The Wrecking Crew:
How Conservatives Rule
by Thomas Frank
Thomas Frank’s new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, is a detailed account of how the United States government arrived at its present position of serving the interests of money instead of acting in the best interests of people. While Frank delves as far back as the turn of the 20th century, his focus is on what has happened since the rise of the New Right in 1970s. Since then, Conservatives, bolstered by groups like the College Republicans and those who cut their teeth under Reagan, have concentrated on achieving a few, very specific goals—attempts that Frank regards as having been mostly successful.These men and women seek a permanent Conservative Revolution. According to Frank, this means defunding the Left, and rendering the institution of government powerless by infiltrating it with people so incompetent that a frustrated citizenry will happily deed governmental power over to private enterprise. In particular, Frank stresses the importance of location to the transference of power.
101 Constitution is the closest commercial building to the Capitol building. It is also lobbyist central. The building is filled with their offices and event spaces. It houses one of the most important restaurants of DC in its lobby and all of it comes with a fantastic view of the Capital. Frank makes the compelling argument that this view encapsulates the “new Washington.” Power is no longer centered in the vaulted chambers of government buildings, but rather is diffused among the likes of those who scurry around 101 Constitution. Similarly, Crystal City exists as a literal demonstration of the wedded interests of the Defense Department and military contractors. It is there that the office buildings of said-military contractors abound and it is located only minutes away from the Pentagon.
On the one hand, Frank’s book seems to be too much too late. Jack Abramoff—yesterday’s news—features prominently throughout and Frank could have easily achieved his dual goals of informing and rabble-rousing in a far slimmer volume. On the other hand, Frank does more than merely list conservative misdeeds. His account of how conservatives turned their system of beliefs into an industry is well worth reading if one seeks to understand how the nation’s politics are constructed and handled in 2008. It is because of this “industry conservatism” that “Washington swarms with conservative ideologues and operators.” It is an industry “subsidized by the nation’s largest corporations and its richest families, and the government, too,” and by foundations, lobbying firms, and think tanks. These are men and women who readily associated with the apartheid government of South Africa in the 1980s, and whose exploits remind me of Woody Allen’s line in Annie Hall, “Lyndon Johnson is a politician, you know the ethics those guys have. It’s like a notch underneath child molester.”
But while the book is informative and will make any liberal’s blood boil, I found myself continually asking so what? Frank seems to revel in his obsession and disgust and there is only so much futile vitriol one can take. I wanted to be more than informed and stirred up and hopeless—I wanted a solution beyond what Frank had to offer. Frank wrote that his story has been “in some small way, the story of my generation—or, I should say, of the winners and losers of my generation.” His book carries a note of sadness as to the fate of the rest of us. We “have been left to mourn for another nation—that warm middle-class world that I was born into…the wreckage of that America lies all around us today. Conservatives pushed its pillars apart and sent it crashing to the ground.” He is correct to say that simply electing Democrats is not the way to rectify this state of affairs. But to end this polemic by saying that Conservatives have been getting away with their wrecking because we have let them be “secure in the knowledge that a little bit of scoffing toward big government can always get them off the hook,” and that now, “it’s time to make them answer for it,” is vague and weak. He writes as if there have been no popular movements or dissent against the government. Given the in-depth exploration of conservatives Frank has demonstrated in his attack against them, he does not seem to know where to go from here except to tell us what we already know—that an entire structural overall is necessary, and that it will take years to restore the middle class to what it once was, if that is even possible.
Is this book a call to action? Read in concert with Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention on August 27th, it could be. In addressing the havoc wreaked by the Republicans in the last 8 years, Clinton addressed many of the consequences of the Conservative movement Frank describes in this book. Thus while at moments the book is more disheartening than inspiring, it is a story that makes crucial points and illuminates details that the public must know about at this moment. Though rendered somewhat tedious by its length, and though it leaves the reader hoping for something more definitive than the author telling us to somehow stop the conservatives from choosing money over people, it is worth the read because it demonstrates, in one fell swoop, how desperately a change of direction is needed in this country.
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