Finance and Assets

Pity the Billionaire: Thomas Frank on Inequality in American Politics

March 7, 2012

          With the aftereffects of a recession and election season throwing income inequality into the limelight, a reckoning seems due in American political discourse on the amity towards the 1% and big government emanating from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Harper’s columnist and author of What’s the Matter with Kansas and Pity the Billionaire Thomas Frank came recently to the Institute as part of the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series to discuss this most ironic protagonist of the recession—the pitiable billionaire. The conversation ranged from Glenn Beck to Franklin Roosevelt, and chartered the uneasy relationship in the American psyche between pragmatism, freedom, and economic mobility. A few highlights from the afternoon below—

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Ballot Box: The Republican Resuscitation

            Pundits were predicting the collapse of conservatism after the bruising 2008 elections and the financial crisis’ renunciation of free market economics, Frank says. It seemed only logical that Republicans would moderate, but in fact, the party swung further to the right. Dedication to free markets became stronger, tinged with the same crusading overtones of moral superiority that had so dominated the culture wars of the past decade. Watch video.

The Birth of the Tea Party

            When Frank went to his first Tea Party rally, he was met with “the usual suspects”—libertarians, think tanks, lobbyists, and even Joe the Plumber. “Let the failures fail,” one sign read—a reflection of the ire over corporate bailouts at the seeming expense of ordinary workers. Where labor might have once provided a refuge, the Tea Party assumed the mantle of advocate for those who felt marginalized by their government.  The 2010 midterm elections were a resounding display of the efficacy of this new strain of populist anger. Covered here.

Glenn Beck and the Great Depression

            Frank highlights the critical role Glenn Beck’s invective and ideology played in the formation of the Tea Party. He traces the influence of Beck’s talking points on fundamental Tea Party precepts, and the extremism of assailing such figures of American history as Woodrow Wilson. “Hating Woodrow Wilson is a very 1930s thing to do,” Frank says, and goes on to detail the parallels between that grim decade’s alarmist and incendiary figures and their modern counterpoints on the far right. Watch here.


            The Tea Party found a trump card in their opposition to government bailouts, which differentiated them from both Republicans and Democrats. Frank researched the political history of American bailouts, and found that not only had Ronald Reagan supported them, but also that Franklin Roosevelt had taken Herbert Hoover’s crony-capitalistic brand of bailouts and transformed it— firing failing management and capping executive pay rather than rewarding Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. There are fair and unfair ways to bail out corporations with taxpayer money, Frank says, and this distinction should play a far larger role in the contemporary debate. Watch video.

The Left’s Expert Fallacy

            Democrats’ penchant for citing experts to explain their policy positions isn’t doing them any political favors, Frank says. Democrats have self-identified as the party of the professional classes and professors, and fail to connect with voters whose primary concern is yoking their policy positions to their values. Democrats need a strong message explaining the ability of social insurance to enhance freedom, and to engage with their natural populist constituency on the level of values, rather than punting to the experts. Watch the clip.