FLORIDA, August 25, 2012 — The Republican Party, and more generally the American conservative movement, has taken a hardline direction in recent years.
Few people have been documented this in as much detail as Thomas Frank has. One of America’s foremost — and arguably most forthright — political writers, he has been unflinching in his study of fiscal and social conservatism.
His bestselling books, Pity the Billionaire or What’s the Matter With Kansas? highlight his unique take on contemporary politics. But even while eviscerating the right, he keeps those on the left from becoming too self-congratulatory.
Few pundits, regardless of their philosophies, are so clear-eyed about the problems at both ends of the political spectrum.
In a candid discussion with me, Frank explained his views about history, why Occupy and the Tea Party aren’t so different after all, and much more.
Joseph F. Cotto: There is an old saying which holds that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Do you think that this applies to the politics of today?
Thomas Frank: Oh my goodness yes. In the grand sense, we’ve been going in political circles for years, using the same language and same villainous stereotypes over and over again ever since the late 1960s. This is also true in the small sense: The most energetic political movement in the country right now believes we need to deregulate the economy as a response to a financial crisis largely brought on by deregulation. It feels very repetitive, very detached from reality.
Cotto: In your opinion, can most political motivations be explained on a rational basis?
Frank: I think people’s behavior can usually be explained rationally, in the sense that there’s a discernible reason why people do things, there’s a pattern that can be detected, that sort of thing. Whether people are rationally calculating, self-interested economic actors is a different matter. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. People’s perceptions of their interests and their position in the world are often very different from what journalists or political scientists believe they ought to be.
Cotto: In many American communities, religion is a major social force. Should one not adhere to a certain faith, then members might perceive this as an existential threat and possibly a personal insult. Can this sort of mindset be readily explained?
Frank: What you are describing sounds like old-school sectarianism or intolerance. There’s plenty of instances of it throughout history, although the details vary from place to place and conflict to conflict. I would need to know more about the examples you have in mind to express an opinion.
Cotto: Over the last several years, the American right-wing has become considerably more hardline. Do you suppose that there may be a specific reason for this?
Frank: I think we have been in a long-term conservative trend ever since the late sixties. It has been driven primarily by forces like the growing power of the financial industry and the offense that is inevitably given by modern marketing techniques and the culture industries. (That plus the cleverness of certain politicians and the cluelessness of other ones.) In the last few years we have taken a sharp right turn from that larger course. The head-swimming financial catastrophe of 2008 furnished the right with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; only by doubling down on their policies of deregulation and tax-cutting, they argued, could we find our way out.
Cotto: One of the gravest concerns you have cited with modern conservatism is the rise of hot-button social issues. Why is this such a problem?
Frank: The main reason I consider them a problem, of course, is because I am on the opposite side in the culture wars. They are doubly problematic for me because they are the tool by which the conservative movement split off constituencies that, once upon a time, would have been solid for economic liberalism. The third annoying aspect is that the party of the culture warriors, the GOP, seems to have little interest in actually doing something about the culture. The lion’s share of their labors over the years has been focused on restructuring the economy—deregulating, cutting taxes, rewarding favorite economic constituencies, altering the shape of government, that sort of thing. Maybe this time will be different, but I doubt it.
Cotto: In the past, conflict between the Republican Party’s moderate and hardline factions has been described as a class war of sorts. Do you agree with this view? Why or why not?
Frank: I certainly agree. When I was studying the conflict between moderates and conservatives in Kansas (the raw material of my book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”), I found that the conservative rank and file very definitely saw themselves as engaged in a class war against people they would always describe as country-club types. It was a microcosm of the larger social stereotype of earnest proletarian “red states” versus affected upper-class “blue states.” It was also just as misleading: There are of course lots of moneyed interests behind the conservative faction of the GOP, such as (to name one that is important in Kansas) the Koch brothers.
Cotto: We are gearing up for yet another presidential election. During this year’s Republican primaries, many marginal candidates found popular favor, and gained international attention, because of their adherence to “true” conservatism. Why do you suppose that there has been a meteoric rise in ideological identity politics?
Frank: “Ideological identity politics”: That’s a good way to put it. The emphasis on “authentic” conservatism versus fake conservatism goes back a long way, but I think politicians are especially drawn to it at moments of disaster, like the Abramoff scandal and the present economic situation. The politics that conservatives have been pushing for decades simply couldn’t have been responsible for the catastrophe we’ve stumbled into, therefore the only thinkable answer is that conservatives weren’t conservative enough. They betrayed the faith. They weren’t pure enough. They didn’t follow the clearly-illuminated path to the market-based utopia. This is the theme of “Pity the Billionaire,” and it’s analogous, in all sorts of surprising ways which I describe in that book, to left-wing radicalism in the last economic disaster decade—the 1930s.
Cotto: Both the Occupy and Tea Party are reactionary movements which gained immense popularity due to dire economic conditions and government malfeasance. Comprehensively speaking, are these movements really as different from one another as pundits tend to claim?
Frank: They’re different in the political solutions they urge on us, but they’re remarkably similar in the symbols and language they use (“banksters,” those Guy Fawkes masks) and even some of the democratic fantasies they cling to. For example, the virtue of having “no leaders”: both movements are in love with this idea. They both talk about “the ruling class” and the tyranny of elites. And they have also, in their separate ways, latched onto one of the great unmentionable political facts of the last few decades—regulatory capture, the takeover of government by moneyed interests. One group’s solution is to clean government up; the other’s is to wreck government down.
Cotto: Across the political spectrum, libertarianism is on the upswing. Specifically in the Republican Party, followers of Ron Paul are storming the establishment’s gates. At the same time, social rightists are attempting to become the GOP’s dominant faction. All of this has left moderates more or less out of the picture. During the years ahead, which path do you see the Party taking?
Frank: I don’t see a road back for the moderates. They were essentially a leftover from the days when the GOP contained both conservatives and liberals. They represented a historic compromise between business interests and the New Deal state. With the liberal forces that gave us the New Deal state on the wane, there is little need for such a compromise position within the GOP anymore. The Democrats offer that today, and are reaching out to old moderate-Republican constituent groups, such as professionals. Meanwhile, the ideological fire as well as the money in the GOP have gravitated to the right. Republicans have discovered that pushing the spectrum in that direction is an effective way to get what they want. Let the other side do the compromising.
Cotto: How did you came to be such a prominent political writer? Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Frank: That’s a big question, sir. I will be brief: Born in Kansas City; went to public school, then college, then graduate school; wrote a book. And whaddaya know: writing turned out to be a way to make a living, so I wrote more books. You can read up on the peculiarities of my ideas and tastes at tcfrank.com or by becoming my “friend” on facebook.
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