The Luncheon Society/Thomas Frank and his book “Pity the Billionaire/San Francisco—Fior D’Italia/ January 26, 2012

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After a two year absence, Thomas Frank rejoined The Luncheon Society in San Francisco to discuss his latest book, “Pity the Billionaire, The Hard Time Swindle and the Unlikely comeback of the Right.” 

Called “The Thinking Man’s Michael Moore” by Michael Kinsley and the author of What’s  the Matter with Kansas and The-Wrecking-Crew , Frank took us through the deregulatory environment that turned a blind eye to the housing bubble that finally burst in 2008, only weeks before the national election.  This started the long chain of events that became The Great Recession, the biggest economic mess since the Herbert Hoover gave us The Great Depression.

However, the big surprise came in the spring of 2009, when the Tea Party movement purged their moderates and demanded a return, with a sense of amnesiac incredulity, to the same circumstances that led to the “Train Wreck of 2008.”

It would be, as Frank describes, “as if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster.”


On NPR, Franked continued, “The central paradox of our time is that we’ve just come through this extraordinary financial collapse. We know that this was almost directly the result of 30 years of bank deregulation and of all the sort of financial experimentation that our government encouraged. This disaster was caused by this ideology.”

And what the Tea Party movement and what the conservative revival generally is telling us to do,” Frank notes, “is instead of reversing course, instead of going back and saying, OK, maybe we should have a well-funded Securities Exchange Commission. Maybe we should go back and break up the too-big-to-fail banks.”

He concludes, “What they’re saying is, no, no. Get government out of the picture altogether. We need not to reverse course. We need to double down on that ideology that we’ve been following all these years. Only when we get to that sort of pure state of complete free markets, then our problems will be solved. And until that day, none of this stuff matters.”

Kool-Aid as Tea. Frank saves his gunfire for The Tea Party, which was founded by a throw-away rant from CNBC’s Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade in early 2009 and quickly became the opposition to President Obama’s efforts to reform the financial system, save Detroit, and rebuild the American economy.  

What started out as a flashpoint of conservative frustration was soon coopted by some of the most conservative billionaires in the United States who transformed the anger of Tea Party members into shock troops for their agenda. Billionaire funders like the Koch Brothers, political insiders like Dick Armey, or companies like Anthem/Blue Cross soon marshaled the anger of the Tea Party during the critical votes for the stimulus and health care reform. Tea Party candidates emerged in the political process, knocked off a number of strong traditional Republican conservatives, delivered the House to the GOP but overplayed their hand in the Senate, where it remained Democratic.  

The always was a ready-mix template for a Tea Party-like groups to emerge, just like its militia-era cousin flourished during the Clinton years until Timothy McVeigh’s participation in the Oklahoma City bombings sent them back underground.  However what disturbed many was the desire for those who demanded the right to “open carry” their semi-automatic weapons within close proximity of a presidential town meeting.  The picture brought back images of Dallas, Memphis, and the Washington Hilton.  The difference is that a group of wealthy conservative funders have leveraged these groups to vocalize their grievances with a grass roots or AstroTurf approach.

Earning the Mantle. In 2012, each of the candidates went through a period of an upsurge in the polls where they were briefly anointed as “The Tea Party Candidate” until they wilted under the weight of the spotlight.   At first, Sarah Palin was the Great Savior until she chose not to run for President. Michelle Bachman inherited the mantle but came across as wholly uninformed. Herman Cain spiked the national interest but was discovered to have some untidy personal baggage, Rick Perry came but flamed out after a series of poor debates, one in which he drew a mental blank on which cabinet level departments would be eliminated. Newt Gingrich rose and crashed during the summer of 2011, only to emerge again before getting battered in by Mitt Ronmey’s Super-Pac in Iowa. He spoke pitch perfect “Southern” in South Carolina before getting eclipsed by Rick Santorum in Alabama and Mississippi. None of the these alternative were able to bring down Mitt Romney’s juggernaut, but now that the Tea Party has rebranded the GOP identity, few of the activists have any intention of warming to the “Moderate from Massachusetts.”

However, Frank believes that this is a smokescreen for something more pernicious.  He talks about a rise of a New American Oligarchy and thanks to the Supreme Court’s take on the CitizensUnited, it is more of a reality than ever imagined.  Candidates running for the Presidency now run as Siamese twins with their Sugar Daddy Super-Pac funders. Sheldon Aldenson has kept the Gingrich campaign alive and Foster Freeze has done the same for Rick Santorum; both are relevant counterpoints to Mitt Romney.  

This is not some conservative Republican malady because in 2016, when Democrats mass together to start the long run for the nomination in the Iowa caucus, they will attached to their own sugar daddies as well.  In any event, never has democracy been purchased at such a discount.

In Frank’s book, conservatives feel oppressed by some shadowy “liberal elite” detailed in Angelo Codevilla’s Ruling Class where lefty cabals live in well-to-do enclaves and never challenge the existing orthodoxy; it’s the chilled whine for conservatives who feel left out. Let’s suspend belief for a second because from 2000 to 2008 Republicans controlled the White House and drove the tilt of the Supreme Court; from 1994 until 2006 the GOP ran the House of Representatives and from 2002 to 2006, the US Senate. Codevilla’s indictment against liberals reads like a mirror-image of C. Wright Mills’ class arguments during the 1950’s, but it has become biblical gospel for the Tea Partiers who march and the billionaires who fund them. It was class warfare for the uninitiated.

With that, Thomas Frank saved some harsh words for Barack Obama. The Obama White House was so focused to be perceived as a legislative adult, they blew it when it came to selling their legislative accomplishments in populist terms.

“First of all,” Frank told NPR, “the conservative movement talks an extremely good populist game. They were out there less than a month after Barack Obama was sworn into office, waving signs in Lafayette Park out in front of the White House with bullhorns, screaming, let the failures fail. It was really appealing.”

In the end, when the bottom fell out of the economy during The Great Depression, there was an implicit understanding that the unfettered laissez-faire conservatism of the 1920’s had run its course was now augmented by a series of entrepreneurial guard rails designed to keep the economy from driving off of a cliff again. It worked for three generations and the American economy was able to iron out the continual boom and bust cycles. Nobody called for a return to “Hooverism” in 1933 or 1934 but the difference today is that the billionaires mentioned in Thomas Frank’s book will overlay their grievances upon mal-informed Tea Party audiences (Get government out of my Medicare), fund them, and send them marching while they sit back and collect the lion’s share of the benefits.

The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston.  We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result.  There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

One response to “The Luncheon Society/Thomas Frank and his book “Pity the Billionaire/San Francisco—Fior D’Italia/ January 26, 2012

  1. Do this in LA!! Please?

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