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Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew

Beyond the Palin: How conservatives are dismantling the federal government

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The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule
By Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books, 384 pp.

Fresh off listening to Republican presidential nominee John McCain's acceptance speech last week, it was cathartic to visit with Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule.

McCain pledged, you'll recall, to clean up the "country-second, me-first" culture of corruption in Washington. Frank reminds us, in bitter detail, who's been responsible for the corruption and the putrifying state of U.S. economic and foreign-policy interests over the last three decades-plus: It's the "movement conservatives" who control McCain's Republican Party, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Plutocracy Inc. And now, of course, they control McCain too.

Frank harkens back to the post-World War II era of middle-class prosperity, which he attributes to the liberalism of the times; by liberalism, he means an open-mindedness that, for example, balances the virtues of free enterprise with robust government programs (and regulations) that spread the benefits of growth and therefore help to sustain it.

Now keep your eye on the pea—the middle-class security—as Frank describes what conservatives have done to wreck it:

  • Conservatives declare war on government, denouncing it as the enemy of economic growth. They win elections on promises to cut taxes.

  • Presidents Reagan, Bush I and Bush II, upon winning office, put incompetents and thieves in charge of government agencies, which—ta da!—produces often spectacularly incompetent government performance, or else no government performance. (Think FEMA/ Katrina for the former, the U.S. Department of Labor for the latter.) It makes their point: Government's a wasteland.

  • The coast is now clear for them to "outsource" government functions to friendly corporations that may or may not be any good at what they're getting paid to do, but are very good at kicking back (excuse me, contributing) to the vast array of right-wing groups and allied lobbyists that collectively constitute the "conservative movement." (Think Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed.) Conservative politics, Frank says, is an excellent business to be in.

  • Unfortunately for the political partisans, jealous Democrats are almost as eager to share in the kickbacks as Republicans, which leads to—

  • Republican candidates who blame the deteriorating state of things on the Democrats, since neither party's hands are clean and it's the Democrats who continue to defend the efficacy of government.

So where's the pea now? It's vanished from view, and per the conservative doctrine, the one thin shell still protecting it is the McCain-Palin ticket, which will be corruption-fightin' and bipartisan—except, of course, that heroic John McCain didn't have the political guts to actually run on a bipartisan ticket with the VP candidate he wanted, former Democrat-turned-Oddity Joe Lieberman. No, McCain's running with a movement conservative whose disdain for "community organizing" (meaning, the common good) is matched only by her utter lack of preparation to be the nation's chief executive.

But there I go again, criticizing Sarah Palin for standing by her pregnant teenage daughter.

Which brings me around to Frank's most important point, both in this book and in his earlier What's the Matter With Kansas? (2004), which showed how the Republicans use culture-war clashes (abortion, gay marriage) to distract middle-class voters.

The point is, movement conservatives view what they're doing as a war that must be won by any means necessary. This includes—well, lying is such a harsh term, so let's call it ... no, lying is what it is.

So you say, for example: Gee, Sarah Palin seems to have spent most of her adult life in a small town being mayor and raising her children; and she has little familiarity, let alone experience, with national and foreign policy issues.

And movement conservatives immediately denounce you and Barack Obama, with whom you are said to be in league, for saying that a mom can't be president.

See how that works? They simply misrepresent what you said.

Now you say: No, I was just commenting on the fact that she's totally unproven ...

And they say: Whoa, what a sexist remark about a strong woman whose valiant daughter is proof of her family values. Obviously, you, Obama and the liberal media will stop at nothing.

The liberal media? Another fiction they've concocted while turning over the nation's airwaves to the highest corporate bidders.

Whew. I'm glad I got that off my chest.

Similarly, The Wrecking Crew is Frank in high dudgeon, getting off his chest all the sleaze he'd collected in his reporter's notebooks over the years that didn't make it into the earlier Kansas. Stories about Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), the mushrooming Northern Virginia "contractor of all trades" for the Pentagon; about the Native American corporations scam, and Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens' hand in it; about the American protectorate, Saipan, that's a virtual slave colony for U.S. manufacturers; and about the whole movement gang from Grover Norquist to Newt Gingrich to, well, Sarah Palin. Actually, Sarah Palin's not in this book. But her spirit is.

Oddly, there's not much here either about Iraq, or Paul Bremer's kid-viceroys, or the Blackwater mercenaries, which all together form the best possible example of what Frank says is the conservatives' two-part mission: (1) enrich themselves and their movement; (2) discredit government by showing that it can't change a light bulb, let alone educate poor children or deliver quality health care. (But the movement's corporate pals can?)

In Kansas, Frank showed how the conservatives take middle-class voters' eyes off the pea of their own economic self-interest by attacking gay rights, abortion rights and immigrants. In Wrecking Crew, he's all about what "free trade" and "right to work" have given us, courtesy of Norquist, DeLay & Co., while our attentions were thus diverted.

Frank's takeaway message: Liberalism can't survive much longer if liberals continue to expect that conservatives will play fair and debate the real issues with them. And democracy can't survive in a plutocracy, which is what we're becoming while Cindy and John pile up the houses. Conservative policies are wrecking the country, and it's time for the liberals to stop their nuancing and start holding people accountable for it. 

As a McCain aide made clear the other day, the GOP wants the '08 campaign to be about personalities, not issues. Frank gets that sentiment: "What I did not understand," he says of his early reporting days, "was that beating liberal ideas wasn't the goal. This wasn't about ideas at all. The Washington conservatives aim to make liberalism irrelevant not by debating but by erasing it."

Thomas Frank appears at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 17.

Thomas Frank, author of the 2004 best-seller What's the Matter With Kansas? - PHOTO BY WENDY DDELBERG
  • Photo by Wendy Ddelberg
  • Thomas Frank, author of the 2004 best-seller What's the Matter With Kansas?

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