WHEN THOMAS FRANK CO-FOUNDED The Baffler in 1988, according to the introduction of the recently relaunched opinion journal’s first anthology, Commodify Your Dissent, its crucial mission was to “restore a sense of outrage and urgency to the Literature of the Left.” And, over the past fifteen years, Frank has continued to follow this ethos in his own work, publishing one progressive-leaning barrage after another on America’s political and cultural contradictions. In his first book, 1997’s The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism, Frank made the convincing case that some of the most iconic signifiers and artifacts of the counterculture were concocted by Madison Avenue rather than as a reaction against it. Next, in One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, he gave a scathing account of how America’s business elite used the dot-com bubble of the 1990s to make a case that the free market is the perfect mode for organizing society. In 2004, Frank published his best-known work, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. There, he charged Republicans with duping the working class by using cultural issues to get them to vote against their economic interests, a critique sustained in The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, a survey of how conservatives have financially prospered from intentionally dilapidating Washington.
In his latest investigation, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, Frank fleshes out how and why the recent economic meltdown has inexplicably revitalized the Right when it should have led, in his mind, to the reevaluation of “conservative dogma” and the “laissez-faire utopia.” It’s a rejoinder, according to Frank, that doesn’t have a precedent in American history. “Before 2009,” he writes, “the man in the bread line did not ordinarily weep for the man lounging on his yacht.” I spoke with Frank about Pity the Billionaire on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, while he was visiting family in Kansas in between dates on his book tour.
— Eric Been
The Evolution of Conservatism
While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues — summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art — which it then marries to pro-business economic policies. Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements — not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars — that are the movement’s greatest monuments....