Interview with Thomas Frank

October, 2008

Thomas Frank Don't let Thomas Frank's job at the conservative Wall Street Journal fool you — he is liberal and proud of it. The bestselling author of What's the Matter with Kansas? has a new book called The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, which theorizes that conservatives have been systematically dismantling government for years and spreading the myth that bureaucracy doesn't work. Frank is also the founding editor of The Baffler and a contributing editor at Harper's. Frank talked with Goodreads about why the bailout makes him angry, the hidden uses of whiskey and hot baths, and what he predicts for the next president.

Goodreads: Let's talk about The Wrecking Crew. What motivated you to write this book?

Thomas Frank: It started when I moved to Washington, D.C., in 2003, which was high noon for Republican rule. They had both Congress and the White House, and of course the Supreme Court, which they've had for a long time. They were totally unembarrassed by their excess. They were right out in the open about everything and on top of the world. Then the corruption scandals started coming in. The Abramoff scandal broke in 2004 and really captured my imagination, because it was such a crazy story. I had been in College Republicans a long time ago, and I knew there had to be more to the story, so I started digging.

By moving to the city, I also realized that Washington is the richest metro area in America. This is a recent development, so it shocked me. It occurred to me that somebody had to theorize this place. We have lots of theories about what's wrong with Washington, but they tend to be the theories developed by the right back in the 1970s about liberals. Even when someone like George Bush goes wrong, conservatives say, "Well, he's become liberal." Liberalism is the root of all evil, and when someone does something wrong it is because they've become more liberal. But that theory really doesn't hold water, and very obviously so. These people I was watching roll around Washington, eating their fine meals at the lobbyist restaurants, all the awful stories that were in the news in '04, '05, and '06 — these people were not liberals. There's no definition of the word by which they would qualify. So we had to have a different theory. So my object was to come up with the theory for the conservative state — what made it tick and what explained everything from the corruption to the mismanagement of the federal agencies.

GR: The Washington culture you describe is so entrenched. What can the next administration do? How do you foresee either McCain or Obama responding to this system?

TF: It's funny because they're both running as reformers and they both have some credibility on that subject. McCain is, after all, the man who busted Jack Abramoff, and he was very good on some of the contractor scandals. In fact, when I came to Washington, I really liked John McCain. I thought he was pretty cool, but I don't think that anymore. Something has gone wrong with him, just in the last year or so. It's disheartening to watch him speak now.

So what is it going to take to clean it up? In the superficial sense, they've already started. As soon as the Democrats got in, they passed a lobbying reform measure that changed a lot of the superficial things about lobbying. But for the larger culture of Washington, they have to start over from square one, and I don't think McCain is ready to do that. McCain likes clean government obviously, but he has never criticized the whole politics of contracting out and privatizing, as far as I've seen. I would imagine he would even retain a lot of the Bush administration people when he gets in. He's not going to throw them out.

If Obama gets in, he'll have an enormous task in front of him, but I don't even know if he'll be up to it. It is such a huge, thankless job, because people don't even know that there's something wrong. It comes out in the headlines: Look, we have poisonous spinach! Look, child labor has come back! There are 13-year-olds working at a meat packing plant in Iowa! Or something like that. But there has been no one in the mainstream media saying that all these things are related. So what's Obama's incentive for fixing it? On the other hand, regarding the complete collapse of the financial system, Obama has been very good at pointing the finger at the culprits, whereas McCain has been utterly clueless on the subject.

GR: Do you have any book recommendations for young voters, some perhaps voting for the first time?

TF: Because of what's going on in the economy, this election is basically a referendum on what kind of nation we're going to be and what kind of democracy we're going to be. I'd like to recommend the literature of what's wrong with capitalism — how if you let it just run unregulated, it will self-destruct like it's doing right now, and it will drive millions of people into bankruptcy and kick up unemployment. People haven't written about that in a long time because we've been living in a state where we thought those problems had been solved, and now it turns out they haven't been. The classic book on that subject is called The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi. It's not the easiest thing to read, but it's the classic indictment of pure, laissez-faire, 19th-century style economics. I get a big kick out of it.

GR: What is your reaction to the recently passed bailout plan?

TF: The plan has a lot of things wrong with it, but they had to do something. To some degree, the financial industry has us over a barrel. They are the industry that calls the shots in America, and they've only become this in the last 20 years. They are the people who steer the economy, and if they go down, they take a lot of us with them. So yes, they have to be bailed out, which is really bloody annoying. And it is being done in a very clumsy manner. The bailout itself is going to be done through outsourcing — they are going to hire people from Wall Street to run it. I can't imagine how they're going to get around the conflicts of interest. It is so dumb it boggles the mind. But this is the way the Bush administration does everything — everything gets outsourced, everything gets privatized.

We're stuck, but the good thing that could come out of this is that we might finally be able to just say no more deregulation. No more turning regulatory agencies into business. No more privatizing. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission, like so many other branches of the executive, was essentially being run by business. They let the industry have whatever they wanted. They even accepted the industry's own accounting figures on everything. It was absolutely crazy. When you let an industry essentially run the regulatory agencies that are supposed to oversee it, this is what happens. And it happens across the board, whether you are talking about the EPA, the Labor Department, the FTC, or the FDA — you name it. When industry gets to do whatever it wants, it's going to screw you over.

GR: What's the Matter with Kansas? discussed how voters in Middle America were voting on social issues rather than their economic concerns. Now four years later, do you see any signs that this trend has shifted at all?

TF: The corollary in What's the Matter with Kansas? is that if, first of all, economic issues are on the table, and second, forthrightly discussed by the candidates (which they were not four years ago, or four years before that), then economics always trumps culture war. The economy is dragging McCain down; there's no question about it. He's giving culture war his best shot with Sarah Palin. She's great! She is the finest culture warrior we've seen in years. But she can't beat the economy. It'll be extraordinary if she can.

GR: Campaigning is now organized around swing states and the allotment of electoral votes. Do you think it is time to revise the electoral college system?

TF: I've never really worried about that problem because up until 2000, in my lifetime, we've never had a situation in which the popular vote winner lost the election. It was never a concern for me. I've always been more interested in the theoretical things and grand political changes like the great shift to the right that started in '68. But since that happened in 2000, it's obvious that they need to do away with the electoral college. Whoever wins the popular vote ought to be president. There's no doubt in my mind. It's supposed to be a democracy, right? Majority rules, right? There's also all sorts of problems with the U.S. Senate. Wyoming or Kansas (and I love Kansas) has as much say over bills as New York or California, states that have many, many more people. That's screwed up too.

GR: You are the newest columnist at The Wall Street Journal, which has a traditionally conservative op-ed page. What kind of reception have you had from readers?

TF: There's been a lot of angry letters to the editor, but I've also heard from people who have enjoyed what I have to say. I read The Wall Street Journal for years before I became a columnist for it, and I know a lot of liberals who read the paper, especially in the labor movement, because they have pretty good labor coverage compared to other newspapers. These people would avoid the op-ed page. I'm hoping that maybe that will change. I always read the op-ed page in the past. It was always one of my favorite things, so it's highly ironic that I am now writing for it.

GR: You've described your writing style as muckraking. Can you tell our readers a little about this tradition? Can you recommend any muckraking classics?

TF: There are several writers that I looked to for guidance. One of them was Lincoln Steffens, the original muckraker. He wrote The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens. It was once upon a time a very famous book — back in the 1930s. It is sort of forgotten today. He called himself "a graft philosopher," which means he wanted to come up with a theory of corruption. Before Steffens, there was no grand theory for how it happened and what it did, and he came up with one that was very interesting. But it was 100 years ago, so it was just the beginning of this field.

The muckrakers were workaday journalists, who would crank out prose at great speed. That's not me. My great literary model is H.L. Mencken. I don't know if you would call him a muckraker — he was a troublemaker, but he was literary-minded. He wrote about politics and society, but he was grounded in literature. That always came first for him. He's my great hero in terms of style. His politics were pretty dumb, but he's my hero.

GR: The younger generation often exclusively reads the news online, gathering information from both traditional sources and new ones such as blogs. What is the best way for a reader to seek out unbiased news sources?

TF: I read three newspapers a day — four when I was writing the book. What you realize when you're in my position is that there are a lot of things that the newspapers don't understand. People who write for newspapers are young and fresh out of college. The people writing about politics don't know about economics; the people in economics tend to be heavily biased toward industry. They are very pro-business. So they get things wrong all the time. The average person reading the papers just has to take that into consideration.

As an example, there was a story that really got me going in The New York Times a few days ago about the very conservative Republican Caucus in the House of Representatives that voted no on the bailout. They said they were doing it on principle because they believe in free markets. The New York Times had a big story about how these guys are populists — that's the word they used. But if you actually go and look at what these people proposed, it doesn't get any more un-populist. They wanted to repeal the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, which was a very liberal measure designed to create full employment in America. You can't call someone who wants to do away with that a populist. It does not compute. All they did was listen to the way these people talked, and said, "Oh, that's populism." You see things like that in the newspaper every day. If you're me, you just take the newspaper as a starting point, and then you dig deeper by yourself, whether that means interviewing people or getting primary documents.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

TF: I love F. Scott Fitzgerald. He's the greatest. There's a book by Paul Fussell, a literary critic, called The Great War and Modern Memory about World War I that's very important to me. I love Edmund Wilson — not many people read him anymore, but I'm a huge fan. Also, there is Richard Hofstadter, the greatest historian of them all. He is my hero. When I was in graduate school, that's the kind of history I wanted to do — the history of ideas. He was ingenious, very perceptive, and also a great writer. Those things almost never go together, but he had it. I've always been a fan of Christopher Lasch. Between Hofstadter and Lasch, you can understand everything that's happened to us.

I've recently been reading Arthur Conan Doyle novels just for fun. I loved Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid, so I've been reading his medieval novels. He wrote a bunch of novels about the Middle Ages. They are alternately horrifying and very funny.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

TF: It has changed a lot since I had kids. I have two kids now. Before I had kids, I would literally get up in the morning, turn on the computer, work all day — often I would not eat — and then turn it off and go to bed at night. That's it. The problem with that is if you do that for several weeks, when you finally do go outside and see other people, you've forgotten how to interact. It de-socializes you, and that's not healthy, so now I only work for eight hours a day!

A lot of people say they get their best work done first thing in the morning, and that's true if you've had a good night's sleep. The other thing is, you should not be afraid of whiskey. Don't turn something in after you've been drinking, but you will often come up with good ideas, and then look at them again the next morning and say, "Man, that was good," or "That was really stupid." But sometimes you need something like that to punch through when you're stumped. I used to have several things that I did for coming up with ideas. Number one: I would drive on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago, and for some reason I would always come up with ideas. But I don't live there anymore, so that's out. Number two: I would go jogging, and I still do that. And number three: really, really hot baths.

GR: Thank you so much for all the tips. We will pass them along.

TF: Let me say the whiskey should be in moderation!

GR: We'll be sure to put that in! Thanks so much for talking with us.

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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Otis (new)

Otis Chandler Whiskey always helps me work!


message 2: by Jim (new)

Jim Water of life, aye!


message 3: by Michael (new)

Michael Economy This is aparent from looking at your code :D


message 4: by Jan (new)

Jan Great interview. I loved it. Glad to see a liberal at the WSJ.


message 5: by Ryan (last edited Feb 04, 2009 11:34AM) (new)

Ryan Interesting. He seems a bit contradictory though. According to the intro his book is about the fact that conservatives have been spreading the myth that "bureaucracy doesn't work" and then the next paragraph talks about the corruption and scandals of government. It seems like the classic "If only we had the right people" excuse which completely ignores the self interested way in which humans act. As Milton Friedman would say, "Just where do you find these angels?"

Then the following paragraph he talks about how D.C. is the richest metro area and then hints that the "theorizing" is part of some genius central planning. (Is it just me or is it more plausible that these same scandal ridden politicians were acting in their own self interest yet again and pumping money into the city where they spend so much of their time? After all, the whole of the D.C. metro area is not all that rich. In fact it's one of the most segregated and wealth divided cities in the country and it's the only part of the country where the Federal Government has a hand in every decision.) He then says that there is no definition of the word "liberal" that could describe the ways in which George Bush went wrong. In the more classic definition of the word he's right but in the modern context where "liberal" means big government it's easy to throw Bush into this category. Bush increased spending in every category of government (and this is true even if you take out spending related to the so called "war on terror"). That spending went into creating new regulations, new departments, new "task forces" etc. etc. Aren't some of those things part of the modern definition of the word "liberal"?

I'll stop there but it's hard to read an interview where a person can spend so much time talking about the root problems with the "larger culture of Washington" and at the same time supposedly say that it's a myth that bureaucracy doesn't work.

Somebody said to me the other day, "Yeah, I'm pretty much convinced that government is the way to go. This laissez faire style of governing really hasn't worked. How could we think that these financial people could regulate themselves?" With spending up in every category the last eight years, literally hundreds of government bodies making laws and passing new legislation every week between all the branches of government, how laissez faire is the government and just who are the "financial people?" If people can't regulate themseles, is it a myth to believe that other people whom we call "government" will be able to do differently? Who's regulating the government? If it's a democracy then we're supposed to regulate the government. But when was the last time we actually read (not to mention understood!) some piece of leglislation that was passed? We're setting our own trap if we believe we'll benefit by giving more unchecked power to other people.


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