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Hard times for left in battle with New Right

Hard times for left in battle with New Right

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Published by Ian Williams
Tribune Review of Tom Frank's book Pity the Billionaire
Tribune Review of Tom Frank's book Pity the Billionaire

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Published by: Ian Williams on Apr 30, 2012
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04/30/2012

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Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Ri ght by Thomas Frank

Harvill Secker, £14.99 by Ian Williams Tribune Friday, April 20th, 2012 In What’s the Matter with Kansas?, published in 2004, Thomas Frank tried to explai n how millions of financially challenged Americans voted for the very people who had picked their pockets – and not even paid taxes on their loot – and showed every intention of continuing so to do. Since then, there has been a financial catast rophe and the response was a grassroots uprising. But, until Occupy Wall Street, it was led by the Tea Party and a massive surge in populist conservatism. That the worst recession in modern history should foment popular movements is not sur prising. But that they should favour the people whose ideas brought about the cr ash is, on the face of it, counter-intuitive. Examining the conservative surge, which became really angry when Barack Obama su cceeded George W Bush, the main architect of the disaster, Frank points out that , as grassroots go, this grass was well-watered with corporate money and organis ing skills – astroturf, in fact. Analysing their words, he shows how the New Right studied the Great Depression a nd stole the tactics of the left in that era, right down to their vocabulary and methods of organisation. The generation whose own experience would have contrad icted the curious theory that FDR and the New Deal caused the Great Depression h as now mostly gone to the great Rock Candy Mountain in the sky. There are now ma ny Americans with no reality-based immunity to historical bovine excreta. While the left cherishes the idea that its heyday was in the 1930s, the historic al evidence is contradictory. Think of the Nazis, for example, (or the Blackshir ts in Britain) the Ku Klux Klan and Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic radio prie st in the United States. France got the Popular Front while Britain got a Conser vative-dominated coalition for the duration of the decade. Although it seems odd that so many believe the problems of the current era were caused by too much regulation and government interference, it is, as Frank sugge sts, not much more anomalous than those who believed that a country of gulags an d purges and show trials held the answer. As he says, “the new right has not met its goals by deception alone – although there has been a great deal of this – but by offering an idealism so powerful that it c louds its partisans’ perceptions of reality”. The invocation of freedom and attacks on an all-powerful state resonate, as Ron Paul’s deluded followers demonstrate. Even the “right to life” is a powerful semantic coup, on a par with the “death tax”, for conserv atives. Union-busting in America is, by long tradition, the “right to work”. Not sin ce Arbeit Macht Frei has language been set so radically athwart reality. In contrast, Frank points out, “modern Democrats don’t do things the way Roosevelt a nd Truman did because their eye is on people who believe, per Obama’s description, ‘in the free market’ almost as piously as do Tea Partyers. Class language, on the o ther hand, feels strange to the new Dems; off-limits. Instead, the party’s guiding geniuses like to think of their organisation as the vanguard of enlightened pro fessionalism and the shrine of purest globaloney”. Obama’s State of the Union speech was typical – a technocratic exercise that threw s craps to his supporters. He did not have a dream, authentic or otherwise, to mov e the masses. Our only hope is that the dream that moves the right is a nightmar

e to the majority of Americans. One drawback with this book is that, in his effort to counter the left’s prejudices about grassroots conservatives, Frank backpedals on the recurren t American subtext of racism. The leaders of the right might not be racists, per sonally, but they know their audience. The anger at Obama burns far brighter in many quarters because he is a black man in the previously all-White House. The n ot so coded references implying that welfare beneficiaries are mostly black (the y aren’t; poverty in America is an equal opportunity programme) are designed to en list white support against government welfare programmes. And, of course, there is now a stream of Islamophobia to match the anti-Semitism of the 1930s.However, those deficiencies in some ways enhance the relevance of Pity the Billionaire for Britons wondering why, when the Opposition stops opposi ng, people start worshipping at strange altars. The description here of the New Democrats suggests that Bill Clinton’s Third Way still has them in its grip, just as Tony Blair’s New Labour project still has its slimy tentacles wrapped around La bour and the left in Britain. Electors abhor a vacuum: nationalism, racism and c lear ideas, no matter how loony, are preferable to leaders disappearing up their own colons to agree with the enemy.

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