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Conservativism and the Wrecking of Government as We Know It
Austin Guest on August 21, 2008 - 10:31am
This Wednesday, PSN Executive Director Joel Barkin sat down for a phone interview with Thomas Frank, author of the new best selling book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule. Their conversation touched on a number of issues surrounding how conservatives have worked over the last decade to dismantle government as we know it in Washington D.C. and throughout the country.
After a lengthy research and writing process, Frank was able to provide probing insights into the strategies through which the Right has proved able to effectively outsource the responsibilities of governance to corporate interests. From "de-funding the left," to laying siege to public employees and privatizing every government service within sight, Frank painted an ominous picture of a strategy that has trickled down from D.C. to the states, a strategy that progressive leaders at every level would do well to study.
We've provided an excerpted transcript of the interview below. You can also listen to and download a full recording of the interview in mp3 format here.
Joel Barkin: We're very lucky to have with us today author of the best-selling Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, also the author of What's the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank, in a new program we're instituting at Progressive States Network to bring leading national voices and authors to discuss some of the core issues that many legislators and state based groups are working on across the country.
Tom's new book looks at what happened in Washington over the last decade and then sort of the history behind that and ways in which the conservative movement has really dominated Washington D.C. and how that has impacted states all across the country.
So I guess the first thing I'd want to ask you Tom is just to discuss a little bit what The Wrecking Crew is about and how it might be””some of the lessons that in your research you learned and that progressives across the country should know.
Thomas Frank: Well, the basic idea of The Wrecking Crew””I mean it came to me while I was watching this wave of scandals unfold. Basically starting in 2005 and continuing up to now. I mean there's a new one coming out of Washington every couple of weeks it seems. Watching that happening and then at the same time the sort of epic misgovernment and incompetence of the Bush Administration, in particular the sort of disastrous reconstruction of Iraq which has been just a catastrophic failure, the amazing failure of FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, and then at the same time as that, all the stories about the growing power of lobbyists.
And it occurred to me that these things were not just, you know, random misfortunes; that there was a connection between them and that connection is, well, the long explanation is that the connection is conservative attitudes toward government. The short answer is it's what happens when you try to import the free market, when you try to import business into government; when you try to make government into a business, which is what they've done.
JB: One of the interesting things I think your book points out is the conservative rhetoric around states' rights and just how that's exactly what it is, rhetoric, and the fact that the conservative movement has actually done more in the last decade to consolidate power in D.C. than possibly any time in our history. When exactly did this happen and how exactly did this happen?
TF: Well, one of the things you notice when you start researching the conservative movement is that on many many of the subjects for which it claims to profess such great concern, it's strictly opportunism. For example the culture wars. They forget about this stuff as soon as they get into office, or they do little things here and there to keep up appearances. States rights would be another. And another would be the idea of a balanced budget.
There are other things though that they will stand their ground on until they are soundly defeated. You know, there are other things that are very very close to their heart. Now, when you say that they've consolidated power in D.C., it's a very interesting thing because they've done it in a peculiar way. You know, government spending has grown dramatically since President Bush took office, but the government payroll, the number of people employed by the federal government has not increased. In fact I think it's actually gone down.
So where is all the extra money going? Well, It's going to private contractors. That's the fascinating story, and that's really the sort of unknown story in Washington D.C. That's what's really changed there. That's who's consolidated their power in that city. It's not so much government; it's government by contractor. It's the big companies that now run the state.
JB: That's right. And along those lines, one of the things you focus on is the conservative attack on public employees and government run programs and this desire to sort of privatize everything in sight. And states are facing this issue all across the country. Despite the high profile failures of big privatization projects by state governments, few of them have established effective accountability standards and almost none effectively measure what percentage of their budgets are going to these private contracts.
Now a lot of that's because of the opposition of conservatives, both Democrats and Republicans in some cases, to actually measure the success of some of these privatization (inaudible). It's as if the results don't matter and it's privatizing for the good of privatizing.
TF: Yeah. It's the same in Washington. That's the thing that boggles the mind is that privatization really got it's start with something called the Grace Commission back in about 1983, or maybe it was 1984, President Reagan appointed, after having driven the government into crisis with his massive deficits, he appointed this commission to figure out how to solve the deficit problem by privatizing and outsourcing government.
And so the idea of doing this was that you would save money and it would be more efficient and government would run better and cost less. And this has, you know, we really don't know whether this has been the case or not because no one has ever done a follow-up study to see if it's true, but as far as all the anecdotal evidence””it's more than anecdotal””every report that you get, this whole thing has been just a gold-plated botch.
Contractors with their friends the lobbyists and consultants get these contracts that are designed just to make them rich, not necessarily to make sure they deliver what they're supposed to deliver. I mean, look, every newspaper story coming out of Iraq tells you about some new project that they've managed to bungle. And you see this at the state level too, or even at the local level.
JB: Along those lines, too, there's the evolution of this lobbyist class. Today in states, I think there are five lobbyists for every state legislator
TF: Is that right? That's amazing.
JB: And that number grows every year. It's a billion dollar””a many many billion dollar””industry at the state level. What can states learn do you think from the experience in D.C. in terms of this lobbyist culture?
TF: Well, you know there's some good lobbyists and there's some bad lobbyists so when I say what I'm about to say, I don't mean to be going after them all. But the kind of super-lobbyists like Jack Abramoff, what they were doing was, it was more like they were field marshals of the conservative movement, you know, sending the money this way and that; getting newspaper articles written and, you know, flying legislators out to the Marianas Islands, going to Scottland to play golf.
By the way, you mention the problem at the state level, and I don't know that much about it, but I would suspect that it's much worse, simply because there the disparity, you know in Washington the disparity is pretty bad, but what I'm talking about is the disparity between what the lobbyist has and what the lobbyist can offer and what the state legislator or the Congressman or the US Senator is, the kind of life that they lead.
And what this leads to is a problem called, well, it not only leads to people being more vulnerable to the temptations that lobbyists dangle in front of them, but also the revolving door, where you do favors, where someone in D.C. does favors, for a particular industry and then low and behold goes of and works for that industry for some extravagant salary.
And I'm also reminded of, you know we think we live in pretty ugly political times, and I guess we do. In the 19th Century though, there's””the greatest lobbyist stories of them all are from state legislatures in the 19th Century where lobbyists basically controlled them. Like the New York State legislature. I have a story in The Wrecking Crew about how the insurance industry in New York basically set up an office in Albany to control the state legislature. And this all came out in an investigation, and it was the first time that a lobbying story really shocked the country. I think it was in 1910 or something like that””that these people had basically been calling the shots in Albany for a long time.
JB: Now let's focus in on a couple of these lobbyists because, as you may or may not know, some of these big name D.C. power broker conservatives are actually very familiar faces is state capitols across the country. I think that Grover Norquist probably visits half of the state capitols, if not more, throughout the year giving lectures to state legislators, and””
TF: He's an amazing man. I don't know how he has the energy.
JB: Right. Now there's probably no person you focus on in your book more than Grover Norquist. What should people know about this person when he comes to town?
TF: Oh, well first of all, Grover is””he's a very intelligent man. Second of all, he is the master strategist of the conservative movement. There is no left or liberal equivalent to Grover Norquist. There is just nobody on my team who has got the game figured out as well as he has. He thinks very strategically. He””there's a slogan they have on the right, and the slogan is this: de-fund the left. De-fund the left.
And what that means is find out how liberal organizations are funded and cut it off. Kill the organization. They understand that politics is not just a matter of people getting together and saying, oh yes, we all agree on something, lets' vote on it. It's a matter of movements, of social movements and organizations, and if you kill those organizations, you've won the game. Public opinion is secondary. It's about the movements and the organizations.
And so, that's what they set out to do on the right a long time ago: de-fund the left. I mean they put it on bumper stickers and stuff. I've got a little button, a lapel pin that you could wear that says "De-fund the left" on it. And Norquist is sort of the great genius of figuring out how to do this.
He's cooked up schemes for””well, I'm trying to remember””one of his battles is against””this one took me by surprise when I found out about it””against defined benefit pension plans. Now, why is that? I didn't understand that, and I started reading about it, and he actually talks about it all the time. It's because he thinks people should have their money in the stock market rather than in you know government bonds or something like that.
JB: So I guess the final question I would ask on the book is where do you think any common cause can be made between honest conservatives and progressives?
TF: Well, I think on the grounds of good government, you know? And it sounds like such a cliché and such a boring subject, but at the end of the day, people's stomachs are turned by this, you know, by this tidal wave of scandal and misgovernment and it turns out that it makes a really big difference to have people running government who believe in the mission, who believe that it's a legitimate institution and it has a role to play””an important role to play. And that's””I think there are conservatives out there who would agree with that.
JB: I do too. Well, I want to thank you Tom for your time. Again, this is Thomas Frank, author of The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, which we strongly encourage our legislative network to pick up as many copies as you can, and we look forward to talking to you again Tom.
TF: Sure thing. Thanks a lot for having me.
JB: Thank you.