The Silence of the Technocrats

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

Thomas Frank

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)

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.

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.
No mo’ populist mojo

It is not hard to think of ways that Obama and Company could have stopped the resurgent Right in its tracks, had they wanted to. To begin with the most obvious, Obama and Company could have put themselves at the forefront of populist anger against Wall Street rather than making themselves the embodiment of the cronyism the public despises. They could have captured the outrage of small business by promising to break up the big banks or resuming antitrust enforcement. Another tactic might have built on the fact that Tea Partiers hate NAFTA, and that they’re hardly alone: Why not announce that it’s time to re-examine the nation’s disastrous free trade deals?

But by May 2009, it was clear that Obama had lost the populist momentum. It was frustrating when he turned over economic policy to Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, two well-known friends of Wall Street, and it was maddening when he insisted on

following the bailout course of the Bush administration, even after the AIG bonus debacle.

From its silver-tongued leader on down, Democrats simply could not tell us why our system had run aground. They could not – they cannot – summon an ideology of their own.

This ideological void was apparent even when the Obama administration considered the greatest liberal triumphs of the past. Take Christina Romer’s speech, Lessons from the Great Depression for Economic Recovery in 2009,” a typical administration document. In it Romer, who then chaired the Council of Economic Advisers, rummaged through the 1930s seeking guidance for present-day officials, but whether she was talking about monetary expansion or the need for stimulus, each of her suggestions was presented simply as a policy choice, as a thing that intelligent people would naturally decide to do in order to solve a given problem. That monetary expansion and stimulus programs were possible in the 1930s only because of an ideological change in the way average Americans thought about government and the economy went unmentioned; we were supposed to know which road to choose from our study of the academic literature. Expertise would guide us. The ideology, presumably, would take care of itself. (Full disclosure: My wife, Wendy Edelberg, worked for the Council of Economic Advisers while Romer was chair.)

And so Democratic leaders tried to assuage public anger over the bailouts while barely mentioning Wall Street’s power over Washington – that subject they left to the resurgent Right. They gave us a stimulus package, but not a robust defense of deficit spending. They beefed up certain regulatory agencies, but they didn’t dare tell the world how big money had managed to wreck those agencies in the first place. And when a clearly unsafe BP oil well poured millions of gallons of poison into the Gulf of Mexico, President Obama told a reporter that before he could figure out whose ass to kick” he had to convene a panel of experts.

No passion please, we’re Democrats

It is easy to understand how Democrats evolved into this tongue-tied, expert-worshipping species. Their traditional Democratic solutions might well have solved our problems, but the ideology behind those solutions – as well as the solutions themselves, in many cases – are totally unacceptable to the people who increasingly fund Democratic campaigns. Instead, the Democrats try to have it both ways: to deliver the occasional liberal measure here and there while studiously avoiding traditional liberal rhetoric. President Obama tries to stay on the good side of companies like Goldman Sachs and BP even as he desperately drives his hook-and-ladder around a world they have set on fire.

The bailouts, the stimulus, the health-care debate: with each of these issues, the path of expertise led the Obama administration toward compromise with the power of wealth. And by the thinking of Washington, that is entirely as it should have been.

The nation, meanwhile, wanted to know: How did the Crash of 2008 happen? How did government miss the warning signs? What are our responsibilities to our neighbors in hard times? In response, Democrats offered technical explanations. They simply could not talk about the disasters in a way that was resonant or compelling. Only the idealists of the Right did that. What the Democrats held out to an outraged nation was a fastidiously detailed flowchart for how things might be reorganized.

No one among them seems to have wondered if bailouts might be done in a different way, or foreseen that Republicans might not play by the debt-ceiling rules. They try what Clinton tried; they are astonished to see it fail. And so they try it again. The Washington Democrats will no more acknowledge the possibilities of other tactics than they will abandon Georgetown and move en masse to some burned-out quarter of Baltimore. Instead they deride their liberal critics as impossible dreamers – or as fucking retarded,” in Rahm Emanuel’s famous phrase – and try what worked for Clinton one more sorry time.

Terminal niceness

The problem is larger than Obama; it is a consequence of grander changes in the party’s most-favored group of constituents. No one has described the new breed of Democrat better than … Barack Obama. Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means – law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists,” reminisced the future president in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope:

As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate. … They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by the movements of global capital.

I know that as a consequence of my fundraising I became more like the wealthy donors I met,” Obama confesses a few paragraphs later. So he has. And so has his party. Today’s Democrats have their eyes on people who believe, per Obama’s description, in the free market” almost as piously as do Tea Partiers.

Class language, on the other hand, feels strange to the new Dems; off limits. Instead, the party’s guiding geniuses like to think of their organization as the vanguard of enlightened professionalism and the shrine of purest globaloney. 

As a result of their retreat from populism, Democrats have spent the last several decades systematically extinguishing opportunities to broaden the base of their support.

They did little, for example, as their former best friends in organized labor were scythed down by organized money. This was no ordinary misstep, by the way. Labor is one of the last institutional bearers of an ideology capable of countering the market-populist faith; had its voice been strong in 2009, things might have played out very differently. Instead, Obama and Company pretty much sat on their hands as the percentage of unionized workers in the private sector sank lower than at any point in the 20th century. The fatuity of it all, one would think, has surely become obvious to Democrats: They have permitted nothing less than the decimation of their own grassroots social movement; the silencing of their own ideology. Thanks to this strategy, large parts of America are liberal deserts, places where an economic narrative that might counterbalance the billionaire-pitying wisdom of El Rushbo is never heard and might as well not exist.

The effects of a wrenching recession, on the other hand, aren’t likely to touch the new, well-to-do Democrats directly. They know bad things are happening, yes; they express concern and promise to help the suffering, of course; but the urgency of the recession is not something they feel personally. It is not a challenge to their fundamental values. It is, rather, an occasion for charity.

Oh, but a country where everyone listens to specialists and gets along – that’s a utopia these new Dems regard with prayerful reverence. They dream of bipartisanship and states that-are-neither-red-nor-blue and some reasonably-arrived-at consensus future where the culture wars cease and everyone improves their SAT scores forevermore under the smiling, beneficent sun of free trade and the knowledge industries.

Let’s have some Kool-Aid, shall we?’

Not even from our society’s most gifted political critics did we hear anything different. A few days before the 2010 election, for example, Jon Stewart, the perceptive and often ferocious comedian, tried to answer the various Tea Party marches and Glenn Beck rallies with a protest of his own, which he called the Rally to Restore Sanity,” otherwise known as the million moderate march.” It brought a crowd of several hundred thousand to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where they bought I’m with Reasonable” T-shirts and listened to Stewart’s speech about ordinary Americans getting along with their neighbors regardless of political differences.

Now, there was something noble and even Depressionesque about Stewart’s invocation of the common man, and I agree with much of what he said on that occasion. But it is more than a little strange to gaze out over a land laid waste by fantastic corporate fraud and declare that partisanship is what ails us and that reasonableness is the cure. Like the national Democrats, Stewart focused on process and expertise and surface etiquette while the real drama was elsewhere: in the mounting unemployment rate, in the still-lingering shock of the bailouts. Conservatives were out in the cul-de-sacs of America following their strategy from the seventies – organize discontent” – and here were the liberals, on the mall in D.C., trying to save the day by organizing civility. 

This essay was adapted from Thomas Frank’s new book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (January, Metropolitan Books).

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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 Listen, Liberal or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016).
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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