I read Thomas Frank’s first book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, after the first year of the second Bush II presidential term, when liberals were still morning the inarguable reelection of an arch-conservative1. At the time, I remember marveling at how simply Frank managed to turn the crux of the last few elections into an easily-read book. The issue was this: why do people vote against their interests?
Frank’s new books, The Wrecking Crew, attempts to describe another phenomenon which is intrinsic to the daily operations of conservatism—that is, the simultaneous dismantlement of just about every government apparatus in existence (in deference to the holy, towering monolith of Free Markets) and the thumping of shrill moralism. And, of course, the fact that conservatives are so very rarely called on these shenanigans.
So much of the book is Frank touring the metaphorical sausage grinder of government: it’s a trope we’re all familiar with, since cynicism about the inherent bloat and corruption of state and federal apparatuses has been common to the public’s collective consciousness since—well, probably since the initial institution of government… not to mention its sudden rocketship to prominence with Reagan and his posse of belligerent bureaucrats2. But come now, you’re saying: we already familiar with these truisms/canards; why a book? Frank is decidedly one-sided about this issue, flat-out refuting the idea that this kind of corruption is simply a chronic disease of all organs of government, some endemic to all political parties; no, he insists, while most political parties have bandied about with such things, the sort of exaggerated corruption and rampant corporate control of Washington is a relatively modern trait, unique to the new face of the conservative movement, and tied permanently to its crass ideology-driven destruction of government (while, you may notice, using these same organs of government to feed itself).
Here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s really a secret that modern conservatism seeks above all else the drastic reduction of government. Neither, I think, would many such conservatives deny that an important function of government is feeding the free market business that creates wealth3; certainly, pro-business conservatives don’t simply try to throw off the yolk of regulation whenever possible, but also to throw lucrative government contracts and other such stimuli at whatever business interests said politicians/lobbyists are allied with.
But while Norquist or De Lay or other altar boys of the Church of Free Markets may believe this, they also know that saying such bluntly to the American public is probably not a wise idea4; it is therefore usually couched in language of personal liberty, marketed in such a way that anti-government conservative collusion with business appears as an issue of Freedom and Liberty and Patriotism, all with capital letters.
On some level, I can appreciate the conservative argument for free markets: they are, even liberal economists will tell you, pretty good about regulating themselves. But here’s the crux of the issue: free markets are entirely amoral—that is, they operate irrespective of what we may describe as good, and usually tack only to the side of efficiency—and yet they are espoused by people who claim morality as their political territory. Frank begins to show the divides here by focusing much of his attention on the deposed Jack Abramhoff, chronicling his rise as a smart, talented political go-getter who quickly bubbled to the top of the Republican Party, waving the
double standard for free markets and forming a sweaty, incestuous network of alliances with some of majors players in the conservative movement. Abramoff, the G.O.P. writ small, managed to bet on all the wrong horses simply because they tacked toward free markets and away from socialism5, and so was left holding his vocal support for Apartheid, for instance, long after it had become distasteful to everyone with a conscience.
Most everyone is familiar with Abramoff’s splashy political death6, but one of his least proud moments was his work in supporting/bilking the island of Saipan in the Marianas islands, a U.S. territory with none of our labor laws. I had first heard of Saipan in Al Franken’s wonderful The Truth (With Jokes), and it disgusted me then. In short (read either book if you want more detail), it’s an island full of sweatshops, where immigrants—basically slaves—work in dismal conditions—making clothes for American companies
of they’re lucky, and forced into the sex trade (as young as age 14) if they aren’t. And, while Frank doesn’t mention it, Franken does: all these hapless Chinese and Filipino girls who are forced to have sex with horny Japanese and American businessmen are usually (always?) forced to have abortions.
Lobbyists like Abramoff make it happen; politicians like Tom De Lay support it in the Senate (it’s a U.S. territory, remember) praise as the perfect example of free markets at work. I’ll let that sink in: moralistic, pro-life conservatives like Tom De Lay ardently support what is essentially a squalid labor camp that encourages (more likely demands) forced abortions for its barely-teenage sex workers. On the other hand, Banana Republic has such great shirts……
So you see that modern conservatism exists in a place that would seem logically untenable, but which is usually a case of amoral libertarians making kissy faces at earnest moral conservatives, who are happy to parrot lines about low taxes and free markets so long as Jesus is mentioned a minimum number of times every election cycle. Frank, as usual, is excellent is peeling away the layers of the issue until it starts to make more sense. Like his previous book, this is an issue I have long held in my mind, but was never able to full explain; Frank has done an excellent job of getting to the bottom of it; I was a little taken aback by his uncompromising tone at first, but began to understand its source as I read on. What’s the Matter With Kansas, while somewhat bitter at the large snowjob that was the 2000 and 2004 election cycles, was more genuinely inquisitive as to the puzzling nature of conservative success in working class states; Wrecking Crew, but contrast, is more like taking a sandblaster to the neocon edifice. Frank’s mad, and he’s guaranteed to make you mad as well.
- This all of course depends on how you label conservatism: to some, Bush II is anything but conservative, having presided over a massive expansion of government and ballooning of the national debt; in other respects, however, such as the bones he throws to social conservatives or the deregulation he spearheaded, he is a conservative par excellence.[↩]
- cf. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” Also see the new era of Grover Norquist & al.[↩]
- I know there’s hypocrisy inherent to combining government largess to business with a supposedly free-market system, but then no one ever claimed that conservatives were very consistent[↩]
- The same indignation at paying taxes to support welfare moms may also extend to paying taxes to support fat metaphorical porkchops thrown at overpriced defense contractors, &c.[↩]
- This is hardly a new sort of policy: Abramoff, like most conservatives, was simply continuing a longstanding American policy of supporting whatever Not-Socialism got its hands on enough guns to quash the peasants and laborers[↩]
- I’m going to assume here that we can all agree that Abramoff is anathema; if any ostensible readers are pulling an Ollie North kind of indignation right now, then I’ve lost you…[↩]