How Democrats got their pockets picked

January 28, 2012


It’s hard to read Thomas Frank’s new book, “Pity the Billionaire,” without being astonished at what utter nincompoops Democrats are.

This surely was not Frank’s primary intent. The book is subtitled, “The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right,” so it’s pretty clear where Frank is coming from. But the obvious subtext is how, in a two-party system, Democrats allowed Republicans to pull off the greatest cross-dressing scam since RuPaul became America’s Drag Queen.

Frank is a journalist and polemicist best known for his 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” that explored how Republicans in his home state had used social issues to persuade people to vote against their own economic best interests.

In “Pity the Billionaire,” he examines how Republicans — with help from some Democrats — created policies that led to the financial collapse of 2008, the Great Recession, massive income inequality and the gutting of the middle class. And then the Democrats sat back as the GOP reinvented itself as populist defenders of free-market capitalism.

“Now there is nothing really novel about the idea that free markets are the very essence of freedom,” Frank writes. “What is new is the glorification of this idea at the precise moment when free-market theory has proven itself to be a philosophy of ruination and fraud. The revival of the Right is as extraordinary as it would be if the public had demanded dozens of new nuclear power plants in the days after the Three Mile Island disaster; if we had reacted to Watergate by making Richard Nixon a national hero.”

For Frank, a key moment in this bizarre turn of events came on Feb. 19, 2009, less than a month after President Barack Obama’s inauguration. The TARP bailout bill proposed by President George W. Bush and endorsed by candidate Obama had been passed the previous fall. The new president had just signed the $787 billion economic stimulus bill.

On that day, CNBC business reporter Rick Santelli stood on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade and began ranting about the unfairness of it all. Not the bank bailout, mind you, but the 6.3 percent of the TARP program intended to help people modify their underwater mortgages.

As it turned out, this program hasn’t been particularly successful because banks refused to go along. But on that Feb. 19, Santelli was incensed at the unfairness of it all — that “losers” with bad mortgages might be helped and that the salt-of-the-earth traders who were cheering him on were being punished for being successful and prudent.

Santelli’s rant went viral on the Internet. So-called tea party rallies began to be held. Self-promoters seized them as a way to cash in — a fine conservative tradition, Frank writes — and the right-wing foundations funneled money to them. What could have been, and should have been, populist outrage against the people whose greed brought the house down was subtly turned into protests against “elitists” (i.e., Democrats) who were attacking “free markets” (i.e., cracking down on banks and health care costs).

The tea party, Frank says, became defenders of a Darwinian version of free markets intended to “trample the weak.”

Frank spends a great deal of attention on the various absurdities peddled at the time by Glenn Beck on Fox News — “bogus populism shores up ironclad elitism and ... bogus enlightenment serves the most grotesque form of dupery.”

But Beck and his ilk could not have gotten away with it had (a) people been more discerning about what they were hearing and (b) had Democrats mounted some kind of response.

As to (a), Frank quotes from one of the tea party’s favorite movies, “Network,” where the mad-as-hell-not-going-to-take-it-any-more newscaster Howard Beale explains, “We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true. But you people sit there day after day ... we’re all you know.”

As to (b), the question of where the Democratic response was, that’s still a mystery. Aside from perhaps Elizabeth Warren, architect of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and now a U.S. Senate candidate in Massachusetts, no Democrat has been particularly successful in articulating where the blame belongs.

Until recently, President Obama floated above it all, finding common cause with Wall Street and health insurance firms, trying to compromise with people who were elected not to compromise, playing his preferred “long game,” avoiding intemperate language.

This allowed the GOP to retake control of the House and pass themselves off as defenders of the average guy. And anyone who has the temerity to point out how stupid you’d be to fall for that is labeled an “elitist.” Republicans understand that. Democrats aren’t very good at it. If they hope to avoid catastrophe in November, they’d better figure it out.

— Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His email address is


its_just_math 2 years, 2 months ago

A lib saying Dems have had their pockets picked? lol! This prez and Pewlosi and Reid would've picked every single pocket clean as a whistle had not the Tea Party risen up and snatched the gavel away from Pewlosi.


weeslicket 2 years, 2 months ago

(your favorite faux news commentator) explains, “We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true. But you people sit there day after day ... we’re all you know.”


cato_the_elder 2 years, 2 months ago

"In “Pity the Billionaire,” he examines how Republicans — with help from some Democrats — created policies that led to the financial collapse of 2008."

Thomas Frank, one of the real dolts of our time, again gets it exactly backwards: It was Democrats, with the help of some Republicans, who created policies that led to the financial collapse of 2008. It started with Carter's anti-redlining rules, which were put on steroids by Clinton and morphed further by his administration into the notion that we all ought to be able to buy houses we can't afford. Thereafter, Franklin Raines, Christopher Dodd, Barney Frank and others, including some Republicans, all on the take from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, continued pushing this idiotic notion until the bubble burst.

At least Thomas Frank apparently acknowledges the federal government's predominant role in this debacle which has hurt so many. May it never be repeated.


Mike Ford 2 years, 2 months ago

some of you sound as clueless as dana rohrabacher on Bill Maher last night. rohrabacher's head exploded as Maher showed his statements as fiction much as math and nohope....fiction only goes so far... it goes way far though with dumb people though....


Liberty_One 2 years, 2 months ago

“What is new is the glorification of this idea at the precise moment when free-market theory has proven itself to be a philosophy of ruination and fraud."

Sigh. What has been proven is that interventionism is the philosophy of ruination and fraud. We haven't been close to a free-market economy for over 80 years.

How do people tell such lies with a straight face?


its_just_math 2 years, 2 months ago

Frank and the STL Post-Dispatch? They could care less about record modern-day sustained unemployment, record foreclosure, record national debt, record welfare roles, record poverty, historical credit downgrade, a medicine industry now poised for utter chaos thanks to ObamaCare and on and on and on.

They just care about having their man--their saviour, in the white house another four years.


FalseHopeNoChange 2 years, 2 months ago

Whenever I feel picked on, I get fussy. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I scream for my "pusher".

Republicans make me so mad. Where is my "pusher" I need some small ideas. Where's is my Obama. He needs to keep me warm. Feed me. Make me all better.

Those mean Repubs are always picking of me.


1957 2 years, 2 months ago

Yes, what we need is unfree markets where people manage them to make sure everything is "fair". No chance of abuse here. What a wonderful idea to take away freedom in exchange for perceived security.


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