Following up on his masterly examination of the paradox under which Red Staters consistently vote Republican against their own economic self-interest (WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS?), Thomas Frank sets out to trace the present-day conservative Republican approach to government in THE WRECKING CREW. What he demonstrates is deeply disturbing even though it has remained on display virtually every day of the entire Bush II administration.
According to Frank, the conservative worldview is totally committed to "the ideal of laissez faire, meaning minimal government interference in the marketplace, along with hostility to taxation, regulation, organized labor, state ownership, and all the business community's other enemies. "The conservative movement promotes the interests of business exclusively over all else in accordance with the motto, "More business in government, less government in business." So-called "big government," also tagged as the liberal state, is the enemy; in fact, virtually all government is the enemy, other than the national defense.
Mr. Frank follows the conservative movement from the turn of the Twentieth Century through the Depression and New Deal, focusing most heavily on the movement's rebirth under Ronald Reagan and on into the new millennium. Along the way, he discusses the growth of lobbying as a major force in converting the nation's capital into a massive feeding ground for corporate special interests. Frank also highlights the manner in which conservatives have repeatedly run the country into huge spending deficits in order to "defund the left" while simultaneously politicizing government management positions by favoring ideology over competence. The end result under Republican conservative stewardship is government that demonstrates itself as ineffectual and incompetent, offering but further proof that big government is inherently incapable of working and needs to be outsourced to private, professional concerns who can do the job correctly (and then inevitably failing to do so).
THE WRECKING CREW is filled with fascinating side observations, such as its note that the movement has always lionized bullies, from Joe McCarthy to Bill O'Reilly, from Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay to George Allen and Michelle Malkin (whom Frank describes hilariously as "a pundit with the appearance of a Bratz doll but the soul of Chucky"). The book's most effective and outrage-generating section has to be its chapter on the Marianas Island of Saipan. Frank casts Saipan, with all its corruption, nepotism, income inequity, slave labor sweatshops, and local political control exercised in the name of big business as the perfect and ultimate model of the conservative movement ideal, a truly horrific prospect. He also notes, properly, that the morass that is today's Iraq is equally a product of the attempt to force fit these same free market ideals to a foreign country, implemented (so the Bush Administration hoped) by inexperienced, wet-behind-the-ears young idealogues, home-schooled ultra-Christians with college degrees from the likes of Patrick Henry College, Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, and Pat Robertson's Regent University. Saipan and Iraq constituted "laboratories of liberty," modern-day "capitalists' dreams" whose realizations are (or at least should be) shameful American nightmares.
There is little good news in THE WRECKING CREW. Author Frank shows that our national government has been hollowed out under Republican conservative control, savaged into an ineffectual husk. Furthermore, he illustrates clearly that this was no mistake, that it is part of a deliberate process not just to privatize government and eradicate government regulation but to make these changes permanent by destroying the liberal left (and with it, of course, the Democratic Party). Frank demonstrates well that present day politics has truly become, to invert von Clausiwitz's famous maxim, "a continuation of war by other means." Regrettably, one side of the battle continues to play the game as politics, as elections won or lost and citizens swayed or not, while the other side approaches it as an act of war, a no-holds-barred contest in which the only goal is the complete and utter destruction of the other side.
THE WRECKING CREW is compelling and informative even as it paints a bleak picture of an America being driven rightward and increasingly toward the excesses and inequities of the pre-New Deal era. We all know how that era ended in October, 1929.