Thomas Frank on ‘Utopian Market Populism’
Posted on Dec 28, 2011
“Pity the Billionaire,” the new book by Harper’s Magazine columnist Thomas Frank, surveys the politics of the last three years to determine why the American right survived and thrived after an economic crash caused by a 30-year love affair with the so-called free-market that it procured. Salon speaks to Frank by phone. —ARK
Early in the book, you describe the moment in the spring of 2009 when free-market economics had been so thoroughly discredited that Newsweek could run a cover story proclaiming, “We’re all socialists now.” What happened? Why did that moment dissipate?
I saw that cover so many times [at Tea Party events]. For these people, that rang the alarm bell. I think the AIG moment [when the bailed-out insurance behemoth used taxpayer relief to dole out huge bonuses to its executives] was in some ways the high point of the crisis, when [the politics] could have gone either way. There was this amazing public outrage, and that for me was the turning point. Newsweek had another cover, “Thinking Man’s Guide to Populism,” and I remember this feeling around the country, that people were just furious. Somehow the right captured the sense of anger. They completely captured it. You could say they had no right to it, but they did. And one of the reasons they were able to do it was because the liberals were not interested in that anger.
I’m speaking here of the liberal culture in Washington, D.C. There was no Occupy Wall Street movement [at that time] and there was only people like me on the fringes talking about it. The liberals had their leader in Barack Obama … they had their various people in Congress. But these people are completely unfamiliar with populist anger. It’s an alien thing to them. They don’t trust it, and they have trouble speaking to it. I like Barack Obama, but at the end of the day he’s a very professorial kind of guy. The liberals totally missed the opportunity, and the right was able to grab it.