Book of the week: The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule by Thomas Frank

The Wrecking Crew will "monopolize political conversations" for months to come as readers debate Thomas Frank's account of how the Republicans have dismantled the government by selling it off to the private sector.&

The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule

by Thomas Frank

(Metropolitan, $25)

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Incompetence doesn’t begin to explain the many Republican scandals and stumbles of the past eight years, says columnist and historian Thomas Frank. In 2003, a year before he published the best-seller What’s the Matter With Kansas?, the Midwestern author moved to Washington, finding the capital encircled by “swollen suburban homes,” BMW dealerships, and other signs of newfound affluence. Some of the grand homes were owned by Republican lobbyists. But Frank discovered that most of the new elite were conservative businessmen who had tapped the honey flow “as the government handed off its essential responsibilities to the private sector.” Even Congress’ corruption scandals didn’t hurt this cynical scheme, Frank writes; they only reinforced the Republican message that the government deserved dismantling.

Frank has once again thrown a “stick of dynamite” into America’s bookstores, said Rick Perlstein in Like his last book, this one should “monopolize political conversation” for months to come. In Kansas, Frank blamed Republicans for tricking blue-collar Americans into voting against their economic interests. In The Wrecking Crew, he’s delivered the first book to effectively link the “conservative ‘movement-building’ of the 1970s” with recent images of lobbyist Jack Abramoff emerging from his indictment hearing or Hurricane Katrina victims waiting for federal assistance. In Frank’s telling, it was Abramoff and other Reagan-era young Republicans who discovered that corporate patrons could turn an anti-government ideological battle into a highly profitable careers. In Frank’s telling, the triumph of the conservatives was fueled by “outright venality.”

But Frank’s lively account is too biased to be fully trusted, said Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker. Worse, its bias arises from the naïve notion that government would be freed to champion some “transcendent public interest” if only greedy Republicans could be defeated. In reality, all politics is a “struggle for advantage” among self-serving actors—Frank included. His argument helps Democrats, after all, and he and other educated elites tend to enjoy greater stature and influence under Democratic rule. What’s striking about Frank’s worldview is that it looks backward to the midcentury for its vision of the better world that will ostensibly arrive if Democrats reclaim the presidency, said Jonathan Liu in The New York Observer. Voters want the future. His party is in trouble if its leading lights promise them only modest homes and “reliable pensions.”

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