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The Wrecking Crew

Thomas Frank snapped a lot of heads around with “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”, his 2004 book on how middle America, represented here by the state of Kansas, fell for the promises of the conservative movement and helped turn control of the government over to conservatives. His premise was that voters there fell hook, line and sinker for a set of empty values-based promises, promises made and broken for the purpose of garnering enough votes for a regressive economic agenda. Which is to say:

Grandstanding leaders never deliver, their fury mounts and mounts, and nevertheless they turn out every two years to return their right-wing heroes to office for a second, a third, a twentieth try. The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meatpacking. Vote to stand tall against terrorists; receive Social Security privatization. Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated then ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.

Obviously not one to mince words, Frank’s 2008 volume, “The Wrecking Crew,” dissects the workings of the conservative movement, including the K-Street takeover along with its long roots in various unsavory, unethical and illegal activities going back to the 1980s. They may not call it a “bad government” movement, but that’s precisely what it is.

The “Crew” here is a particular right-wing faction, represented by the likes of Grover Norquist, Jack Abramhoff, Tom DeLay and various other think-tank types, who gained control of the government for the express purpose of basically disabling it. Not content to get elected to simply implement a set of policies, the overarching purpose is to cripple the system altogether so that it can’t do anything.

Now if you’ve been reading the papers since 1981 or so, this isn’t really news. Go back to David Stockman and “starve the best,” and flash forward to “drown [the government] in a bathtub” and you get the picture. The tools include massive federal budget deficits, cronyism, incompetence and corruption.

These latter two, in Frank’s telling, aren’t aberrations but the whole point. When a Congressman is bought and paid for, and ends up going to jail, that’s the price they’re willing to pay to spoil voters’ trust in government. Likewise the incompetent reaction to a natural disaster, such as Katrina. When the response is that “the government can’t do anything right,” this isn’t an unfortunate side-effect and cause for serious soul-searching, but exactly the result they are aiming for.

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When we get fed up enough with the incompetence, greed and corruption we’re expected to just throw up our hands and say, “forget the whole thing.” Dismantle the FCC and SEC, chuck the Federal Reserve (they’re just giving money away to their buddies, after all), forget making education policy or energy policy, cut out the FDA (they just slow things down), and so on and so forth. Not to mention busting the unions.

Leaving the avenue clear, of course, for the hard-line free-enterprise monied class to do what they want without interference.

The good news is that, at least in 2008, we didn’t get gulled. The looters will be chased out come January and maybe things can begin to heal. The bad news is, there’s an awful lot of damage done and the resources of the government are pretty close to maxed out — which was of course the aim of the huge deficits we’ve been staring at these last eight years.

And that’s the point; here’s Robert Reich:

It’s perfectly fine for them to waste money. If the public thinks government is wasteful, that’s fine. That reduces public faith in government, which is precisely what the Republicans want.

The common thread that binds budget deficits with union-busting with public school trashing with tort reform with Social Security privatization isn’t really any obvious political or philosophical point of view, but rather an effort to demolish the underpinnings of the liberal society. The social consequences, though dire, are unimportant compared to the goal of establishing this new order, a “permanent majority” if you will.

There’s a real problem built in to the system. James Birnbaum in “The Suicide of the West” wrote,

Either liberalism must extend the freedoms to those who are not themselves liberals and even to those whose deliberate purpose is to destroy the liberal society — in effect, that is, must grant a free hand to its assassins; or liberalism must deny its own principles, [and] restrict the freedoms.

Writing in 1964, he was of course considering the threat of communist influence. But our society’s dependence on good will and fair play makes it vulnerable “to assassination, hijacking, or sabotage by any party that refuses to play by the rules.” And this is precisely what has happened these last eight years. The system has been corroded from within not by incompetency (though it’s comforting to think that) but by design. And just like the decent people of Kansas, still a sizeable number of our fellow citizens are being fooled into thinking they’re voting for “America First,” or for “homeland security” against the hordes of faceless terrorists. But that’s not what they’re getting.

The Wrecking Crew by Thomas Frank was published 2008 by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt & Co.

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