Tea and zealotry

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, by Thomas Frank, Harvill Secker, RRP£14.99, 224 pages

Just over a year ago, a Gallup survey of American voters revealed a fascinating little wrinkle: whereas Republicans generally believed that it was “more important for political leaders to stick to their beliefs, even if little gets done”, Democrats thought it was “more important for political leaders to compromise in order to get things done”. On the right, in other words, idealism ruled; on the left, pragmatism.

This detail – mentioned in passing as a footnote in Pity the Billionaire – could prove crucial in American election year. It could also help anyone trying to make sense of the results of this week’s Iowa caucuses, the first stage of the process to nominate a Republican presidential candidate. For if Thomas Frank, the American author and commentator, is correct, the political system of the world’s largest economy is behaving in a fundamentally perverse way.

In decades past, economic crises have tended to provoke a backlash against the previous system and its beliefs. Thus, in the 1930s, the Great Depression triggered a swing towards the left, as Americans lost faith in the extreme versions of free-market capitalism that had dominated the economy in the 1920s. But this time round, Frank argues, something different has occurred. Although the economy has been battered by wild market swings after three decades of pro-market, deregulatory policies, this trauma has not sparked a massive protest against free markets. On the contrary, the main political movement to emerge has been what Frank calls the “resurgent right”, epitomised by the Tea Party. These new “protesters” are generally demanding more market freedom, not less, with a sense of ideological conviction that is largely lacking among Democrats. Pace that Gallup survey.

“There is nothing really novel about the idea that free markets are the very essence of freedom. What is new is the glorification of this idea at the precise moment when free-market theory has proven itself to be a philosophy of ruination and fraud,” Frank writes. “The revival of the right is as extraordinary as it would be if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster; if we had reacted to Watergate by making Richard Nixon a national hero.”

Such views will not win Frank many friends in the US. Supporters of this “resurgent right” – including those in Iowa whose candidate Rick Santorum narrowly lost out to Mitt Romney – vehemently deny that their party is calling for “more of the same”. Instead, they insist that governments in the US have actually abandoned true market ideals in recent decades (while President Barack Obama himself is viewed as a “socialist”).

Meanwhile, many Democratic voters take offence at the idea that they have lost any ideological zeal, or that the Tea Party should be viewed as the main form of protest in America today. And indeed, one shortcoming of Frank’s book is that it was written before the Occupy Wall Street movement gathered momentum; if this has staying power – and that remains a big “if” – it could provide a second focus for protest that echoes, if not rivals, that of the Tea Party.

That notwithstanding, Pity the Billionaire deserves to be read by right and left alike. It certainly does not pretend to be neutral or scientific; Frank is an avowed liberal and fierce critic of the Republicans. But the thesis is provocative, and the book is witty and highly readable. It is also backed up by some revealing ethnography that Frank has collected after months of tracking the “resurgent right” across America. Thus, we learn in the book how the Tea Party first sprung to life (as the result of a TV “rant” about the government’s bank bail-outs delivered on February 19 2009 by Rick Santelli, a television business reporter, from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade). We hear how the Tea Party has mimicked many of the protest tactics used by the left in earlier decades. Frank also explains how the Tea Party has increasingly focused on economic issues, such as debt, rather than the social factors, such as abortion, which convulsed Republicans a decade ago; indeed, discussion of these “social issues” is largely banned on Tea Party chat forums.

The crucial point about the new right dogma, Frank argues, is that it remains very idealistic and abstract; instead of presenting granular, technocratic details, it tends to wrap itself in the symbolism of permanent revolt, quasi-religious ideals and sweeping economic abstraction. “The reborn right has succeeded because of its idealism, not in spite of it; because idealism in the grand sense is precisely what our fallen economic world calls for.”

That allows numerous policy contradictions to remain, unresolved, inside the Tea Party manifesto; one of the most fascinating parts of his book, for example, deconstructs the eclectic attitude towards “entrepreneurship”. But the right’s abstraction also leaves Democrats at a profound disadvantage, Frank believes. For one of the biggest failings of the Obama administration, and of liberals in general, is that they have not been ideologically zealous. Instead, Democrats have evolved into a “tongue-tied, expert worshipping” – and pragmatic – species, partly because they are increasingly funded by wealthy liberals rather than traditional backers such as unions. Hence the failure of the left to start any post-crisis ideological “rethink”. And hence the ability of the Tea Party to monopolise the “protest” brand – at least until recently.

Will this change in 2012, as the White House race heats up? Could the Occupy Wall Street movement grow in power and displace the right? What might happen to the Tea Party if, say, a man such as Romney became the Republican candidate? Wisely perhaps, Frank himself does not indulge in detailed predictions. But, if nothing else, Pity the Billionaire is a timely reminder that it is not just personalities that matter in the Republican contest; there are also some bigger shifts under way in America’s social fabric. That makes the 2012 race both fascinating and unpredictable. Iowa may be just the start.

Gillian Tett is the FT’s US managing editor and author of ‘Fool’s Gold: How Unrestrained Greed Corrupted a Dream, Shattered Global Markets and Unleashed a Catastrophe’ (Abacus)

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