Feb/Mar 2012

Treat the Rich

Thomas Frank studies a populist backlash

Will Bunch


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In the opening pages of Pity the Billionaire, Thomas Frank sounds like he’s reporting on the protests against Wall Street during the fall of 2011. He describes the uproar that spread through the country in the years after a stock-market bubble burst in America’s face, a moment in which unemployment is high and the middle class is demoralized.“Markets disintegrate, layoffs mount, foreclosures begin, and before you know it,” Frank writes, “the people are in the streets, yelling for blood.” But this early scene in Frank’s latest book isn’t a record of the months-long unrest of the various Occupy movements; instead, it’s an account of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when a national unemployment rate of 25 percent gave rise to the New Deal and the moderate, mostly pro-working-class coalition that ran America for more than a generation.

In describing the foundational popular protests of the New Deal as a pointed contrast to the Tea Party’s rise, Pity the Billionaire often reads like a follow-up to Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which sought to explain how his native state went from embracing progressive prairie populism to becoming conservative. Now, Frank studies the reaction to the 2008 economic crisis and subsequent recession: the rise of the antigovernment, pro-business Tea Party, and a Republican take back of Congress in 2010. Here, Frank asks, in essence, “What’s the matter with America?”

In Kansas, Frank argued that business elites and their allies in the media had to sneak in an unquestioning acceptance of free-market capitalism into the culture wars, which, on the surface, were about things such as abortion rights and racy TV shows. Now, Frank writes that the wealthy’s inalienable right to eternally low taxes is front and center in the politics of conservatives, despite the evidence that such policies were the cause of the Great Recession. Frank finds the turn of events after the 2008 crash “amazing,” “unlikely,” and even “preposterous.” Throughout the pages of his new polemic, Frank endeavors to show both when and how this grand political bait and switch took place.

It began in the boom years, Frank writes, and one of the book’s greatest strengths is his ability to recast the Wall Street abuses of the 2000s in a way that will shock readers all over again. He revisits magazines like Trader Monthly, that decade’s bible of conspicuous consumption, which was splayed with glowing reviews of Lamborghinis and a $300,000 turntable that was described as “a huge middle finger to everyone who enters your home.” Frank explains, “I bring up this forgotten catalog of crassness . . . because the attitude it celebrated was instrumental in bringing disaster down on the nation. . . . If ever a financial order deserved thirties-style repudiation, this one did. Its gods were false. Its taste was bad. Its heroes were oafs and brutes and thieves and bullies.”

In what looked to be the first flush of genuine populist outrage at the amoral lords of finance, the American electorate turned to Obama, a man who they thought would begin to regulate Wall Street. In short order after Obama’s election, the Beltway punditocracy predicted that a new era for progressive policies was imminent. That didn’t happen, of course, and much of Frank’s book reads like a police procedural that re-creates the political crime scene where left-leaning populism met a swift death. Republican politicians, aided by conservative media outlets, managed to convince their audience that the TARP bailouts were proof that the economy failed not because policy makers intervened too little in Wall Street’s affairs, but because “big government” interfered too much. As Frank writes, “Nearly every aspect of the culture responsible for the collapse—from deregulation to Ayn Rand’s novels—quickly became the subject of roaring enthusiasm.”

Frank describes the moment when the nation’s politics began to shift: the now-famous rant about the injustices of federal mortgage relief by CNBC’s Rick Santelli. This previously little-known cable reporter was instrumental in articulating the resentment that would help turn the blame away from the millionaire bankers who made lousy bets on high-risk mortgage-backed securities, onto the lower-middle-class “losers” who were enticed into taking subprime loans. Santelli asked, “How many people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” The common folk in the nascent Tea Party were urged to identify with those highly paid traders by authors like John M. O’Hara, who described the Wall Street speculators as “simply working people who wanted the freedom to continue working and to enjoy the fruits of their labor in a fair way.”

Echoing these sentiments, Glenn Beck pops up every few pages as a kind of Greek chorus of pro–Chamber of Commerce spin, wrapped in conspiracy theories about shadowy cultural elites. The deep resentments that Frank chronicled so well in Kansas meant that, even with the cold facts of Wall Street malfeasance in plain view, the public didn’t need much convincing that the usual suspects—Washington liberals and their allies in the media and academia—were the real villains of the 2008 crisis.

But while conservatives may pity the billionaires, who are still routinely described—despite all evidence to the contrary—as “job creators,” the reader may take a small measure of pity on Frank as well. That’s because the foundation underlying this entertaining, but at times misguided, book—that the aftermath of the 2008 crisis energized the Right but flummoxed the Left—may have already begun to shift. While Frank’s book was at the printing press this fall, the activist, left-oriented response that failed to appear in the first three years after the 2008 financial meltdown finally, and suddenly, materialized.

This could be bad timing for Frank and his publisher, but it doesn’t invalidate Frank’s history lesson. One of the most valuable contributions of Pity the Billionaire is a reminder of the ways in which the speculation-fueled Great Depression of the 1930s created not just a populist outcry, but also concrete demands for public-works jobs and new rules for Wall Street. The Occupy Wall Street movement, with its leaderless style and kitchen-sink approach to political grievances, has so far failed to gain the sympathies of the working class and the unemployed as the populist movements of the FDR years did.

And, despite his sharp eye for a telling quote or a revealing anecdote, Frank only scratches the surface of the Tea Party movement. For one thing, peoples’ motivations to join the anti-Obama backlash are a bit mysterious in Pity the Billionaire, and so while the voices of the manipulators on Wall Street and Capitol Hill are amplified, the skillfully manipulated populace is nearly silent. This hints at the book’s larger problem: Frank is both a student and a proponent of old-school, labor-centered economic populism, and like the hammer-wielding carpenter who thinks every problem looks like a nail, his insistence on explaining the Tea Party surge strictly through high-level business babble is doomed to fail.

Frank writes that “the paranoid/racist moments in Tea Party history are singled out and obsessively commented upon, while its vastly more significant free-market streak is either regarded as camouflage for what the libs know to be its real payload—some kind of theocratic white supremacy.” But when I traveled cross-country in 2009 and 2010 reporting on what the foot soldiers of the new right wing actually had to say, I found that nothing animated them more than fears of a rapidly changing nation where nonwhites will soon be the majority, as well as a deeply held conviction that the first black president is fundamentally not American, a factor given short shrift by Frank. While the noise about unfettered free markets from the top of the GOP message machine grew louder in 2009–10, at the bottom of the pyramid were the same cultural resentments laid bare in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, amplified by anxieties about Obama.

Meanwhile, the comparative silence of the modern-day Left in Pity the Billionaire is not really Frank’s fault as it is the failing of liberalism itself. In the years leading up to the 2008 elections, many progressives became absorbed in the nitty-gritty of electoral politics. That movement peaked with the candidacy of the cool, rational, and occasionally even inspiring Obama. The belated realization that he is the leader of a Democratic Party that is actually, as Frank writes, “the vanguard of enlightened professionalism and the shrine of purest globaloney,” and the disillusionment that followed, is what finally drove the Occupy movement out onto the streets.

Still, that may not be enough to overcome the conservative backlash unleashed in those charged early days of the Obama presidency. Frank’s new book comes at a time of remarkable uncertainty: The Tea Party has been relatively quiet lately, even as its half-baked ideas continue to animate the GOP presidential primaries, while it also appears unlikely that Occupy Wall Street will create real reform. The only thing that seems certain is that if Republicans recapture the White House and both branches of Congress, billionaires will no longer feel any special need to solicit public sympathy by 2013.

Will Bunch is the author of The Backlash (Harper, 2010) and a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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