Although it’s difficult to remember those days eight years ago when Democrats seemed to represent something idealistic and hopeful and brave, let’s take a moment and try to recall the stand Barack Obama once took against lobbyists. Those were the days when the nation was learning that George W. Bush’s Washington was, essentially, just a big playground for those lobbyists and that every government operation had been opened to the power of money. Righteous disgust filled the air. “Special interests” were much denounced. And a certain inspiring senator from Illinois promised that, should he be elected president, his administration would contain no lobbyists at all. The revolving door between government and K Street, he assured us, would turn no more.
Instead, the nation got a lesson in all the other ways that “special interests” can get what they want — like simple class solidarity between the Ivy Leaguers who advise the president and the Ivy Leaguers who sell derivative securities to unsuspecting foreigners. As that inspiring young president filled his administration with Wall Street personnel, we learned that the revolving door still works, even if the people passing through it aren’t registered lobbyists.
But whatever became of lobbying itself, which once seemed to exemplify everything wrong with Washington, D.C.? Perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that lobbying remains one of the nation’s persistently prosperous industries, and that, since 2011, it has been the focus of Influence, one of the daily email newsletters published by Politico, that great chronicler of the Obama years. Influence was to be, as its very first edition declared, “the must-read crib sheet for Washington’s influence class,” with news of developments on K Street done up in tones of sycophantic smugness. For my money, it is one of the quintessential journalistic artifacts of our time: the constantly unfolding tale of power-for-hire, told always with a discreet sympathy for the man on top.
Capitalizing on Influence
It is true that Americans are more cynical about Washington than ever. To gripe that “the system is rigged” is to utter the catchphrase of the year. But to read Influence every afternoon is to understand how little difference such attitudes make here in the nation’s capital. With each installment, the reader encounters a cast of contented and well-groomed knowledge workers, the sort of people for whom there are never enough suburban mansions or craft cocktails. One imagines them living together in a happy community of favors-for-hire where everyone knows everyone else, the restaurant greeters smile, the senators lie down with the contractors, and the sun shines brilliantly every day. This community’s labors in the influence trade have made the economy of the Washington metro area the envy of the world.
The newsletter describes every squeaking turn of the revolving door with a certain admiration. Influence is where you can read about all the smart former assistants to prominent members of Congress and the new K Street jobs they’ve landed. There are short but meaningful hiring notices — like the recent one announcing that the blue-ribbon lobby firm K&L Gates has snagged its fourth former congressional “member.” There are accounts of prizes that lobbyists give to one another and of rooftop parties for clients and ritual roll calls of Ivy League degrees to be acknowledged and respected. And wherever you look at Influence, it seems like people associated with this or that Podesta can be found registering new clients, holding fundraisers, and “bundling” cash for Hillary Clinton.
As with other entries in the Politico family of tip-sheets, Influence is itself sponsored from time to time — for one exciting week this month, by the Federation of American Hospitals (FAH), which announced to the newsletter’s readers that, for the last 50 years, the FAH “has had a seat at the table.” Appropriately enough for a publication whose beat is venality, Influence also took care to report on the FAH’s 50th anniversary party, thrown in an important room in the Capitol building, and carefully listed the many similarly important people who attended: the important lobbyists, the important members of Congress, and Nancy-Ann DeParle, the Obama administration’s important former healthcare czar and one of this city’s all-time revolving-door champions.
Describing parties like this is a standard theme in Influence, since the influence trade is by nature a happy one, a flattering one, a business eager to serve you up a bracing Negroni and encourage you to gorge yourself on fancy hors d’oeuvres. And so the newsletter tells us about the city’s many sponsored revelries — who gives them, who attends them, the establishment where the transaction takes place, and whose legislative agenda is advanced by the resulting exchange of booze and bonhomie.
The regular reader of Influence knows, for example, about the big reception scheduled to be hosted by Squire Patton Boggs, one of the most storied names in the influence-for-hire trade, at a certain office in Cleveland during the Republican Convention… about how current and former personnel of the Department of Homeland Security recently enjoyed a gathering thrown for them by a prestigious law firm… about a group called “PAC Pals” and the long list of staffers and lobbying types who attended their recent revelry… about how the Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the gang got together at a much-talked-about bar to sip artisanal cocktails.
There’s a poignant note to the story of former Congressional representative Melissa Bean — once the toast of New Democrats everywhere, now the “Midwest chair of JPMorgan” — who recently returned to D.C. to get together with her old staff. They had also moved on to boldface jobs in lobbying, television, and elsewhere. And there’s a note of the fabulous to the story of the Democratic member who has announced plans to throw a fundraiser at a Beyoncé concert. (“A pair of tickets go for $3,500 for PACs,” Influence notes.)
Bittersweet is the flavor of the recent story about the closing of Johnny’s Half Shell, a Capitol Hill restaurant renowned for the countless fundraisers it has hosted over the years. On hearing the news of the restaurant’s imminent demise, Influence gave over its pixels to tales from Johnny’s glory days. One reader fondly recounted a tale in which Occupy protesters supposedly interrupted a Johnny’s fundraiser being enjoyed by Senator Lindsey Graham and a bunch of defense contractors. In classic D.C.-style, the story was meant to underscore the stouthearted stoicism of the men of power who reportedly did not flinch at the menacing antics of the lowly ones.
A Blissful Community of Money
Influence is typically written in an abbreviated, matter-of-fact style, but its brief items speak volumes about the realities of American politics. There is, for example, little here about the high-profile battle over how transgender Americans are to be granted access to public restrooms. However, the adventures of dark money in our capital are breathlessly recounted, as the eternal drama of plutocracy plays itself out and mysterious moneymen try to pass their desires off as bona fide democratic demands.
“A group claiming to lobby on behalf of ordinary citizens against large insurance companies is in fact orchestrated by the hospital industry itself,” begins a typical item. The regular reader also knows about the many hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by unknown parties to stop Puerto Rican debt relief and about the mysterious group that has blown vast sums to assail the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) but whose protesters, when questioned outside a CFPB hearing, reportedly admitted that they were “day laborers paid to be there.”
You will have noticed, reader, the curiously bipartisan nature of the items mentioned here. But it really shouldn’t surprise you. After all, for this part of Washington, the only real ideology around is based on money — how much and how quickly you get paid.
Money is divine in this industry, and perhaps that is why Influence is fascinated with libertarianism, a fringe free-market faith which (thanks to its popularity among America’s hard-working billionaires) is massively over-represented in Washington. Readers of Influence know about the Competitive Enterprise Institute and its “Night in Casablanca” party, about the R Street Institute’s “Alice in Wonderland” party, about how former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli came to sign up with FreedomWorks, and how certain libertarians have flown from their former perches in the vast, subsidized free-market coop to the fashionable new Niskanen Center.
There are also plenty of small-bore lobbying embarrassments to report on, as when a currently serving congressional representative sent a mean note to a former senator who is now an official at the American Motorcyclist Association. Or that time two expert witnesses gave “nearly identical written statements” when testifying on Capitol Hill. Oops!
But what most impresses the regular reader of Influence is the brazenness of it all. To say that the people described here appear to feel no shame in the contracting-out of the democratic process is to miss the point. Their doings are a matter of pride, with all the important names gathering at some overpriced eatery to toast one another and get their picture taken and advance some initiative that will always, of course, turn out to be good for money and terrible for everyone else.
This is not an industry, Influence’s upbeat and name-dropping style suggests. It is a community — a community of corruption, perhaps, but a community nevertheless: happy, prosperous, and joyously oblivious to the plight of the country once known as the land of the middle class.
The Life of the Parties
[This piece has been adapted from Thomas Frank’s new book, Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books).]
When you press Democrats on their uninspiring deeds — their lousy free trade deals, for example, or their flaccid response to Wall Street misbehavior — when you press them on any of these things, they automatically reply that this is the best anyone could have done. After all, they had to deal with those awful Republicans, and those awful Republicans wouldn’t let the really good stuff get through. They filibustered in the Senate. They gerrymandered the congressional districts. And besides, change takes a long time. Surely you don’t think the tepid-to-lukewarm things Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have done in Washington really represent the fiery Democratic soul.
So let’s go to a place that does. Let’s choose a locale where Democratic rule is virtually unopposed, a place where Republican obstruction and sabotage can’t taint the experiment.
Let’s go to Boston, Massachusetts, the spiritual homeland of the professional class and a place where the ideology of modern liberalism has been permitted to grow and flourish without challenge or restraint. As the seat of American higher learning, it seems unsurprising that Boston should anchor one of the most Democratic of states, a place where elected Republicans (like the new governor) are highly unusual. This is the city that virtually invented the blue-state economic model, in which prosperity arises from higher education and the knowledge-based industries that surround it.
The coming of post-industrial society has treated this most ancient of American cities extremely well. Massachusetts routinely occupies the number one spot on the State New Economy Index, a measure of how “knowledge-based, globalized, entrepreneurial, IT-driven, and innovation-based” a place happens to be. Boston ranks high on many of Richard Florida’s statistical indices of approbation — in 2003, it was number one on the “creative class index,” number three in innovation and in high tech — and his many books marvel at the city’s concentration of venture capital, its allure to young people, or the time it enticed some firm away from some unenlightened locale in the hinterlands.
Boston’s knowledge economy is the best, and it is the oldest. Boston’s metro area encompasses some 85 private colleges and universities, the greatest concentration of higher-ed institutions in the country — probably in the world. The region has all the ancillary advantages to show for this: a highly educated population, an unusually large number of patents, and more Nobel laureates than any other city in the country.
The city’s Route 128 corridor was the original model for a suburban tech district, lined ever since it was built with defense contractors and computer manufacturers. The suburbs situated along this golden thoroughfare are among the wealthiest municipalities in the nation, populated by engineers, lawyers, and aerospace workers. Their public schools are excellent, their downtowns are cute, and back in the seventies their socially enlightened residents were the prototype for the figure of the “suburban liberal.”
Another prototype: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, situated in Cambridge, is where our modern conception of the university as an incubator for business enterprises began. According to a report on MIT’s achievements in this category, the school’s alumni have started nearly 26,000 companies over the years, including Intel, Hewlett Packard, and Qualcomm. If you were to take those 26,000 companies as a separate nation, the report tells us, its economy would be one of the most productive in the world.
Then there are Boston’s many biotech and pharmaceutical concerns, grouped together in what is known as the “life sciences super cluster,” which, properly understood, is part of an “ecosystem” in which PhDs can “partner” with venture capitalists and in which big pharmaceutical firms can acquire small ones. While other industries shrivel, the Boston super cluster grows, with the life-sciences professionals of the world lighting out for the Athens of America and the massive new “innovation centers” shoehorning themselves one after the other into the crowded academic suburb of Cambridge.
To think about it slightly more critically, Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and which increase at a far more rapid pace than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, 30 grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.
Perhaps it makes sense, then, that another category in which Massachusetts ranks highly is inequality. Once the visitor leaves the brainy bustle of Boston, he discovers that this state is filled with wreckage — with former manufacturing towns in which workers watch their way of life draining away, and with cities that are little more than warehouses for people on Medicare. According to one survey, Massachusetts has the eighth-worst rate of income inequality among the states; by another metric it ranks fourth. However you choose to measure the diverging fortunes of the country’s top 10% and the rest, Massachusetts always seems to finish among the nation’s most unequal places.
Seething City on a Cliff
You can see what I mean when you visit Fall River, an old mill town 50 miles south of Boston. Median household income in that city is $33,000, among the lowest in the state; unemployment is among the highest, 15% in March 2014, nearly five years after the recession ended. Twenty-three percent of Fall River’s inhabitants live in poverty. The city lost its many fabric-making concerns decades ago and with them it lost its reason for being. People have been deserting the place for decades.
Many of the empty factories in which their ancestors worked are still standing, however. Solid nineteenth-century structures of granite or brick, these huge boxes dominate the city visually — there always seems to be one or two of them in the vista, contrasting painfully with whatever colorful plastic fast-food joint has been slapped up next door.
Most of the old factories are boarded up, unmistakable emblems of hopelessness right up to the roof. But the ones that have been successfully repurposed are in some ways even worse, filled as they often are with enterprises offering cheap suits or help with drug addiction. A clinic in the hulk of one abandoned mill has a sign on the window reading simply “Cancer & Blood.”
The effect of all this is to remind you with every prospect that this is a place and a way of life from which the politicians have withdrawn their blessing. Like so many other American scenes, this one is the product of decades of deindustrialization, engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats. This is a place where affluence never returns — not because affluence for Fall River is impossible or unimaginable, but because our country’s leaders have blandly accepted a social order that constantly bids down the wages of people like these while bidding up the rewards for innovators, creatives, and professionals.
Even the city’s one real hope for new employment opportunities — an Amazon warehouse that is now in the planning stages — will serve to lock in this relationship. If all goes according to plan, and if Amazon sticks to the practices it has pioneered elsewhere, people from Fall River will one day get to do exhausting work with few benefits while being electronically monitored for efficiency, in order to save the affluent customers of nearby Boston a few pennies when they buy books or electronics.
But that is all in the future. These days, the local newspaper publishes an endless stream of stories about drug arrests, shootings, drunk-driving crashes, the stupidity of local politicians, and the lamentable surplus of “affordable housing.” The town is up to its eyeballs in wrathful bitterness against public workers. As in: Why do they deserve a decent life when the rest of us have no chance at all? It’s every man for himself here in a “competition for crumbs,” as a Fall River friend puts it.
The Great Entrepreneurial Awakening
If Fall River is pocked with empty mills, the streets of Boston are dotted with facilities intended to make innovation and entrepreneurship easy and convenient. I was surprised to discover, during the time I spent exploring the city’s political landscape, that Boston boasts a full-blown Innovation District, a disused industrial neighborhood that has actually been zoned creative — a projection of the post-industrial blue-state ideal onto the urban grid itself. The heart of the neighborhood is a building called “District Hall” — “Boston’s New Home for Innovation” — which appeared to me to be a glorified multipurpose room, enclosed in a sharply angular façade, and sharing a roof with a restaurant that offers “inventive cuisine for innovative people.” The Wi-Fi was free, the screens on the walls displayed famous quotations about creativity, and the walls themselves were covered with a high-gloss finish meant to be written on with dry-erase markers; but otherwise it was not much different from an ordinary public library. Aside from not having anything to read, that is.
This was my introduction to the innovation infrastructure of the city, much of it built up by entrepreneurs shrewdly angling to grab a piece of the entrepreneur craze. There are “co-working” spaces, shared offices for startups that can’t afford the real thing. There are startup “incubators” and startup “accelerators,” which aim to ease the innovator’s eternal struggle with an uncaring public: the Startup Institute, for example, and the famous MassChallenge, the “World’s Largest Startup Accelerator,” which runs an annual competition for new companies and hands out prizes at the end.
And then there are the innovation Democrats, led by former Governor Deval Patrick, who presided over the Massachusetts government from 2007 to 2015. He is typical of liberal-class leaders; you might even say he is their most successful exemplar. Everyone seems to like him, even his opponents. He is a witty and affable public speaker as well as a man of competence, a highly educated technocrat who is comfortable in corporate surroundings. Thanks to his upbringing in a Chicago housing project, he also understands the plight of the poor, and (perhaps best of all) he is an honest politician in a state accustomed to wide-open corruption. Patrick was also the first black governor of Massachusetts and, in some ways, an ideal Democrat for the era of Barack Obama — who, as it happens, is one of his closest political allies.
As governor, Patrick became a kind of missionary for the innovation cult. “The Massachusetts economy is an innovation economy,” he liked to declare, and he made similar comments countless times, slightly varying the order of the optimistic keywords: “Innovation is a centerpiece of the Massachusetts economy,” et cetera. The governor opened “innovation schools,” a species of ramped-up charter school. He signed the “Social Innovation Compact,” which had something to do with meeting “the private sector’s need for skilled entry-level professional talent.” In a 2009 speech called “The Innovation Economy,” Patrick elaborated the political theory of innovation in greater detail, telling an audience of corporate types in Silicon Valley about Massachusetts’s “high concentration of brainpower” and “world-class” universities, and how “we in government are actively partnering with the private sector and the universities, to strengthen our innovation industries.”
What did all of this inno-talk mean? Much of the time, it was pure applesauce — standard-issue platitudes to be rolled out every time some pharmaceutical company opened an office building somewhere in the state.
On some occasions, Patrick’s favorite buzzword came with a gigantic price tag, like the billion dollars in subsidies and tax breaks that the governor authorized in 2008 to encourage pharmaceutical and biotech companies to do business in Massachusetts. On still other occasions, favoring inno has meant bulldozing the people in its path — for instance, the taxi drivers whose livelihoods are being usurped by ridesharing apps like Uber. When these workers staged a variety of protests in the Boston area, Patrick intervened decisively on the side of the distant software company. Apparently convenience for the people who ride in taxis was more important than good pay for people who drive those taxis. It probably didn’t hurt that Uber had hired a former Patrick aide as a lobbyist, but the real point was, of course, innovation: Uber was the future, the taxi drivers were the past, and the path for Massachusetts was obvious.
A short while later, Patrick became something of an innovator himself. After his time as governor came to an end last year, he won a job as a managing director of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that was founded by his predecessor Mitt Romney — and that had been so powerfully denounced by Democrats during the 2012 election. Patrick spoke about the job like it was just another startup: “It was a happy and timely coincidence I was interested in building a business that Bain was also interested in building,” he told the Wall Street Journal. Romney reportedly phoned him with congratulations.
At a 2014 celebration of Governor Patrick’s innovation leadership, Google’s Eric Schmidt announced that “if you want to solve the economic problems of the U.S., create more entrepreneurs.” That sort of sums up the ideology in this corporate commonwealth: Entrepreneurs first. But how has such a doctrine become holy writ in a party dedicated to the welfare of the common man? And how has all this come to pass in the liberal state of Massachusetts?
The answer is that I’ve got the wrong liberalism. The kind of liberalism that has dominated Massachusetts for the last few decades isn’t the stuff of Franklin Roosevelt or the United Auto Workers; it’s the Route 128/suburban-professionals variety. (Senator Elizabeth Warren is the great exception to this rule.) Professional-class liberals aren’t really alarmed by oversized rewards for society’s winners. On the contrary, this seems natural to them — because they are society’s winners. The liberalism of professionals just does not extend to matters of inequality; this is the area where soft hearts abruptly turn hard.
Innovation liberalism is “a liberalism of the rich,” to use the straightforward phrase of local labor leader Harris Gruman. This doctrine has no patience with the idea that everyone should share in society’s wealth. What Massachusetts liberals pine for, by and large, is a more perfect meritocracy — a system where the essential thing is to ensure that the truly talented get into the right schools and then get to rise through the ranks of society. Unfortunately, however, as the blue-state model makes painfully clear, there is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The ideology of educational achievement conveniently negates any esteem we might feel for the poorly graduated.
This is a curious phenomenon, is it not? A blue state where the Democrats maintain transparent connections to high finance and big pharma; where they have deliberately chosen distant software barons over working-class members of their own society; and where their chief economic proposals have to do with promoting “innovation,” a grand and promising idea that remains suspiciously vague. Nor can these innovation Democrats claim that their hands were forced by Republicans. They came up with this program all on their own.
Copyright 2016 Thomas Frank
The Blue State Model
Dear Tea Party Movement,
For the last few months, the world has been fascinated by your frenzied search for a presidential candidate who is not Mitt Romney. We know that you find the man inauthentic and that you have buoyed up a string of anti-Mitts in the Iowa polling — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich — buffoons all, preposterous figures whom you have rightfully changed your minds about as soon as you got to know them.
It was quite a spectacle, your quest for the non-Romney — and I think we all know why you undertook it. In ways that matter, Romney is clearly a problem for you. His views on abortion, for example, change with the winds. Ditto, gay rights. He designed the Massachusetts health insurance system that was the model for Obamacare. And he’s even said that he approved of the TARP bank bailout, the abomination that ignited the Tea Party uprising in the first place.
Grievous offenses all, I have no doubt. Still, my advice to you idealists of the right is this: get over it. Not for sell-out reasons like: Romney has the best chance of beating Obama. No. You should get behind the charging Massachusetts RINO (your favorite term for a Republican-In-Name-Only sellout type) because, in a certain paradoxical way, he may turn out to be the truest of all the candidates to the spirit of your movement.
After all, given everything you represent, why wouldn’t you line up behind this quarter-billionaire who’s calling for just a little human love and sympathy for billionaires? I’m sure you already understand me perfectly well, but just to be certain, let me make the case.
The Gimme Candidate of 2012
Start with those issues where Romney’s positions so offend the sensibilities of you Robespierre Republicans. First, of course, the social issues. If nothing else, you in the Tea Party movement have spent the last three years teaching Americans that they no longer matter — not when we’re supposedly in a battle for the very soul of capitalism.
And here comes Mitt Romney, the soul of American capitalism in the flesh. Look back over his career as a predator drone at Bain Capital: Isn’t it the exact sort of background you always insist politicians ought to have? Isn’t it the sort of titanic enterprise for which you lust, as you wave your copy of Atlas Shrugged in the air?
You accuse the former Massachusetts governor of opportunism, but from where I stand, the bad faith is all on your side. What offends you about Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare plan, for example, isn’t that it crushes human liberty, but that it provided the model for President Obama’s own healthcare overhaul, which you spent the last two years decrying as the deed of a power-grabbing socialist.
If the public ever learns about the Republican provenance of Obamacare — and if Romney is the candidate, they most certainly will — it will become obvious that your movement was not telling the truth about all that Kenyan Stalinist death-panel stuff. It is indeed a moment to fear, that day when the nation finds out that you were, ahem, exaggerating in your bullhorn pronouncements about the communist in the White House. Still, if the Tea Party movement is all about truth-telling and straight shooting, then you need to face it like a patriot.
And yes, Mitt Romney has also said that the bank bailouts of 2008-2009 were necessary, while you regard them as a mortal sin against free-market principles. (To his credit though, at least in your eyes, he was also a total hardliner about the auto industry bailouts, displaying the pointless meanness you seem to admire in nearly any other politician.) In truth, though, the candidate’s only offense on the bailout question was his candor. He merely admitted what should be obvious to any billionaire from a study of bank history: that conservatives have no problem doling out, or grabbing for, government money when the chips are down.
After all, President Herbert Hoover himself distributed bank bailouts in the early years of the Great Depression. Calvin Coolidge’s vice president, Charles Dawes, helped out in Hoover’s bailout operation, later changing hats and grabbing a big slice of the bailout pie for his own bank. Ronald Reagan’s administration rescued Continental Illinois from what was then the largest bank failure in our history.
Citibank’s market-worshiping CEO Walter Wriston begged for (and of course received) the assistance of big government when Citi needed it — after making loans to the troubled Penn Central Railroad. And don’t forget, every single one of you is guilty of taking a government bailout any time you make a withdrawal from a bank that’s been rescued by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
The reason they — I mean, you — do these things should be as obvious as it is simple: “free market” has always been a high-minded way of saying “gimme,” and when the heat rises, the “market” is invariably replaced by more direct methods, like demanding bailouts from the government you hate. Banks get bailouts for the simple reason that they want bailouts and have the power to insist on them — the same circumstances that got them deregulated in wave after wave in the Eighties, Nineties, and Aughts.
In this sense, Romney, who is loud and proud when it comes to the need for further deregulation, has actually been more consistent than you. He’s the gimme candidate of 2012 and so he should really be your guy.
Promethean Job Creators and Heroes of Venture Capital
You say Romney is an unprincipled faker. Fair enough — he is. He’s so plastic he’s almost animatronic. But have you looked in the mirror recently? Aren’t you the ones who fall for it every time Fox News wheels out some Washington hack to confuse this or that corporate issue with the sacred cause of freedom or states rights or man’s inalienable right to mine uranium in his backyard? Aren’t you the ones who thought that Glenn Beck’s tears were markers of emotional sincerity? And for Pete’s sake, your populist Tea Party movement was actually launched from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade!
I know, I know: for almost three years now you’ve dazzled the world with your proclamations that we’re being dragged into “tyranny,” that the country is being “destroyed,” that America needs to be “saved” — and now here comes Mitt, with his fondness for workaday compromise, ruining your carefully contrived atmosphere of panic.
That must be disappointing, but don’t lose the faith! Give the man credit: he has tried. He’s no stranger to the core Tea Party myth of the noble businessman persecuted by big government. Indeed, at the Conservative Political Action Congress in 2009, he opened his talk as a stand-up comic this way: “I gotta get through this speech before federal officials come here and arrest me for practicing capitalism.”
Meanwhile, he has the perfect Tea Party sense of social class. A centimillionaire who made his pile as a venture capitalist, Romney has both deplored class warfare — meaning, certain criticisms of Wall Street — and practiced it, taunting President Obama as a modern version of Marie (“let them eat cake”) Antoinette.
There’s no contradiction in any of this, either for him or you. When someone has made his way in life via academia, like the president, he is, of course, a snob, and part of the ruling elite. When, on the other hand, a person’s multi-millions were visited upon him by open-market actions directed from the C-suite, he is automatically a man of the people, a horny-handed son of toil. In fact, Romney takes this kind of market populism a step farther than you ordinarily dare: corporations, he has famously announced, are themselves people.
And keep in mind that, with Mitt Romney, venture capitalist, carrying your banner in 2012, you will finally get to submit your capsized vision of social class to the verdict of the people — the actual flesh-and-blood people, that is, not the corporate “people” who make up the S&P 500. You will get to defend exactly the sort of “person” your movement has longed to defend since it was birthed by a CNBC reporter almost three years ago to the cheers of a bunch of derivatives traders in Chicago.
You will get to explain your peculiar conviction that the way to react to a gigantic slump brought on by frenzied finance is to unshackle Wall Street. You will get to line up behind a heroic businessman, like those rugged, resourceful fellows in the Ayn Rand novels you love. You will get to go into battle for the job creators, which is what all capitalists are, right? (Well, okay, maybe not the guys at Bain Capital, the particular outfit where Romney made his pile, but the theory is all that really matters, isn’t it?)
Indeed, your leadership cadre is already playing up the inevitable criticisms of Romney as a job decimator as a way of launching a grand debate about capitalism — by which they mean, of course, freedom itself. When Newt Gingrich criticized Romney a few weeks ago for his career in private equity, the airwaves of your winger-tainment world exploded with outrage. “This is the kind of risk-taking, free-market capitalism that most people who call themselves conservatives applaud,” intoned Brit Hume on Fox News. If Newt had a problem with Bain’s operations, announced syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg, “then Gingrich really doesn’t believe in capitalism at all.”
Washington Post columnist George Will declared that what Romney did in his venture capitalist days was an “essential social function,” that his company was “indispensable for wealth creation.” (Just whose wealth was being created he left discreetly undefined.) Yaron Brook, head of the Ayn Rand Center and a familiar figure at Tea Party events, is no fan of Romney’s, but he had this to say about Romney’s career: “private equity serves an incredibly important productive function in our economy… Private equity is in my view a heroic activity.”
“Heroic”: that’s exactly the word! In Romney we have finally found a quarter-billionaire to cry for. And so Suzy Welch, author and wife of Jack, appeared on Fox Business to wonder why Romney wasn’t defending himself aggressively against criticism of his business career. Romney, she announced, is “an American hero to people who believe in free enterprise, or he should be.”
And that combination of tragedy and heroism, my friends, is why you will soon be signing up for the Romney juggernaut. In him you will see the saintly victimhood of Sarah Palin melded with the Promethean job-creator who was the cult object of your 2010 efforts. Social issues be damned! Romney will ensure that we get the one thing that this country can’t do without on its path to hell: further deregulation of Wall Street.
The nation’s all-powerful elitist socialists will, of course, disagree, and you’ll have a field day, raging and weeping at the way they are going to set out to persecute this noble, wealth-creating soul.
Pity the billionaire: it will be a powerful rallying cry for 2012.
Yours in petulant individualism,
Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (Metropolitan Books). He has also written The Wrecking Crew, What’s the Matter With Kansas? and several other abrasive volumes. He is the “Easy Chair” columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the founding editor of The Baffler.
Copyright 2012 Tom Frank
Pity the Quarter-Billionaire
As the Bush administration heads for "closure," Republican Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska seems to be heading for the same fate in a "redecorating" scandal; Monica Goodling of the (in)Justice Department is back in town for her hiring and firing practices; the eternally Foxy Karl Rove continues to give contempt of Congress real meaning; a federal judge ruled against the administration’s typically imperial idea of "immunity"; and rumors are flying about coming "preemptive," blanket presidential pardons for those who organized the administration’s torture regime and committed other crimes. All the while, holding up the glorious banner of the Great Tradition, the John McCain campaign continues to be a chop shop for K Street Lobbyists. And that’s just a two-second glance at the Washington scene as August begins. As always, give them all high marks for consistency! Après Bush, of course, le déluge.
Thomas Frank, a Kansas boy who once followed conservatism deep into his home state and now writes op-eds that probably drive the readers of the Wall Street Journal crazy, has had a front seat at the Washington spectacle these last years as the Bush administration applied its "enhanced interrogation techniques" to the Federal government. In his latest must-read book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, Frank offers nothing short of a how-to history of the conservative era — specifically how to destroy a government, leave Americans in the lurch, and enrich yourselves all at the same time. It wasn’t just, as he argues, that this administration left "smoking guns" littered around the landscape, but that it itself was the smoking gun. If you want to know just what we face as a nation in terms of rebuilding America, his book is a good place to start. Tom
Follow This Dime
Why Misgovernment Was No Accident in George W. Bush’s Washington
By Thomas Frank
Washington is the city where the scandals happen. Every American knows this, but we also believe, if only vaguely, that the really monumental scandals are a thing of the past, that the golden age of misgovernment-for-profit ended with the cavalry charge and the robber barons, at about the same time presidents stopped wearing beards.
I moved to Washington in 2003, just in time for the comeback, for the hundred-year flood. At first it was only a trickle in the basement, a little stream released accidentally by the president’s friends at Enron. Before long, though, the levees were failing all over town, and the city was inundated with a muddy torrent of graft.
How are we to dissect a deluge like this one? We might begin by categorizing the earmarks handed out by Congress, sorting the foolish earmarks from the costly earmarks from the earmarks made strictly on a cash basis. We could try a similar approach to government contracting: the no-bid contracts, the no-oversight contracts, the no-experience contracts, the contracts handed out to friends of the vice president. We might consider the shoplifting career of one of the president’s former domestic policy advisers or the habitual plagiarism of the president’s liaison to the Christian right. And we would certainly have to find some way to parse the extraordinary incompetence of the executive branch, incompetence so fulsome and steady and reliable that at some point Americans stopped being surprised and began simply to count on it, to think of incompetence as the way government works.
But the onrushing flow swamps all taxonomies. Mass firing of federal prosecutors; bribing of newspaper columnists; pallets of shrink-wrapped cash "misplaced" in Iraq; inexperienced kids running the Baghdad stock exchange; the discovery that many of Alaska’s leading politicians are apparently on the take — our heads swim. We climb to the rooftop, but we cannot find the heights of irony from which we might laugh off the blend of thug and Pharisee that was Tom DeLay — or dispel the nauseating suspicion, quickly becoming a certainty, that the government of our nation deliberately fibbed us into a pointless, catastrophic war.
Bad Apples All Around
So let us begin on the solid ground of these simple facts: this spectacular episode of misrule has coincided with both the political triumph of conservatism and with the rise of the Washington area to the richest rank of American metropolises. In the period I am describing, gentlemen of the right rolled through the capital like lords of creation. Every spigot was open, and every indulgence slopped out for their gleeful wallowing. All the clichés roared at full, unembarrassed volume: the wines gurgled, the T-bones roasted, the golf courses beckoned, the Learjets zoomed, the contractors’ glass buildings sprouted from the earth, and the lobbyists’ mansions grew like brick-colonial mushrooms on the hills of northern Virginia.
Democrats, for their part, have tried to explain the flood of misgovernment as part of a "culture of corruption," a phrase at once obviously true and yet so amorphous as to be quite worthless. Republicans have an even simpler answer: government failed, they tell us, because it is the nature of government enterprises to fail. As for the great corruption cases of recent years, they cluck, each is merely a one-of-a-kind moral lapse unconnected to any particular ideology — an individual bad apple with no effect on the larger barrel.
Which leaves us to marvel helplessly at what appears to be a spectacular run of lousy luck. My, what a lot of bad apples they are growing these days!
Corruption is uniquely reprehensible in a democracy because it violates the system’s first principle, which we all learned back in the sunshiny days of elementary school: that the government exists to serve the public, not particular companies or individuals or even elected officials. We Are the Government, insisted the title of a civics primer published in the earnest year of 1945. "The White House belongs to you," its dust jacket told us. "So do all the other splendid buildings in Washington, D.C. For you are a citizen of the United States." For you, young citizen, does the Post Office carry letters to every hamlet in the nation. For you does the Department of Agriculture research better plowing methods and the Bureau of Labor Statistics add up long columns of numbers.
The government and its vast workforce serve the people: The idea is so deep in the American grain that we can’t bring ourselves to question it, even in this disillusioned age. Republicans and Democrats may fight over how big government should be and exactly what it should do, but almost everyone shares those baseline good intentions, we believe, that devotion to the public interest.
We continue to believe this in even the most improbable circumstances. Take the worst apple of them all, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose astonishing career as a corruptionist has been unreeling in newspaper and congressional investigations since I came to Washington. Abramoff started out as a great political success story, a protégé and then a confidant of the leaders of the conservative faction of the Republican Party. But his career disintegrated on news of the inventive ways he ripped off his clients and the luxury meals and lavish trips with which he bribed legislators.
Journalistic coverage of the Abramoff affair has stuck closely to the "bad apple" thesis, always taking pains to separate the conservative movement from its onetime superstar. What Abramoff represented was "greed gone wild," asserts the most authoritative account on the subject. He "went native," say others. Above all, he was "sui generis," a one-of-a-kind con man, "engaged in bizarre antics that your average Zegna-clad Washington lobbyist would never have dreamed of."
In which case, we can all relax: Jack Abramoff’s in jail. The system worked; the bad apple has been plucked; the wild greed and the undreamed-of antics have ceased.
Misgovernment by Ideology
But the truth is almost exactly the opposite, whether we are discussing Abramoff or the wider tsunami of corruption. The truth is as obvious as a slab of sirloin and yet so obscured by decades of pettifoggery that we find it almost impossible to apprehend clearly. The truth slaps your face in every hotel lobby in town, but we still don’t get the message.
It is just this: Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction; it believes in entrepreneurship not merely in commerce but in politics; and the inevitable results of its ascendance are, first, the capture of the state by business and, second, all that follows: incompetence, graft, and all the other wretched flotsam that we’ve come to expect from Washington.
The correct diagnosis is the "bad apple" thesis turned upside down. There are plenty of good conservative individuals, honorable folks who would never participate in the sort of corruption we have watched unfold over the last few years. Hang around with grassroots conservative voters in Kansas, and in the main you will find them to be honest, hardworking people. Even our story’s worst villains can be personally virtuous. Jack Abramoff, for example, is known to his friends as a pious, polite, and generous fellow.
But put conservatism in charge of the state, and it behaves very differently. Now the "values" that rightist politicians eulogize on the stump disappear, and in their place we can discern an entirely different set of priorities — priorities that reveal more about the unchanging historical essence of American conservatism than do its fleeting campaigns against gay marriage or secular humanism. The conservatism that speaks to us through its actions in Washington is institutionally opposed to those baseline good intentions we learned about in elementary school.
Its leaders laugh off the idea of the public interest as airy-fairy nonsense; they caution against bringing top-notch talent into government service; they declare war on public workers. They have made a cult of outsourcing and privatizing, they have wrecked established federal operations because they disagree with them, and they have deliberately piled up an Everest of debt in order to force the government into crisis. The ruination they have wrought has been thorough; it has been a professional job. Repairing it will require years of political action.
Conservatism-in-power is a very different beast from the conservatism we meet on the streets of Wichita or the conservatism we overhear talking to itself on the pages of Free Republic. For one thing, what conservatism has done in its decades at the seat of power is fundamentally unpopular, and a large percentage of its leaders have been men of eccentric ideas. While they believe things that would get them laughed out of the American Sociological Association, that only makes them more typical of the movement. And for all their peculiarity, these people — Grover Norquist, Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, Newt Gingrich, and the whole troupe of activists, lobbyists, and corpora-trons who got their start back in the Reagan years — have for the last three decades been among the most powerful individuals in America. This wave of misgovernment has been brought to you by ideology, not incompetence.
Yes, today’s conservatives have disgraced themselves, but they have not strayed from the teaching of their forefathers or the great ideas of their movement. When conservatives appoint the opponents of government agencies to head those government agencies; when they auction their official services to the purveyor of the most lavish "golf weekend"; when they mulct millions from groups with business before Congress; when they dynamite the Treasury and sabotage the regulatory process and force government shutdowns — in short, when they treat government with contempt — they are running true to form. They have not done these awful things because they are bad conservatives; they have done them because they are good conservatives, because these unsavory deeds follow naturally from the core doctrines of the conservative tradition.
And, yes, there has been greed involved in the effort — a great deal of greed. Every tax cut, every cleverly engineered regulatory snafu saves industry millions and perhaps even billions of dollars, and so naturally securing those tax cuts and engineering those snafus has become a booming business here in Washington. Conservative rule has made the capital region rich, a showplace of the new plutocratic order. But this greed cannot be dismissed as some personal failing of lobbyist or congressman, some badness-of-apple that can be easily contained. Conservatism, as we know it, is a movement that is about greed, about the "virtue of selfishness" when it acts in the marketplace. In rightwing Washington, you can be a man of principle and a boodler at the same time.
The Wrecking Crew in Full Swing
One of the instructive stories We Are the Government brought before generations of schoolkids was the tale of a smiling dime whose wanderings were meant to introduce us to the government and all that it does for us: the miner who digs the ore for the dime has his "health and safety" supervised by one branch of the government; the bank in which the dime is stored enjoys the protection of a different branch, which "sees that [banks] are safe places for people to keep their money"; the dime gets paid in tax on a gasoline sale; it then lands in the pocket of a Coast Guard lieutenant, who takes it overseas and spends it on a parrot, which is "quarantined for ninety days" when the lieutenant brings it home. All of which is related with the blithest innocence, as though taxes on gasoline and quarantines on parrots were so obviously beneficial that they required little further explanation.
Clearly, a more up-to-date version is required. So let us follow the dime as it wends its way through our present-day capital. Its story, we will find, is the reverse of what it was in 1945. That old dime was all about service, about the things government could do for us. But the new dime is about profit — about the superiority of private enterprise, about the huge sums that can be squeezed out of federal operations. Instead of symbolizing good government, the dime now shows us the wrecking crew in full swing.
Our modern dime first comes to Washington as part of some good citizen’s taxes, and it leaves the U.S. Treasury in a payment to a company that has been hired to do work on the nation’s ports. Back in 1945, the government would have done the work itself, but now it uses contractors for such things. This particular contractor knows how to win a bid, but it doesn’t know how to do the work, so it subcontracts the job to another outfit. The dime follows, and it eventually makes up a worker’s salary, who incorporates it into his monthly car payment. From there it travels into the coffers of an auto industry trade association, which happens to be very upset about a rule proposed by a federal agency that would require cars to notify drivers when their tire pressure is low.
So the trade association gives the dime to a Washington consultant who specializes in fighting federal agencies, and this man launches challenge after challenge to the studies that the agency is using in the tire-pressure matter. It takes many years for the agency to make its way through the flak thrown up by this clever fellow. Meanwhile, with his well-earned dime, he buys himself a big house with nice white columns in front.
But this is only the beginning of the story. As we make our rounds of conservative Washington, we glimpse something much greater than single acts of incompetence or obstruction. We see a vast machinery built for our protection reengineered into a device for our exploitation. We behold the majestic workings of the free market itself, boring ever deeper into the tissues of the state. Ultimately, we gaze upon one of the true marvels of history: democracy buried beneath an avalanche of money.
Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, is the founding editor of The Baffler, a contributing editor at Harper’s, and, most recently, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. His WSJ columns can be read at his website. He lives, of course, in Washington D.C. and this essay has been adapted from his new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (Metropolitan Books, 2008).
From the book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule by Thomas Frank, Copyright © 2008 by Thomas Frank. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an Imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All Rights Reserved.