The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics by Jonathan Chait (Houghton Mifflin Company, 294 pages, $25.00)
The Right Talk: How Conservatives Transformed the Great Society into the Economic Society by Mark A. Smith (Princeton University Press, 267 pages, $29.95)
For the past 30 years, two questions have haunted liberals: Why do Republicans keep winning? And when will it end? With the GOP's crusade for a permanent majority undoubtedly faltering, it's not hard to see why liberals are optimistic these days. Yet I don't share that optimism. The Republican Leviathan has been pronounced dead half a dozen times, and it's risen each time.
But why? Jonathan Chait's The Big Con and Mark Smith's The Right Talk offer two of the latest clever answers to that question. Chait is a well-known journalist who began his career at the Prospect before moving to The New Republic, where he now writes the TRB column. In his new book he insists on being counted as a "moderate" even though he rightly admits to sounding quite immoderate, even "a bit like an unhinged conspiracy theorist." The book's thesis is that "a tiny coterie of right-wing economic extremists, some of them ideological zealots, others merely greedy, a few of them possibly insane," have captured ideological control of the GOP; that their supply-side theories are the cover for the ruthless greed of K Street's lobbyists and their corporate and mega-rich clientele, who are the real power behind the party throne; that mainstream journalists are appallingly servile, and often complicit, when confronted with this reality; and that most leading Democrats are no better because to a great degree they also have succumbed to variants of these economists' pseudo-theories.
It's a charge, in both substance and tone, that's pitch-perfect for an era defined by right-wing radio talkers and left-wing bloggers. Yet while Chait does come across as a bit unhinged, I must admit that he doesn't sound entirely crazy. (Whether he's crazy and right I'll take up in a moment.)
Mark Smith is an MIT-trained political scientist who teaches at the University of Washington. As befits the author of a university-press title aimed primarily at fellow academics, he comes across as more measured and sober than Chait. But, in some ways, Smith seems just as eager to persuade us that he's the one who's decoded the enigma of Republican success. Deploying a modern version of "rhetorical analysis" built on computerized word counting and statistical regressions on polling results, he tells us a tale not of outright deceit but of subtle manipulation.
The Right Talk argues that during the last 30 years, even as Americans have become more insecure financially than they were during the previous three decades, the language and logic of the market have invaded almost every corner of society -- to the right's great advantage. Contrary to Thomas Frank's claims, the right hasn't used the culture wars to conceal its real economic agenda. In fact, conservatives have pressed the economic wars harder and convinced a majority of Americans that Republicans make better managers of the material world (Smith has lots of polls to make this point).
Smith's further point -- important by itself -- is that while Republicans shifted their rhetoric and arguments toward the logic of the market, Democrats made a different shift, to their own political disadvantage. As Smith puts it, the Republicans "changed their arguments while the Democrats changed their positions." So now the heirs to Keynes and the New Deal claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility (think Al Gore's lockboxes), while President Bush has thrown fiscal concerns to the wind.
But how persuasive are these interesting arguments? The Big Con is a great late-night or weekend read: It's good journalism, with crisp pacing, colorful anecdotes, and deft character sketches. We aren't just told what supply-side theory is; instead, we're taken to the Washington restaurant table where Arthur Laffer first sells his dinner companions -- Jude Wanniski, a young Wall Street Journal editorialist, and a gullible but ambitious young Nixon official named Dick Cheney -- on its merits. We then get a suite-by-suite tour of K Street today so we see how lobbyists have fed -- and fed off -- the Republican Revolution, and how this inevitably spawned the likes of Tom "The Hammer" Delay and Jack Abramoff as go-betweens. We're also taken on a quick tour of that derelict rustbelt called the Mainstream Media and reminded once again of its willfully self-destroying insistence on objectivity (here, oddly enough, Chait barely mentions Internet journalism, a great oversight given its growth and increasing influence). There's also a particularly good chapter on the poisoned pabulum that press and politicians feed us on "the character issue" nowadays; in it Chait recounts the Washington establishment's treatment of Clinton's, Gore's, and Kerry's character "flaws" -- and its reluctance to hammer at similar or greater flaws among candidates on the right, thereby allowing the right's own proto-hagiography to pass as one side of a "balanced" analysis.
Unfortunately, The Big Con also reminds us why a distinguished former editor of The Economist once insisted that journalism's first rule should be "simplify, then exaggerate." Chait too often opts for narrative pace and white hat–black hat clashes over a more useful depth. Born in the 1970s, he also has some peculiar ideas about earlier history. For example, he idealizes the 1950s as a golden age when GOP moderates ran the party. If only such statesmanlike elites, he says (pace David Broder), would reappear, and, cooperating with their Democratic counterparts, govern us again! Well, yes and no. Under Eisenhower, spending half the federal budget on the Pentagon to fight "godless Communism" narrowed the gap between the ideological right and corporate interests and made left liberals permanent "me-tooers" on national security. And the right -- think Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, the Birch Society -- was hardly complaisant.
Chait's also dodgy on his economics. He never crisply sorts out the competing ideological groups (supply-siders versus monetarists versus old-fashioned tax cutters versus single-issue groups) in a sufficiently coherent way, and he muddies questions such as the top tax rate in the 1950s and 60s versus the 1980s and 90s because he doesn't acknowledge the difference between nominal statutory and effective marginal rates. Conservatives deliberately howled about the high statutory rates as the reason why taxes on the rich had to be cut, even though the effective rates -- the ones people actually paid -- were always much lower. Chait shouldn't carry the right's water.
Smith's work suffers from the absence of the panache, color, and characters that abound in Chait's book. Like Isaiah Berlin's hedgehog, Smith has One Big Point to make -- that Republicans have used "economic talk" to reshape the country's political debate. In the process, Smith downplays or loses track of too many other factors in GOP successes, such as race, the culture wars, the white South's move to the GOP, globalization's toll on white male workers, and the hollowing out of the middle class.
Smith also doesn't take adequate account of other factors in the rise of the language of economics. For example, the other social sciences since the 1960s have turned toward the kind of rational-choice models favored by economists, but this isn't a result of GOP electoral efforts. Smith also doesn't adequately acknowledge the complex character of the Democratic Party, which was never simply a liberal party and has always had elements of both business and ideological conservatism. The Democrats after McGovern's ignominious loss in 1972 "changed their arguments" to become more market oriented partly because so many Democratic leaders and voters believed in those market-oriented policies.
Both The Big Con and The Right Talk are worth reading as provocations to greater clarity about the still unanswered question of why Republicans keep winning. Nothing foreseeable about the 2008 elections promises the kind of breakout that 1932 or 1964 represented in modern liberalism's history. In an America (and a world) of heightened material inequality, increasing environmental damage, damaged public institutions, and even more damaged trust in those institutions, perhaps the proper reframing of the question I posed at the outset is why Republican values, ideology, and institutions keep winning, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats hold power. That, sadly, is of a scale and scope for which neither of these intelligent but ultimately insufficient books can give us meaningful guidance.