Pity the Billionaire: the Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right
By Thomas Frank
Havill Secker (2012)
Pity the Poor Billionaire describes how the right wing corporate elite used the 2008 economic crash to build a pseudo-populist movement (aka the Tea Party) to build blue collar support for harsh free market austerity policies that benefited Wall Street at the expense of working people.
According to Frank, the Tea Party was the fourth conservative uprising in the last half century. The first was the backlash against the anti-Vietnam war movement that resulted in Nixon’s election in 1968 and 1972. The second was the Reagan revolution in 1980; the third the Contract with America revolution that won Republican control of Congress (in 1994) during Clinton’s first term.
The Demise of Unions and the Left
With each of these movements, US political and economic life became increasingly conservative, with all public institutions – churches, hospitals, universities, museums, the US Post Office and even the Army and CIA – succumbing to pressure to operate according to free market principles.
The same period saw the virtual demise of both labor unions and any organized US left. Nevertheless, according to Frank, right wing strategists managed to flood the media with rhetoric ramping up popular fear the left was “on the march.” It mainly focused on a fictitious behind-the-scenes conspiracy to provoke a crisis – through overspending that would collapse the US economy.
Swaying Popular Anger from Wall Street to the Government
This messaging, crafted by right wing think tanks funded by right wing billionaires like the Koch brothers and delivered by Glenn Beck, Russ Limbaugh and similar right wing celebrities, was spectacularly effective in convincing a majority of Americans that the neoliberal corporatist Obama is really a socialist.
Oil billionaire Charles Koch warned back in 2008 that the global economic downturn could lead to the same “loss of liberty and prosperity” (for billionaires) as the Great Depression did. He and his brother David went on to deliberately manufacture an “astroturf”* movement (ie the Tea Party) to thwart Obama from enacting the same type of public spending projects Roosevelt used to reverse the 1929 depression.**
They did this by using Tea Party protests and right wing media to sway public anger away from Wall Street and onto the government. Via sophisticated psychological propaganda, working people were systematically conned into believing their interests coincide with those of Wall Street corporations.
*Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it originates from grassroots participants.
**Frank challenges (with data) the common Tea Party assertion that Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms failed to halt the 1929 depression (ie that it took the World War II mobilization to lift the US out of depression). Between 1929 and 1933 (when Roosevelt took office), the US GDP dropped by more than 50 percent. Following the enactment of the New Deal, it increased by 11% in 1934, 9% in 1935, 14% in 1936 and 13% in 1937. Overall GDP growth 1933-37 was the highest the US has seen outside of war time.