Examining 'Wrecking Crew'

The Baltimore Sun

The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule By Thomas Frank Metropolitan Books / 288 pages / $25

If you like muckrakers, Michael Moore and moveon.org, you'll like Thomas Frank. The author of What's the Matter with Kansas?, an explanation of how conservatives use "the cultural issues" to get Americans to vote against their economic interests, Frank is a hell-raising populist with a University of Chicago doctorate. He'd like to run over every right-wing Republican he runs across.

In The Wrecking Crew, Frank contends that conservatives, using "bad ideas that still chew through the nation's brain," are well on the way to installing "a free market utopia." Disdaining the notion of the public interest as "airy-fairy nonsense," they insist that government always helps one group in society exploit another. To "hack open" the liberal state, they have begun to eviscerate progressive constituencies (labor union members, public service workers, trial lawyers and schoolteachers), cut taxes, pile up "an Everest of debt" and force retrenchment; dismantle the Legal Services Corp., the departments of Agriculture and Labor, and the Environmental Protection Agency; and institutionalize corporations as a fourth branch of government through deregulation, outsourcing and a corridor connecting K Street and Constitution Avenue, Frank says.

Inefficiency in Washington, Frank insists, is not an accident. "New Right" insurgents, inspired by Howard Phillips, a founder of Young Americans for Freedom and the Moral Majority, and Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, have deliberately put the train in reverse, "forging a mass movement and making a tidy profit in the process," Frank says. "By the time we finish this poker game," crowed U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, "there may not be a federal government left." The acolytes of these "wingnuts," according to Frank, are now in positions of power: Susan Dudley, the author of A Day in the Life of a Regulated Family, a pamphlet full of "paranoid" parables about a federal bureaucracy that reaches into the backyards and back pockets of every American, is now the chief of the Office of Information and Regulation. It's like "putting a 10-year-old Quaker in charge of the Strategic Air Command," according to Frank.

Frank's "it-has-already-happened-here" scenario is compelling - but not entirely convincing. Many of his wreckers, he acknowledges, are braggarts and bullies, "far removed from the main currents of American thought." They cannot translate their rabid rhetoric into reality. It's not clear, then, why he draws our attention to Ingo Swann, a self-proclaimed practitioner of "remote viewing" and other "superpowers of the human biomind"; or the fan magazine Freedom Fighter, "a curious monstrosity"; or the "shadowy world of extremism" that the International Freedom Foundation "brushed up against."

Neither is "conservatism in power" quite the monolith it appears to be in The Wrecking Crew. To be sure, as Frank points out, the true believers roving around President Bush's brain do not share the Main Street values of Bob Taft, Bob Dole and Bob Michel or the Burkean bromides of Bill Buckley. Nonetheless, many influential right-wingers do not agree with Frank (or his "protagonist," Jack Abramoff, the College Republican turned lobbyist for Indian casinos) that to "dynamite the Treasury," "sabotage the regulatory process," "force government shutdowns" and "mulct millions from groups with business before Congress" is to honor "the core doctrines of the conservative tradition."

There is some reason to believe that deregulation and privatization aren't always pernicious - and that the momentum for a free-market free-for-all has stalled. Many Americans now agree with Frank that the "ruination" wrought by the wrecking crew has been substantial. And that we can - or should - say "with finality" that the philosophy that disdains good government and the common good as impossible or injurious has "had its chance."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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