Is Thomas Frank Part of a Right-Wing Plot?

reason contributor Todd Seavey, who blogs under the great slogan "Conservatism for punks," cuts What's the Matter with Kansas? author and Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas Frank down to size:

Virtually every column he writes takes one of two juvenile forms: either he (1) accuses conservatives of deliberately harming people or screwing things up to advance their sinister agenda or, even more annoyingly, (2) picks some bizarre boondoggle associated with Republican politicians but in no logical way an outgrowth of conservative (and certainly not free-market) ideology (waste and ineptitude at the Department of Labor, in one recent column), then claims, like a child yelling "Tag! You're it!" that since the boondoggle is nominally "conservative" (or in the case of the Department of Labor, was merely spoken of in a positive way once by religious-right activist Paul Weyrich), said boondoggle is not merely conservative but in fact a perfect representation of conservatism at its best, thus proving all conservatives (like me) to be evil morons (like Thomas Frank).

Then the gloves come off:

If he really believes, though, in constant sinister calculations by conservatives (who always get exactly the results they wanted in the political realm!), I have a great conspiracy theory for him: I think the Wall Street Journal hired him as the ongoing default left-wing columnist precisely to remind their right-leaning readers what complete idiots there are on the left. (Has it never crossed your mind that this might be why you were cast in the role, Mr. Frank?)

Whole thing here. For the definitive takedown of Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, look no further than reason's own Jesse Walker.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Regis Carnifex||

    Woo! First comment!

  • Regis Carnifex||

    That said, this is a great summary of Frank's method. I was reading something (I forget what) the other day, and it was shockingly naive in it's anti-conservative/anti-GOP arguments. He's like an Ann Coulter of the left.

  • ||

    And how is Frank any different than Al Hunt? Of course they're tools.

  • bubba||

    just lol

  • ||

    Thomas Frank: pwned!

    but seriously, How do the editors not realize that Thomas Frank cannot grasp either the subtleties or the big picture of the subjects he is writing about?

  • Fluffy||

    I understand where Seavey is coming from, but big government waste and boondoggles have been associated with pretty much all non-libertarian right wing political activity for long enough now that it's time to call a spade a spade.

    Big government and wasteful boondoggles ARE part of non-libertarian conservatism. The fact that non-libertarian conservatives often lie and say they oppose big government may confuse the issue, but we've had too many years of this from conservatives to let them point to the output of their thinktanks as some sort of defense.

  • Elemenope||

    I second Fluffy's spade-calling.

  • ||

    (1) accuses conservatives of deliberately harming people or screwing things up to advance their sinister agenda or, even more annoyingly,

    When your platform is that government doesn't work why is it wrong to accuse you of deliberately doing things to validate your agenda?

    If I believed the only things government can do is to screw things up, and proceeded to fill the government ranks with incompetent people ill suited to their posts and with little to no experience in the tasks they are given who also believe that government doesn't work, I *SHOULD* be accused of deliberately trying to screw things up.

    I second Fluffy's spade-calling.

    I third it

  • ||

    Please don't confuse WSJ editorial readers with the "conservatives" that abuse Washington as a rent seeking bonanza.

  • ||

    If I believed the only things government can do is to screw things up

    ChiTom, there's no evidence that Bush and Co. believe this at all...there isn't any evidence that most of those running the Republican party believe this.

    I'd see (maybe) a valid point if Republicans simultaneously staffed positions with incompetents AND refused to pass any more deficit-spending, big-government programs and fight humanitarian wars.

    That's not what's happening.

  • ||

    Today's conservatives have nothing at all to do with "free markets" - witness the Medicare Pharma Act, the Consumer Protection Act, the socialization of Bear Stearns using taxpayer monies (without consulting Congress - a violation of Constitutional powers) and the yet-to-be announced public bailout of FNM/FRE bondholders.

    Do not confuse "corporatism" with a free-market philosophy.

  • bubba||

    W is a "compassionate conservative." This is big government conservatism. As in "can't beat them, join them" or "if gubment is going to be big, it should do conservative things"

    Not Ronald Reagan "government is the problem" conservatism.

    That said, the data shows the W is way below the median on gubment spending as a percentage of GDP.

  • ||

    Do not confuse "corporatism" with a free-market philosophy.

    No No...corporatism is to be confused with libertarianism -- not free market philosophy :)

  • ||

    That said, the data shows the W is way below the median on gubment spending as a percentage of GDP.

    What data? The percentage of spending as against GDP has been steadily rising since the initial massive drop after WWII. I don't see any evidence that Bush is somehow "in the middle"...if anything, we can call this trend the "Office Space Presidency (or Congress)", where every congress/administration is worst than the last.

  • ||

    All you are saying is that conservative politicians are not conservative anymore, even if they call themselves conservative. It's intellectually dishonest to attack conservatism because of policies that are not conservative, even if they are supported by politicians pretending to be conservatives.

  • ||

    I'd see (maybe) a valid point if Republicans simultaneously staffed positions with incompetents AND refused to pass any more deficit-spending, big-government programs and fight humanitarian wars.

    I don't see why these things both need to happen.

    In fact I don't see why they would want to cut spending at all. The tax dollars get "outsourced" to politically connected companies under contacts where they don't really have to succeed to get paid. This way they can simultaneously reward their political allies and still point to the government and say "even with an increased budget the government was unable to do the job".

    It's the perfect execution of crony capitalism. while promoting your political agenda.

    And by the way, what humanitarian wars have occurred under W ?

  • shrike||

    I'd see (maybe) a valid point if Republicans simultaneously staffed positions with incompetents AND refused to pass any more deficit-spending, big-government programs and fight humanitarian wars.

    Google "starve the beast".

  • SIV||

    You people think Bush is a conservative?
    He didn't run as one in 2000.

  • Anti-Globalism||

    Do not confuse "corporatism" with a free-market philosophy.

    Free markets inevitably lead to markets dominated by corporations, unless you create a big fat liberal government to make sure everyone plays nice.

    Not a "philosophy," free-marketism -- more like a special interest.

  • ||

    Anti-globalism, Define corporation. I don't see what is wrong with having a market dominated by corporations....
    do you mean dominated by corporations as opposed to dominated by the government?
    Calling free marketism a special interest is just stupid unless you think the average person does not participate in and benefit from the market.

  • ||

    "a working-class movement that has done incalculable, historic harm to working-class people."

    Hmm this sounds sort of familiar.

  • ||

    Google "starve the beast".

    Yeah cuz conservatives invented the Tennessee power authority.

    If you wanted to destroy government by hiring incompetents then should we just not vote for left wing Democrats?

    FEMA may suck but it took 40 years of Democrat rule to make New Orleans a dysfunctional city.

  • ||

    Thomas Frank is a tool not for calling a spade a spade (it was the right that make "small government conservative" an oxymoron) but for his everpresent assumption that liberals aren't down there in the same gutter rolling around in the same vomit. He's like a wino bitching about potheads.

  • ||

    If you wanted to destroy government by hiring incompetents then should we just not vote for left wing Democrats?

    It is the lesser of two evils route for sure. There is much to be said for keeping the aborto-freaks and Christo-fascists out of power.

  • Kolohe||

    Not Ronald Reagan "government is the problem" conservatism.

    Like for instance how Reagan vetoed the effort for the federal government to force the states to raise the drinking age to 21.

    Like how he spearheaded an attempt to eliminate the 55 mph mandate with the oil crisis over.

    Like how he decriminalized marijuana and didn't create an Office of National Drug Control Policy.

    Like how he stopped the Justice department from wasting time and money on performing obscenity prosecutions.

    Yep, the Reagan administration definitely thought government was a problem.

  • Kolohe||

    btw, my point wasn't to bash Reagan, just that the last non 'big govt conservative' was probably Ike.

  • ||

    And by the way, what humanitarian wars have occurred under W ?

    What was the stated preferred outcome of Iraq, again? (hint: flowers + liberation)

    This way they can simultaneously reward their political allies and still point to the government and say "even with an increased budget the government was unable to do the job".

    That still has nothing to do with conservatism, ChiTom. This isn't some grand conspiracy on the GOP's part to simultaneously tax us all AND prove that government doesn't work; if they really don't believe in government solutions, they wouldn't have expanded it...unless they're damn-near the most nefarious and organized syndicate in history, which doesn't pass the laugh test.

    I mean, really, you're telling me that the conspiracy is to increase spending and simultaneously break government...for conservative philosophy?

  • ||

    I admire how conservatives yammer on about state's rights but when it comes to medicinal marijuana, stem cell research or gay marriage-type issues they become opponents of such.

    (admire = the blatant fucking hypocrisy is astounding)

  • ||

    "First comment"? Seriously?

  • ||

    And by the way, what humanitarian wars have occurred under W ?

    Hell, even joe admits that getting rid of Saddam was humanitarian. He just thinks the price was too high.

  • ||

    True conservatism has never been tried.

  • ||

    I think the Wall Street Journal hired him as the ongoing default left-wing columnist precisely to remind their right-leaning readers what complete idiots there are on the left.

    to be fair this could be the same reason the NYT hired Bill Kristol.

  • benji||

    btw, my point wasn't to bash Reagan, just that the last non 'big govt conservative' was probably Ike.

    Coolidge?

  • ||

    I'm with Fluffy, too.

    If you don't want to get tagged with the conservative brush, Seavey, stop thinking of and calling yourself a conservative.

    Face it: conservative means George Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay and Alberto Gonzales a hell of a lot more than it means someone who puts the word "punk" in his title.

  • ||

    Throwing some happy-happy language on a imperialist war doesn't make it humanitarian. Ask the "liberated" Sudetan Germans.

  • Johnny Nowhere||

    ...the last non 'big govt conservative' was probably Ike.

    Ike supported social security, which got him labeled a liberal by some Republicans. If one can be a small government conservative while expanding the social safety net, then Ike was it.

  • ||

    Ike also gave us the Interstates, and signed the National Defense Education Act, which was the camel's nose that got the feds involved in local education.

    Mind you, some of his Big Gubmint actions were justified. Sending troops to Little Rock was perfectly cromulent, given the Constitution's, guarantee of a republican form of government, and the duty to see that the laws are faithfully executed.

    BTW, the difference between Al Hunt, who hasn't worked at WSJ since 2005, and Frank is that Hunt's main job was the news. He only wrote opinion as a side job. I think the better comparison would have been to Alexander Cockburn.

    Kevin

  • ||

    Face it: conservative means George Bush, Dick Cheney, Tom DeLay and Alberto Gonzales a hell of a lot more than it means someone who puts the word "punk" in his title.

    Only because that's what you (and Frank) want it to mean. You know it doesn't, but you persist.

    Wonder why that is.

  • ||

    Only because that's what you (and Frank) want it to mean Uh, yeah, the fact the conservatism has operated a certain way for a couple decades now is all inside my head. That's the ONLY reason why conservatism is defined by, you know, the political philosophy and activity adopted by the most prominent and powerful people to call themselves "conservatives" over the past generation or two.

    You can make up any definition you want, TAO, and tell it to yourself inside the fort out of couch cushions. But no one else is going to know what you mean.

    Stick your head out once in a while, and you might discover that conservatism isn't what you want to pretend it is.

  • ||

    Everybody but the libertarian fringe agrees on what "conservative" refers to.

    Everybody but the libertarian fringe agrees what "liberal" refers to.

    Everybody but the libertarian fringe agrees what "socialist" refers to.

    Is there anything else, TAO? "Dog," perhaps? Maybe "maple?"

    Here's a thought: maybe there's something other than the perfidious conspiracy of those mean old lefties that leads most of the English-speaking world to use political labels in a manner that matches up with the actual behavior and arguments are people who abide by those labels.

  • Mad Max||

    The problem is, the conservative movement has become the crack whore of the Republican Party, doing any kind of degrading, statist act in exchange for the temporary high of power.

    As advocated by folks like Frank Mayer, American conservaYtism actually meant defense of the founding principles of the American regime - stuff like you find in the Declaration of Independence the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. You know, the principles scoffed at and repudiated in practice by both of the major political parties today.

    It's gotten to the point that the use of the term "conservative" by the Republican Party's crack whores has so diluted the brand that the word can no longer be used to describe the defense of America's founding principles.

    You know, like the word "liberal" has been so abused by statists, socialists and their ilk that it no longer means defense of liberty.

    The perfectly nice word "liberal" has now come to mean consolidation of power in the federal government, spending that would embarrass inebriated naval personnel, assaults on traditional morality, defense of racial preferences, etc., etc.

    Come to think of it, the word "conservative" has come to signify the same thing.

  • ||

    I'm going actually agree with both SIV and with joe: Bush has never run as a conservative and I've never considered him one; however, when he has tied "conservatism" and thus "real" conservatives with the compassionate conservatism brand [read: liberal policies that would make FDR blush], then joe has a legitimate point.

    However, there's something that I've always wondered. How do libertarians view Sen. Coburn of Oklahoma?

    In my book, he's the truest conservative in the Senate, and has been the swordsman holding bridge when it comes to killing off bloated, ignorant spending that these porkers keep coming back to the trough for. Yet he's an obviously staunch anti-orbortion proponent, and I don't know his stance on either the war or the "War on Drugs", I assume he's "for" on both. (But I don't know for sure.)

    He's one of maybe four or five Senators I think are worth more than what's on the bottom of my shoe, and the only one I would happily vote for - if I could.

    How do libertarians view him? Just curious.

  • dpsc||

    shrike: Well, I have a certain streak of conservativism in my outlook but I am certainly all for legal marijuana and stem cell research- I think you'll find that a lot of self-identified conservatives (and I wouldn't go that far myself, even using a more philosophical than topical definition of conservatism) are at least ambivalent about drug prohibition. Support for gay marriage is a big government position- the expansion of government regulation into yet another sphere of private life. Better to stop involving the government every time some group of people decides to set up house. That's _not_ a particularly conservative view on my part, come to think of it, nor is it the reason most conservatives aren't crazy about gay marriage.

  • dpsc||

    joe says: "Everybody but the libertarian fringe agrees on what 'conservative' refers to."

    I would have thought you'd be more nuanced than this. This is only true in a very specific context. I consider myself at least partially conservative, but I have very little in common with most of what passes for a conservative movement in this country. I'm willing to cede the word in some very specific contexts to them, as there is little choice, but not in the larger context. I could say the same about the word liberal, though that one is even farther gone.

    I'm conservative because I believe that all radical (and I'd use this word as the antithesis of "conservative", rather than the word "liberal") changes have unpleasant consequences, and because I believe that people are inherently fuck-ups who have to be reigned in sometimes, and because I believe that the danger is that the people who reign them in are also fuck-ups, so there is no easy solution there. I'm liberal because I am, all other things set equal, in favor of freedom and self-determination at all scales. I'm radical, occasionally, because I think that some issues have to be forced, unpleasant consequences be damned.

    The idea that these ideas are discrete just makes political thinking more a matter of having the table d'hote (which politics is more like, pragmatically, in the short term) than a matter of picking one from column A, one from column B, etc. Hmm, maybe America should be more like.. well, not China, but a Chinese restaurant.

  • zoltan||

    Wouldn't the classical denotations of liberalism and conservatism mean the same thing? Government that exists only to protect certain inalienable liberties. Both words have been distorted to mean the opposite.

  • zoltan||

    At least Coburn voted against the Iraq War. Then I read this:

    "Why do you think we see the rationalization for abortion and multiple sexual partners? That's a gay agenda."

    Abortion = Gay agenda? Because of all those accidental pregnancies? WTF.

  • ||

    Zoltan, he sees the divorce of sex from procreation as part of the gay agenda.

    When sex ceases to be something that two people who are fully prepared to have a baby are doing and starts to be something that two people who are bored, maybe, start doing... well, that's the gay agenda. Sex without procreation. Sex as an act of affection, rather than commitment. Sex as something you do when you're bored and feel like going to the Hide and Seek bar downtown.

    It's not a position I agree with, even for a second, but it's not a "WTF" position.

  • ||

    I'm conservative because I believe that all radical (and I'd use this word as the antithesis of "conservative", rather than the word "liberal") changes have unpleasant consequences, and because I believe that people are inherently fuck-ups who have to be reigned in sometimes, and because I believe that the danger is that the people who reign them in are also fuck-ups, so there is no easy solution there.

    There are many different types of conservatives, and this description fits them all. A neo-conservative (of which "compassionate conservative" is the domestic-policy term) is different from a paleo-conservative, who in turn is different from a Bismarck-style conservative. Nonetheless, they are all conservatives.

  • Salvius||

    The way I look at it, "conservative" is used a term of political jargon, and as such is completely divorced from its plain-English meaning. Sort of like how "bus" has a different meaning in electronics jargon than in plain-English conversation, or how damn near every word has a subtly different meaning in legal jargon than in plain-English. :-)

    Because of this, I don't call myself "conservative", and don't really think of myself as "conservative", even though I do arguably fit what used to be the definition of the word. Its meaning has drifted since then, at least in the specific context of politics.

    Of course, I also fit what used to be the definition of "liberal", but that meaning-drift occurred longer ago. At this point, I'm afraid any attempt to salvage either term is a lost cause.

  • dpsc||

    joe: "There are many different types of conservatives, and this description fits them all."

    No, it doesn't (and you're contradicting yourself here). One big difference is that a lot of conservatives are pretty light on the bit about recognizing that setting people up to reign people in just pushes the problem off one degree. And an awful lot of the people you call conservatives are, by my lights, pretty radical- anyone who wants to remake the US in a fundamentalist image is not a conservative, if you ask me, as that would be a radical departure from the traditional American way of life.

    Beyond that, I think there is a huge difference between defining yourself as a conservative and holding some philosophically conservative positions. I think a further distinction can be made- one can recognize that there are aspects of philosophical conservatism that are more positive than normative, while holding normative positions that would not generally be described as conservative. Your selective snipping did obscure that point though.

  • dpsc||

    Salvius: well, you're quite free to abandon the word "conservative" to the barbarians, but I am not yet ready to do so. There just isn't a good replacement for it. I also use the word "liberal" in some cases to mean what it originally meant, though I am careful to qualify it so that people understand what I mean.

  • tg||

    Calm down, Damon W. Root. (Is that your real name?) Thomas Frank is a very smart guy. He doesn't write about the kinds of things you're claiming he does.

    Frank is primarily a cultural historian in his approach to politics. His polemics are about rhetoric, propaganda and cultural memory. Specifically, the ways in which slogans and images attach themselves as to commonsense discourses, acting as a kind of ideological shorthand.

    He's not naively calling cultural forms to task for misrepresenting themselves! (Anyone who's read Frank's book 'The Conquest of Cool' would know better than to call him naive.) Instead, he's tracing the development of these forms and characterizing their impact.

  • tg||

    One more thing: Frank has always been open about his politics: he's a populist. His style of writing is INTENTIONALLY imbued with moral resignation, as a means by which to cut through the dry, pretentious analytics whose ideological groundwork has pretty much been established already anyway.

    It's a performative way of writing that is really quite elegant. You're just expecting it to be something it's not.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement