Books

Conservatives are the Matter

An Interview with Best-selling Pundit Thomas Frank

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Mercury: What lead you to writing this book? Would you consider it a follow-up to [your 2004 book] What's the Matter with Kansas—the natural progression?

Thomas Frank: Well, it's me, thinking along the same lines, but me entrenched in a different location. Instead of writing about working-class conservatism in my home state of Kansas, it's me going to Washington D.C. and looking around me.

I moved to Washington D.C. in '03. The Abramoff scandal broke the next year, but no one paid any attention to it until '05 and the details started to come out. They held those hearings, and then it was like a tropical downpour of scandals began, and that goes on until this day—it's as though there is one every week.

I could go on, and on, and on. I could write many sequels to this too, the Wrecking Crew II, the Wrecking Crew Goes to Iraq. There's realizing there is a fantastic misgovernment under way all around me in Washington D.C. and then coming to understand that these things were all connected, that there wasn't just random misfortune and bad luck.

Beyond being connected, were these problems and scandals planned, and were they plotted, or were they the byproducts of what's been going on—misgovernment?

Well, take something like FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. I don't think the Bush Administration wanted it to be this incredible disaster, I mean, it's been politically very costly for them, their numbers tanked and they never recovered, so I don't think it is deliberate.

It's an inevitable consequence to the way these people view government: The hollowing out of FEMA, the hiring of people who are incompetent but who are movement loyalists, the departure of everyone to be lobbyists as soon as they can, the privatizing of so many of its operations. All of these things are the product of conservative ideology. This is what conservatives do when they are behind the wheel of the state, and yeah, it fails. Same thing in Iraq, I don't think they wanted Iraq to be a disaster, you know, [but] wouldn't that be shocking if they did?

Is there something the left can learn from conservatives?

When I started out working on political questions a few years ago, I used to say that the left needs to learn some lessons from conservatism.

I interviewed Grover Norquist for this book and he's a... you talk about a political genius and people who figured out what I call industry conservatism as a way of not just doing politics but also getting rich, well Norquist was just one of the guys that really figured this out. He's a great genius and I sometimes think about Grover and say where is the Grover Norquist of my team? Why doesn't anyone on my side have any of that kind of, "that guy has just got it figured out." And liberals really don't have people like that. [But] the things I am describing I wouldn't want liberals to do.

We should be paying our progressive activists just as much as the conservatives are paying theirs.

Of course, yeah, absolutely. One of the silliest ideas out there is that liberals should work for free. Have you ever heard of the labor movement, for godssakes?

So, speaking of "your team," I've read a couple descriptions of you that include the phrase "one-time Republican" but nobody really explained that.

As a young man, I believe I was red-district Republican when I was first able to vote in high school.

My first year in college I was registered Republican. I was definitely a huge fan of Ronald Reagan, very conservative as a young man, and my views changed, pretty quickly. It's funny, I am always the guy that takes the wrong historical train. The conservative movement was just coming up, I was even in college Republicans—I don't know if I signed up, but I went to their meetings—I had a college Republicans badge, that sort of thing. And those people went places. They are doing very well in life right now.

Washington now is a very wealthy city, which it was not when I was younger. And that's who is living in those mansions, those guys that were part of the conservative movement industry back in the early days and they succeeded. Yeah, I decided to go to graduate school instead. That was smart.

Do you regret that?

Oh, I am pulling your leg. Look, I took a different path in life and you can't look back.

So much of the left's anger is directed at Bush—is that misplaced? Is he even in the top three [of misgoverning conservatives]? Who was the worst president?

I think he is probably one of the worst presidents, closely followed by people like Harding and Hoover, or go back to the 19th century, Grant. Yeah, [Bush] is up there.

You know, I have never met George Bush. I have seen him speak in person a couple of times. Remember that sort of silly adage that they had during the 2000 campaign—who would you more like to sit down and have a beer with, George Bush or Al Gore? And the thing is, it is obviously George Bush, he just seems like such a nice guy. It's still, to this day, hard for me to believe that he is really a bad man. I don't think he is a bad guy. I think the ideology is at fault here, it is the things these people believe.

Does the same hold true for Abramoff?

TF: I don't know enough about him. He is a very interesting guy, and you read accounts of him, and he sounds like a perfectly decent guy. He sounds like a very polite guy. But I don't know, he did some pretty bad stuff.

After years of dismantling the federal government, can it be put back together?

Well, I interviewed a lot of bureaucrat types and they would all say the same thing. It's been hollowed out, you've lost the best and the brightest, they've gone to the private sector—as well they should, when the private sector is offering considerably more money to do the same work, that's where people go, obviously,

How are you going to fix the problem, how are you going to rebuild those agencies? I don't know how that is done. That is going to take a whole Blue Ribbon Commission, a massive effort of trying to figure out that situation.

By the way, one of the things I am encouraging, and I talk about in every interview I'm giving: I think if Obama is elected... the do the first day he is in office [he should] appoint a commission to investigate the entire history of outsourcing and privatizing of federal operations.

For so long we have just coasted along doing this. Republicans and Democrats alike have coasted along doing this on the assumption that the private sector does everything better and more efficiently. And it just ain't so, and it has been this fantastic screw-up. So whenever Obama gets in, he's got to investigate that or appoint somebody to do it, and [determine] if it is even possible to undo it. I suspect it's not.

When I went to D.C. in the '80s it was still a middle-class town. When you drive around it now on the Beltway you see glass office buildings, beautiful, gleaming office buildings, all with a name of one of the prominent federal contractors at the top. In Virginia, Boeing has seven office buildings and so many of the other companies are the same. It's written across the landscape of the city. It's structural. It's the way that city works now, and I don't know how that can be undone.

You brought up Obama. Has he given any indication of what his philosophy is on privatizing?

Obama is actually one of the better U.S. Senators on the subject. Obama has expressed a lot of concern about the contractor abuse and has proposed bills for greater accountability.

That is one of the thing about sending it to the private sector— we don't know what happens to it. That's why they call them private companies, you don't know how that money is spent. It automatically closes off public scrutiny. They have all these offices at the federal level designed to oversee outsourcing and hold the federal contractors accountable. But one of the more interesting facets of this story is one of the conservatives has tried to close those offices down, to close down the oversight over the contracting. In fact, one of the offices in charge of overseeing they contracted it out, they privatized that office. It's the most extraordinary thing—it is ingenious, it's brilliant.

How would you characterize Obama? Would he be our next liberal president? [In his book, Frank says our last liberal president was John F. Kennedy—not Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.]

Obama looks pretty good from my perspective. I like Obama. I voted for him in the primaries. He was my state senator when I lived in Chicago and I've always liked the guy and I hope he does the right thing when he gets into office.

I think he will be constrained, though. One of the ingenious aspects of this industry conservatism is they have come up with all of these ways of locking in their model for the state that it can't be reversed, so that it can't be changed back, the structural changes to the state.

One of these—there are a whole bunch of them and I go down the list in the book—but the one that is the scariest is the deficit. This is something that they discovered in the Reagan years. You run up this massive deficit. Democrats were always the ones that pioneered deficit spending. It was a tool that, when used responsibly, allows you to, say, recover from the Great Depression or fight WWII, things like that. When used responsibly, that is the key.

When used in an absolutely irresponsible spend-thrift manner, deficits give you something very different. You de-fund government, you make it impossible for government to do certain things. So when Reagan ran up the deficit to the unprecedented levels, the effect of that, it turned out, [was to take] certain political options off the table. And the man that found that out was poor Bill Clinton, who you might remember was elected in 1992 and was promising all sorts of traditional liberal programs. We were going to have national healthcare and he was going to do all this infrastructure stuff, it was going to be a lot of public spending on this and that and it was going to be great.

But before he was inaugurated he had a meeting with his economic team, and they told him that because of the enormous deficit he was inheriting he wasn't going to be able to do any of those things. The number one priority for him, if he didn't want a Great Depression again, was to get the budget back to surplus.

It's a famous story: Clinton erupted. He had one of his tantrums, with a lot of expletives and stuff like that. He did bring the budget back to surplus, and he didn't get to do any of the liberal programs he wanted to do.

After you have that historical precedent—Reagan's deficit prevented Clinton from being a liberal—of course, Bush gets in and right way, bam, rides the deficit right back up. And we are jut finding out in the last few days that the deficit is going to be much larger than anyone thought. It constrains Obama. It takes choices off the table.

Do you think it is likely Obama will be able to make a paradigm shift in D.C.? Are the conditions right?

The public attitude is right. And he is the right guy. I don't know if he has that ambition, though.

He talks about change, and if anybody could rebuild the federal government—which would require youth, energy, idealism—he is the guy that can bring that. I don't know whether he wants to do that or not. I don't know if that is what he has in mind. I sure hope so.

But look, the public opinion is there, people are so angry at the Bush administration, they are sick of conservatism. In my opinion, Obama's task is to give it the knockout blow. I hope he does, I would like to see it. But he hasn't done it yet, he has shown any inclination to do it yet. But I hope he does.

What are you working on now?

The idea of writing another book... I am going to have to go down to the bar and have five scotches just by you mentioning that. I'm sorry. I've got my plate full.

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