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Author rips into political 'Wrecking Crew'

  • Story Highlights
  • Historian Thomas Frank believes some conservatives have wrecked government
  • Frank: News media feeds into cynicism by putting out stories of government failure
  • Frank writes for Wall Street Journal, wrote "What's the Matter With Kansas"
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By Todd Leopold
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Thomas Frank says he's fascinated by contradiction and irony. So it seems cosmically appropriate that he arrives at CNN Center the day headlines are screaming about the market meltdown, prompting the free-market Bush administration to call for a massive bailout package. (The package was passed by Congress and signed by the president last week.)

Convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff plays a featured role in "The Wrecking Crew."

Thomas Frank sees "The Wrecking Crew" as a follow-up to his best-selling "What's the Matter With Kansas."

Frank was in Atlanta to talk about "The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Govern" (Metropolitan/Henry Holt), and the left-leaning cultural historian had plenty to reflect upon.

Frank, the Kansas native whose previous book, "What's the Matter With Kansas," examined why his home state went from home of agrarian populism to become a conservative Republican stronghold, sees "The Wrecking Crew" as the follow-up to that work.

"The question that had puzzled me as a historian all these years was the phenomenon of working-class conservatism," says the cultural historian. "This is the other side of that story. I moved to Washington and [saw] how these people work when they're actually in power. [And] it has nothing to do with what they're talking about on the streets of Wichita."

In "The Wrecking Crew," Frank -- who recently started writing a weekly column for that bastion of the conservative establishment, The Wall Street Journal ("How's that for irony?" he chuckles) -- chronicles the rise of modern conservative ideology and the Republicans who put it into practice.

Much of the book is focused on how lobbying efforts, business interests and politicians have become intertwined, resulting in a cycle of crony capitalism, industry-funded lobbying organizations and pro-business legislation. (Convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff is a major character.) By extension, when that government fails to work, it feeds into ever-greater public cynicism, Frank says.

Frank talked with CNN.com about "The Wrecking Crew" and how the news media play into what he terms, borrowing from one of his sources, "the conservative movement industry." The following is an edited version of the interview.

CNN: How has the news media contributed to the public's lack of faith in government?

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Thomas Frank: One of the many problems with the media is they've given in to a logical fallacy -- false mirroring, the idea that what one party does, the other party also automatically does to exactly the same extent. It's factually not true. And that's not to let Democrats off the hook for anything, but the two parties are very different animals.

And it's not just the parties -- the way conservatives behave and liberals behave are two different things.

I'm always astonished that in coverage in, say, The Washington Post or any of your traditional mainstream media, that if there's something wrong with one party you have to immediately point out that the other party does the exact same thing, and you have to sometimes go to great lengths to make this assertion.

CNN: Is the news media unfair to government? It often focuses on the failures, but rarely the successes.

Frank: That's the easy answer ... and to come to a different conclusion would seem to be partisan.

Here's what I mean: You've got people [in the Republican party] whose philosophy is one of cynicism towards government and one of complete disrespect towards particular branches of government. ... They've run these branches of government completely in reverse, put people in charge of them who don't believe in the mission, and done everything else to make government accountable not to the voters, but to the business community.

This has resulted in disaster in numerous cases. Now, when you look upon the disaster, do you say this is because government doesn't work? Or do you say, this is because a philosophy of government doesn't work? The obvious conclusion to anybody watching this stuff unfold is to say government just can't do anything right -- look how badly it's botched this job.

But the correct answer is that government obviously does work in certain circumstances, in other countries, and it's even worked here when it wants to. What they're doing right now at the Fed and the Department of Treasury is they're playing the game exactly right -- they're intervening decisively, quickly -- they're doing it exactly right. When the chips are down and when it's something conservatives care about, they can make government work.

But the natural conclusion is just to blow it all off with cynicism. It's so easy to be cynical. We confuse cynicism with sophistication. The correct answer is that it's a philosophy of government that's failed, but you can't say that in the media.

One of the themes [of the book] is that there's an economy of cynicism. [Conservatives] come to government with an extraordinarily cynical attitude towards government and they govern in such a way so as to increase public cynicism towards government -- which just gives them, ironically, a new lease on life.

CNN: Do Republicans and Democrats campaign differently in pursuing their goals?

Frank: [Republicans] seem to be so much more eyes-on-the-prize than Democrats are. [In the 2004 election,] the Bush guys were doing almost anything to win, and the Kerry people were like, "Oh come on now, play fair."

And that's very interesting. And the reason I say that's interesting is because for a lot of [Democrats], there's no downside to it to them if they lose -- I mean, there is for John Kerry, he doesn't get to be president -- but it's not like he is the representative of a movement whose members will suffer if he doesn't win. ...

But the Republicans have exactly the opposite attitude. [They assume the] contest is of absolute paramount importance: to take the state, capture the state, which they claim to hate so much and be against.

CNN: Is this era coming to an end? Even if Obama gets elected, what you describe is a really entrenched culture.

Frank: Conservatism is an industry which generates profits on its own. One of the guys I quote in the book describes himself as part of the conservative movement industry. He's right. So how do you take it on? A big part of their industry is playing you guys. ... There are whole groups in Washington aimed at destroying liberal movements, and there's a whole branch of it aimed at you guys -- just at playing your industry, and CNN in particular. And in my opinion, they've done that with great effectiveness.

CNN: What kind of reaction have you gotten from the book?

Frank: I go on a lot of radio shows, conservative as well as liberal. I did this for the "Kansas" book, and there was a lot of outrage. This time around, there is nobody defending the administration. I talk about the system in Washington, the outsourcing, the privatizing, the lobbyists, right down the line -- [and] there is nobody that defends it.

The most common reactions from conservatives is that "George W. Bush is not a conservative. What you are describing is not conservatism. We are not responsible for this." And you sure as hell are. This is your faction of the Republican Party. You can't even blame it on the moderates.

All About Jack AbramoffRepublican PartyDemocratic PartyGeorge W. Bush

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