Liberal author Thomas Frank appeared on The Colbert Report last week, promoting his new book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, succinctly explaining the general thesis of his latest work this way: Conservatives may be good at winning elections, but they suck when it comes to governing.
“Once you start treating it as a business, you know once you start turning over government operations to the market you’re not talking about democracy any more. What you’re talking about is plutocracy. Rule by the wealthy. Rule by the market.”
Expanding more seriously on this concept, here’s Frank at last year’s sold-out “Failure of Conservatism Conference” held in Washington, D.C., talking about how the laissez-faire system is destroying America. This builds upon some of the ideas previously explored in What’s the Matter With Kansas?, his extremely insightful book about conservative populism that pondered why so many Americans have, in recent history at least, consistently voted against their own economic self-interest.
In case you don’t feel like watching the whole thing, I’ve transcribed some of the key parts regarding a fundamental and highly ironic contradiction inherent within the modern, so-called “conservative” movement that occurred to Frank after spending weeks poring over huge stacks of old copies of Reader’s Digest while researching his new book:
As I’m reading these, I often get to thinking, whatever happened to that nice, middle-class world the Digest claimed to speak for, back in the day? Whatever happened to those honest and prosperous blue-collar toilers who were always so sick of the dirty hippies and would stand tall for their flag and their country? And the answer is, that the system that they voted for, that they put into office, has effectively destroyed them. They don’t exist anymore. The economic conditions that made them possible have been erased by the conservative revolution. That old Reader’s Digest America that made Ronald Reagan possible was killed off by Ronald Reagan and by his heirs.
Now, when I was growing up back in the 60s and 70s, you all remember this, yet sometimes I have to remind myself that people actually used to talk this way, but the great sociological cliché of American life was that we lived in a “mass middle-class society” where the differences between white-collar and blue-collar were differences of style and taste, not differences of income… There’s a guy called Paul Fussell, wrote a whole book about it [“Class, A Guide Through the American Status System”] — it’s very amusing and vicious and cruel. Anyway, that’s who we were as Americans, right? We were the land of the “great middle” and all the kids were rebelling against stifling conformity and we were all supposed to be growing absurd because our abundance didn’t feed our soul and that sort of thing. But it’s all moot today.
Today, the great sociological cliché, that everyone on the planet — and I’m not joking about this, because everyone on the planet can recite this cliché — is not America as the land of shared affluence, but America as the place that tolerates and accepts great extremes of wealth and poverty. This is supposed to be, you know, so deep in our DNA, the very story of our nation. And everyone in Europe knows this from infinite repetition: America is the example to follow, because Americans don’t get upset when the boss makes 400 times as much as the blue-collar worker, and it’s our easy-going tolerance of extreme inequality that makes Americans what we are. That’s what makes us unique among the peoples of the world and so miraculously profitable a place to invest in.
So what I’m getting at, what I want you to remember and take home from this conference, is a fundamental contradiction in conservatism that they can’t overcome, no matter what they do, that this is a movement that is driven in some ways by nostalgia, right? By these gauzy memories of this small-town, Reader’s Digest ideal, where everyone has a nice home and a picket fence. But that world… was the product of liberalism, and the conservatives themselves have killed that world out of their dedication to their real God: the laissez-faire ideal.
Given the heinous clusterfuck of the past seven years in America that’s resulted in financial chaos, widespread deindustrialization, Gilded Age inequality, the worst corporate wilding since the robber barons, and the most massive indebtedness in the annals of time, not to mention examples of catastrophic incompetence resulting in signature follies like Iraq, Enron and Katrina, etc., it makes you wonder just how much further mugging by reality, to paraphrase the expression Irving Kristol once applied to liberals, it will take some people to realize that modern so-called “conservatism” has been a dismal failure.