ideology; a more honest, less corrupt right-wingery is imaginable and would likely be much more effective and only somewhat less pernicious than the current brand.

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