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National Oil Spill Commission

Speaking of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, President Obama said that before he could decide “whose ass to kick,” he had to convene a panel of experts. During a two-day public hearing by The National Oil Spill Commission, in Washington, D.C., Nov. 8, 2010, flow charts were presented. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The Silence of the Technocrats

Democrats let the resurgent Right claim the mantle of populism—and win.

BY Thomas Frank

The reborn Right has succeeded because of its idealism, not in spite of it; because idealism in the grand sense is precisely what our fallen economic world calls for.

In 2008, the country’s financial system suffered an epic breakdown, largely the result – as nearly every credible observer agrees – of the decades-long effort to roll back bank supervision and encourage financial experimentation. The banks’ stumble quickly plunged the nation and the world into the worst recession since the 1930s. This was no ordinary business-cycle downturn. Millions of Americans, and a large number of their banks, became insolvent in a matter of weeks.

Sixteen trillion dollars in household wealth was incinerated on the pyre Wall Street had kindled. And yet, to date – the Occupy movement notwithstanding – the most effective political response to these events has been a campaign to roll back regulation, to strip government employees of the right to collectively bargain and to clamp down on federal spending.

This return of the Right is even more remarkable when we remember the prevailing opinion climate of 2008. After the disasters of the George W. Bush presidency culminated in the catastrophe on Wall Street, the leading lights of the Beltway consensus deemed that the nation was traveling in a new direction. They had seen this movie before, and they knew how it was supposed to go. The plates were shifting. Conservatism’s decades-long reign was at an end. An era of liberal ascendancy was at hand. This was the unambiguous mandate of history, as unmistakable as the gigantic crowds that gathered to hear Barack Obama speak as he traveled the campaign trail.

But while the Washington wise men sat back and waited for the mystic tides of history to sort things out, conservatives acted.

The Republican Right had a coherent theory. Everywhere you look, they declared, you see a colossal struggle between average people and the “elites” who would strip away the people’s freedoms. The huge bailouts that followed the financial crisis, they said, are evidence of a design on our savings by both government and Wall Street. Regulation, too, is merely a conspiracy of the big guys against the little.

Now, for the first time in decades, the Right has declared that it wants to have the grand economic debate out in the open. The fog of the culture wars has receded – temporarily, of course. The conservative movement’s manifesto for 2010, the “Contract from America,” mentioned not a single one of the preceding decades’ culture-war issues. In 2010, a radicalized GOP scored its greatest victory in congressional elections in many decades.

In defending “capitalism,” however, the leaders of the latest conservative uprising don’t really bother with the actually existing capitalism of the last few years. Instead, the battle is joined at the level of pure abstraction. The issue, the Republican Right tells us, is freedom itself, not the doings of the subprime lenders or the ways the bond rating agencies were compromised over the course of the last decade. Details like that may have crashed the economy, but to the renascent Right they are almost completely irrelevant. What matters is a given politician’s disposition toward free markets and, by extension, toward the common people of the land, whose faithful vicar the market is.

Now, there is nothing really novel about the idea that free markets are the very essence of freedom. What is new is the glorification of this idea at the precise moment when free market theory has proven itself to be a philosophy of ruination and fraud.

Falling for the hard-times swindle

The resurgent Right has capitalized on the nation’s anguish to create a protest movement that virtually promises to make the anguish worse. This swindle will have terrible consequences down the road. Yet the Right met its goals not by deception alone – although there has been a great deal of this – but by offering an idealism so powerful that it clouds its partisans’ perceptions of reality.

Now, constructing an alternative reality would normally put a worldly political movement at a profound disadvantage. But this case is different. The reborn Right has succeeded because of its idealism, not in spite of it; because idealism in the grand sense is precisely what our fallen economic world calls for.

The culprits of the cataclysms of recent years – the ones who wrecked the economy – were not punished for what they did; they were laden with bailout billions and our blessings. All of which happened courtesy of our government, the officials of which have conducted themselves ever since as though nothing really untoward happened at all.

You could not contrive a scenario better calculated to destroy public faith in American institutions.

The bailouts, combined with the recession, created a perfect situation for populism in the Jacksonian tradition, for old-fashioned calamity howlers, for Jeremiahs raging against the corrupt and the powerful. Populist mobilizing was the task of the moment, and conservatives took to it immediately and with relish. They tossed inconvenient leaders overboard. They declared war on the ruling class. They assembled with megaphones in the park and gave voice to the people’s outrage.

But the other faction – the actual political descendants of Jackson and Bryan and Roosevelt – took years to rise to the occasion. They didn’t seem to understand that circumstances called for a profound change. They couldn’t embrace the requirements of the moment even though they were the ones pledged to the traditional hard-times measures (regulation, reform, social insurance) and even though responding to hard times was once their party’s very raison d’etre.

They were offered the chance, of course. In 2008 Barack Obama seemed to be a figure of destiny like Roosevelt himself. He took the oath of office under similarly disastrous circumstances and was for a while buoyed up by exactly the sort of popular adulation that followed FDR.

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Thomas Frank is a columnist at Harper's Magazine, is the founding editor of The Baffler and the author of The Wrecking Crew and What's the Matter with Kansas? His latest book is Pity the Billionaire (2011).

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