How did the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009 give birth to a conservative populist revolt?
That's the question Thomas Frank tries to answer in his new book — and sharp-tongued liberal polemic — Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.
Frank, whose previous books include What's the Matter with Kansas?, writes that the recent revival of the right is just as extraordinary as "if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster."
"Before 2009," Frank writes, "the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht." And yet, Frank says, that's become the central paradox of our time.
"We've just come through this extraordinary financial collapse. We know that this was almost directly the result of 30 years of bank deregulation and of all the sort of financial experimentation that our government encouraged," he tells NPR's Melissa Block. "And what the Tea Party movement and what the conservative revival generally is telling us to do is ... double down on that ideology that we've been following all these years."
On its surface, Frank says, that can be an appealing proposal.
"They're asking questions that need to be answered: Why did the regulators fail? That's a really good question. They're theory is that it's government — government always fails," he says. "The important thing is what's the answer coming from the other side? What is, say, the administration of Barack Obama — what's their answer to the question? You know what it is? Nothing. They don't ever talk about it."
Meanwhile, white blue-collar workers are abandoning the Democratic Party in droves and going Republican. It's a shift Frank attributes to Democrats' inability to effectively speak the populist language, and the conservative movement's "extremely good populist game."
"These people are waging a really terrific class war against what they believe to be the ruling class," he says, "and it is no surprise to me at all that it appeals to working class voters."
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. How did the economic collapse of 2008 and 2009 give birth to the conservative populist revolt of the Tea Party and their triumphs in the 2010 elections? Writer Thomas Frank calls that revival of the right extraordinary. He says, as extraordinary as if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster.
Thomas Frank's new book is titled "Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right." It's a sharp-tongued liberal polemic from the writer who asked, "What's the Matter With Kansas?" in an earlier book as he tried to account for the shift toward populist conservatism in his home state.
Thomas Frank joins me here in the studio. Thanks for coming in.
THOMAS FRANK: My pleasure, Melissa.
BLOCK: And Thomas, what's the hard times swindle that you're referring to there in your title? Who do you think is being swindled and who's doing the swindling?
FRANK: I think all of us are being swindled. I wouldn't put a single name on who's doing the swindling, but I wouldn't say it's organic, either. It's not an organic, naturally occurring swindle. I mean, it's something that we have been slowly talking ourselves into for many, many, many years, but of course, the main culprits are the sort of stars of the conservative movement.
BLOCK: The conservative revival that you're talking about is in part of this swindle. You say this is unique and confounding and I want you to describe what you're seeing as the paradox. You write about this on page three of your book. And why don't you read that section for us?
FRANK: You got it. Before the present economic slump, I had never heard of a recession's victims developing a wholesale taste for neoclassical economics or a spontaneous hostility to the works of Franklin Roosevelt. Before this recession, people who had been cheated by bankers almost never took that occasion to demand that bankers be freed from red tape and the scrutiny of the law. Before 2009, the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht.
BLOCK: Let me ask you about that, Thomas Frank, because do you think the Tea Party was really weeping for the man on his yacht? I mean, one of the main points of outrage for the Tea Party was they were opposed to the bailout. They were opposed to the government going in and helping the big fat cats and the banks.
FRANK: Right. That's right. But they're also very much in favor of this kind of utopian free market world that they think we need to push towards.
Let me take a step back here. The central paradox of our time is that we've just come through this extraordinary financial collapse. We know that this was almost directly the result of 30 years of bank deregulation and of all the sort of financial experimentation that our government encouraged. This disaster was caused by this ideology.
And what the Tea Party movement and what the conservative revival generally is telling us to do is, instead of reversing course, instead of going back and saying, OK, maybe we should have a well funded Securities Exchange Commission. Maybe we should go back and break up the too-big-to-fail banks.
What they're saying is, no, no. Get government out of the picture altogether. We need not to reverse course. We need to double down on that ideology that we've been following all these years. Only when we get to that sort of pure state of complete free markets, then our problems will be solved. And until that day, none of this stuff matters.
BLOCK: And in a sense, isn't one of the messages from the Tea Party, look, the government failed us in a calamitous way here and the last thing we need is more government. What we need is...
BLOCK: ...is less. Get them off our backs.
FRANK: You know, and that's a very appealing line. On the surface, the Tea Party line and the new revived radicalized conservatism sounds pretty good. They're asking questions that need to be answered. Why did the regulators fail? I mean, that's a really good question. Their theory is that, you know, it's government. Government always fails. Right?
The important thing is what's the answer coming from the other side? What is, say, the administration of Barack Obama? What's their answer to the question? You know what it is? Nothing. They don't ever talk about it.
BLOCK: Well, I wanted to ask you about that because you do make that point in your book that, as contemptible as you find the economic message of the conservatives or the right, it's better than nothing. And by nothing, you're talking about Democrats and, in particular, the Obama administration.
FRANK: That's exactly what...
BLOCK: Explain what you mean.
FRANK: I call that chapter "The Silence of the Technocrats" because the tendency among the Democratic Party - their great idea is that the Democratic Party is becoming the party of the professional class, who were a big Republican constituencies, say, 50 years ago. But now, they're becoming Democrats and the theme that just runs throughout everything that they do in the Obama administration and going back many, many years, is to respect expertise. Experts will solve things for us.
Take, for example, the stimulus package. Massive deficit spending. Now, how do they go about justifying it? They're saying, well, the experts tell us to do it. You know, the Tea Party is saying, what the hell happened with the bank regulators? How did they happen to be asleep at the switch? Why do we have failure after failure after failure? From the liberal side, you hear nothing.
BLOCK: Your point, as you described in the book, is that the Democrats have been co-opted by the power of the market and, specifically, the power of Wall Street.
FRANK: Well, I'm not trying to be that blunt about it. I don't think that's exactly right. I think what it is with the Democrats is that their failure is that they trust expertise and you look at who Obama, you know, appointed on his economics team. Some of them are very good, by the way, but the ones that really mattered are all from this sort of consensus economics school and they regard markets not with exactly the same reverence, not with the same kind of utopian idealism that you find on the right. But they regard markets pretty highly and they also regard Wall Street pretty highly and a lot of them - look, a lot of them came from Wall Street. I mean, the bluntest critique is also very true.
BLOCK: When you think about the fact that white blue collar workers have abandoned the Democratic Party in droves and overwhelmingly vote Republican. What does that say to you?
FRANK: Two things. First of all, the conservative movement talks an extremely good populist game. They were out there less than a month after Barack Obama was sworn into office, waving signs in Lafayette Park out in front of the White House with bullhorns, screaming, let the failures fail. It was really appealing.
One of their favorite books of 2010 was called "The Ruling Class." It's this fire-breathing denunciation of the class of people that's supposed to be secretly - semi-secretly running this country. These people are waging a really terrific class war against what they believe to be the ruling class and it is no surprise to me at all that it appeals to working class voters.
The other side of the coin is why have Democrats, you know, this is traditionally the party of working class people. Working class people elected Franklin Roosevelt president four times. How have they dropped the ball so dramatically? That was the great mystery of our times and that's the other mystery that I've always sort of tried to explain. The Democrats have real problems speaking that populist language.
BLOCK: Thomas Frank. His new book is "Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right." Thomas Frank, thanks for coming in.
FRANK: It was my pleasure, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.