August 1, 2008
Thomas Frank's THE WRECKING CREW, examines corruption in Washington, puts the Abramoff scandal into context. Bill Moyers and Thomas Frank discuss the scandal and Frank's new book in a Web-exclusive interview.
In 2004, Bill Moyers talked with Thomas Frank about his best-seller WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? Watch that interview from THE MOYERS DIGITAL ARCHIVE.
BILL MOYERS: Your book describes conservatism as "an expression of American business." Why exclude Democrats? Jimmy Carter triggered the deregulation frenzy. Bill Clinton pushed for NAFTA, signed the Telecommunications Act of l996 which gave the megamedia companies everything they wanted, auctioned off the Lincoln Bedroom, and swooned over Robert Rubin while showing Robert Reich the door. Democratic Congresses were shaking down corporations when George W. Bush was still tipsy in Texas. And who was running Congress during the S&L swindles of the late 80s? Why single out conservatives as the greedy party?
THOMAS FRANK: Democrats can be conservatives too, of course. In fact, certain Democrats' embrace of the free-market faith has been just as consequential as the Republicans' own move to the right. When the Democrats gave up on FDR and came around to the ideology of Reagan, the opposition ceased to oppose.
But this was the subject of my 2000 book, ONE MARKET UNDER GOD, which discussed NAFTA and the Telecommunications Act at some length. THE WRECKING CREW is an effort to explain the particular species of corruption we see in Washington today.
Clinton's contributions here were not insignificant, but they were more passive than active. His celebration of outsourcing set up the government-for-profit of the Bush era. His war on federal wages ensured that government would remain an unattractive career option, especially when compared to what's offered by the contractors who are our de facto government today. His failure even to try to reverse certain initiatives of the Reagan years allowed them to harden into permanent fixtures of the Washington scene.
There are other forms of corruption that are particular to liberalism, and that occur more naturally among Democrats. But by and large, the particular mode of corruption I describe in this book is a Republican invention. True believers in the free-market way invented it and feel most comfortable in it. Most Democrats can be embarrassed by their relationship to lobbyists because publicly they pretend to be the "party of the people"; most Republicans are happy to say they believe in market-based government.
You go on to write that the political triumph of conservatism has coincided with the rise of the Washington area to the richest rank of American metropolises. But can't it be said that the ascendancy of liberalism turned government into the cornucopia of spending which became a vast feeding ground for predators of all stripes?
During its heyday, liberalism was often depicted in these terms-as a giveaway to special interests, handouts to organized whiners, pork-barrel projects like the TVA. There may have been some merit to those charges-they aren't my subject in this book so I don't know-but whatever they were, they are as nothing compared to the kind of money presently being sent down the chute to defense contractors and homeland-security operators and so on.
As for Washington's wealth, it is uniquely a phenomenon of the era of privatization and outsourcing, not of liberalism.
You seem to dismiss, if not denigrate, the term "culture of corruption." If that doesn't fit the nexus between K Street, the White House, Congress and contract-dispensing federal agencies, what does?
My problem with the term "culture of corruption" is that the word "culture" is being used generically-to mystify and accuse, not to define. I wanted to get down to specifics: What, exactly, is corrupt about this culture? How did it get that way? What's responsible for it? The Democrats' talk about a "culture of corruption" implies that simply voting for Democrats will fix it; when we know more about this culture we discover that it goes far too deep for such a simple solution.
You argue that the sprawling spectacle surrounding Jack Abramoff was not just a matter of a "few bad apples." So was the whole orchard rotten?
It's not the apples, it's the trees themselves. It's systemic. It's structural. It's the logical consequence of the philosophy of government currently in place. It has nothing to do with individuals except for the handful of geniuses who invented it all.
I read the muckraker David Graham Phillips, whom you quote in your book. A hundred years ago he was writing about The Treason of the Senate when the biggest names in the world's "greatest deliberative body" were serving "interests as hostile to the American people as any invading army could be, and vastly more dangerous; interests that manipulate the prosperity produced by all, so that it heaps up riches for the few; interests whose growth and power can only mean the degradation of the people." Ralph Nader couldn't say it better. So what's new?
Morally, those sentiments are right on-target. What's new is (a) the unthinkable is back; (b) it's infinitely more complex; and (c) it's ideological. The Vanderbilts had their own U.S. Senator because that way they could grab more, but the people doing it today are motivated at least partially by ideology. They have a theoretical justification for what they've done: the market is always and in every case better than the bureaucracy.
What's more, many of the people I describe in the book understand themselves as crusaders against corruption. They think *they* are the muckrakers, demanding more and more deregulation or privatization. Government should get out of the marketplace altogether. By what right does it regulate insider trading or price fixing? Get off our backs!
You require several pages riveting pages, I will admit to describe a "fantastic misgovernment." Distill the essence of it for a bumper sticker or t-shirt.
Bad government is the natural product of rule by those who believe government is bad.
Or: Cynicism spawns corruption, which spawns cynicism.
Or: Bring back the regulators before the system self-destructs.
Conservatives are fond of writing op-eds and going on television to say, "Don't look at us. It was the Republicans!" Are we really talking about a colossal case of mistaken identity here? Were the souls of conservatives actually hijacked and implanted in Republican bodies bought at a local taxidermist shop?
It is true that not all Republicans are conservatives we used to have some pretty liberal ones out in the midwest. Also some pretty clean ones, especially in Kansas City, where the Dems were the party of Pendergast.
But the distinction is constantly abused by conservatives in order to get their movement off the hook when their one-time leaders' numbers plummet. One day Jack Abramoff is their maximum leader; when it's discovered that he's been ripping off his clients, suddenly he's not a conservative anymore. One day George W. Bush is thought to be in daily contact with the Almighty; when his numbers tank, he's an "impostor" who's tricked the movement. They once said the same things about Reagan, incidentally.
Incidentally, all of this is a basic logical fallacy called "No True Scotsman." Scotsman A says, "No Scotsman puts soy milk on his porridge." Scotsman B says, oh yeah? I know a Scotsman who puts soy milk on his porridge. Scotsman A then replies, "well, no *true* Scotsman puts soy milk on his porridge."
Many years ago I reported for a documentary on the Iran-Contra scandal when President Reagan was waging a "secret" war against the Sandinistas and his hirelings in the basement of the White House traded arms for hostages to finance it. In your description of that scandal you write that two great conservative themes converged: "freedom fighters" and political entrepreneurship. Right?
Yes. The right of those years was infatuated with the idea of "freedom fighters" the contras in Nicaragua, the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, Jonas Savimbi in Angola, and whatever that brutal gang was called in Mozambique. To conservatives these guys seemed to represent a kind of sixties in reverse, in which the glamorous guerrillas were now on our side. And, yes, they thought Jonas Savimbi was glamorous.
They supported these figures with entreneurial methods: asking millionaires to contribute to nonprofits which would then buy supplies for the contras (and supplies for the fundraiser); transforming their control of the state into cash (selling weapons to Iran). Their ultimate ambition was supposed to be called "The Enterprise": a foreign policy instrument completely free from the scrutiny of Congress.
And you think some of what we've seen under this regime evolved pardon the secular language from that convergence?
The entrepreneurship is officially woven into the fabric of the state now: "Government should be market-based," Bush says. Entrepreneurship is what gave you both the catastrophic depopulating of FEMA and the lucrative but ineffectual recovery effort after Katrina. Or look at Iraq, where much of our foreign-policy apparatus is indeed private and is almost completely beyond scrutiny. Try phoning Blackwater and asking them why they do the things they do.
Two years ago my documentary "Capitol Crimes," which we're repeating and updating this Friday night, reported on how conservatives in Washington ganged up to promote sweat shops on American territory. You devote a chapter to this story and call it "Bantustan That Roared." Give our readers a peek into what you mean.
"Bantustans," or "homelands," were a tool of the apartheid government in South Africa. They were supposedly separate countries in which the black population could be theoretically housed, leaving South Africa proper for the whites. Generally speaking, the bantustans had two industries: casino gambling and low-wage manufacturing. One of them was ferociously libertarian, and much beloved of American conservatives. And they were all propped up ideologically by appeals to racial or ethnic pride.
Each of these elements was present in Saipan, to one degree or another. The raging libertarianism, the casino gambling, the sweatshop manufacturing-exploiting, in this case, imported Filipinos and Chinese-and the constant use of ethnic pride to excuse the whole rotten thing. I say Saipan "roared" because, while the bantustans pretty much sucked for everyone who lived there, it has been a great success for some.
Tom DeLay went there with a gaggle of conservatives in two and called the sweat shops "a petri dish of capitalism." How about that for a vision of America's future?
DeLay was right. That's what we're becoming. Democracy is over. It's rule by money, now: plutocracy, the pre-thirties system.
What do you make of the fact that Norquist is still riding high, despite the seamy business he carried on of using his organization to funnel money from Abramoff's clients to Ralph Reed? Does his constituency just not care about such things?
Apparently not. Maybe they think Norquist is just a good entrepreneur. I met him, by the way, and found him a charming and very intelligent man.
Who are the real casualties of THE WRECKING CREW?
It's ordinary working people. Thirty or forty years ago, it was possible to work a blue-collar job and enjoy a middle-class standard of living. In fact, it was common. It was the American way. The reason it was so common, though, was because we decided to make it that way and used government as our instrument. That instrument is no longer under our control. Someone else is at the wheel, and they're steering us in a different direction.
So can good little liberals go to bed at night now and sleep soundly knowing the Good Democrats have slain the monsters and reclaimed the castle?
No. Unfortunately, the system I describe is part of the landscape in Washington now. It's structural. It's an industry. It's not going down without an enormous fight. Besides, rather than putting away this very profitable game, a lot of Democrats seem excited to try their hand at it.
(Other Democrats, though, are trying to get to the bottom of things. Some Republicans, too. There used to be one called John McCain that I liked.)
Years ago the WALL STREET JOURNAL banned subversive liberal writers from their editorial pages. Suddenly you pop up as a columnist on the op-ed page. Are you Rupert Murdoch's fig leaf?
How did it happen? This wasn't supposed to be the Age of Miracles.
I have never met or spoken to Rupert Murdoch. The editor of their op-ed page is the one who offered me a spot. I was as surprised by the invitation as you are, since one of my previous books was basically an extended commentary on the JOURNAL's opinion page over the course of the 1990s.
I personally think that one of the reasons I've ended up at the JOURNAL is, ironically, the famous "liberal bias" critique. I've always suspected that one of the reasons I've never been offered a regular, permanent place in any prominent mainstream publication is that everyone in big-media-land is terrified of seeming too liberal, and hiring someone like me would obviously expose them to terrific blasts from the right. Well, one of the only publications in America that is totally immune to that critique is the WALL STREET JOURNAL. Which means they're free to hire me.
Has living in Washington made you cynical? Or was it the ripping of the veil in "The Wizard of Oz" that destroyed your faith?
The literature of Washington is, by and large, the literature of cynicism and disillusionment. I wanted to update it for our time. But I prefer the word "skeptical," since I believe good government is possible.
Thomas Frank from NOW WITH BILL MOYERS, 2004
As Democrats and Republicans battled for the hearts and minds of voters in key swing states, author Thomas Frank turned his attention to the traditionally red-voting state of Kansas which, he says, is a microcosm of a sea change in the voting patterns of working class Americas. Blue collar workers, says Frank, are embracing a conservative moral agenda centering on opposition to abortion and gay marriage and support for school prayer. The American working class, he argues, is voting against is own economic interests. What can the Sunflower state tell us about why Americans struggling to provide for their families would vote conservative and against their own economic futures? Bill Moyers talked with Frank in 2004, who argues that a culture war has led to a political deck stacked against America's working poor.
Thomas Frank is the author of THE WRECKING CREW: HOW CONSERVATIVES RULE, WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? and ONE MARKET UNDER GOD. The founding editor of THE BAFFLER and a contributing editor at HARPER'S, Frank has received a Lannan award and is guest columnist for THE NEW YORK TIMES. Frank has received a Lannan award and currently writes "The Tilting Yard" column for THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.