The Political Awakening of Republican By Jeremiah Goulka

Published on Alternet (http://www.alternet.org), Tom Dispatch [1] /  [2] September 10, 2012

‘I Had Viewed Whole Swaths of the Country and the World as Second-Class People’

 

 I used to be a serious Republican, moderate and business-oriented, who planned for a public-service career in Republican politics.  But I am a Republican no longer.

There’s an old joke we Republicans used to tell that goes something like this: “If you’re young and not a Democrat, you’re heartless.  If you grow up and you’re not a Republican, you’re stupid.”  These days, my old friends and associates no doubt consider me the butt of that joke.  But I look on my “stupidity” somewhat differently.  After all, my real education only began when I was 30 years old.

This is the story of how in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and later in Iraq, I discovered that what I believed to be the full spectrum of reality was just a small slice of it and how that discovery knocked down my Republican worldview.

I always imagined that I was full of heart, but it turned out that I was oblivious.  Like so many Republicans, I had assumed that society’s “losers” had somehow earned their desserts.  As I came to recognize that poverty is not earned or chosen or deserved, and that our use of force is far less precise than I had believed, I realized with a shock that I had effectively viewed whole swaths of the country and the world as second-class people.

No longer oblivious, I couldn’t remain in today’s Republican Party, not unless I embraced an individualism that was even more heartless than the one I had previously accepted.  The more I learned about reality, the more I started to care about people as people, and my values shifted.  Had I always known what I know today, it would have been clear that there hasn’t been a place for me in the Republican Party since the Free Soil days of Abe Lincoln.

Where I Came From

I grew up in a rich, white suburb north of Chicago populated by moderate, business-oriented Republicans.  Once upon a time, we would have been called Rockefeller Republicans [4].  Today we would be called liberal Republicans or slurred by the Right as “Republicans In Name Only” (RINOs).

We believed in competition and the free market, in bootstraps and personal responsibility, in equality of opportunity, not outcomes.  We were financial conservatives who wanted less government. We believed in noblesse oblige, for we saw ourselves as part of a natural aristocracy, even if we hadn’t been born into it.  We sided with management over labor and saw unions as a scourge.  We hated racism and loved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., particularly his dream that his children would “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  We worried about the rise of the Religious Right and its social-conservative litmus tests. We were tough on crime, tough on national enemies. We believed in business, full stop.

I intended to run for office on just such a platform someday.  In the meantime, I founded the Republican club at my high school, knocked on doors and collected signatures with my father, volunteered on campaigns, socialized at fundraisers, and interned for Senator John McCain and Congressman Denny Hastert when he was House Majority Whip Tom DeLay’s chief deputy.

We went to mainstream colleges — the more elite the better — but lamented their domination by liberal professors, and I did my best to tune out their liberal views.  I joined the Republican clubs and the Federalist Society, and I read the Wall Street Journal and the Economist rather the New York Times.  George Will was a voice in the wilderness, Rush Limbaugh an occasional (sometimes guilty) pleasure.

Left Behind By the Party

In January 2001, I was one of thousands of Americans who braved the cold rain to attend and cheer George W. Bush’s inauguration.  After eight years hating “Slick Willie,” it felt good to have a Republican back in the White House.  But I knew that he wasn’t one of our guys.  We had been McCain fans, and even if we liked the compassionate bit of Bush’s conservatism, we didn’t care for his religiosity or his social politics.

Bush won a lot of us over with his hawkish response to 9/11, but he lost me with the Iraq War.  Weren’t we still busy in Afghanistan?  I didn’t see the urgency.

By then, I was at the Justice Department, working in an office that handled litigation related to what was officially called the Global War on Terror (or GWOT).  My office was tasked with opposing petitions for habeas corpus brought by Guantánamo detainees who claimed that they were being held indefinitely without charge.  The government’s position struck me as an abdication of a core Republican value: protecting the “procedural” rights found in the Bill of Rights.  Sure, habeas corpus had been waived in wartime before, but it seemed to me that waiving it here reduced us to the terrorists’ level.  Besides, since acts of terrorism were crimes, why not prosecute them?  I refused to work on those cases.

With the Abu Ghraib pictures [5], my disappointment turned to rage.  The America I believed in didn’t torture people.

I couldn’t avoid GWOT work.  I was forced to read reams of allegations of torture, sexual abuse, and cover-ups in our war zones to give the White House a heads-up in case any of made it into the news cycle.

I was so mad that I voted for Kerry out of spite.

How I Learned to Start Worrying

I might still have stuck it out as a frustrated liberal Republican, knowing that the wealthy business core of the party still pulled a few strings and people like Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe remained in the Senate — if only because the idea of voting for Democrats by choice made me feel uncomfortable.  (It would have been so… gauche.)  Then came Hurricane Katrina.  In New Orleans, I learned that it wasn’t just the Bush administration that was flawed but my worldview itself.

I had fallen in love with New Orleans during a post-law-school year spent in Louisiana clerking for a federal judge, and the Bush administration’s callous (non-)response to the storm broke my heart.  I wanted to help out, but I didn’t fly helicopters or know how to do anything useful in a disaster, so just I sat glued to the coverage and fumed — until FEMA asked federal employees to volunteer to help.  I jumped at the chance.

Soon, I was involved with a task force trying to rebuild (and reform) the city’s criminal justice system.  Growing up hating racism, I was appalled but not very surprised to find overt racism and the obvious use of racist code words by officials in the Deep South.

Then something tiny happened that pried open my eyes to the less obvious forms of racism and the hurdles the poor face when they try to climb the economic ladder.  It happened on an official visit to a school in a suburb of New Orleans that served kids who had gotten kicked out of every other school around.  I was investigating what types of services were available to the young people who were showing up in juvenile hall and seemed to be headed toward the proverbial life of crime.

My tour guide mentioned that parents were required to participate in some school programs.  One of these was a field trip to a sit-down restaurant.

This stopped me in my tracks.  I thought: What kind of a lame field trip is that?

It turned out that none of the families had ever been to a sit-down restaurant before.  The teachers had to instruct parents and students alike how to order off a menu, how to calculate the tip.

I was stunned.

Starting To See

That night, I told my roommates about the crazy thing I had heard that day.  Apparently there were people out there who had never been to something as basic as a real restaurant.  Who knew?

One of my roommates wasn’t surprised.  He worked at a local bank branch that required two forms of ID to open an account.  Lots of people came in who had only one or none at all.

I was flooded with questions: There are adults who have no ID?  And no bank accounts?  Who are these people?  How do they vote?  How do they live?  Is there an entire off-the-grid alternate universe out there?

From then on, I started to notice a lot more reality.  I noticed that the criminal justice system treats minorities differently in subtle as well as not-so-subtle ways, and that many of the people who were getting swept up by the system came from this underclass that I knew so little about.  Lingering for months in lock-up for misdemeanors, getting pressed against the hood and frisked during routine traffic stops, being pulled over in white neighborhoods for “driving while black [6]”: these are things that never happen to people in my world.  Not having experienced it, I had always assumed that government force was only used against guilty people.  (Maybe that’s why we middle-class white people collectively freak out at TSA airport pat-downs.)

I dove into the research literature to try to figure out what was going on.  It turned out that everything I was “discovering” had been hiding in plain sight and had been named: aversive racism, institutional racism, disparate impact and disparate treatment, structural poverty, neighborhood redlining, the “trial tax,” the “poverty tax,” and on and on.  Having grown up obsessed with race (welfare and affirmative action were our bêtes noirs), I wondered why I had never heard of any of these concepts.

Was it to protect our Republican version of “individual responsibility”?  That notion is fundamental to the liberal Republican worldview. “Bootstrapping” and “equality of opportunity, not outcomes” make perfect sense if you assume, as I did, that people who hadn’t risen into my world simply hadn’t worked hard enough, or wanted it badly enough, or had simply failed.  But I had assumed that bootstrapping required about as much as it took to get yourself promoted from junior varsity to varsity.  It turns out that it’s more like pulling yourself up from tee-ball to the World Series.  Sure, some people do it, but they’re the exceptions, the outliers, the Olympians.

The enormity of the advantages I had always enjoyed started to truly sink in.  Everyone begins life thinking that his or her normal is the normal.  For the first time, I found myself paying attention to broken eggs rather than making omelets.  Up until then, I hadn’t really seen most Americans as living, breathing, thinking, feeling, hoping, loving, dreaming, hurting people.  My values shifted — from an individualistic celebration of success (that involved dividing the world into the morally deserving and the undeserving) to an interest in people as people.

How I Learned to Stop Loving the Bombs

In order to learn more — and to secure my membership in what Karl Rove sneeringly called the “reality-based community [7]” — I joined a social science research institute.  There I was slowly disabused of layer after layer of myth and received wisdom, and it hurt.  Perhaps nothing hurt more than to see just how far my patriotic, Republican conception ofU.S. martial power — what it’s for, how it’s used — diverged from the reality of our wars.

Lots of Republicans grow up hawks.  I certainly did.  My sense of what it meant to be an American was linked to my belief that from 1776 to WWII, and even from the 1991 Gulf War to Kosovo and Afghanistan, the American military had been dedicated to birthing freedom and democracy in the world, while dispensing a tough and precise global justice.

To me, military service represented the perfect combination of public service, honor, heroism, glory, promotion, meaning, and coolness.  As a child, I couldn’t get enough of the military: toys and models, movies and cartoons, fat books with technical pictures of manly fighter planes and ships and submarines.  We went to air shows whenever we could, and with the advent of cable, I begged my parents to sign up so that the Discovery Channel could bring those shows right into our den.  Just after we got it, the first Gulf War kicked off, and CNN provided my afterschool entertainment for weeks.

As I got older, I studied Civil War military history and memory.  (I would eventually edit a book [8] of letters by Union Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.)  I thought I knew a lot about war; even if Sherman was right that “war is hell,” it was frequently necessary, we did it well, and — whatever those misinformed peaceniks said — we made the world a better place.

But then I went to a war zone.

I was deployed to Baghdadas part of a team of RAND Corporation researchers to help the detainee operations command figure out several thorny policy issues.  My task was to figure out why we were sort-of-protecting and sort-of-detaining an Iranian dissident group [9] on Washington’s terrorist list.

It got ugly fast.  Just after my first meal on base, there was a rumble of explosions, and an alarm started screaming INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING!  Two people were killed and dozens injured, right outside the chow hall where I had been standing minutes earlier.

This was the “surge” period in 2007 when, I was told, insurgent attacks came less frequently than before, but the sounds of war seemed constant to me.  The rat-tat-tat of small arms fire just across the “wire.”  Controlled detonations of insurgent duds.  Dual patrolling Blackhawks overhead. And every few mornings, a fresh rain of insurgent rockets and mortars.

Always alert, always nervous, I was only in Iraq for three and a half weeks, and never close to actual combat; and yet the experience gave me many of the symptoms of PTSD.  It turns out that it doesn’t take much.

That made me wonder how the Iraqis took it.  From overhead I saw that the once teeming city of Baghdad was now a desert of desolate neighborhoods and empty shopping streets, bomb craters in the middle of soccer fields and in the roofs of schools.  Millions displaced [10].

Our nation-building efforts reeked of post-Katrina organizational incompetence.  People were assigned the wrong roles — “Why am I building a radio station?  This isn’t what I do.  I blow things up…” — and given no advance training or guidance.  Outgoing leaders didn’t overlap with their successors, so what they had learned would be lost, leaving each wheel to be partially reinvented again.  Precious few contracts went to Iraqis.  It was driving people out of our military.

This incompetence had profound human costs.  Of the 26,000 people we were detaining in Iraq, as many as two-thirds [11] were innocent — wrong place, wrong time — or, poor and desperate, had worked with insurgent groups for cash, not out of an ideological commitment.  Aware of this, the military wanted to release thousands of them, but they didn’t know who was who; they only knew that being detained and interrogated made even the innocents dangerously angry.  That anger trickled down to family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.  It was about as good an in-kind donation as the U.S. could have made to insurgent recruitment — aside from invading in the first place.

So much for surgical precision and winning hearts and minds.  I had grown up believing that we were more careful in our use of force, that we only punished those who deserved punishment.  But in just a few weeks in Iraq, it became apparent that what we were doing to the Iraqis, as well as to our own people, was inexcusable.

Today, I wonder if Mitt Romney drones on about not apologizing [12] for America because he, like the former version of me, simply isn’t aware of the U.S. ever doing anything that might demand an apology.  Then again, no one wants to feel like a bad person, and there’s no need to apologize if you are oblivious to the harms done in your name – calling the occasional ones you notice collateral damage (“stuff happens [13]”) — or if you believe that American force is always applied righteously in a world that is justly divided into winners and losers.

A Painful Transition

An old saw has it that no one profits from talking about politics or religion.  I think I finally understand what it means.  We see different realities, different worlds.  If you and I take in different slices of reality, chances are that we aren’t talking about the same things.  I think this explains much of modern American political dialogue.

My old Republican worldview was flawed because it was based upon a small and particularly rosy sliver of reality.  To preserve that worldview, I had to believe that people had morally earned their “just” desserts, and I had to ignore those whining liberals who tried to point out that the world didn’t actually work that way.  I think this shows why Republicans [14] put so much effort [15] into “creat[ing] our own reality [7],” into fostering distrust [16] of liberals, experts, scientists, and academics, and why they won’t let a campaign “be dictated by fact-checkers [17]” (as a Romney pollster put it).  It explains why study after study shows — examples here [18], here [19], and here [20] — that avid consumers of Republican-oriented media are more poorly informed than people who use other news sources or don’t bother to follow the news at all.

Waking up to a fuller spectrum of reality has proved long and painful.  I had to question all my assumptions, unlearn so much of what I had learned.  I came to understand why we Republicans thought people on the Left always seemed to be screeching angrily (because we refused to open our eyes to the damage we caused or blamed the victims) and why they never seemed to have any solutions to offer (because those weren’t mentioned in the media we read or watched).

My transition has significantly strained my relationships with family, friends, and former colleagues.  It is deeply upsetting to walk on thin ice where there used to be solid, common ground.  I wish they, too, would come to see a fuller spectrum of reality, but I know from experience how hard that can be when your worldview won’t let you.

No one wants to feel like a dupe.  It is embarrassing to come out in public and admit that I was so miseducated when so much reality is out there in plain sight in neighborhoods I avoided, in journals I hadn’t heard of, in books by authors I had refused to read.  (So I take courage from the people who have done so before me like Andrew Bacevich [21].)

Many people see the wider spectrum of reality because they grew up on the receiving end.  As a retired African-American general in the Marine Corps said to me after I told him my story, “No one has to explain institutional racism to a black man.”

Others do because they grew up in families that simply got it.  I married a woman who grew up in such a family, for whom all of my hard-earned, painful “discoveries” are old news.  Each time I pull another layer of wool off my eyes and feel another surge of anger, she gives me a predictable series of looks.  The first one more or less says, “Duh, obviously.”  The second is sympathetic, a recognition of the pain that comes with dismantling my flawed worldview.  The third is concerned: “Do people actually think that?”

Yes, they do.

Jeremiah Goulka writes about American politics and culture.  His most recent work has been published in the American Prospect [22] and Salon [23].  He was formerly an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a recovery worker in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice.  He lives in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahgoulka or contact him at jeremiah@jeremiahgoulka.com [24].  His website is jeremiahgoulka.com [25]. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Goulka discusses his political journey, click here [26] or download it to your iPod here [27].

Copyright 2012 Jeremiah Goulka


Source URL: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/political-awakening-republican-i-had-viewed-whole-swaths-country-and-world-second

Links:
[1] http://www.tomdispatch.com/
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/jeremiah-goulka
[3] http://tomdispatch.us2.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=6cb39ff0b1f670c349f828c73&id=1e41682ade
[4] http://www.tnr.com/blog/timothy-noah/98542/rockys-ghost
[5] http://www.antiwar.com/news/?articleid=8560
[6] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/07/driving-while-black/307625/
[7] http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/05/23/1094237/-Scott-Walker-s-alternate-universe
[8] http://www.amazon.com/dp/0807828645/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20
[9] http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG871.html
[10] http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/174892/michael_schwartz_the_great_iraqi-brain_drain
[11] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112051193
[12] http://factcheck.org/2012/08/romneys-sorry-apology-tour-dig/
[13] http://articles.cnn.com/2003-04-11/us/sprj.irq.pentagon_1_looting-defense-secretary-donald-rumsfeld-coalition-forces?_s=PM:US
[14] http://www.aei.org/article/politics-and-public-opinion/lets-just-say-it-the-republicans-are-the-problem/
[15] http://www.tennessean.com/article/20120905/COLUMNIST0150/309050062/Fact-checking-is-beneath-Romney-campaign
[16] http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=4541
[17] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/01/us/politics/fact-checkers-howl-but-both-sides-cling-to-false-ads.html
[18] http://www.alternet.org/story/154252/the_republican_brain%3A_why_even_educated_conservatives_deny_science_–_and_reality?page=entire&paging=off
[19] http://articles.nydailynews.com/2011-11-22/news/30431182_1_fox-news-results-show-viewers
[20] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/23/fox-news-less-informed-new-study_n_1538914.html
[21] http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175290/
[22] http://prospect.org/authors/jeremiah-goulka
[23] http://www.salon.com/2012/03/28/guest_op_ed_mek_and_its_material_supporters_in_washington/
[24] mailto:jeremiah@jeremiahgoulka.com
[25] http://www.jeremiahgoulka.com/
[26] http://tomdispatch.blogspot.com/2012/09/confessions-of-former-republican.html
[27] http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tomcast-from-tomdispatch-com/id357095817

How the Republicans Built It

New York Times Editorial, August 28, 2012

It was a day late, but the Republicans’ parade of truth-twisting, distortions and plain falsehoods arrived on the podium of their national convention on Tuesday. Following in the footsteps of Mitt Romney’s campaign, rarely have so many convention speeches been based on such shaky foundations.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, in the keynote speech, angrily demanded that the American people learn the hard truths about the two parties, but like most of those at the microphone, he failed to supply any. He said his state needed his austere discipline of slashed budgets, canceled public projects and broken public unions, but did not mention that New Jersey now has a higher unemployment rate than when he took over, and never had the revenue boom he promised from tax cuts.

“We believe in telling our seniors the truth about our overburdened entitlements,” he said, but his party has consistently refused to come clean about its real plans to undo Medicare and Medicaid. “Mitt Romney will tell us the hard truths we need to hear to put us back on a path to growth,” he said, but Mr. Romney has consistently refused to tell the truth about his tax plan, his budget plan, and his health care plan.

It was appropriate that “We built it,” the needling slogan of the evening, was painted on the side of the convention hall. Speaker after speaker alluded to the phrase in an entire day based on the thinnest of reeds — a poorly phrased remark by the president, deliberately taken out of context. President Obama was making the obvious point that all businesses rely to some extent on the work and services of government. But Mr. Romney has twisted it to suggest that Mr. Obama believes all businesses are creatures of the government, and so the convention had to parrot the line.

“We need a president who will say to a small businesswoman: Congratulations, we applaud your success, you did make that happen, you did build that,” said Gov. Bob McDonnell ofVirginia. “Big government didn’t build America; you built America!”

That was far from the only piece of nonsense on the menu, only the most frequently repeated one. Conventions are always full of cheap applause lines and over-the-top attacks, but it was startling to hear how many speakers in Tampa considered it acceptable to make points that had no basis in reality.

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, for example, boasted of the booming economy in his state, never mentioning that he and Mr. Romney opposed the auto bailout that has played an outsized role in the state’s recovery. (Apparently Mr. Obama’s destructive economic policies do not apply everywhere.)

Andy Barr, a Congressional candidate in Kentucky, made the particularly egregious charge that the president was conducting “a war on coal,” ruthlessly attacking an industry and thousands of struggling miners.

He was apparently referring to the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and prevent power-plant pollution from drifting through the East Coast states. The country desperately needs to reduce its reliance on coal, which is far more polluting than natural gas, but that goal gets harder to achieve every time someone like Mr. Barr makes it out to be an attack on a way of life.

Considering how Mr. Romney has conducted his campaign so far, most recently his blatantly false advertising accusing Mr. Obama of gutting the work requirement on welfare, it is probably not surprising that the convention he leads would follow a similar path.

Voters looking for a few nuggets of truth would not have found them inTampa on Tuesday.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/29/opinion/how-the-republicans-built-it.html?_r=1&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20120829

Mocking the Right’s ‘Free Market’ Agenda Is Almost Too Easy — A Real Problem Is That the Dems Don’t Challenge It By Elizabeth DiNovella and Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank inter­viewed about his new book — Pity the Bil­lion­aire: The Hard-Times Swin­dle and the Unlikely Come­back of the Right - inter­viewed by Eliz­a­beth DiNovella The Pro­gres­sive, posted on Alternet.org, July 20, 2012

Excerpt

Frank looks at the con­ser­v­a­tive argu­ments for aus­ter­ity in an eco­nomic down­turn. In the after­math of the col­lapse of Wall Street, the Repub­li­can Party mor­phed anger at big busi­ness into anger at big gov­ern­ment…
Even though dereg­u­la­tion played a major role in cre­at­ing our eco­nomic woes, con­ser­v­a­tives have been call­ing for more deregulation—and win­ning office on this plat­form. “The reborn Right has suc­ceeded because of its ide­al­ism, not in spite of it,” Frank says. “This idea that we can achieve a laissez-faire utopia, where every­thing will work per­fectly, is very attrac­tive to peo­ple.”…
…That’s how con­ser­v­a­tives actu­ally run the gov­ern­ment here in Wash­ing­ton: They run it by run­ning it into the ground. They sab­o­tage it. Sab­o­tage is the word for their gov­ern­men­tal phi­los­o­phy.…
The idea of my book is that this should not be attrac­tive to peo­ple in the mid­dle of a reces­sion that just won’t go away because this is the very phi­los­o­phy that got us into trou­ble in the first place. But in some ways, this is exactly what peo­ple reach for in hard times: A phi­los­o­phy that removes doubt and that offers you some reas­sur­ance in what is frankly a very fright­en­ing time.…
…but one of the only rea­sons that it works is that the Democ­rats let it hap­pen. They never seem to be able to fight back, never seem to be able to fig­ure it out. They really can­not talk about the phi­los­o­phy that moti­vates their actions and their leg­isla­tive deeds…. the Democ­rats, from Pres­i­dent Obama on down, have been almost com­pletely unable to tell us why it is that gov­ern­ment needs to get involved in these sec­tors of the econ­omy.

Full text

Cultural critic Thomas Frank loves a paradox. Why has the worst economic crisis in generations led to a resurrection of free market orthodoxy? How can Budget chairman Paul Ryan, Republican from Wisconsin, rail against “corporate cronyism” and then enjoy $700 worth of wine with hedge fund manager Cliff Asness?

In his provocative new book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, Frank looks at the conservative arguments for austerity in an economic downturn. In the aftermath of the collapse of Wall Street, the Republican Party morphed anger at big business into anger at big government.

The GOP’s “anti-big-business message catches the bitter national mood,” Frank writes. “What the Right actually does is deliver the same favors to the same people as always.”

Even though deregulation played a major role in creating our economic woes, conservatives have been calling for more deregulation—and winning office on this platform. “The reborn Right has succeeded because of its idealism, not in spite of it,” Frank says. “This idea that we can achieve a laissez-faire utopia, where everything will work perfectly, is very attractive to people.”

And the Democrats? Where are they in this debate over government intervention in the market?

“The liberals could not grab the opportunity that hard times presented to advance their philosophy,” Frank argues, noting their technocratic talk turned people off.

Frank may be best known for his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. His other books include The Wrecking Crew and One Market Under God. A columnist for Harper’s and a founding editor of The Baffler, he is also a former opinion columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area. I spoke to him by phone.

Q: What are your thoughts on Occupy Wall Street?

Thomas Frank: I wish them success. They’ve brought a lot of ideas into the national debate that were completely outside the debate before, and that’s so important. Speaking from personal experience, I wrote a book twelve years ago where one of the main points began with the concentrations of wealth in this country. And that was regarded as an unacceptable, stigmatized topic back then. It was outside the consensus. Well, it’s inside the consensus today. The President is talking about it; even the Republican candidates are talking about it. We have Occupy Wall Street to thank for that. That is a great thing.

Q: Do you think that there’s a space for a populist alliance between the tea party and Occupy Wall Street?

Frank: No, I don’t think there is. You’re not going to get the tea party leaders to sign up for something that demands we re-regulate Wall Street. That’s just not going to happen. These guys are laissez-faire ideologues at the end of the day. But you can fight for the support of the voters that were swayed by the movement. You can do that, and you should do that.

Q: You covered many tea party rallies and one of the big mantras you heard early on was, “Let the failures fail.”

Frank: “Let the failures fail.” It’s attractive, isn’t it? It sounded good to me when I heard it at the very first tea party rally in Washington, D.C., in February 2009. A protester had that on a sign he was carrying. At that moment, people were infuriated by the bank bailouts.

The bailouts were just an outrage, straight up. An abomination. “Let the failures fail” was a good slogan for that anger. Let all the losers go down. Why prop them up? At a certain gut level, that sounded exactly right to me.

But if you look into it a little bit deeper, that’s actually the philosophy that the United States did not accept in the Great Depression. That’s the opposite of the road that we actually went. That’s what Hoover’s Treasury secretary wanted to do. Just let the Depression take its course. Let everyone get ruined. And then, people will recover and things will be fine on the other side. Hoover rejected that advice, and, of course, Roosevelt did the very opposite of that. But the leading protest movement was urging us to accept that advice.

Q: You write in Pity the Billionaire that the tea party’s actual function was to ensure the economic collapse caused by Wall Street did not result in any unpleasant consequences for Wall Street. We see that happening now. No one’s gone to jail and there’s little new oversight over Wall Street.

Frank: Look at what Republicans are doing. They’ve all sworn to reverse the Dodd-Frank law that set up the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If they can’t overturn the law, they say, they won’t fund the office, they won’t appoint anybody to run it. They’ll disable it somehow. They’ve all sworn to do this.

That’s how conservatives actually run the government here in Washington: They run it by running it into the ground. They sabotage it. Sabotage is the word for their governmental philosophy.

Q: In 2008, the American right was supposedly finished, yet by 2010, the right was in ascendancy all over again. What happened?

Frank: That’s the big question of our times. You have this financial catastrophe that was directly a result of ideology as anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, with the possible exception of the collapse of the Soviet Union. You have this largely deregulated financial sector and these fly-by-night mortgage lenders who are outside anybody’s regulatory purview. You have this shadow banking establishment, and between them, they contrive to completely destroy the global economy.

When that happened, pundits here in Washington assumed this was the end of the road for conservatives, that they’ve had their thirty years and we did what they wanted and it ended in disaster. The pundits said that the Republican Party had to moderate itself or face irrelevance. The Republican Party didn’t do that; they did the opposite. They swung hard to the right, and enjoyed one of the greatest victories of all time in the 2010 elections.

They declared that conservatives had really never gotten a chance. We had never gone all the way with conservative ideology. We’d never completely done away with government, or the liberal state, so conservatism was in no way responsible for what happened, they claimed. Therefore, the only alternative was to double-down on our commitment to the free market ideal. This became a utopian faith on the right. You especially saw this at tea party gatherings.

Q: But the right also depicted itself as an enemy of big business. Can you talk about that?

Frank: This is the secret to conservatism’s success. The right was able to recast itself as a populist movement. Well, they’ve been doing that a lot in the past thirty years, but it was even worse this time around. They became a protest movement for hard times. Sometimes they pretend to be protesting the enemy—big corporations and big banks. If you read their literature, they say things like that all the time.

Congressman Paul Ryan wrote an article in Forbes magazine called “Down with Big Business.” If you read it, it sounds like he’s very critical of capitalism and the big corporations that run this country. But at the end of the day, he thinks the way to bring big business down is by going after big government. Very fascinating, this sort of twist that they always do. You can say all you want about how the banks screwed everybody over, but the culprit is the same as it ever was: government. That’s who you’re supposed to be rising up in anger against.

Q: Meanwhile, Ryan is raking in big money from these big corporations that he’s supposedly denouncing.

Frank: They fund him extravagantly. It’s not really a surprise to find out that these people who are doing all the denouncing are also the favorites of people like the Koch brothers, the oil billionaires in Wichita, Kansas.

One PAC that supported Newt Gingrich made a video attacking Mitt Romney for being a venture capitalist. It really went after him in a very strong, populist way, talking about how many workers’ lives Romney and Bain Capital ruined over the years. It’s very powerful, but what’s funny is that they also claim that this is not real capitalism. What Mitt Romney does is not real capitalism. [Laughing] You know, if we could just get back to real capitalism, the authentic thing, then we wouldn’t have Bain Capital out there buying up steel mills and firing everybody. Which is completely absurd.

Q: Ideology trumps reality.

Frank: That’s right. And all of that stuff is taken from the literature of the 1930s. There are a lot of cultural patterns that are repeating themselves.

One of the stranger ones is this ideological blindness that people would inflict on themselves in the 1930s. I’m specifically talking about the left here, the far left. We’re talking about the Communist Party. Either the Communist Party members or people who sympathized with it would go on trips to the Soviet Union, a famous set-piece of ’30s literature. And they would somehow never manage to notice all the disasters that were going on around them. They were completely conned. They would blow off all the reporting that they had seen when they were back home here in America. They would not believe anything bad about their heroes in the Soviet Union, right up until the day that Stalin went out and signed a treaty with Adolf Hitler. It took them all by surprise.

That ideological blindness is repeating itself. But you see it now on the right, which similarly has a utopian idea, a utopian political solution that we’re supposed to be working toward. Some of these guys deliberately mimic Communist language and Communist strategy from the old days, such as Dick Armey’s group, FreedomWorks, which is funded by the Koch brothers.

Their utopia is a different one. It’s a free market one. If we could just get to that point where government completely drops out of the picture and the business class is completely unshackled from the restraints of the liberal state, then we will finally reach economic utopia.

The idea of my book is that this should not be attractive to people in the middle of a recession that just won’t go away because this is the very philosophy that got us into trouble in the first place. But in some ways, this is exactly what people reach for in hard times: A philosophy that removes doubt and that offers you some reassurance in what is frankly a very frightening time.

Q: So where were the Dems when all of this was happening? The tea party spent the summer of 2009 talking about death panels.

Frank: It’s all well and good to sit around and make fun of the funny things that conservatives say and the hilarious gaffes that they make, but one of the only reasons that it works is that the Democrats let it happen. They never seem to be able to fight back, never seem to be able to figure it out. They really cannot talk about the philosophy that motivates their actions and their legislative deeds.

Look, I’m very liberal. I support a lot of the things that the Democrats have done. I want some kind of national health care. I don’t think they went anywhere close to far enough on that. I liked the stimulus. I’m really glad that the Obama Administration had a big stimulus package.

However, the Democrats, from President Obama on down, have been almost completely unable to tell us why it is that government needs to get involved in these sectors of the economy. They just can’t talk about it. And when they do talk about it, they always defer to the experts. “We need to do this because the economists say we need to do it.” That’s not going to convince anybody.

The politics of it, they think, will take care of themselves. People will naturally want a stimulus package. People will naturally be happy that they bailed out the banks and kept Great Depression II from happening. It never occurs to them that they have to go out there and fight for these things.
Elizabeth DiNovella is culture editor of The Progressive. This interview originally aired on WORT-FM, Madison, Wisconsin’s community radio station.

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