How everyone got the Right wrong

By Thomas Frank
January 12, 2012

This essay is adapted from Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, published this month by Metropolitan Books. The views expressed are the author’s own.

After the disasters of the George W. Bush presidency had culminated in the catastrophe on Wall Street, the leading lights of the Beltway consensus had deemed that the nation was traveling in a new direction. They had seen this movie before, and they knew how it was supposed to go. The plates were shifting. Conservatism’s decades-long reign was at an end. An era of liberal ascendancy was at hand. This was the unambiguous mandate of history, as unmistakable as the gigantic crowds that gathered to hear Barack Obama speak as he traveled the campaign trail. You could no more defy this plotline than you could write checks on an empty bank account.

And so The Strange Death of Republican America, by the veteran journalist Sidney Blumenthal, appeared in April of 2008—even before the Wall Street crash—and announced that the “radical conservative” George W. Bush had made the GOP “into a minority party.” In November, Sean Wilentz, the erstwhile historian of the “Age of Reagan,” took to the pages of U.S. News & World Report to herald that age’s “collapse.” The conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama had said pretty much the same thing in Newsweek the month before. That chronicler of the DC consensus, Politico, got specific and noted the demise of the word “deregulator,” a proud Reagan-era term that had been mortally wounded by the collapse of (much-deregulated) Wall Street.

The thinking behind all this was straight cause-and-effect stuff. The 2008 financial crisis had clearly discredited the conservative movement’s signature free-market ideas; political scandal and incompetence in the Republican Party had rendered its moral posturing absurd; and conservatism’s taste for strident rhetoric was supposedly repugnant to a new generation of postpartisan, postracial voters. Besides, there was the obvious historical analogy that one encountered everywhere in 2008: we had just been through an uncanny replay of the financial disaster of 1929-31, and now, murmured the pundits, the automatic left turn of 1932 was at hand, with the part of Franklin Roosevelt played by the newly elected Barack Obama.

For the Republican Party, the pundit-approved script went as follows: it had to moderate itself or face a long period of irrelevance. And as it failed to take the prescribed steps, the wise men prepared to cluck it off the stage. When the radio talker Rush Limbaugh made headlines in early 2009 by wishing that the incoming President Obama would “fail,” the former Bush speechwriter David Frum slapped him down in a much-discussed cover story for Newsweek. Judged by the standards of what would come later, of course, Limbaugh’s wish sounds quaint, even civil; at the time, however, it seemed so shocking that Frum depicted such rhetoric as “kryptonite, weakening the GOP nationally.” Venomous talk might entertain the party’s bitter-enders, Frum acknowledged, but the price of going in that direction was the loss of the “educated and affluent,” who increasingly found “that the GOP had become too extreme.”

The GOP’s strange drive toward self-destruction was a favorite pundit theme. When former vice president Dick Cheney announced that he preferred Limbaugh’s way to the route of moderation, the New York Times columnist Charles Blow laughed that Cheney was “on a political suicide mission. And if his own party is collateral damage, so be it.” When certain conservatives proposed a test to detect and punish heresy among Republican politicians, the Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker called it a “suicide pact.” The respected political forecaster Stu Rothenberg concluded in April 2009 that “the chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero. Not ‘close to zero.’ Not ‘slight’ or ‘small.’ Zero.”

What the polite-thinking world expected from the leaders of the American Right was repentance. They assumed that conservative leaders would be humbled by the disasters that had befallen their champion, George W. Bush; that Republicans would confess their errors and make haste for the political center. The world expected contrition.

What it got was the opposite, delivered on the point of a bayonet. Instead of complying with the new speed limit, the strategists of the Right hit the gas. Instead of tacking for the center, they sailed hard to the right. Instead of seeking accommodation, they went on a quest for ideological purity. Instead of elevating their remaining centrists to positions of power, they purged them.

Now, the idea that the disasters of the Bush years spelled the end for conservatism was reasonable enough if you accepted assumptions that were thought to be obvious in those days: When a political group screwed up, people didn’t vote for it any longer. When elected officials wandered too far into the fields of ideology, some mysterious force of political gravity always pulled them back to the “center.” And so it was simple. The Right, under its beloved leader, George W. Bush, had disgraced itself; now it was the other team’s turn at bat. Political epochs were supposed to run in thirty-year cycles or something, and the GOP’s thirty years were up.

What all these formal, geometric calculations did not take into consideration were the contents of the politics themselves. Conservatives had been repudiated before, they had bounced back before, and they knew that voters don’t judge an idea by placing it on some bell-curve chart and measuring the degree to which it deviates from the range of accepted Beltway opinion. Whether Republicans chose to move “left” or “right” was less important than how they addressed the economic catastrophes facing the nation. And their conservative wing had a coherent theory. Everywhere you looked, they declared, you saw a colossal struggle between average people and the “elites” who would strip away the people’s freedoms. The huge bailouts that followed the financial crisis, they said, were evidence of a design on our savings by both government and Wall Street. Regulation, too, was merely a conspiracy of the big guys against the little. So while one side sat back and waited for the mystic tides of history to sort things out, conservatives acted. They reached deep into their own tradition and came up with a way to grab the opportunities that hard times presented.

Rather than acknowledge that they had enjoyed thirty years behind the wheel, they declared that they had never really got their turn in the first place. The true believers had never actually been in charge, the “Conservative Ascendancy” never really existed—and therefore, the disastrous events of recent years cast no discredit on conservative ideas themselves. The solution was not to reconsider conservative dogma; it was to double down, to work even more energetically for the laissez-faire utopia.

Pure idealism of this sort is unusual in American politics, however, and the jaded men of the commentariat sat back and waited for the system to punish the wayward ones, for the magnetic pull of the “center” to work its corrective magic. But this time the gods didn’t intervene in the usual way. In 2010, a radicalized GOP scored its greatest victory in congressional elections in many decades.

The simplest explanation for the conservative comeback is that hard times cause people to lash out at whoever is in power. In 2010, that happened to be Democrats. Ergo, their rivals staged a comeback. But surely the two parties are not simply interchangeable, like Coke and Pepsi. They are able to control their own fate to some degree, to differentiate themselves from each other. Besides, history provides enough examples of public sentiment moving consistently in a particular direction to show that it need not always flop aimlessly back and forth.

Another widely held view attributes the conservative resurgence to white racism, which is supposed to have been whipped into flames by the election of a black president. Indeed, one may point to some spectacular flare-ups of bigotry directed against the president and his party. But individual prejudice and a handful of name-calling incidents should not be enough to indict an entire movement, no matter how repugnant we find that prejudice and those names to be. Regardless of the racial fears some partisans hold in their heart of hearts, the new conservatism does not systematically generate racist statements or policies, and its leaders take pains to converse in the polite language of diversity.

Yet other commentators seek to explain the Right’s revival by pointing to the ways it has “leveraged” the Internet, just as Barack Obama once did. Conservatives are using the web to recruit followers; they are blogging like mad; they’re all atwitter with rageful tweets. In this view, the message is nothing and the medium is everything, and you could probably get King George III himself elected if you built an awesome-looking website and got all clickety-click interactive.

Old ways of thinking about conservatism have proved equally unsatisfactory in the new situation. For years, it was possible to understand the laissez-faire revival of recent decades by noting the various forms of mystification in which the debate was always cloaked—namely, the culture wars. From the seventies to the years of George W. Bush, the great economic issues weren’t settled by open argument or election-year slogans; they were resolved by a consensus of political insiders in Washington while the public fought over abortion and the theory of evolution.

But the conservative flowering that has taken place since early 2009 is different. For the first time in decades, the Right wants to have the grand economic debate out in the open. The fog of the culture wars has temporarily receded. Should you sign up for the online discussion forum maintained by the Tea Party Patriots, one of the leading organizations of the revived Right, you will see a warning that “no discussions on social issues are allowed”; that participants are to restrict themselves to the subjects of “limited government, fiscal responsibility, [and] free markets.” The conservative movement’s manifesto for 2010, the “Contract from America,” mentioned not a single one of the preceding decades’ culture-war issues. When the Washington Post conducted a poll of nearly every Tea Party group in the nation, it discovered that “social issues, such as same-sex marriage and abortion rights, did not register as concerns.” And although I attended a number of Tea Party rallies over the last few years, I never once saw an antiabortion appeal on a protestor’s sign or heard one from the podium.

This is not to say that the Right proceeds about its work while renouncing confusion or mystification. Just the opposite: in defending “capitalism,” the leaders of the latest conservative uprising don’t really bother with the actually existing capitalism of the last few years, even though capitalism’s particulars have made for scary headlines on the front pages of every newspaper in the land. They generally do not discuss credit default swaps or the deregulatory triumphs that made them so destructive. They do not have much to say about the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—the news story that shared the front pages with conservative primary victories all through the summer of 2010—nor about “foreclosuregate,” the revelation a few months later that banks had cut all sorts of legal corners in order to hustle borrowers in default out of their houses as quickly as possible.

Instead, the battle is joined at the level of pure abstraction. The issue, the newest Right tells us, is freedom itself, not the doings of the subprime lenders or the ways the bond-rating agencies were compromised over the course of the last decade. Details like that may have crashed the economy, but to the renascent Right they are almost completely irrelevant. What matters is a given politician’s disposition toward free markets and, by extension, toward the common people of the land, whose faithful vicar the market is.

Copyright © 2012 Thomas Frank


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Nothing galvanizes the right more than a Democrat in the White House. With the economy in the dumps now, the right can claim the sky is falling and that America is on the wrong track.

When Bill Clinton was in the White House, the economy was on fire, the stock market was setting new records on a weekly basis and the US was not involved in any significant military action overseas. And, for this, Mr. Clinton was nearly impeached. Before Clinton even took his first oath of office, one could see “Impeach Clinton” bumper stickers on cars. The right had been kicked out of the presidency and they were pissed.

The right is also very good at messaging. During the debate on health care, the phrase of the day was “death panels”. I still don’t understand why the right wants 10 to 15 percent of the citizens of the US to be excluded from the health care system, but to make the argument, they invented “death panels”. As the economy continued it’s free fall, the right switched to talk of Obama’s citizenship. When Bin Laden was killed, Sarah Palin congratulated George Bush. I didn’t say the message was sensible or sane, just consistent.

When the right does not occupy the White House, they become the most obnoxious, screaming child in the room. In the 90′s, there was a huge congressional move to the right during Clinton’s first term, but, he still got re-elected, as the right splintered between conservative and ultra-conservative in 1996. I sincerely hope history repeats itself in 2012.

Posted by mcoleman | Report as abusive

The “doings of the subprime lenders” were a direct result of “progressive” policy – the concept that home-ownership should be for all, irrespective of whether one could actually afford it – the lenders were bludgeoned by government regulators into making loans that at one time would have been unthinkable. Having been forced to make the loans, some way had to be constructed to get rid of them.

This article contains the oft-made claim that the conservatives are doomed because they are so “extreme”. How does that explain the 2010 election which resulted in the biggest Congressional turnover in 60 years? That does not sound like a losing strategy. Sure, the progressives would prefer a Republican Party populated by plenty of liberals (usually referred to as “moderates”) – like it used to be when the Republicans were a permanent minority – it was only when the Republicans fully embraced conservatism that they became a majority.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

The Community Reinvestment Act was done under Clinton. And pushed forward by such activist organizations as ACORN. It was the root of the housing problems.

It was then allowed to continue under Bush.

How disingenuous of Frank to hide that core fact under the rug. In other words the Democrats and left wing activists are as much to blame for the economic issues as the Republicans.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

As an addendum.

It would be nice to see a right of center article on Reuters from time to time. The regular publishing of left wing and Democrat shills without ever publishing an alternative viewpoint explains why Reuters is considered to have a relentless left bias.

[As an aside I have repeatedly (8 times) asked Reuters what its policy on bias is. So far silence.]

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

@SayHey – A different take on your premise would be that promoting the concept of 100% homeownership was far less a problem then the deregultation of markets making subprime possible. Once traditional conservative retail lenders were supplanted by more liberal investment bankers, stability was disrupted — first going up, and then crashing down. Under this scenario, conservative legislators promoted a liberal lending environment, and with disasterous results.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive

Blaming the push for more widespread home ownership for the financial meltdown is conservative orthodoxy. It is also malarkey.
The housing meltdown was caused by lower middle class people, who should have purchased $125,000 homes buying $250,000 homes with the idea that housing prices would continue to rise. (Adjust accordingly for your particular market.)
What I’m sure the writer of the above piece has failed to realize is that the meme, “the lenders were bludgeoned by government regulators into making loans that at one time would have been unthinkable,” is actually a racist trigger designed by GOP think tanks. You probably don’t think this, but what that statement is saying is that blacks shouldn’t own their own homes.
Poor whites and blacks lost their homes when they lost their jobs. Middle class whites lost their homes first, and that was because the housing bubble burst. But their poor investment decision was aided and abetted by a predatory mortgage industry. That industry perpetrated fraud.
This wasn’t a government conspiracy. This was a conspiracy of the financial services industry.

Posted by Subtitle | Report as abusive

How easily we forgot the words of our then President, G.W. Bush in a speech he made “Everyone that wants a home will have one.”

Posted by what_if | Report as abusive

Republicanism means never having to say sorry.

The first comment by mcoleman is spot on.

@SayHey “…the lenders were bludgeoned by government regulators into making loans that at one time would have been unthinkable.”

@eleno “The Community Reinvestment Act was done under Clinton. And pushed forward by such activist organizations as ACORN. It was the root of the housing problems.”

Congratulations on perfectly Orwellian arguments. I could point out that it was decades of relentless deregulation which allowed the shadow banking industry to spring into being. I could mention that Fannie and Freddie were late getting into the sub-prime game and did so because they were worried that they were rapidly losing market share. I could draw your attention to the fact that the real estate bubble was actually a global phenomenon affecting economies across the developed world from Ireland to Spain to China (where the bubble is only now beginning to pop). However, I’m absolutely certain that I’d be wasting my breath (or my typing as it were). You people do not hold these beliefs because they are rational. You hold these beliefs because they satisfy an emotional need sharper than any crack addict’s hunger. You are simply and utterly incapable of admitting that you are wrong. It’s that simple and that childish. You will invent any excuse to lay the blame at someone else’s feet, no matter how farcical. When Bush was lambasted for the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the aircraft carrier during perhaps the most absurd photo op in presidential history, his administration blamed the Navy for the banner. Not his fault, see?

@eleno “The regular publishing of left wing and Democrat shills without ever publishing an alternative viewpoint explains why Reuters is considered to have a relentless left bias.” Unless a media conglomerate has a “relentless” right-wing bias (looking at YOU Fox), then conservatives will bitterly complain about “left-wing” bias. When scientists reveal the results of their experiments, they are regularly denounced by conservatives whenever those findings contradict conservative orthodoxy. eleno, you don’t merely wish for an “alternative viewpoint.” You wish to utterly destroy any viewpoint which challenges your belief system. You and your ilk are not capable of self-doubt, no matter how compelling the evidence that your beliefs are incorrect.

The root cause of the resurgence of the right is that these are stunted people who cleave to irrationality and emotionalism instead of fairness and logic. Yes, many liberals suffer the same disease. It is the human condition after all. Yet it is a matter of degree, and most conservatives have their irrational indignation perpetually turned up to “11″.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

Has no one not read RECKLESS ENDANGERMENT by the NY Times pulitzer prize-winning business reporter who reveals how the financial meltdown emerged from the toxic interplay of Washington, Wall Street & corrupt morgage lenders. Morgenson & her co-author draw back the ccurtain on Fannie Mae, the morgage-finance giant that grew, with the suport of the Clinton administration through the 1990′s becomintg a major opponent of government oversight even as it was benefiting from public subsidies. RECKLESS ENDANGERMENT exposes it all name names, politicians, places,& incidents to understand the complete analysis of the financial meltdfown. It takes the spin out of the narrative with hard cold facts of who made the millions & who lost the millions. Must reading for the Independents who will elect our President, & pay the taxes left by years of unfunded liabilities because we forgot the Kohima Epitaph

Posted by buckaroo5 | Report as abusive

It might also be useful to remember that ubercapitalist Alan Greenspan disagreed with those who that insist that the housing bubble calamity was brought on by irresponsible poor people.See Greenspan’s testimony before the Senate….

Posted by jmutha | Report as abusive