“The Wrecking Crew”: Horrendous Mismanagement of Government By Conservatives Is Not By Accident

This is a transcript of an interview with Thomas Frank on “Democracy Now,” August 8, 2008.

AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Frank is the bestselling author and columnist with the Wall Street Journal. His previous books include “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” and, “One Market Under God.” His latest book, “The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule”. In it, Frank writes, “Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction.”

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And the title of your book is “The Wrecking Crew.” How exactly are they attacking the civil service system? I mean, you write about the “pay gap.” What is that?

THOMAS FRANK: It’s very interesting. Conservatives have had a beef with the civil service for a really long time. This is part of their identity. This goes all the way back.

I was able to find an article published in 1928, and it was written by—or maybe it was an interview with the president of the US Chamber of Commerce. And these guys are big players in Washington now, just as they were in 1928 in the Coolidge administration, big, you know, conservative powerhouse down there. And the title of the article was—it was also the most important quotation in the article from the Chamber of Commerce guy: “The best public servant is the worst one,” he said. And what he meant by that was, you know, you don’t want good people in government. You don’t want talented folks in government, because then government will work, it will be effective. And if government is effective, then people will start to expect it to solve their problems, you know, and who knows what comes after that, you know? It’s all downhill from there, from his perspective. And the funny thing was—then you start, you know, researching the history of conservatism—people say things like this all the time, that we don’t want the best and the brightest in government.

And they also refer to the bureaucracy, to the civil service—they have a special term for it in the conservative movement: they call it the permanent government. OK? See, idea is that these bureaucrats have a politics of their own, a liberal politics. You know, these people cannot be trusted, and so you have to deal with them in some way. And so, that’s always the sort of—one of the big problems. You know, what are we going to do about the civil service? How are we going to kick their ass, right? And they’re forever coming up with new methods. You know, Reagan had—well, they would just fire people across the board. They called it reductions in force.

The most interesting thing, though, is what the Bush administration has done, sort of their signature initiative, what they are going to be remembered for—you know, in addition to, like, the Iraq war, you know, that sort of thing—but what they’re going to be remembered for, in terms of their, you know, innovations in governance, is turning everything over to the private sector, right? Outsource the job. Get—you know, take these jobs away from career civil servants and hand them over to the big federal contractors who have these offices around the Washington Beltway.

… Jack Abramoff sort of exemplifies industry conservatism, the idea that you can be in Washington—conservatism is not just a political movement. It’s not just an ideology. It’s also a way of getting ahead in the world. It’s a way of making a lot of money. And Jack Abramoff sort of exemplifies that.

The guy started out his career as chairman of the College Republicans back in the early ’80s—by the way, when I was a College Republican, hard as it may be to believe now. But anyhow, he was the one who moved the College Republicans dramatically to the right. You know, we had in those years a sort of series of organizations moving to the right. …

They started fighting the left on campus for hire, you know? They would get donations from various big companies and beat up on the left on campus. Very interesting. There’s a lot of money to be made in being a conservative …

It was just two years ago when Karl Rove was riding so high, you know, and he would boast all the time about how he and his homies were going to have a permanent majority, and the Republicans were going to be in forever, and it was going to be this paradigm shift in American politics. And, well, it didn’t work out that way.

But after—you know, I read a lot their sort of commentary about permanence and how they were going to achieve permanence, and what struck me about it is not that so much that they’re going to do it by winning elections from here to eternity, which they obviously aren’t going to do—you know, they’re already out in Congress—but that they would put their—you know, their restructuring of the state, they would cast it in concrete, right? …

And they’ve got all sorts of very interesting—and you’ve got to hand it to these guys, they are ingenious. They’ve developed all sorts of schemes for making their vision for the government permanent. One of them is what I mentioned earlier: the massive outsourcing and privatizing of federal work. I mean, how are you going to get that back? …

But the most insidious one, the most insidious scheme for permanence, the one that really strikes me, is the use of deficit spending by the right. … The conservatives got into power in the early 1980s, and they’re handed this tool, the big old—you know, the power tool of deficit spending, and I’ll be damned, they run that sucker right into the ground, you know, and pile up the biggest deficit anyone has ever seen, short of, you know, World War II.

And what that does, that leaves the next administration to come along, which happened to be Bill Clinton, leaves him with this colossal Everest of debt that he has to deal with. And I don’t know if you remember this or not, but before Bill Clinton became what we know of him as today, he ran as something of a populist back in 1992. Remember, we were going to get national healthcare. He was going to have a big public works program. He was going to do this; he was going to do that. And there’s this very famous moment where his advisers sat him down in ’92, before he was sworn in, and told him, you know, “I’m sorry, you’re not going to be able to do any of those things, because the deficit is so huge that the only thing you’re going to be able to do as president, the only economic policy you’re going to be allowed to have, structurally permitted to have, is deficit reduction.” And we know about this, because then Clinton went on one of his famous, you know, tirades. He exploded in rage, you know. And anyhow, so—and now, look at Bush, doing the same thing, right? So even if Obama does get in, he’s not going to have any room to move, in terms of a progressive social agenda, you know.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: In “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” you explored how people vote against their economic interests. Do you see that happening in ’08?

THOMAS FRANK: A lot less. I mean, you remember, though, the idea of What’s the Matter with Kansas? is that the culture wars are a kind of surrogate for class. Remember, the class enemy, instead of being the people who own this country, it’s liberals. It’s the, you know, highbrow people—well, it’s people like us. You know, I wear glasses, you know, something like that. And, you know, our war against Christmas and the war against the Ten Commandments and all this kind of nonsense.

The really funny thing is that the power of those culture war arguments has really—or some of them, anyway—has really vanished in the last four years. And that’s because—one of the other things I said in What’s the Matter with Kansas? is the economic issues should trump—the real physical issues should trump those cultural issues, if the candidates choose to—you know, if the Democratic, the liberal candidates choose to emphasize it that way, to play it that way. And, I mean, the public is so angry at the Bush administration right now, I just hope that Obama gets out there and takes advantage of that.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Thomas Frank. His new book is called “The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule.”

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One Response to “The Wrecking Crew”: Horrendous Mismanagement of Government By Conservatives Is Not By Accident

  1. Joe C. says:

    Nice “alternate reality” parody.

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