In a survey course on the Bible that I have taught for over 35 years, I inevitably have to explain the bloody episode of the shibboleth in Judges 12 (the slaughter of the Ephraimites by the Gileadites). Looking for an obvious example of a modern American shibboleth, I used to cite the timeless Republican mantra, “fiscal responsibility.” These days, of course, that phrase sounds like a laughable paradox. When Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington, the annual deficit was $59 billion and the national debt was $914 billion. When his acolyte George H. W. Bush left 12 years later, the deficit was three times bigger; and the national debt was $4 trillion. When George W. Bush leaves office in 2009, the deficit will top $482 billion, and the national debt will be pushing $10 trillion. What happened to conservative frugality?
Democrats will likely blame Republican incompetence (citing President Clinton’s balanced budgets), tax breaks for millionaires and the war in Iraq, while Republicans will mutter darkly about losing touch with time-honored principles or insist that it is time to bleed the intractable beast of big government. Enter Thomas Frank, who ably analyzed conservative populism in What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004), and who now offers a bold, brisk, solidly researched account of what the rightwingers are up to, not in his home state but in Washington, D.C., and all across the country. And as he convincingly shows, that stunning gap between present-day conservative rhetoric and performance is no accident.
The Republican ideologues (Newt Gingrich, David Stockman, Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips, Grover Norquist et al.) and their hired guns (Tom DeLay, Michael Scanlon, Jack Abramoff and the like), who have flourished until now in the post-liberal era, were, and are, just like their elected patrons, actually bent on sabotaging government. They do not mind if they end up making it stink in the nostrils of uncritical citizens: That will only promote more popular cynicism toward everything government does and ultimately lead to the privatizing, outsourcing and downsizing of federal programs. If anything goes wrong, blame it on the Beltway.
One of the best documented ways of undermining government is to appoint people to departments of whose operations they are either ignorant or to which they are downright hostile. A few notable instances of this method at work would be making James Watt Secretary of the Interior (he had worked for an anti-conservation legal foundation), Anne Gorsuch head of the E.P.A. (she abolished its office of enforcement), the never-to-be-forgotten Michael Brown, Undersecretary of Emergency Preparedness at FEMA, or D. Mark Wilson, author of “How to Close Down the Department of Labor,” head of the Employment Standards Administration at...the Department of Labor. Such absurdities—which can be matched at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Administration, you name it—are not just nepotism or politicization run wild (though there is a lot of that: look under Elaine Chao, Alberto Gonzales, Monica Goodling or the astonishing crew of incompetents and plunderers hired by Paul Bremer after announcing that “Iraq is open for business”). Badmouth and handcuff the Washington bureaucracy—and then watch it fail.
There is, in fact, a widely held belief among conservatives and libertarians that much, if not most, of government activity is in principle pernicious; and so, in Grover Norquist’s oft-cited formula, it needs to be shrunk to the size where it can be dragged into the bathtub and drowned. That may be—actually it is—insane; but it is not an idea limited to some Birchite lunatic fringe: recall the ongoing attempt to privatize (that is, gut) Social Security.
More to the point, in 1975 government employees made roughly 90 percent of what their civilian counterparts were earning. By 1990 this had dipped to about 60 percent—the perfect scheme for driving serious professionals out of public service. There really is a powerful segment of our population that dreams of reversing the New Deal.
In other words, (relative) democracy has been giving way to plutocracy. And this is not just leftist paranoia. The gap between the rich and the poor has been steadily increasing. The rich themselves have been growing ever more affluent and self-assertive (see Richistan, reviewed in these pages on 12/03/07). And government has been retrofitted to serve their needs and “defund” (the term of choice) liberal initiatives. Everybody has heard the Halliburton story, but what about New Orleans, where the Feds contracted, and sub-contracted, and sub-sub-contracted out to the tune of over $100 billion—only to leave major portions of the city as desolate as before? Lobbyism has triumphed (almost half the 1994 Republican freshmen, of the Contract With America fame, have left Congress and moved to K Street, where salaries start at around $300,000). Meanwhile, Loudoun County in northern Virginia, home to lobbyists and other profiteers, is now the richest county in the nation.
None of this is exactly new; there has always been greed in high places. America had an earlier Gilded Age; and today’s muckrakers have been shining an occasional light on the most glaring sorts of malfeasance, such as conditions on the island of Saipan, which Abramoff, DeLay and others helped turn into a laissez-faire plantation for grossly exploited garment workers. But most Americans are still unaware of all this; and nobody has told the story with more verve and informed outrage than Thomas Frank.
Not that he is predicting any imminent collapse of government services. Americans expect and demand too much of the system to let it simply fail (which is also why regulatory agencies have to be sapped from within rather than pole-axed from without by free-market vigilantes). Some of the more notorious betrayers of the public interest have been sent to the slammer, and more probably will be in the future. The administration of George W. Bush (“Government should be market-based”) is now generally viewed as an enormous failure, in large part because of the ills Frank exposes.
But the damage done is deep and chronic. (And, yes, the Democrats have gone along with the new plutocracy almost as much as they have fought it—although the worst sellouts, from supporting apartheid South Africa to burying the truth about global warming have borne the stamp of the Republican Party) The only remedies Frank can propose are the usual ones of reformist politics, in the name of that embarrassing old ideal, the common good. Fortunately, Frank writes very well. He is as lively, unpretentious and fair as he is indignant. When his book comes with a (fairly) positive blurb from George Will, of all people, you know he must be on to something. The Wrecking Crew is a major contribution not just to the 2008 campaign, but to any serious conversation about where the country is headed.