Bill Moyers talks with Thomas Frank: Web exclusive
By Bill Moyers
Online Journal Guest Writer
Aug 4, 2008, 00:14
Thomas Frank�s THE
WRECKING CREW, examines corruption in
Washington and puts the Abramoff scandal into context.
Moyers: Your book describes conservatism as �an
expression of American business.� Why exclude Democrats? Jimmy Carter triggered
the deregulation frenzy. Bill Clinton pushed for NAFTA, signed the
Telecommunications Act of 1996 which gave the megamedia companies everything
they wanted, auctioned off the Lincoln Bedroom, and swooned over Robert Rubin
while showing Robert Reich the door. Democratic Congresses were shaking down
corporations when George W. Bush was still tipsy in Texas. And who was running
Congress during the S&L swindles of the late 80s? Why single out
conservatives as the greedy party?
Thomas: Democrats can be conservatives too, of course. In
fact, certain Democrats� embrace of the free-market faith has been just as
consequential as the Republicans� own move to the right. When the Democrats
gave up on FDR and came around to the ideology of Reagan, the opposition ceased
But this was the subject of my 2000 book, ONE MARKET UNDER
GOD, which discussed NAFTA and the Telecommunications Act at some length. THE
WRECKING CREW is an effort to explain the particular species of corruption we
see in Washington
Clinton�s contributions here were not insignificant, but
they were more passive than active. His celebration of outsourcing set up the
government-for-profit of the Bush era. His war on federal wages ensured that
government would remain an unattractive career option, especially when compared
to what�s offered by the contractors who are our de facto government today. His
failure even to try to reverse certain initiatives of the Reagan years allowed
them to harden into permanent fixtures of the Washington scene.
There are other forms of corruption that are particular to
liberalism, and that occur more naturally among Democrats. But by and large,
the particular mode of corruption I describe in this book is a Republican
invention. True believers in the free-market way invented it and feel most
comfortable in it. Most Democrats can be embarrassed by their relationship to
lobbyists because publicly they pretend to be the �party of the people�; most
Republicans are happy to say they believe in market-based government.
Moyers: You go on to write that the political
triumph of conservatism has coincided with the rise of the Washington area to
the richest rank of American metropolises. But can�t it be said that the
ascendancy of liberalism turned government into the cornucopia of spending
which became a vast feeding ground for predators of all stripes?
Thomas: During its heyday, liberalism was often depicted in
these terms-as a giveaway to special interests, handouts to organized whiners,
pork-barrel projects like the TVA. There may have been some merit to those
charges -- they aren�t my subject in this book so I don�t know -- but whatever
they were, they are as nothing compared to the kind of money presently being
sent down the chute to defense contractors and homeland-security operators and
As for Washington�s wealth, it is uniquely a phenomenon of
the era of privatization and outsourcing, not of liberalism.
Moyers: You seem to dismiss, if not
denigrate, the term �culture of corruption.� If that doesn�t fit the nexus
between K Street, the White House, Congress and contract-dispensing federal
agencies, what does?
Thomas: My problem with the term �culture of corruption� is
that the word �culture� is being used generically -- to mystify and accuse, not
to define. I wanted to get down to specifics: What, exactly, is corrupt about
this culture? How did it get that way? What�s responsible for it? The Democrats�
talk about a �culture of corruption� implies that simply voting for Democrats
will fix it; when we know more about this culture we discover that it goes far
too deep for such a simple solution.
Moyers: You argue that the sprawling spectacle
surrounding Jack Abramoff was not just a matter of a �few bad apples.� So was
the whole orchard rotten?
Thomas: It�s not the apples, it�s the trees themselves. It�s
systemic. It�s structural. It�s the logical consequence of the philosophy of
government currently in place. It has nothing to do with individuals except for
the handful of geniuses who invented it all.
Moyers: I read the muckraker David Graham
Phillips, whom you quote in your book. A hundred years ago he was writing about
The Treason of the Senate when the biggest names in the world�s �greatest
deliberative body� were serving �interests as hostile to the American people as
any invading army could be, and vastly more dangerous; interests that
manipulate the prosperity produced by all, so that it heaps up riches for the
few; interests whose growth and power can only mean the degradation of the
people.� Ralph Nader couldn�t say it better. So what�s new?
Thomas: Morally, those sentiments are right on-target. What�s
new is (a) the unthinkable is back; (b) it�s infinitely more complex; and (c)
it�s ideological. The Vanderbilts had their own U.S. senator because that way
they could grab more, but the people doing it today are motivated at least
partially by ideology. They have a theoretical justification for what they�ve
done: the market is always and in every case better than the bureaucracy.
What�s more, many of the people I describe in the book
understand themselves as crusaders against corruption. They think *they* are
the muckrakers, demanding more and more deregulation or privatization.
Government should get out of the marketplace altogether. By what right does it
regulate insider trading or price fixing? Get off our backs!
Moyers: When exactly when was it the
government that you believed in as a kid in Kansas -- apparently schools there
taught the Preamble to the Constitution -- was reengineered, as you put it, �into
a device for our exploitation?�
You require several pages -- riveting pages,
I will admit - to describe a �fantastic misgovernment.� Distill the essence of
it for a bumper sticker or t-shirt.
Thomas: Bad government is the natural product of rule by
those who believe government is bad.
Or: Cynicism spawns corruption, which spawns cynicism.
Or: Bring back the regulators before the system
Moyers: Conservatives are fond of writing
op-eds and going on television to say, �Don�t look at us. It was the
Republicans!� Are we really talking about a colossal case of mistaken identity
here? Were the souls of conservatives actually hijacked and implanted in
Republican bodies bought at a local taxidermist shop?
Thomas: It is true that not all Republicans are
conservatives -- we used to have some pretty liberal ones out in the Midwest.
Also some pretty clean ones, especially in Kansas City, where the Dems were the
party of Pendergast.
But the distinction is constantly abused by conservatives in
order to get their movement off the hook when their one-time leaders� numbers
plummet. One day Jack Abramoff is their maximum leader; when it�s discovered
that he�s been ripping off his clients, suddenly he�s not a conservative
anymore. One day George W. Bush is thought to be in daily contact with the
Almighty; when his numbers tank, he�s an �impostor� who�s tricked the movement.
They once said the same things about Reagan, incidentally.
Incidentally, all of this is a basic logical fallacy called �No
True Scotsman.� Scotsman A says, �No Scotsman puts soy milk on his porridge.�
Scotsman B says, �Oh yeah? I know a Scotsman who puts soy milk on his porridge.�
Scotsman A then replies, �Well, no *true* Scotsman puts soy milk on his
Moyers: Many years ago I reported for a
documentary on the Iran-Contra scandal -- when President Reagan was waging a �secret�
war against the Sandinistas and his hirelings in the basement of the White
House traded arms for hostages to finance it. In your description of that
scandal you write that two great conservative themes converged: �freedom
fighters� and political entrepreneurship. Right?
Thomas: Yes. The right of those years was infatuated with
the idea of �freedom fighters� -- the contras in Nicaragua, the mujaheddin in
Afghanistan, Jonas Savimbi in Angola, and whatever that brutal gang was called
in Mozambique. To conservatives, these guys seemed to represent a kind of
sixties in reverse, in which the glamorous guerrillas were now on our side.
And, yes, they thought Jonas Savimbi was glamorous.
They supported these figures with entrepreneurial methods:
asking millionaires to contribute to nonprofits which would then buy supplies
for the contras (and supplies for the fundraiser); transforming their control
of the state into cash (selling weapons to Iran). Their ultimate ambition was
supposed to be called �The Enterprise�: a foreign policy instrument completely
free from the scrutiny of Congress.
Moyers: And you think some of what we�ve seen
under this regime evolved -- pardon the secular language -- from that
Thomas: The entrepreneurship is officially woven into the
fabric of the state now: �Government should be market-based,� Bush says.
Entrepreneurship is what gave you both the catastrophic depopulating of FEMA
and the lucrative but ineffectual recovery effort after Katrina. Or look at
Iraq, where much of our foreign policy apparatus is indeed private and is
almost completely beyond scrutiny. Try phoning Blackwater and asking them why
they do the things they do.
Moyers: Two years ago my documentary �Capitol
Crimes,� which we updated and repeated Friday night, reported on how
conservatives in Washington ganged up to promote sweat shops on American
territory. You devote a chapter to this story and call it �Bantustan That
Roared.� Give our readers a peek into what you mean.
Thomas: �Bantustans,� or �homelands,� were a tool of the
apartheid government in South Africa. They were supposedly separate countries
in which the black population could be theoretically housed, leaving South Africa
proper for the whites. Generally speaking, the Bantustans had two industries:
casino gambling and low-wage manufacturing. One of them was ferociously
libertarian, and much beloved of American conservatives. And they were all
propped up ideologically by appeals to racial or ethnic pride.
Each of these elements was present in Saipan,
to one degree or another. The raging libertarianism, the casino gambling, the
sweatshop manufacturing -- exploiting, in this case, imported Filipinos and
Chinese-and the constant use of ethnic pride to excuse the whole rotten thing.
I say Saipan �roared� because, while the Bantustans
pretty much sucked for everyone who lived there, it has been a great success
Moyers: Tom DeLay went there with a gaggle of
conservatives in two and called the sweatshops �a petri dish of capitalism.�
How about that for a vision of America�s future?
Thomas: DeLay was right. That�s what we�re becoming.
Democracy is over. It�s rule by money, now: plutocracy, the pre-thirties
Moyers: What do you make of the fact that
Norquist is still riding high, despite the seamy business he carried on of
using his organization to funnel money from Abramoff�s clients to Ralph Reed?
Does his constituency just not care about such things?
Thomas: Apparently not. Maybe they think Norquist is just a
good entrepreneur. I met him, by the way, and found him a charming and very
Moyers: Who are the real casualties of THE
Thomas: It�s ordinary working people. Thirty or forty years
ago, it was possible to work a blue-collar job and enjoy a middle-class standard
of living. In fact, it was common. It was the American way. The reason it was
so common, though, was because we decided to make it that way and used
government as our instrument. That instrument is no longer under our control.
Someone else is at the wheel, and they�re steering us in a different direction.
Moyers: So can good little liberals go to bed
at night now and sleep soundly knowing the Good Democrats have slain the
monsters and reclaimed the castle?
Thomas: No. Unfortunately, the system I describe is part of
the landscape in Washington
now. It�s structural. It�s an industry. It�s not going down without an enormous
fight. Besides, rather than putting away this very profitable game, a lot of
Democrats seem excited to try their hand at it.
(Other Democrats, though, are trying to get to the bottom of
things. Some Republicans, too. There used to be one called John McCain that I
Moyers: Years ago the WALL STREET JOURNAL
banned subversive -- liberal -- writers from their editorial pages. Suddenly
you pop up as a columnist on the op-ed page. Are you Rupert Murdoch�s fig leaf?
How did it happen? This wasn�t supposed to be
the Age of Miracles.
Thomas: I have never met or spoken to Rupert Murdoch. The editor
of their op-ed page is the one who offered me a spot. I was as surprised by the
invitation as you are, since one of my previous books was basically an extended
commentary on the JOURNAL�s opinion page over the course of the 1990s.
I personally think that one of the reasons I�ve ended up at
the JOURNAL is, ironically, the famous �liberal bias� critique. I�ve always
suspected that one of the reasons I�ve never been offered a regular, permanent
place in any prominent mainstream publication is that everyone in
big-media-land is terrified of seeming too liberal, and hiring someone like me
would obviously expose them to terrific blasts from the right. Well, one of the
only publications in America
that is totally immune to that critique is the WALL STREET JOURNAL. Which means
they�re free to hire me.
Moyers: Has living in Washington made you
cynical? Or was it the ripping of the veil in �The Wizard of Oz� that destroyed
Thomas: The literature of Washington is, by and large, the
literature of cynicism and disillusionment. I wanted to update it for our time.
But I prefer the word �skeptical,� since I believe good government is possible.Bill
Moyers is managing editor of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers
Journal, which airs Friday nights on PBS. Check local airtimes or comment at
The Moyers Blog at www.pbs.org/moyers.
The video for this essay can be found on YouTube.
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