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The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule

Frank, Thomas Author

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In his previous book, Thomas Frank explained why working America votes for politicians who reserve their favors for the rich. Now, in Wrecking Crew, Frank examines the Washington those politicians have given us, showing why, no matter what happens in November 2008, we’re stuck with it for the foreseeable future.   

    Casting back to the early days of the conservative revolution, Frank describes the rise of a ruling coalition dedicated to dismantling government. But rather than cutting down the big government they claim to hate, conservatives have simply sold it off, deregulating some industries, defunding others, but always turning public policy into a private-sector bidding war. Washington itself has been remade into a golden landscape of super-wealthy suburbs and gleaming lobbyist headquarters. And though arch-lobbyist Jack Abramoff has crashed and burned, the government-by-entrepreneurship he pioneered so outrageously has become the law of the land.

    It is no coincidence, Frank argues, that the same politicians who guffaw at the idea of effective government have installed a regime in which incompetence is the rule. Nor will the country easily shake off the consequences of deliberate misgovernment through the usual election remedies. Obsessed with achieving a lasting victory, conservatives have taken pains to enshrine the free market as the permanent creed of state.

    Stamped with Frank’s audacity, analytic brilliance, and wit, Wrecking Crewis his most revelatory work yet—and his most important.

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About the Author:

Thomas Frank, the author of What’s the Matter With Kansas? and One Market Under God, is also the founding editor of The Baffler and a  contributing editor at Harper’s. Recipient of a Lannan nonfiction prize, he has been a guest columnist for The New York Times and frequently writes for Harper’s, The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, among others. He lives, of course, in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One
Golconda on the Potomac
The richest county in America isn’t in Silicon Valley or some sugarland preserve of Houston’s oil kings; it is Loudoun County, Virginia, a fast-growing suburb of Washington, D.C., that is known for swollen suburban homes and white rail fences of the kind that denote “horse country.” The second richest county is Fairfax, Virginia, the next suburb over from Loudoun; the third, sixth, and seventh richest counties are also suburbs of the capital.1 The Washington area has six different Morton’s steakhouses to choose from, seven BMW dealerships,2 six Ritz-Carlton installations, 3 three luxury lifestyle magazines, and a Capital Beltway that is essentially an all-hours Mercedes speedway. There are malcontents all over America with a ready explanation for why this is so: Washington is rich because those overpaid federal bureaucrats are battening on the hard work of people like us, gorging themselves on the bounty that the IRS extracts out of the vast heartland. In blog and barbershop alike they rail against big government like it’s 1979, moaning about meddling feds and cursing the income tax as a crime against nature.   As a way of explaining the stratospheric prosperity of Washington today, however, this old, familiar plaint makes as much sense as attributing the price of stocks to the coming and going of sunspots. After all, it isn’t FTC paper pushers who buy the six-thousand-square-foot “estate homes” of Loudoun County, and even the highest-ranking members of Congress drool to behold the fine cars and the vacation chateaus of the people sent to lobby them by, say, the pharmaceutical industry.   The reason our barbershop grumblers don’t get it is that their myths don’t account for the swarming, thriving fauna that populates the capital today. Conservative Washington is, by and large, unknown territory. The private offices to which it has delegated the nation’s public business are not included on the tourist’s map. Its monuments are not marked. Its operations are not well understood outside the city. But Washington’s newfound opulence gives us our first clue as to what those operations entail.   Washington is a strange place under any circumstances. If you happen to come here from the urban Midwest, as I did, the city seems alien and hopelessly unreal. The blue-collar workers who make up a good portion of the population elsewhere in America are a minority in Washington, with lawyers outnumbering machinists, to choose one example, by a factor of twenty-seven to one. There are few rusting factories or empty warehouses in Washington—and few busy factories or well-stocked warehouses either. The largest manufacturing outfit in town, at least as of the early 1980s, was the Government Printing Of.ce.4 The neighborhood taverns one finds on nearly every street corner in Chicago are almost completely absent, as are the three-.flats that house much of that midwestern metropolis.   While the capital has desperately poor people in abundance, members of the political class have almost no reason to mingle with them. If you stay within the boundaries of the federal colony, you will meet only people like your tidy white-collar self: college graduates wearing ID badges and speaking correct American English. In one residential neighborhood I visited, a full 50 percent of the adult population possess advanced degrees.   The city is a perfect realization of the upper-bracket dream of a white-collar universe, where economies run on the information juggling of the “creative class” and where manufacturing is something done by .filthy brutes in far-off lands. In the hard-hit heartland this fantasy seems so risible as to not require attention. In Washington and its suburbs, however—where there are hundreds of corporate offices but little manufacturing—it is thought to be such an apt description of reality, such a pearly pearl of wisdom, that the city’s big thinkers return to it again and again. The malls and offices and housing developments of northern Virginia so overwhelmed Joel Garreau, the man on the “cultural revolution” beat at the Washington Post, that in describing them he slipped into the past-tense profundo: the region’s “privateenterprise, high-information, high-education, post-Industrial Revolution economy,” he raved in 1991, “made it a model of what American urban areas would be in the twenty-.first century.”5   Washington has boomed before, and it’s even been proclaimed a model for the world before—most famously during the thirties and forties, when the federal government looked like the savior of the nation and maybe even of the planet. The city was occupied then by an army of “New Dealers” who were talented, idealistic about the possibilities of government, and young—far younger than the gray old gentlemen who had previously run the place. Today we naturally think of Washington as a young person’s town, thanks to all the fresh-faced interns and aides and paralegals who fill its offices. But in the thirties this was a novel development, made possible by the stock market crash and the Depression, which closed other doors and utterly destroyed the traditional American faith in limited government and benevolent business.   Disabused of the old myths, and unable to get a job, the class of 1933 went to Washington instead of Wall Street. They lived in group houses, drank hard, and threw themselves into building the new regulatory state. It’s not a calling that anyone associates with glamour anymore, but excitement and high patriotism are constant themes in the literature of the New Deal period. One account from 1935, for example, described the city’s “mood of adventure, the exhilaration of exciting living which the humblest office-holders share with the Brain Trust [the president’s close advisers] as co-workers in the great experimental laboratory set up in their city.”6 The stories of that period always seemed to follow the same pattern: how the bright young man arrived in the city, fresh from law school, where he was put to work immediately on business of the utmost urgency; how he went for days without sleep; how he marveled at the awesome abilities of the people the administration had brought to Washington. I know of none in which the young man came to Washington to get rich. When the New Dealers grew older, of course, they found ample opportunity to pile up the coin, often by guiding business interests through the bureaucracies that they themselves had created.7 But in those early years, when business had failed so spectacularly and when the country looked desperately to Washington for relief, public service became the object of a sort of cult.8   Liberalism was something strong and bold in those days, and making government work was at the very heart of it. This was the period when the United States developed a first-rate bureaucracy, and the famous law professor Felix Frankfurter attributed its appearance to the epochal migration of idealistic youth to the capital (a movement for which Frankfurter was partially responsible). “The ablest of them—in striking contrast to what was true thirty years ago—are eager for service in government,” he wrote in 1936. “They find satisfaction in work which aims at the public good and which presents problems that challenge the best ability and courage of man.”9   Like all historical myths, the legend of the capable and selfless New Dealer is surely overdrawn. Even so, there were in those years enough genuine cases of honest public service delivered despite peril to the public servant’s career to make the thirties and forties truly seem like some kind of bureaucratic golden age. The chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, provoked the berserk, undying hostility of the senior senator from Tennessee by refusing to allow this worthy to pack the TVA with cronies and patronage hacks. The head of the Office of Price Administration, responsible for wartime rationing, fended off not only the spoilsmen of Congress but the profiteers of the private sector, earning the enmity of senators and industrialists alike. And when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s nominee for chairman of the Federal Reserve was informed that the private sector would agree to his appointment if he would abandon his liberalism, he responded, “You can tell your banker friends to go to hell.”10   True, Washington crawled with millionaires back then, just as it does today. There was a critical difference, however: in those days the millions almost always came from somewhere else. At the turn of the twentieth century, in the golden age of unregulated capitalism, the masters of the great fortunes had found it amusing to settle down among the diplomats and statesmen of the federal city, and so Massachusetts Avenue came to be lined with the grand palazzos of people who had made their pile—or, more accurately, whose parents had made their pile—in mining or manufacturing or railroads or steel or breakfast cereal. Occasionally these nabobs went in for politics themselves: A 1905 novel by David Graham Phillips is set in “one of the very .nest of the houses that have been building since rich men began to buy into the Senate and Cabinet.” But by the thirties their days in public service had ended. Now these patricians spent their time throwing dinner parties for ambassadors, publishing newspapers, settling back into comfortable alcoholic delirium, and, of course, raging against the New Dealers who had supplanted them.11   “Never before have such vast numbers of officials swarmed to the capital, and never before have so few of them been welcomed by the permanent dwellers,” wrote one of these embittered Washington aristocrats in the Saturday Evening Post in 1936, the same year that Felix Frankfurter penned his homage to the visionary young bureaucrat. What Frankfurter saw as idealism was exactly what made the “hordes of New Dealers” so contemptible to the capital’s highborn hostesses. The New Dealer “exists on a high spiritual plane; he, and he alone, is a good man,” the aristocrat sneered. “He proves it by the violent sincerity of his intolerance.” He gives further offense by showing up at dinner parties late or in business clothes, by his inexperience with servants, and by radiating “malice and envy toward the successful,” meaning the tycoons this impudent nobody proposed to regulate. Fortunately, the aristocrat concluded, the New Dealers’ persecution of bankers and captains of industry was inadvertently bringing to town numerous more suitable dinner guests; indeed, “the only attractive and able men who come to Washington today, are brought there by subpoenas.”12   Those swarms of New Dealers changed the appearance of the city, too. The architectural hallmark of their Washington boom was the unassuming two-story, redbrick, colonial-style house, built by the thousands in a great residential arc around the city’s core. These homes were for bureaucrats, not billionaires; they were made affordable by loans guaranteed by the New Deal’s Federal Housing Administration; and they were constructed according to the FHA’s vision of the ideal family dwelling. In Arlington Forest, a suburban neighborhood that opened up in 1939, the houses look like perfect cubes, almost identical, each one set back from the street exactly the same distance, with four windows spaced evenly on the square facade. For your $590 down payment, you got three bedrooms, a kitchen whose sink featured a double drain board, chrome-plated bathroom fixtures, and a basement suitable for remodeling into a rec room. No garage.13   I remember the first time I visited the capital as a college student and found myself in one of those brick-cube neighborhoods, with the rusting Buicks parked in the street and the aluminum bay windows bolted on the fronts of the houses in an effort to disguise their sameness. Surveying a row of them, stretching down the block like packing crates on a conveyor belt, was enough to make one an instant punk rocker, and I recall climbing back in the car, turning up the volume on Government Issue or Naked Raygun, and swearing to myself that I would never live this way.   Looking at them today, I can only think of the middle-class nation that we have left behind. To own a house made of bricks was something of a declaration in 1939, and what New Deal Washington was declaring was that everyone in the land was entitled to this: a safe place to raise kids, a good public school, an easy commute, and a shopping center nearby.   The model survived up into the seventies. A friend of mine who grew up in the suburb of McLean, Virginia, drove me around his old neighborhood, a typical development of that period, with brick split-levels and lots of houses with flimsy pillars out front. He pointed out for me the row house his family owned, the park he played in, the Safeway he walked to, the public schools he attended. No, he wasn’t able to tee off from his patio if he wanted, but it was a pleasant way of life nevertheless.   His mom stayed home, his dad worked on Capitol Hill, and the whole arrangement was affordable on a congressional aide’s annual salary of $20,000. It was designed to be that way; that’s what liberalism was all about.   The Washington boom that began in the eighties and that exploded under George W. Bush was of an entirely different character. This time the millionaires were homegrown, and the template for Washington housing was ostentatious, aristocratic, and gargantuan. Driving around McLean these days you get the impression that the capital is minting tycoons the way it used to generate environmental regulations and amendments to the tax code. Every few miles you pass another castle going up, sometimes with stone posterns so large they are seemingly meant to serve as a defensive perimeter. Battlements are much in vogue; one house I saw had matching his ’n’ hers turrets on either end. For those not so keen on martial architecture, there is the good old Washington colonial, only tripled in size, like three of the Arlington Forest cubes arranged in a flying wedge, with a three-car garage trailing along behind.   The one I visited, after reading an advertisement headlined “Celebrate Your Destiny,” was a Grand Monet, a model in the “two to two-point-five” range. A more affluent destiny might conceivably lead you to other models, like the Grand Michelangelo, the Grand Cézanne, the Grand Rembrandt, or even the Grand Rembrandt Platinum. But the Grand Monet was good enough for me. It towered over the surrounding neighborhood of brick ranches and split-levels like an elephant in a herd of cows. Not to worry, though; this was a tear-down section of McLean, I was assured, where destruction was inevitable and everyone knew it. What would be left when the inevitable had come to pass was an entire neighborhood of houses like the Grand Monet: a billowing drywall circus tent, with granite countertops and beige carpets and fiberglass bathtubs and walk-in closets large enough by themselves to contain a bedroom from one of the New Deal colonials. There was space for a huge TV in the family room and for an even bigger TV in the basement “theater room,” where a thick tangle of wires waited to deliver exceptional entertainment experiences to the discerning eyes and ears of the occupants.   This sort of grandiosity is typical of recent suburban development everywhere in America, but in northern Virginia the form has been brought to a grotesque consummation—a platinum consummation in which the developer’s worst instincts are permitted their full expression. At Evans Farm, a gated and walled-off subdivision built on the last green space in the area, the developers shoehorned in the luxe and the splendor so tightly that visitors start ...

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