Thomas Frank’s New Book!
The promotional notes on the Barnes & Noble website gives a preview of the narrative thrust of the book:
Economic catastrophe usually brings social protest and demands for change—or at least it’s supposed to. But when Thomas Frank set out in 2009 to look for expressions of American discontent, all he could find were loud demands that the economic system be made even harsher on the recession’s victims and that society’s traditional winners receive even grander prizes. The American Right, which had seemed moribund after the election of 2008, was strangely reinvigorated by the arrival of hard times. The Tea Party movement demanded not that we question the failed system but that we reaffirm our commitment to it. Republicans in Congress embarked on a bold strategy of total opposition to the liberal state. And TV phenom Glenn Beck demonstrated the commercial potential of heroic paranoia and the purest libertarian economics.
In Pity the Billionaire, Frank, the great chronicler of American paradox, examines the peculiar mechanism by which dire economic circumstances have delivered wildly unexpected political results. Using firsthand reporting, a deep knowledge of the American Right, and a wicked sense of humor, he gives us the first full diagnosis of the cultural malady that has transformed collapse into profit, reconceived the Founding Fathers as heroes from an Ayn Rand novel, and enlisted the powerless in a fan club for the prosperous. The understanding Frank reaches is at once startling, original, and profound.
Salon has posted a fascinating interview with Frank, who argues that by 2008, the elite liberals in Washington had lost touch with their populist base across America. Following on the train-wreck that should have thoroughly discredited “free market economics” liberal leaders made little attempt to harness the outrage of the citizens bearing the brunt of the failure of utopian right-wing economic policies. This vacuum allowed the right to create a “Utopian Market Populism” to rally the disaffected Tea Party crowd:
I’m speaking here of the liberal culture in Washington, D.C. There was no Occupy Wall Street movement [at that time] and there was only people like me on the fringes talking about it. The liberals had their leader in Barack Obama … they had their various people in Congress. But these people are completely unfamiliar with populist anger. It’s an alien thing to them. They don’t trust it, and they have trouble speaking to it. I like Barack Obama, but at the end of the day he’s a very professorial kind of guy. The liberals totally missed the opportunity, and the right was able to grab it.
Later in the interview, Frank notes that the lessons of the extremely successful New Deal (and properly managed Keynesian stimulus) were completely forgotten, as was the understanding that this unprecedented mobilization came out of FDR’s successful run against Hoovers’ top-down government bailouts to banks – capturing populist anger and channeling it into building lasting change.
Now we are left with our discourse being hijacked by the Randian idea that the unfettered free market will cure every ill – when our historic experience provides ample evidence that it does no such thing.
In the interview, Frank notes one of the themes that has concerned me for some time — epistemic closure. He terms it “a cognitive withdrawal from the shared world” and shows that this is the model used by Rupert Murdoch:
This is the genius of Fox News. It is fun to watch, and if you agree with them, it’s very gratifying to watch — and on a level deeper than most TV entertainment. The message is “You’ve worked really hard. You played by the rules and now they’re disrespecting you. They won’t let you say the word ‘Christmas.’”
In the end of the interview, Frank holds out the hope that the Occupy movement will channel populist rage and restore order to the destructive chaos that our national affairs have become.
If you haven’t read any of Frank’s work, I suggest you get your hands on What’s the Matter With Kansas and The Wrecking Crew immediately. They are essential to understanding what happened to this country.
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