New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012, pp. 240.
Almost from before the economic crisis hit in 2008 (writing this I think of Kevin Phillips' 2007 Bad Money, which described the earliest phase of the housing bubble's bursting), we have seen a veritable library of books explaining the event and its consequences. I have yet to find a single volume that does justice to the whole of this huge, and hugely complex, story, and doubt I ever will (it goes back too far, involves too much), but many do a good job with particular pieces of it.
In Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, Thomas Frank adds his distinctive take on recent events. In his previous books, One Market Under God (2000), What's The Matter With Kansas? (2004) and The Wrecking Crew (2008), Frank traced the country's rightward march, and the tactics conservatives used to bring it about. He extends this line of research with this latest work, which treats the most recent part of that story: the transmutation of the failure of economic prescriptions advocated and implemented by conservatives into yet another rightist "revolution" exemplified by the Tea Party movement, which is extraordinary not just for its timing, but for its character. The culture wars have not died, but according to Frank the movement has not used them as ideological cover for neoliberal economic policies; rather, such policies are themselves the sales pitch, with the disgruntled calling for more of the same economic prescriptions (like deregulation) that produced the crisis in the first place. Moreover, the speculators who have traditionally been cast as villains in the "producerist" narrative historically favored by American right-wing populism have been made into heroes, not just identified with "the people," but made to seem the very best and most victimized of them.1
How did this come about? Frank argues that the right succeeded through a presentation of a simple, comprehensible explanation of a situation (however inaccurate, or even incoherent), and its use of the rhetoric of victimization, dissent and rebellion, in a period of genuine crisis when people have genuine grievances--which "liberals" utterly failed to address, as the Obama administration delivered not a sequel to FDR (for all the right-wing ranting), but "Clinton II."2 Frank holds, moreover, that there is more continuity than rupture in the phenomenon, from the use of traditional right-populist ideas (a selective scapegoating of elites, conspiracism, apocalypticism), to the tactics and rhetoric borrowed from the left--the latter an old theme of Frank's work, which he revisits here.3 (Indeed, one of the more memorable portions of this book is Frank's reading of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged as an inversion of proletarian literature, using the genre's techniques to deliver exactly the opposite message.)
It is a strong argument, and well-presented in a book that is witty, informed and lucid throughout. However, I must admit that as a longtime reader I found it something of a letdown. Easily the shortest of Frank's books, it is also the least fresh and original, for the most part applying ideas Frank had developed in earlier books to new events, rather than exploring new intellectual territory--worthwhile as the results are.
1. In Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons' Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close For Comfort (Guilford Press, New York, 2000), the authors define populist movements as those which exalt the people and are antielitist; a repressive populism as one which combines "antielite scapegoating with . . . efforts to maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power"--that is to say, the singling out of some vulnerable part of the elite for hostility, while more generally shoring up the status quo; and right-wing populism as a repressive populism "motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution."
2. The dire warnings of such takeovers have been a recurrent theme of American history (as Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" makes clear), and routine in the aftermath of electoral victories by Democrats (like the 1992 presidential election). Interestingly, this does not seem to be an exclusively American phenomenon; arguably '70s-era Britain, where exaggerated rhetoric about economic troubles and union militancy were widespread, offers parallels.
3. While eschewing the traditional producerist hostility to finance, the Tea Party otherwise embraces many of the ideology's concepts, like drawing a sharp line between the "productive" and "unproductive" in the country's population. Additionally the scapegoating, conspiracism and apocalypticism common to American right-populism are evident in the movement's combination of celebration of business, markets and capitalism with selective attacks on particular enterprises, its hostility to "government bureaucrats" and intellectuals, convoluted theories of how the crisis came about, and hysterical rhetoric about imminent radical takeover.