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Pity the Progressive

Friday, March 23, 2012

Progressive pundits are befuddled, time and again, by the resilience of Americans’ faith in free enterprise. Consider Thomas Frank.

As night follows day, progressive pundits never fail to voice surprise at the triumphs of conservative principles, especially in economic matters.

Pity the Billionaire, a reflection on Great Recession America by journalist and former Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas Frank, is no exception. Frank traverses a country pocked by Tea Party protests, Fox News talking heads, Glenn Beck (whom Frank calls out for special treatment), money-grubbing magnates of industry, the Koch brothers (but I repeat myself), Ayn Rand lovers (I repeat myself again), and exploitative politico-economic entrepreneurs peddling gold coins and partisan influence in what he must suppose is a quasi-reportorial effort to explain the renaissance of conservatism a few short months after his mainstream media brethren had buried it in an unmarked grave.

For Frank, a teaspoon of cognitive dissonance—and a dollop of refuted theory—go a long way. Recall that the author, who burst onto the national punditry scene nearly a decade ago with What’s the Matter With Kansas?, previously posited that a classic Marxian false consciousness explained the Right’s success. If conservatives didn’t target downscale voters with naked appeals to cultural and social issues like abortion and evolution, a younger Frank explained, they couldn’t possibly hope to persuade the lower-middle class to vote against its economic interests.

Frank neglects the simplest, most straight-forward explanation for the right’s comeback: Americans fundamentally do believe in the free market.

In Pity the Billionaire, to his credit, Frank candidly acknowledges that conservatives are no longer winning by using “the culture wars” to conjure a “mystification” of the national debate. Noting that the Tea Parties actively shunned social issues, barring their discussion in online forums and public rallies, Frank astutely recognizes that “the Right [now] wants to have the grand economic debate out in the open.”

So how, then, have conservatives successfully reframed the policy debate around capitalism? What nefarious potions have they crafted in their alchemist’s workshop now? What devious lows have they stooped to lately?

The principal answer, Frank posits, is idealism, and in particular, excessive idealism. “The newest Right has met its goals not by deception alone—although there has been a great deal of this—but by offering an idealism so powerful that it clouds its partisans’ perceptions of reality.”

Frank begins by offering a tendentious, nostalgic, almost wistful recitation of Great Depression history, pining for a time when Americans, desperate for an economic lifeline, gravitated toward FDR’s explicitly class-based solutions.

But, Frank asserts, while one might have assumed the same reaction would attend the Great Recession, it never came to pass. After an equally one-sided recounting of the run-up to the 2008 market crash, predictably light on Democratic contributions—“it happened, to begin with, on the watch of President George W. Bush, whose faith in the prevailing economic creed was as close to perfect as any chief executive’s is likely to come”—Frank begins to unpack what he finds to be a surprising unwillingness by suffering Americans to indict the market writ large.

A flaw in this problematic book is Frank’s determination to willfully ignore the dramatic effect on Independents of the leftward-ho governance during the last several years.

Instead of voicing anger at the bailed-out banks, Frank laments, grassroots protesters railed against the government. In so doing, Frank neglects the possibility that everyday Americans were disgusted by the crony capitalism on display during the bailout. While Frank quotes Beck’s government-centric explanation at length—“Why did Fannie and Freddie not work? Because it is the hybrid between government and capitalism. It is taking political power and injecting money into it. That’s why it didn’t work. Socialism doesn’t work. Marxism doesn’t work. Fascism doesn’t work. Capitalism works”—he does so only to mock its self-evident boobery, the sheer illogic of blaming both politicians and corporatists for forming an unholy alliance.

To be as fair as possible to Frank’s efforts, which I suspected I would find distasteful even before cracking the cover, I went to some extremes. I bought the book—signed by the author!—at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I tried reading it in locales more congenial to its premise than San Diego, like Manhattan’s Upper West Side and San Francisco. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get past the book’s various and sundry shortcomings.

First, a stylistic quibble. At times, Frank, who duly discloses his wife’s work as an economic adviser to the Obama administration, engages in puerile name calling—disparaging the big banks as “Wall Street playaz,” blasting a Tea Party author’s book with a “can-you-believe-this-shit?” attitude, and deriding an energy executive’s political views as “complete horseshit”—much more befitting a Daily Kos blog post than a work in print. The line between the two may be blurring nowadays, but Frank nonetheless firmly steps over it at times.

Yet a far bigger flaw in this problematic book is Frank’s determination to willfully ignore the dramatic effect on Independents of the leftward-ho governance during the last several years. FDR he may not be, but Obama has proven himself by far the most consequential liberal president in generations, massively increasing the size of the federal government through stimulus packages, jobs bills, omnibus appropriations, and the like—all of which receive only passing mention by Frank.

Frank candidly acknowledges that conservatives are no longer winning by using ‘the culture wars’ to conjure a ‘mystification’ of the national debate.

Worst of all, Frank’s treatment of ObamaCare is risibly unserious, focusing in a few pages solely on the supposedly outrageous town hall shenanigans it unjustifiably provoked, and on the Democrats’ troubling tendency to “deliver the occasional liberal measure here and there while studiously avoiding traditional liberal rhetoric.”

Throughout the book, Frank faults Democrats only for proving themselves insufficiently leftist, for shying away from robust liberal talking points, for failing, in his words, to “summon an ideology of their own.” For Frank, it’s not the content of lefty ideas that the public finds wanting, it’s the presentation of those ideas. And on those occasions where it’s clear, even to Frank, that the public indeed rejects the content of those ideas, it’s because evil right-wing capitalist puppeteers have manipulated them into becoming too capitalistic, too rapacious, too … idealistic?

Here, once again, Frank neglects the simplest, most straight-forward explanation for the right’s comeback: Americans fundamentally do believe in the free market, in fiscal responsibility, and in private-sector solutions to our biggest challenges. Poll after poll has shown that Americans who identify themselves as conservatives outnumber self-labeled liberals by a two-to-one margin. More recent surveys suggest that between 60 and 65 percent of Americans believe “big government” is the biggest threat to our future, and that “government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.”

This is a testament to the ancient wisdom our Founding Fathers imparted about the value of the marketplace, and the perils lurking in an overweening government. “No nation was ever ruined by trade,” Franklin opined. “Government is not reason,” said Washington, “it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” “Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet,” Jefferson surmised, “our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now.”

So in the end, it’s not the billionaires who are worthy of our pity, nor the hardworking everyday Americans who aspire to join their ranks, but pundits like Frank who are befuddled, every time, by the resilience of our national faith in the free market. Here’s hoping they continue to find themselves surprised.

Michael M. Rosen, a contributor to THE AMERICAN, is an attorney and writer in San Diego.

FURTHER READING: Rosen also writes “Labor’s Under-the-Radar Power Grab,” “Software Patents: Reform, Not Repeal,” and “Two Cheers (at Least) for Targeted Killings.” James Pethokoukis says “Marketplace Morality Is Not About Being Nice.” Arthur C. Brooks explains “The Value of Free Enterprise has Nothing to do With Money or Wealth.” Peter J. Wallison contributes “Fannie, Freddie Caused the Financial Crisis.”

Image by Rob Green / Bergman Group

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