Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, January 8, 2010

Thomas Frank, _The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule_

WHAT I LOVE about Thomas Frank is the scholarliness of his journalism -- the footnotes, the historical connections, the literate asides -- all of which he incorporates without sacrificing briskness, contemporaneity, sharpness. It was a stroke of genius to invoke William Allen White in What's the Matter with Kansas?, as it is here to bring in the 1945 "civics primer" We Are the Government, Warren Harding's 1921 inaugural address, and Richard Hofstadter. Frank has a doctorate in history, and he puts it to good use throughout.

Frank here dissects what happened when people programmatically disdainful of government got to run the government, as in the Reagan Administration and the administrations of the first and second Bushes, especially the latter. Under the second Bush, especially, as Frank shows, there was a systematic dismantling of every constraint on private enterprise that could be dismantled. Good old corruption played a role (Abramoff, DeLay), but equally important were the ideologues (Grover Norquist, Heritage Foundation).

Millions of people -- and a substantial majority of the good folks in the red state where I live -- assume that shrinking the government will increase opportunities for individuals, as if power is a zero-sum-game in which the more of it the government has, the less of it individuals have. What they fail to see, I believe, is that whenever the power of the government diminishes, the power of corporations increases, corporations having both the resources and clout of governments and the liberties and rights of individuals. Whenever the government's grip on us slackens, corporate America's grip tightens. As for me, I'd rather be gripped by the government, which is at least supposedly interested in my welfare rather than that of stockholders, is democratically chosen, and is not actively destroying the environment.

Frank spoke here in my town in September, 2008, and closed with the same question a friend put to him that he closes the book with: "So you think all this is just going to go away if Obama gets in?" It hasn't gone away, obviously, as the insurance industry's impact on the health care bill makes clear, or the continuing private contractor profiteering in Afghanistan, or TARP, or... but are we getting out of the habit of thinking of government as the bad guy? Is it becoming clear to more of us that the teabaggers are nuts?

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