Two Cheers For Thomas Frank
Frank’s argument gradually moves from the obviously accurate (the class composition of the conservative revolt, which he documents carefully) to the obviously fanciful (the alleged march toward laissez faire). Far from repealing the 20th century, the ruling party hasn’t even made it past the ’60s, given that our Republican president has pushed through an enormous, expensive expansion of Medicare, the Great Society’s most costly economic reform. It isn’t just cultural conservatives who haven’t gotten much from Republican rule. Free market conservatives—the kind who choose market principles over business interests when the two conflict—have been disappointed as well.
This is worth stressing, because it demonstrates the confusion that clouds Frank’s discussion of his ideological enemies. Almost none of the policies he describes as “free market” actually represent free markets....
He recounts corporate scandals, for example, in which energy companies tried to “socialize the risk [and] privatize the profits.” By definition, that’s crony capitalism, not laissez faire. He devotes pages to decrying the decline of the family farm and the rise of the giant agricorp, a phenomenon he lays at the market’s door. But while market forces certainly have pushed a lot of former farmers into other lines of work, the enormous enterprises that have replaced them, and which have earned so much of Frank’s scorn, aren’t exactly free of state protection or farm subsidies. Indeed, they get the bulk of the loot. Corporate welfare queens like ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland are no more a product of the market than National Public Radio.
Frank is likewise delusional in his acceptance of the "populist" myth of the traditional Democratic Party. He seems to rely on an even more dumbed-down version of Art Schlesinger's court history, in which the big government liberalism of the mid-20th century was a restraint on the power of big business and vehemently opposed by corporate interests. How, then, to explain the role of someone like Gerard Swope, along with a legion of other corporate representatives, in framing the New Deal?
Given Frank's wide reading in anti-capitalist literature, it's hard to believe he never heard of Gabriel Kolko or James Weinstein (not to mention G. William Domhoff), or even stumbled across a second-hand account of the "corporate liberalism" thesis. In fact, it's hard not to notice the parallel with Ronald Radosh's deliberate "forgetfulness" of his past association with Rothbard and the Old Right, which Walker found so suspicious in his review of Commies.
It's a shame, because the neoliberal hijacking of "free market" rhetoric is a big part of the greater propaganda war that Frank describes: the use of pseudo-populist and pseudo-libertarian symbolism to manipulate working-class people into embracing the agenda of the corporate mercantilists.
And by the way, the populism of backlash culture is by no means fake. There is a great deal of genuine economic populism in the heartland. It's described well by Christopher Lasch in parts of The True and Only Heaven. Many of the same people active in backlash culture were (and are) likewise active in the "new citizen movement" described by Harry Boyte in The Backyard Revolution (get your hands on a copy by hook or by crook). It's just that those aspects of Main Street populism haven't been reinforced by big money and amplified in the Karl Rove/Fox News echo chamber. Even today, though, the occasional religious social conservative expresses some sense of betrayal at being used to get out the vote, just so Bush could spend his "political capital" serving the interests of country club Republicans in the corporate suites.
My guess is that the Religious Right, as a voting bloc, has reached its high-water mark.