The Wrecking Crew
Thomas Frank's latest book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, provides a comprehensive review of the conservative movement from the heady days of Reagan's first term to the later years of conservative misrule under George W Bush. Frank uses the story of Jack Abramoff, corrupt lobbyist, to illustrate the philosophy of the conservative true believers and the trail of wreckage they have left during their time in power. And he makes a compelling argument that these results are to be expected because unlike liberals who believe government should address the problems of people, for conservatives, the role of government is to comfort the comfortable by appropriating the wealth and the power of the government to support business and those who rightfully rule.
As in his earlier books, One Market Under God, and What's the Matter With Kansas, Frank finds and exposes the contradictions of conservative ideology which sees government as the root of all evil and markets as the arbiter of all good. And Frank sets out to show that the failure of conservative governance is not just the failure of individuals but is systemic.
But the truth is almost exactly the opposite, whether we are discussing Abramoff of 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 [Washington DC], 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. The 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 we've come to expect from Washington.
Using Abramoff as the symbol of the conservative movement whose goal was to destroy the liberal concensus that marked the years since Roosevelt and to capture the reins of government is a very effective approach to explain why conservative rule has been so terrible for our country.
Since the early 80s Jack Abramoff has been a player in many of the unsavory actions that have been part and parcel of the conservative movement. Abramoff was one of the original gang along with Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed who figured out how to use the College Republicans to tap into the wealth of the conservative businessmen to fund the conservative movement and their own lucrative careers. And during the Reagan years Abramoff in particular was keen to take the battle to Communists by backing the (ig)noble freedom fighters who were protecting the proper order in the world. Which he did by taking money from South Africa's apartheid government to promote the (in)famous Freedom Fighter, Jonas Savimbi, of Angola.
But as Frank noted, for all the claims of holding fast to ideological truths, Abramoff showed how opportunistic the conservative movement can be and how willing it is to turn on the dime when required. Once the South African apartheid regime fell, those willing to pay for the services for funding African wars came from the other side and so Abramoff and his gang changed sides with nary a qualm.
The lesson Savimbi learned was the same one that everyone in this story gets schooled in, sooner or later: That the market is a faithless sovereign, disloyal and deceitful. That there is no tradition or patriotism or ethics that it holds sacred. That it will even devour its own if the payoff is right. One day it defends the apartheid government against all comers; the next it undergoes an amazing metamorphosis and declares that apartheid's crimes are indeed hideous -- but that the guilt for them tarnishes social democracy as well.
Yet, this was only the beginning. What Abramoff and his friends learned was that one could become very rich indeed taking up the cause of "freeing" the market from government control and regulation - the well-known evils of liberal government.
One tremendous service Frank accomplished with his book was to effectively chronicle one of Abramoff's more shocking scandals he operated in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a textbook case where conservative market rule was allowed to play out. A case where there were horrific consequences for the workers (mostly immigrants from poor Asian countries believing they were on their way to find opportunity in the USA) because the government was used to suppress those workers for the benefit of the sweatshop owners thus enriching the rulers of Saipan, Abramoff and his cronies. By the late 1990s no one should have been fooled by the propaganda that came from the right-wing about how the Marianas were a paradise, but nevertheless, Abramoff was able to use his connections to keep the Islands free for exploitation by bribing the Congress members he took over there to show them a good time. And one of his special friends, Tom DeLay bragged that the model of business practiced in the Mariana Islands made them the "perfect petri dish of capitalism. It's like my Galapagos Island."
It wasn't until just this year that a law was finally passed placing the Commonwealth under US immigration laws outlawing the sweatshops and exploitation of the workers, more than a decade after the horrific conditions were exposed.
Frank also tied the crassness and the greed of Abramoff and his gang to how Washington works today under the Rule of the Wrecking Crew. He contrasted the people who come to Washington today to those smart, yet idealistic people who came to work in Washington under Roosevelt. Today, Washington and the suburban areas surrounding it are some of the wealthiest counties in the country because so many now come to do well by Washington rather than to serve their country. This too comes straight from the philosophy of the right. As Frank said, when the right wing took over the Congress and the Presidency, they came prepared to follow the advice of Homer Ferguson, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1928 to avoid the best and the brightest in government:
A thoroughly first-rate man in public service is corrosive. He eats holes in our liberites. The better he is and the longer he stays the greater the danger. if he is an enthusiast -- a bright-eyed madman who is frantic to make this the finest government in the world -- the black plague is a housepet by comparison.
Thus, under Bush we have Monica Goodling, Michael Brown, Karl Rove, and legions of other hacks, criminals and incompetents running the government. The goal is to drive out the good and to seed the agencies with those who know how to hand power and largess to the cronies. After all, under Conservatives the business of Washington is taking care of business, removing the yoke of government off their backs, and not creating a more equitable society.
Today, the 80% of Americans who think the country is on the wrong track know that something is seriously wrong and they are starting connect the dots to the philosophy of the folks running Washington. As Bill Clinton noted at the Convention about Republican governance:
And it is, to be fair to all the Americans who aren't as hard-core Democrats as we, it's a philosophy the American people never actually had a chance to see in action fully until 2001, when the Republicans finally gained control of both the White House and the Congress.
Then we saw what would happen to America if the policies they had talked about for decades actually were implemented. And look what happened.
Thomas Frank's new book is a great read; guaranteed to make one angry as even the most die-hard of us who have been watching the corruption in Washington find out how much more there has been without our being aware of it. Read it and use the stories when talking to your on-the-fence friends and neighbors about why they can't afford to vote Republican in the next election.