Pity the Billionaire, by Thomas Frank

Pity the Billionaire

Pity the Billionaire is the second Thomas Frank book I’ve read recently, and really it overlaps considerably with the first (What’s the Matter with Kansas?) in theme. It’s another book about how corporations and the super rich have duped all too many into sympathizing with them and supporting their interests.

This time around he addresses the puzzling matter of why the Republican party and its ideology didn’t collapse following the 2008 economic meltdown sometimes called the Great Recession.

There was a clear pattern from history, he notes. The poor get very little attention in normal times and little is done to help them, but in hard times when capitalism is in one of its valleys, the ranks of those suffering grow to where they are harder to ignore. There is social unrest and demands that more be done to assist those who have been hit the hardest, and the country adjusts toward the left.

In 2008 there were plenty of predictions that the Republicans would be wandering in the wilderness for quite some time. Not only had the economy collapsed, but it had collapsed under a Republican president and after many years of being largely in the hands of conservatives, including Ayn Randian Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Barack Obama was swept into office by a medium-sized margin, and started his presidency with approval ratings far above the percentage that had voted for him. Surely some form of leftist populism was on the rise, and the Republicans would just have to lick their wounds and wait until the Great Recession was a largely forgotten piece of ancient history before they could expect their next turn at bat.

Then of course nothing remotely like that happened. It took but two years for the Republicans to dominate an election cycle (though they did lose another presidential election two years after that). Furthermore, insofar as there was any sort of populist movement, it was the decidedly right wing Tea Party nonsense. (Later there was the more leftist Occupy movement, but that fizzled out pretty quickly, and at least in terms of media attention never came close to being as big a deal as the Tea Party.)

And so the question is, how did this happen?

The author identifies a number of factors, and I can think of a few other possibilities, but I really think that as important as anything is that the Republicans discovered that if you’re shameless enough and unscrupulous enough to do it, in politics you can pretty much lie with impunity.

Jackie Mason—who ironically is quite a right winger himself—used to do a bit in the ’80s poking fun at the Reagan presidency. President Reagan was adept at deflecting criticism, Mason said, which he then illustrated with an example: When reporters would pester Reagan with “What about the deficit? What are you going to do about the deficit?” (Reagan had exploded the federal deficit by greatly increasing military spending and drastically cutting taxes on the rich), he would simply look into the camera with a look of absolute conviction and respond, “There is no deficit!”

Ever since then, the Republicans—and I know all politicians do it, but the degree of deception isn’t even remotely close to equal in contemporary American politics—have followed the strategy that no matter how many times you’re proven wrong, no matter how much your rhetoric fails to match reality, just keep all your people on the same page repeating the agreed upon talking points over and over and over and over and over. These points, no matter how false they are, will of course be reported matter-of-factly as truth on your own network—Fox “News”—while the mainstream media, in their efforts to be what they misconceive as “objective,” will at the very least relay these talking points to the public as one of the “two sides” of each issue deserving of a wide airing. As a result, in time many of the claims will become conventional wisdom.

So at a time some might have expected them to lie low for a while in shame, conservatives instead doubled down. Events had proven them right, they proclaimed. The economic collapse, they insisted, hadn’t been their fault at all, but instead had come about because liberals had twisted bankers’ arms to issue mortgages to blacks and poor people and other undeserving types. The massive deregulation, tax cuts, and other pro-rich, pro-corporate policies hadn’t been a problem at all, except in that they had not gone nearly far enough. Never mind that pro-“free market” policies had been the go-to response to just about every problem in America for years; now the claim was that true conservatives had been on the outside looking in, powerless to stop the inevitable collapse brought about by liberals and insufficiently pure conservatives. Not only did they deserve another turn in power, they insisted, they had never really had a first turn.

Not that there isn’t some truth to the notion that conservatives had never gotten one hundred percent of their wish list. But who ever does? They got far more of what they wanted than most policymakers or policy advocates typically do. If they didn’t get enough for them to be held responsible for the consequences, then presumably no political actors are ever responsible for anything they do.

It’s an excuse that is always available. Even when you win in politics, there are always at least some aspects of the policies you enact that differ from your ideal.

Compare Obamacare’s failings with the George W. Bush economy. Obamacare is a monstrosity that maybe is better than what it replaced (at least it added millions of people to the rolls of the insured), but has, and will continue to have, a myriad of problems associated with it. And Obama and even liberals in general will be blamed for every one of those problems, as well as plenty of fictitious ones.

Meanwhile, conservatives make the case that Bush wasn’t a real conservative and his policies weren’t what real conservatives wanted. But I would say there’s a far, far greater gap between Obamacare and what Obama would have wanted enacted if he hadn’t felt the need to compromise to get something through Congress (or even more so between Obamacare and what most people on the left wanted), than there is between the laws and regulations and policy decisions that brought about the Great Recession and those that conservatives would have chosen if they’d had the power to do anything and everything they wanted.

Whatever degree of blame Obama deserves for Obamacare’s flaws, it’s significantly less than the blame conservatives deserve for the Great Recession, yet the political reality is that he gets more blame.

Another, related, factor is that Obama really never aggressively went after the powerful in a populist fashion. He bent over backwards so much to avoid being divisive that he let the wrongdoers in the 1% who crashed the economy pretty much escape scot-free, and he tried to make his health care reform as agreeable as possible to behemoths like the pharmaceutical companies and the health insurance companies.

So the Tea Party kind of filled that populist void. It’s utterly nonsensical that those most passionately supporting candidates who will most consistently act in the interests of the 1% would be the ones to be denouncing crony capitalism and bank bailouts and such, but there you go. It’s the same thing Frank wrote about in What’s the Matter With Kansas?: Right wingers have managed to convince a depressingly high number of people that it’s leftists who are elitists. In the former book he mostly emphasized their message of cultural elitism—that leftists are snobs who think they’re better than you because they went to Harvard, go to trendy restaurants, read a lot of books, etc.; here he emphasizes their message of economic elitism—that leftists are in bed with the big banks and such.

That some Democrats to some extent are in the pockets of the 1% is, to their great discredit, undeniable. But to choose Republicans, and worse yet Tea Party Republicans, over them as some kind of populist alternative is like a neat freak criticizing Charlie Brown’s hygiene imperfections and opting for Pig-Pen instead. But plenty of people do.

Conservatives didn’t have to actually do anything for the ordinary folks of the 99%; they just had to brazenly lie about what side they were on for some of those ordinary folks to conclude that they were populists.

By the way, should Obama have fought harder for leftist ideals, fought harder to break up the banks that are “too big to fail,” fought for a version of health care reform that caused more discomfort to the biggest corporations? Would that have kept the Tea Party from getting any traction, because he’d have co-opted the only part of their message—the populist, anti-elitist one—that has any merit?

I think that’s what Frank would like to have seen. In general, he wants Democrats to show some spine, stand for something, and fight for the 99%.

I have mixed feelings. I’d like to see more standing on principle and less compromise from Obama and the Democrats too, but on the other hand I don’t know that it would be effective in the present climate. It would probably mean even less getting done—no health care reform at all rather than very flawed health care reform, for instance—and it might render the charge that Obama is some kind of divisive extremist easier to make stick, rather than having it relegated to hate radio and Fox “News.”

Another factor in the appeal of conservatives and their ability to maintain popularity when their policies go wrong is simplicity. The right can hold up an ideal that seems easy to understand and that can be taken on faith: Property rights are absolute. Your right to do with your property what you will overrides all other rights. It’s always better to trust the market than to intervene.

Again, this extreme libertarianism bears little resemblance to what they actually do in power, which is intervene in the economy willy nilly when it benefits the 1%, but as rhetoric it’s something plenty of ordinary people can get behind.

The left has no such simplistic unifying ideal. The Democrats even less so. How do you put a defense of a mixed economy on a bumper sticker? How do you stir people’s passions by explaining how it’s best to take each situation on a case-by-case basis before deciding whether to spend more or less, tax more or less, regulate this way rather than that way, intervene in the market or refrain from doing so, etc.? How do you make the massive compromises of something like Obamacare seem principled if not heroic?

There are other factors that help to explain why the conservatives and their ideology didn’t collapse after 2008, but I’ll close by noting some places where I don’t totally go along with the author.

I think he overstates how surprising these recent developments in American politics are. I certainly don’t recall any consensus in 2008 (whether among pundits or more academic observers) that Republicans were toast in at least the short and intermediate term. A few commentators took that position—I think mostly triumphalist liberals trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy—but plenty didn’t.

Nor do I agree that the country always moves to the left in economic hard times. The stagflation and such that people were so alarmed by in the ’70s gave rise to Reagan, for instance. If we include other countries, I certainly don’t recall the Depression pushing Germany to the left.

I think hard times are fertile ground for extremists peddling simplistic solutions, and for the targeting of unlikely suspects for blame. The author treats it as a shock that runs contrary to history that so many of those alarmed by the Great Recession attacked not the rich but the poor, for deserving their suffering and for unjustifiably seeking pity or assistance. (He notes a sign carried at a Tea Party rally that sums up this common attitude: “Your mortgage is not my problem.”) But, again, I think that’s a common strain when the economy is in bad shape—scapegoating the poor, minorities, immigrants, anyone “different,” etc. It’s not like people normally are unanimous in the need to grab their torches and pitch forks and head for the mansions of the rich.

Nor am I fully convinced by his portrait of the Tea Party. He agrees with a view I’ve mostly heard from conservative defenders of the Tea Party, which is that it’s all about economics—against deficits, in favor of the market and a kind of Randian libertarianism, etc.—and that liberals are mistaken to paint it as just a bunch of angry culture warrior, racist, Religious Right-types. For instance, he says, you virtually never see or hear anything about abortion at a Tea Party rally, whereas placards about socialism and the deficit and the like are ubiquitous.

In the past, he says, Republicans kind of snuck in the pro-rich and pro-corporate economic policies while getting people fired up about abortion, race, immigration, guns, religion, etc., but what’s different about the Tea Party is that it has dropped the stealth and openly demands conservative economic policies while largely ignoring the “wedge” issues.

I don’t know. I assume there’s some cherry picking going on with some of the more liberal sources of information I’m more inclined to seek out, but they certainly don’t seem to have much trouble finding examples of blatant racism and culture war rhetoric from the Tea Party. The polling I’ve seen indicates that the Tea Party is simply the right wing of the Republican Party. Yes, that includes a certain number of Ron Paul-types who care much more about libertarian economics than other issues, but it also includes the racists and the Religious Right, and all the other kooky and mean-spirited folks that have always populated that wing of the Republicans.

I don’t think people are motivated to come out in such numbers, and express such fury, solely because of their concerns about the deficit or the Federal Reserve or their peculiar belief that voting in more conservatives is the way to punish big banks and others associated with the hated bailouts. I would say their passion stems in part, in large part, from the fact that they’re convinced their enemies want to take away their guns, discriminate against Christians and possibly institute Sharia law, and punish them for being white.

Surely he underestimates the importance of race. I’m not saying there wouldn’t be some of the same things happening if some other Democrat were president and pursuing roughly the same policies—Bill Clinton generated plenty of such hatred, as would Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, or whoever else might be president now if Obama wasn’t—but the amount of it, and especially the venom of it, I think are considerably greater because of Obama’s race.

As I heard Al Sharpton say on MSNBC, “They hated Clinton for what he did; they hate Obama for what he is.”

Right wing rhetoric plays to the worst aspects of people’s nature. In the contemporary United States, one of those aspects is racism. It’s not that all the Tea Partiers are lying when they say that what they’re really worked up about is overregulation of the economy and big government and all that, but I doubt they’d be so passionate about it if their struggle wasn’t to a large extent a matter of standing up against the injustice and supreme insult to all they hold dear of a Black man in the White House, and not some useful Tom assuring them over and over that the only remaining racism in America is reverse racism against white people, but an uppity leftist negro Muslim who wasn’t even born in this country.

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