Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
was first published in 2004, to considerable acclaim, for examining why so many Americans voted against their economic interests. He commenced with a startling fact: the poorest county in the United States is not in Appalachia or the Deep South; rather it is on the High Plains, McPherson County, in Nebraska. In the year 2000, more than 80% of the resident voters (admittedly a rather small group) went for George W. Bush, the Republican. "Why" is the subject of that book. How did conservatives capture the American heartland? As Frank pithily postulates: It was as though the French Revolution occurred in reverse, with the people running through the streets demanding that the nobility be given even more money and privileges!
"Pity the Billionaire" covers even more astonishing recent developments. It is one thing to have people prostrate themselves before the "free-market god" prior to 2008. But when it became "the god that failed" to reference Arthur Koestler's book about his eventual disillusionment with communism, and the entire house of cards came tumbling down, then how could Americans be calling for yet a purer version of the "free market," effectively doubling down on their bets? Why didn't they throw the rigid ideology of the supremacy of the "free market" into the dust bin of history, along with communism? Frank does a superlative job illuminating how this most unlikely occurrence unfolded.
He reminds us that we have seen this 2008 movie before: The Great Depression. The excesses of the "Roaring `20's," including highly leveraged speculation on Wall Street, led to massive unemployment, foreclosures, and a decade of hard times. The answer in the `30's commenced by realizing where the problem lay. Prudent rules and laws were enacted to preserve what is still labeled "capitalism," and to tame the "casino mentality." FDR, the "traitor to his own class," talked directly to the workers and the dispossessed, and put many to work in public works projects. The elites were largely vilified, and FDR "welcomed their hatred."
The essence of Frank's work is explaining why there was no rerun of this movie. Most events unfolded in the open, before our eyes. Many mouths gaped that such brazen and implausible events could be pulled off. There was Rick Santelli, a business report, convincing us the "common working man" was the trader at the Chicago Board of Trade. Don't focus on Wall Street, and the trillions required to save their sorry... no, shift the focus to the neighbor who bought the house with the extra bedroom and couldn't afford it. Should you bail out your neighbor for his/her imprudence? Frank discusses the "genius" of Glenn Beck, at length. (It was a variation of "I watch Glenn Beck so you don't have to") - yet Frank nags us that we really must watch him (hopefully only in small doses.) History is constantly re-written; fears like Wells' "invasion of the Martians" are constantly stoked. The problem was not the bonus culture of Wall Street; no, it was big government, and their promotion of housing for the poor. Beck, a consummate actor, can cry when required ... of course, all the way to the bank. Ayn Rand even experiences a revival. Frank details how the Tea Party's righteous anger resulting from the "free-market" failures were channeled at the wrong targets. In fact, as Frank explains, many of the populist forms of rebellion in the `30's were coopted and adopted by the Right after 2008; history resonating inversely. Of the numerous cases Frank cites, it would be hard to trump the sheer chutzpah of Massey Energy's CEO, Don Blankenship, who sponsored a rally to announce solidarity between coal miners and the coal operators, all directed at "getting government bureaucrats off their backs," with their safety and environmental meddling; eight months afterward, 29 miners were killed in an explosion in one of his mines (p 91.)
As so many now know, Obama is no FDR. Starting right from the beginning, when he selected key Wall Street "players" who were instrumental in causing the catastrophe and expecting them to fix it: Summers and Geithner. In contrast, FDR chose a classic populist of a Texas banker, Jesse Jones to run the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (FRC). This time around, "compromise" instead of "welcoming their hatred" was the dominant outlook. I've marked many passages in this book. One that seemed to capture the essence of the triumph of the conservative revival related to the debate on universal health care. The Democrats were unable, or too intimidated to articulate that essential health care is a fundamental right. As Frank says: "It was as though the old-school liberal catechism had become forbidden language, placed on some index of prohibited thoughts" (p. 169).
Inexplicably, Frank does not cover the recent countervailing rise of the "Occupy" movement. And he does end on a down note, suggesting further targets, such as the national parks, the highways, public schools and Social Security are on the Right's agenda as the "nation clambers down through the sulfurous fumes into the pit called utopia..." Still, the increased hubris generated by successfully avoiding the penalty for an ideological failure should only mean that the fall will be that much the greater, the next time around.
Frank has written a worthy sequel to "Kansas," a 5-star effort.