Thomas Frank: Obama needs outrage

I've been a fan of Thomas Frank, who speaks Wednesday at Barnes & Noble in Edina and Thursday at First Universalist Church in St. Paul, since the 1993 issue of The Baffler headlined "Alternative to What?," a special package on corporatized youth culture that signaled a new, or new-seeming, political left that inhabited the same pop world as I. Haven't read his new book The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, but I read his recent cover story in Harper's of the same title and heard him speak on Fresh Air (here's his hilarious appearance on Colbert), and the work seems like an essential companion piece to Naomi Klein's recent book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Both books take on phenomena you always knew existed--political profiteering and war/disaster profiteering, respectively--and delve into each with such zestful reporting, and with outrage impulses intact, that you see the spiraling and worsening effects of our era. Together Frank and Klein describe the massive transfer of government services (such as policing, war--if that's a service--or rebuilding a flooded city) to private hands, to the point where corruption and incompetence no longer adequately describe the bald plunder going on: When public services such as schools are starved or drained to the point where cities turn around and privatize them, that's something closer to a serious mass crime, and deserves to be treated as a moral abomination.

For me, these authors, along with Ken Silverstein, are a way out of lefty cynicism, and a way back into arguing with our more conservative friends, which is probably one reason all of the above are so good at debating in the mainstream. Frank is on-point in his latest Wall Street Journal column (you've come a long way, baby):

The best that conservatives can hope for, I think, is that public opinion will simply harden into a cynicism toward government generally -- that people will transfer the blame for the recent period of conservative misrule to the very institutions that conservatives have abused so grotesquely. There are, naturally, plenty of pundits who have encouraged this blame-the-victim interpretation over the years, and they will be gratified to learn that the public seems to be buying it.

As the political consultant Douglas Schoen wrote in his recent book, "Declaring Independence," "voters are becoming increasingly cynical and demonstrate a record level of skepticism about the government's ability to effect positive change." However, only four pages after pointing this out, Mr. Schoen advises candidates to avoid criticizing the Bush administration, and seems to applaud Mr. Obama for his high-minded "bipartisanship."

This is precisely wrong. If he is to prevail in November, Mr. Obama cannot allow the right to profit from the discontent stirred up by their own misbehavior. Talking about "hope" is very nice when you're leading by 20 points, but what the Democrat has to do, now that John McCain has evened up the score, is take control of public outrage. He should not recoil from the bitterness that's out there. He should speak to it.

As for Nicholas Lemann's use of political scientist Arthur Fisher Bentley as a stick with which to bat Frank about the ears in The New Yorker, I'm reminded of an argument I once had with a professor who believed that Gabriel Kolko's account of pre-WWI Progressive reforms as a "triumph of conservatism" ignored all the business interests who condemned those reforms, who were at each others' throats. But people who feel entitled to the moon always bitch about getting moon rocks instead, I said in effect. And to recognize class interest is not to ignore divisions within that same class.

By contrast, those who highlight same-class divisions sometimes appear to be saying that class interest isn't important or even existent--something Lemann, in classic namby-pamby-New Yorker-style slipperiness, doesn't quite do, but almost does, and in the end might as well have done.

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