Amazon Exclusive: A Conversation Between David Sirota and Tom Frank
Journalist and Back to Our Future author David Sirota interviews Thomas Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas? and The Wrecking Crew, about his latest book.
David Sirota: Do rich people in America genuinely feel persecuted, or are their requests for pity a political ploy to combat their critics?
Tom Frank: Well, we’re talking about something that’s self-evidently preposterous. The phrase “Pity the Billionaire” is the absurd but inevitable end-point of the present conservative argument. The book is about people trying to depict themselves as the victims of a situation where they are manifestly not victims: imagining that corporate enterprises are ground under the iron heel of an over-regulating government, that banks were forced to issue the loans that puffed up the real-estate bubble, that taxes are by definition onerous and thieving, that businesspeople are all, as a rule, hard-working, unassuming, and straight-shooting—and that they have risen up righteously in a great strike, like in Ayn Rand’s and John Boehner’s fantasy.
Sirota: Why has the economic crisis resulted in a rise of conservative economic populism rather than progressive populism?
Frank: Because conservatives got there first with the most money.
Remember, the right has been “populist” for a long time now, raging against this educated elite and that. Populism is a language and a style that the conservative movement is comfortable with. It wasn’t hard to turn a well-funded, well-organized movement already accustomed to thinking of itself this way into a protest movement for hard times.
Of course, this involved the swiping of a whole range of traditional left-wing ideas and symbols, everything from the exaltation of the strike to the notion of a despicable “ruling class.”
The other side of the question is, why weren’t the liberals there to contest this larceny? Where was the left-wing populist movement? Occupy Wall Street didn’t turn up until three whole years after the September ‘08 crash.
The answer to this, I’m afraid, is that genuine populist movements don’t just spring up overnight, in the way the Tea Party did. They come together slowly. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, which is the traditional home of working-class movements, has grown very uncomfortable with populism. They don’t like it, they don’t trust it, they sure as hell don’t know how to talk it. The Democratic Party more and more sees itself as the party of conscientious professionals—of bankers who are socially liberal, for example—and not as the party of working people.
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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 police procedural that re-creates the political crime scene where left-leaning populism met a swift death. 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, but it doesn't invalidate Frank's history lesson. —Will Bunch
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