Signs and Wonders
This book is a chronicle of a confused time, a period when Americans rose up against imaginary threats and rallied to economic theories they understood only in the gauziest terms. It is about a country where fears of a radical takeover became epidemic even though radicals themselves had long since ceased to play any role in the national life; a land where ideological nightmares conjured by TV entertainers came to seem more vivid and compelling than the contents of the news pages.
Seen from another perspective, this is a chronicle of a miraculous time, of another “Great Awakening,” of a revival crusade preaching the old-time religion of the free market.1 It’s the story of a grassroots rebellion and the incredible recovery of the conservative movement from the gloomy depths of defeat. Inevitably the words “populist” and “revolt” are applied to it, or the all-out phrase chosen by Dick Armey, the Washington magnifico who heads one of the main insurgent organizations: a “true bottom-up revolution.”2
Let us confess that there is indeed something miraculous, something astonishing, about all this. Consider the barest facts: this is the fourth successful conservative uprising to happen in the last half century,* each one more a-puff with populist bluster than the last, each one standing slightly more rightward, and each one helping to compose a more spellbinding chapter in the historical epoch that I call “the Great Backlash,” and that others call the “Age of Reagan” (the historian Sean Wilentz), the “Age of Greed” (the journalist Jeff Madrick), the “Conservative Ascendancy” (the journalist Godfrey Hodgson), or the “Washington Consensus” (various economists).
Think about it this way. It has now been more than thirty years since the supply-side revolution conquered Washington, since laissez-faire became the dogma of the nation’s ruling class, shared by large numbers of Democrats as well as Republicans. We have lived through decades of deregulation, deunionization, privatization, and free-trade agreements; the neoliberal ideal has been projected into every corner of the nation’s life. Universities try to put themselves on a market-based footing these days; so do hospitals, electric utilities, churches, and museums; so does the Post Office, the CIA, and the U.S. Army.
And now, after all this has been going on for decades, we have a people’s uprising demanding that we bow down before the altar of the free market. And this only a short while after the high priests of that very cosmology led the world into the greatest economic catastrophe in memory. “Amazing” is right. “Unlikely” would also be right. “Preposterous” would be even righter.
In 2008, the country’s financial system suffered an epic breakdown, largely the result—as nearly every credible observer agrees—of the decades-long effort to roll back bank supervision and encourage financial experimentation. The banks’ stumble quickly plunged the nation and the world into the worst recession since the thirties. This was no ordinary business-cycle downturn. Millions of Americans, and a large number of their banks, became insolvent in a matter of weeks. Sixteen trillion dollars in household wealth was incinerated on the pyre Wall Street had kindled. And yet, as I write this, the most effective political response to these events is a campaign to roll back regulation, to strip government employees of the right to collectively bargain, and to clamp down on federal spending.
So let us give the rebels their due. Let us acknowledge that the conservative comeback of the last few years is indeed something unique in the history of American social movements: a mass conversion to free-market theory as a response to hard times. Before the present economic slump, I had never heard of a recession’s victims developing a wholesale taste for neoclassical economics or a spontaneous hostility to the works of Franklin Roosevelt. Before this recession, people who had been cheated by bankers almost never took that occasion to demand that bankers be freed from “red tape” and the scrutiny of the law. Before 2009, the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht.
The Consensus Speaks
The achievement of the thing is even more remarkable when we remember the prevailing opinion climate of 2008. After the disasters of the George W. Bush presidency had culminated in the catastrophe on Wall Street, the leading lights of the Beltway consensus had deemed that the nation was traveling in a new direction. They had seen this movie before, and they knew how it was supposed to go. The plates were shifting. Conservatism’s decades-long reign was at an end. An era of liberal ascendancy was at hand. This was the unambiguous mandate of history, as unmistakable as the gigantic crowds that gathered to hear Barack Obama speak as he traveled the campaign trail. You could no more defy this plotline than you could write checks on an empty bank account.
And so The Strange Death of Republican America, by the veteran journalist Sidney Blumenthal, appeared in April of 2008—even before the Wall Street crash—and announced that the “radical conservative” George W. Bush had made the GOP “into a minority party.”3 In November, Sean Wilentz, the erstwhile historian of the “Age of Reagan,” took to the pages of U.S. News & World Report to herald that age’s “collapse.” The conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama had said pretty much the same thing in Newsweek the month before. That chronicler of the DC consensus, Politico, got specific and noted the demise of the word “deregulator,” a proud Reagan-era term that had been mortally wounded by the collapse of (much-deregulated) Wall Street.4
The thinking behind all this was straight cause-and-effect stuff. The 2008 financial crisis had clearly discredited the conservative movement’s signature free-market ideas; political scandal and incompetence in the Republican Party had rendered its moral posturing absurd; and conservatism’s taste for strident rhetoric was supposedly repugnant to a new generation of postpartisan, postracial voters. Besides, there was the obvious historical analogy that one encountered everywhere in 2008: we had just been through an uncanny replay of the financial disaster of 1929-31, and now, murmured the pundits, the automatic left turn of 1932 was at hand, with the part of Franklin Roosevelt played by the newly elected Barack Obama.
For the Republican Party, the pundit-approved script went as follows: it had to moderate itself or face a long period of irrelevance. And as it failed to take the prescribed steps, the wise men prepared to cluck it off the stage. When the radio talker Rush Limbaugh made headlines in early 2009 by wishing that the incoming President Obama would “fail,” the former Bush speechwriter David Frum slapped him down in a much-discussed cover story for Newsweek. Judged by the standards of what would come later, of course, Limbaugh’s wish sounds quaint, even civil; at the time, however, it seemed so shocking that Frum depicted such rhetoric as “kryptonite, weakening the GOP nationally.” Venomous talk might entertain the party’s bitter-enders, Frum acknowledged, but the price of going in that direction was the loss of the “educated and affluent,” who increasingly found “that the GOP had become too extreme.”
The GOP’s strange drive toward self-destruction was a favorite pundit theme. When former vice president Dick Cheney announced that he preferred Limbaugh’s way to the route of moderation, the New York Times columnist Charles Blow laughed that Cheney was “on a political suicide mission. And if his own party is collateral damage, so be it.” When certain conservatives proposed a test to detect and punish heresy among Republican politicians, the Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker called it a “suicide pact.” The respected political forecaster Stu Rothenberg concluded in April 2009 that “the chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero. Not ‘close to zero.’ Not ‘slight’ or ‘small.’ Zero.”5
Dustbin? No Thanks
What the polite-thinking world expected from the leaders of the American Right was repentance. They assumed that conservative leaders would be humbled by the disasters that had befallen their champion, George W. Bush; that Republicans would confess their errors and make haste for the political center. The world expected contrition.
What it got was the opposite, delivered on the point of a bayonet. Instead of complying with the new speed limit, the strategists of the Right hit the gas. Instead of tacking for the center, they sailed hard to the right. Instead of seeking accommodation, they went on a quest for ideological purity. Instead of elevating their remaining centrists to positions of power, they purged them.
Now, the idea that the disasters of the Bush years spelled the end for conservatism was reasonable enough if you accepted assumptions that were thought to be obvious in those days: When a political group screwed up, people didn’t vote for it any longer. When elected officials wandered too far into the fields of ideology, some mysterious force of political gravity always pulled them back to the “center.” And so it was simple. The Right, under its beloved leader, George W. Bush, had disgraced itself; now it was the other team’s turn at bat. Political epochs were supposed to run in thirty-year cycles or something, and the GOP’s thirty years were up.
That Republicans might seek a way out of their predicament by turning their back on the center and peddling an even more concentrated version of their creed was not, by the conventional thinking of those innocent days, a viable option. And there were famous examples to tell us why, too. Back in 1983, to name the closest analogy, the British Labour Party had reacted to the rise of Margaret Thatcher by convincing itself that what the public really wanted from it was a purified and even more left-wing alternative; the strategy fetched them a painful electoral thumping.
What all these formal, geometric calculations did not take into consideration were the contents of the politics themselves. Conservatives had been repudiated before, they had bounced back before, and they knew that voters don’t judge an idea by placing it on some bell-curve chart and measuring the degree to which it deviates from the range of accepted Beltway opinion. Whether Republicans chose to move “left” or “right” was less important than how they addressed the economic catastrophes facing the nation. And their conservative wing had a coherent theory. Everywhere you looked, they declared, you saw a colossal struggle between average people and the “elites” who would strip away the people’s freedoms. The huge bailouts that followed the financial crisis, they said, were evidence of a design on our savings by both government and Wall Street. Regulation, too, was merely a conspiracy of the big guys against the little. So while one side sat back and waited for the mystic tides of history to sort things out, conservatives acted. They reached deep into their own tradition and came up with a way to grab the opportunities that hard times presented.
Rather than acknowledge that they had enjoyed thirty years behind the wheel, they declared that they had never really got their turn in the first place. The true believers had never actually been in charge, the “Conservative Ascendancy” never really existed—and therefore, the disastrous events of recent years cast no discredit on conservative ideas themselves. The solution was not to reconsider conservative dogma; it was to double down, to work even more energetically for the laissez-faire utopia.
Pure idealism of this sort is unusual in American politics, however, and the jaded men of the commentariat sat back and waited for the system to punish the wayward ones, for the magnetic pull of the “center” to work its corrective magic. But this time the gods didn’t intervene in the usual way. In 2010, a radicalized GOP scored its greatest victory in congressional elections in many decades.
Little Man, What Now?
The simplest explanation for the conservative comeback is that hard times cause people to lash out at whoever is in power. In 2010, that happened to be Democrats. Ergo, their rivals staged a comeback. But surely the two parties are not simply interchangeable, like Coke and Pepsi. They are able to control their own fate to some degree, to differentiate themselves from each other. Besides, history provides enough examples of public sentiment moving consistently in a particular direction to show that it need not always flop aimlessly back and forth.
Another widely held view attributes the conservative resurgence to white racism, which is supposed to have been whipped into flames by the election of a black president. Indeed, one may point to some spectacular flare-ups of bigotry directed against the president and his party. But individual prejudice and a handful of name-calling incidents should not be enough to indict an entire movement, no matter how repugnant we find that prejudice and those names to be. Regardless of the racial fears some partisans hold in their heart of hearts, the new conservatism does not systematically generate racist statements or policies, and its leaders take pains to converse in the polite language of diversity.6
Yet other commentators seek to explain the Right’s revival by pointing to the ways it has “leveraged” the Internet, just as Barack Obama once did. Conservatives are using the web to recruit followers; they are blogging like mad; they’re all atwitter with rageful tweets. In this view, the message is nothing and the medium is everything, and you could probably get King George III himself elected if you built an awesome-looking website and got all clickety-click interactive.
Old ways of thinking about conservatism have proved equally unsatisfactory in the new situation. For years, it was possible to understand the laissez-faire revival of recent decades by noting the various forms of mystification in which the debate was always cloaked—namely, the culture wars. From the seventies to the years of George W. Bush, the great economic issues weren’t settled by open argument or election-year slogans; they were resolved by a consensus of political insiders in Washington while the public fought over abortion and the theory of evolution.
But the conservative flowering that has taken place since early 2009 is different. For the first time in decades, the Right wants to have the grand economic debate out in the open. The fog of the culture wars has temporarily receded. Should you sign up for the online discussion forum maintained by the Tea Party Patriots, one of the leading organizations of the revived Right, you will see a warning that “no discussions on social issues are allowed”; that participants are to restrict themselves to the subjects of “limited government, fiscal responsibility, [and] free markets.” The conservative movement’s manifesto for 2010, the “Contract from America,” mentioned not a single one of the preceding decades’ culture-war issues. When the Washington Post conducted a poll of nearly every Tea Party group in the nation, it discovered that “social issues, such as same-sex marriage and abortion rights, did not register as concerns.”7 And although I attended a number of Tea Party rallies over the last few years, I never once saw an antiabortion appeal on a protestor’s sign or heard one from the podium.**
This is not to say that the Right proceeds about its work while renouncing confusion or mystification. Just the opposite: in defending “capitalism,” the leaders of the latest conservative uprising don’t really bother with the actually existing capitalism of the last few years, even though capitalism’s particulars have made for scary headlines on the front pages of every newspaper in the land. They generally do not discuss credit default swaps or the deregulatory triumphs that made them so destructive. They do not have much to say about the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—the news story that shared the front pages with conservative primary victories all through the summer of 2010—nor about “foreclosuregate,” the revelation a few months later that banks had cut all sorts of legal corners in order to hustle borrowers in default out of their houses as quickly as possible.
Instead, the battle is joined at the level of pure abstraction. The issue, the newest Right tells us, is freedom itself, not the doings of the subprime lenders or the ways the bond-rating agencies were compromised over the course of the last decade. Details like that may have crashed the economy, but to the renascent Right they are almost completely irrelevant. What matters is a given politician’s disposition toward free markets and, by extension, toward the common people of the land, whose faithful vicar the market is.
Now, there is nothing really novel about the idea that free markets are the very essence of freedom. What is new is the glorification of this idea at the precise moment when free-market theory has proven itself to be a philosophy of ruination and fraud. The revival of the Right is as extraordinary as it would be if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster; if we had reacted to Watergate by making Richard Nixon a national hero.
So disjunctive does this spectacle appear that onlookers naturally assume the newest Right’s motivations must lie elsewhere, as we have noted. The movement’s positions bear so little relation to lived reality that observers sometimes feel they need pay its actual statements no mind at all.
But this is a mistake. If we wish to understand this latest right-wing triumph, we must begin by taking seriously what the Right actually says at its rallies, and prints on its signs, and shouts from its podiums. We must pick our way through the tangle of conspiracy dreams and libertarian fancies that make up the right-wing renaissance. And by all means, we must read the conservative texts themselves—the words of the politicized TV newsmen, the orotund phrases of the radio talkers, the end-of-the-world rhetoric that one noticed at the Tea Parties.
This is a book that seeks to explain hard-times conservatism, to understand the enthusiasm for an anything-goes economic arrangement that persists in spite of all the failures and bank-breaking catastrophes that our previous efforts to achieve such an arrangement have inflicted upon us.
Free-market capitalism is not the sort of system for which people rally in the streets, even in prosperous times. That they would do so in the months after the freest part of the market deposited so many of their fellow citizens onto the scrap heaps of unemployment and bankruptcy tells us much about the genuine disgust abroad in the land, about the raw need to raise one’s voice.
It also tells us much about the way the resurgent Right has capitalized on the nation’s anguish to create a protest movement that virtually promises to make the anguish worse. This is the story of a swindle that will have terrible consequences down the road. And though it sounds curious to say so, the newest Right has met its goals not by deception alone—although there has been a great deal of this—but by offering an idealism so powerful that it clouds its partisans’ perceptions of reality.
Now, constructing an alternative reality would normally put a worldly political movement at a profound disadvantage. But this case is different. The reborn Right has succeeded because of its idealism, not in spite of it; because idealism in the grand sense is precisely what our fallen economic world calls for.
*1. The original backlash of the Vietnam War era, culminating in the election of Richard Nixon. 2. The tax revolts and culture wars of the seventies, climaxing with the Reagan Revolution of 1980. 3. The “Contract with America” and the Gingrich Revolution of 1994.
**Of the hundreds of Tea Party protest signs photographed, selected, and printed by conservatives themselves for the 2010 Tea Party coffee-table book Don’t Tread on Us, only two are concerned with abortion. By contrast, there are easily a hundred suggesting that President Obama or other Democrats are communists or socialists. See Mark Karis, ed., Don’t Tread on Us: Signs of a 21st Century Political Awakening (Los Angeles: WND Books, 2010).
Copyright © 2012 Thomas Frank