After Barack Obama and the Democrats won the White House and Congress in 2008, many commentators pronounced conservatism dead and argued that the Republicans would have to steer to the middle. Instead the GOP embraced more ideologically pure free-market beliefs and drubbed the Democrats in 2010. In his new book, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, historian and Harper's magazine columnist Thomas Frank, whose 2004 What's the Matter With Kansas? made him a liberal icon, examines that turnaround. He recently chatted with U.S. News about how Democrats let the GOP steal their moment and what they can do to revive themselves. Excerpts:
Are you a class warrior?
What's really curious is you often hear a guy like Rick Santorum, who I'm pretty sure has denounced class war—
I think he's denounced the idea of classes.
He denounced the whole idea of classes but then he plays on it really fortissimo, talking about his blue-collar ancestors, and how they worked so hard, and his outreach to working people, his contempt for Obama as a snob. That's a class term. These people want to have it both ways.
Why did the left let conservatives get away with this?
The main reason is that there isn't much of a left in America. Organized labor would be the traditional bearer of the New Deal economic vision, and they really have been beaten. The mainstream Democrats—their heart was never in it. They might do things like the stimulus package [and] healthcare reform. But they have a lot of trouble talking about why they're doing them. They could not confront the other side on the ideology of it.
So what is the ideological answer?
You remember in World War II—and I still to this day don't understand why the Obama people didn't use this imagery—they used to call it the Four Freedoms. One of them was freedom from want. You had "town hall summer," 2009; all those angry people showed up at the town hall meetings to berate their member of Congress about the healthcare legislation. The constituents always tended to be angry about the same thing: freedom, tyranny, isn't this taking us down the road to serfdom. And the response of the Democrats on the hot seat was always: "This is what the experts tell us to do." That's your answer? They want to have a debate over first principles, the Tea Party types—and they had every right to a debate like that. Those were good questions. I couldn't believe that the Democrats never had an answer. They could not talk about how universal healthcare increases freedom.
And it's a poor response to charges of elitism.
The term for that is walking into the buzz saw. This is what the Democrats do again and again. And the really creepy thing is that there's a lot of accuracy about that critique, because the Democrats are before our eyes becoming the party of professionals. Now they might be lucky this fall because Mitt Romney has shown zero ability to bust this critique on anybody.
Have Democrats learned their lessons?
Obama's rhetoric has changed. There's been this very recent shift toward populism. But it's been a very strictly superficial shift. It's strictly in terms of rhetoric. The way these people think, all battles are battles over the center. So they look at a critique like mine and say, "Well, this guy is saying that in order to deal with this challenge on our right that we should move to our left, and anybody can see that that doesn't make any sense."
Is this pure free-market conservatism a viable long-term strategy for the GOP?
I don't think that they need to go much longer. The point is to prevent something like the New Deal from ever happening again. They've already won, because they did prevent it. In a sort of perverse sense they should thank Barack Obama—he's the one who really pulled it off.