Book Review: The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule by Thomas Frank


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Review by Dick Herman

The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule by Thomas Frank“The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule”
Author: Thomas Frank
New York: Metropolitan Books (Macmillan)

“We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” —Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

“In 2006, the richest 1 percent of Americans garnered their highest share of the nation’s adjusted gross income in two decades, according to Internal Revenue Service data. It might have been their highest share since 1929, the last year before the Great Depression.” —Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2008.

At the end of this narrative, Thomas Frank and a friend are having lunch “at one of those restaurants where the suits and the soldiers get together.” There, members of the Washington lobbying industry feel politically comfortable, if not a tad unassailable. Money and influence wash each other’s hands. “So you think all of this is just going to go away if Obama gets in?” the author’s friend muses. Not likely. What the conservatives accomplished in recent times now has a tough structural character. It has an air of permanency. Nonetheless, to fight back is worth the candle, Frank suggests.

Frank’s embittered summary is that conservatism has operated with a philosophy “which regards good government as a laughable impossibility, which elevates bullies and gangsters and CEOs above other humans. Whenever there was a choice to be made between markets and free people, between money and the common good, the conservatives chose money. It’s time to make them answer for it.”

Across these detailed pages, readers will confront the right-wing movement’s galaxy of champions, either generally or conveniently following Ronald Reagan as a guiding star. Jack Abramoff was launched via the College Repub­licans. His pal Grover Norquist led the CRs to greater activism and militancy. Tom DeLay’s nickname of “The Hammer” was rightly won. These are political personalities who favored a “Hard America.” They also were innovative.

“Conservatism’s triumph” was fostered by the marketing of unending drum-beat discontent with the federal government. One who facilitated such an approach was Richard Viguerie. He engineered the operation of direct mail. Letters “mailed by the millions” were written in “tones of the highest outrage,” soliciting dona­tions for conservative causes. Liberals always were the villains, not to be trusted. That approach generated huge sums for the right-wingers. Letter recip­­ients were made to feel fearful. Frank contends di­rect mail “moved the country to the right.” It also made the direct mailers very rich. “Only a tiny” amount of money ended up for the actual causes the donors were told they were backing.

Driven by a conviction that government screws up all-important private markets, a counter approach liked by the conservatives, once in control in Wash­ington, was to make sure that government would be incompetent. One major step toward such a goal “was to fill the bureaucracy with cronies, hacks, partisans and creationists.”

We now may better appreciate how Baghdad’s Green Zone functioned under the Bush administration. It swarmed with eager young politically conservative appointees who “were found to have one peculiar thing in common: They had sent their résumés to the gatekeepers at the Heritage Foundation.”

Another example on a parallel track is the Justice Department’s “scandal of 2007.” It’s still ongoing. A novice but politically faithful lawyer named Monica Goodling—she’s also a graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School—“helped fire nine far more experienced U.S. attorneys for reasons based on partisanship.” That exercise underscores Frank’s claim that “among conservatives the idea of excellence in government has been a favorite joke.” (Those who wish a break at this point can recall Ronald Reagan’s quips about what was wrong in Washington. To conservatives, Reagan’s gibes provided a lot of laughs.) Free market advocates need “lousy government so that no one would ever consider handling over more responsibility to it.”

Conservatives rail against government debt, yet they still make major contributions to the expansion of that debt, Frank documents. Debt is a method of preventing new or expanded government policies of benefit to the non-wealthy cadres.

Debt contributes to loopy free market ideas of privatizing Social Security. That would be hurtful in the extreme to what’s left of the much-diminished middle class.

Another technique for limiting liberal policies is bound up in outsourcing. History will record how the extended and expensive Bush Administration’s Iraq adventure has been massively dependent upon outsourcing to “free market” outlets. In Iraq, the conservatives got their chance to “remake an entire country into a free-market utopia, with minimal interference from media types, regulators and liberals.”

No text about the right’s triumph over the left would be complete without accounts of how members of Congress and/or their staffs continue to move into the ranks of well-paid lobbying activities. “The Wrecking Crew” supplies a choice review of revolving-door stories. Of 11 Republican freshmen elected in 1994, all to become part of Newt Gingrich’s Conservative Opportunity Society, seven became lobbyists. “And three others, at the time of Frank’s writing, were mired in scandal,” according to the author.

Yes, admittedly, this is a work representing a singular—you can say an unbalanced—point of view. But Thomas Frank backs up what he says. Read the book for yourself. The guy’s got the goods on his political enemies.

Have you read this book? Get your copy today.




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