Too late to the Tea Party

Sat, Feb 4, 2012, 00:00

POLITICS: Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right,By Thomas Frank, Harvill Secker, 212pp. £14.99

IT’S PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION time in the US, and so, just as the Republican primary season reaches its crescendo, comes the predictable slate of books seeking to define the state of the troubled nation and explain all its ills. In Pity the Billionaire, Thomas Frank offers a quasi-sequel to his previous election-season bestseller, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, from 2004. That book sought to unravel the conundrum of why so many voters in middle America voted against their own economic interests, consistently going for Republican candidates who sought to dismantle the social-security system so many of these voters relied on.

This time Frank tackles an even greater instance of political paradox: how, after years of Republican-led deregulation and free-market policies allowed Wall Street to run amok and imperil the entire economy in 2008, did “the right” manage to convince so many people that the problem was actually a Democrat-led assault on liberty (primarily liberty of the market) and the creep of, whisper it, socialism?

Instead of seeing the fat-cat plutocrats and their enabling political friends as the villains of the piece, Frank suggests, people on the right – and particularly in the Tea Party – have been duped into believing the gravest threat to the US is regulation and government interference. “The revival of the Right,” he writes “is as extraordinary as it would be if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster.”

Frank, a sharp-eyed columnist with Harper’s Magazineand founder of the liberal journal the Baffler, uses as a kind of historical template the crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression of the 1930s. The economic, political and social reactions of that era should serve, he believes, as a touchstone for our reaction to the current crisis. That the economic, political and social reactions have deviated so much from what happened in the 1930s, with free-market dogma taking the place of the New Deal and plutocrats being lauded rather than vilified, is evidence, he argues, of a serious malaise at the heart of the US right. “What the polite-thinking world expected from the American Right was repentance. What it got was the opposite, delivered on the point of a bayonet.”

It’s a compelling diagnosis, and Frank is right to question the erroneous logic that underpins much of the modern Republican and Tea Party agenda. He is very perceptive about the extensive doublethink and tortuous reasoning the resurgent right uses to justify the failure of its free-market ideology, as well as the skilful way in which fear of a phantom socialism has been propagated to what he rather condescendingly sees as the gullible masses – though he appears too gullible himself in believing that the modern Democratic Party is somehow “pledged to the traditional hard-times measures (regulation, reform, social insurance)”.

But Frank’s targets seem to be past their sell-by date. He devotes extensive space to the former Fox News demagogue Glenn Beck, even though he’s about as relevant now as George W Bush, while the Tea Party – which Frank effectively sees as the embodiment of the resurgent right – has become marginalised, especially with the likely ascendance of the relatively moderate Mitt Romney to the Republican candidacy.

And while Frank’s targets moved out of the spotlight months ago, his entire thesis is disrupted by the rise of the Occupy movement, which has forced the issue of income inequality into the political equation in the US. Whether due to the long lead time to publication or because it falls outside his chosen purview, the Occupy protests are barely mentioned, but it seriously undermines the conceit that billionaires are receiving much pity from anywhere.

The book too often feels as if it’s falling between enough stools to seat an entire town hall of angry Tea Partiers. It’s partially an instructive comparison with the 1930s response to the Great Depression, partially an examination of Tea Party fundamentalism, partially an excoriation of Wall Street misbehaviour, partially a commentary on media propaganda. It also manages a critique of Obama’s lacklustre presidency, giving it the veneer of even-handedness. It lacks the sort of forensic precision that typifies Paul Krugman’s analysis of these issues, and the angry urgency of Matt Taibbi’s blistering 2010 book, Griftopia, which dismantles both the Tea Party and Big Finance without ever conflating them in the way Frank does.

Ultimately, the US political scene is so mercurial and fast-moving that many books risk a short shelf life. Pity the Billionaire, on the other hand, seems to have missed its window of relevance entirely.


Davin O’Dwyer is a freelance writer