The Mess is the Message

Adam Doster

Creative destruction: The Bush administration's philosophy of government, according to Thomas Frank's The Wrecking Crew.

Since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, the president’s approval rating has hovered around a paltry 30 percent. 

Just like the '30s, it might take financial disasters and major policy victories that address them (say, universal healthcare) to restore Americans' faith in government.

Speaking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in mid-July, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) expressed the sentiments of many Americans when she called President Bush’s reign a total failure.”

Historians agree. In a survey conducted in April by the History News Network, 61 percent said Bush would go down as the nation’s worst president. 

But is everyone using the wrong metric for success? That’s what cultural critic and best-selling author Thomas Frank argues in his new book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (Metropolitan, August 2008). It’s misguided, Frank writes, to view the remarkable misgovernment of the past eight years – skyrocketing inequality and insecurity, the outsourcing of primary government functions, the demolition of the regulatory state, unprecedented corruption – as the practical failure of well-intentioned conservative policy prescriptions or the work of a few greedy public servants. 

This period, rather, was a triumph, the apotheosis of a movement that fetishizes the free market, treats the business class as its primary constituent and views the liberal state as its bête noire. 

They have not done these awful things because they are bad conservatives,” writes Frank. They have done them because they are good conservatives.” 

In that sense, Bush is the exemplar of an approach to governance that simultaneously calls for less government in business and more business in government. Such was the official slogan of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the central theme of Warren Harding’s 1921 inauguration address. In fact, the mantra has served as the central tenet of American conservatism since its ideological naissance. 

And while various progressive writers and thinkers have chronicled the failure of supply-side economics and the opportunism of the Beltway Bandits, Frank is the first to weave the two narratives together, providing the most comprehensive road map to date of the damage wrought by the Reagan Revolution.

While Frank’s previous book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, focused on how conservatives win elections, The Wrecking Crew explores how they govern once in power. 

Frank begins his story in 1892, with a letter from then-Attorney General Richard Olney to an unnamed railroad magnate. The mogul had written to Olney – a former railroad lawyer – asking whether he had any inclination to abolish the Interstate Commerce Commission, America’s first regulatory agency. Olney reasoned that the agency could better protect the company’s interests by acting as a buffer against hasty anti-corporate legislation. The key, he wrote, was not to destroy the Commission, but to utilize it.” 

The conservative movement ultimately embraced that instrumentalist governing strategy. When it regained power in the 80s, the movement re-branded itself as anti-establishment and pro-freedom, organizing those disaffected by the social movements of the 60s and 70s. Although the movement’s leaders believed the state was immoral, they accepted that Americans liked big government and set about not to abolish the whole enterprise, but to capture the thing and run it for [their] constituents’ benefit,” as Frank writes.

And run it they did. After gaining traction in Congress and reminding Big Business that funding conservative activism could be profitable – there’s no more cost-effective way to ram through corporate-friendly policies than to underwrite the work of conservative activists, magazines, think tanks and lobbying firms – conservatives began dismantling the central pillars of the liberal state. 

The first step? Hollowing out the civil service by hiring incompetent but movement-friendly bureaucrats (i.e., the Justice Department’s Monica Goodling), driving down the wages of government service and outsourcing key government jobs to contractors with conservative bona fides (i.e., the military’s Blackwater). In other words, if your aim is to build cynicism about government, it’s best to ensure that the government sucks. 

The next step comes with creating mechanisms to guarantee that politicians do Corporate America’s bidding – by placing the regulatory state in the hands of those opposed to regulation. Not surprisingly, the agencies most hostile to business interests are those staffed with the most virulently doctrinaire. During his research, Frank stumbled across a pamphlet for schoolchildren entitled A Day in the Life of a Regulated American Family.” The booklet presents a parable of draconian government interference meant to terrify young readers. Big Brother will inspect your food, regulate the radio and fiddle with your parent’s car! The author was Susan Dudley, currently chief of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Third, integrate lobbyists and Congress, a practice that has intensified since Reagan took office. And don’t fool yourselves, Frank warns: Lobbying may be a bipartisan pastime, but it’s business pulling the levers of state.” 

Finally, there’s corruption, which for a movement that thinks Uncle Sam embodies sleaze, doesn’t care too much if legislators take a little off the top. In fact, it’s win-win because, while your side gets paid, you delegitimize government in the process. 

Conservatives will whine that Frank’s analysis is too cynical, but those right wingers have themselves set the bar awfully low. 

It’s tough to defend a movement with connections to tyrants from South Africa’s apartheid government to Angola’s Jonas Savimbi – a guerrilla leader who valued free enterprise but prolonged his nation’s civil war for 30 years – as anything but cynical opportunism. That’s what happens when, as Frank notes, the needs of business stand like a rock [and] all else is convenience.”

As a polemicist, Frank is at times prone to overgeneralization. Although he has no love for the Clinton administration, the lefty reformer tends to see the world through a purely materialist lens, using words like conservative,” lobbyist” and business” almost interchangeably. That simplifies the diverse political coalitions that have emerged in the 21st century. 

But as thoroughly as conservatives dismantled the regulatory state and botched reconstruction efforts in New Orleans and Baghdad, The Wrecking Crew eviscerates the cynical governing strategy that dominates market-based” government. Frank does so with graceful prose and an acerbic, charmingly old-timey wit that reads like it was ripped from the notebook of a crusading 1930s muckraker. 

Just like the 30s, it might take financial disasters and major policy victories that address them (say, universal healthcare) to restore Americans’ faith in government. 

Thanks to Frank’s book, progressives know what they’re up against.

Adam Doster, a contributing editor at In These Times, is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former reporter-blogger for Progress Illinois.
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