Thomas Frank was on MSNBC this morning promoting his new book, Pity the Billionaire: The Unlikely Resurgence of the American Right:
JOE SCARBOROUGH: After the collapse of the markets in 2008, you would expect a huge populist revival, a revival of the left, but actually two years later the biggest Republican landslide nationally in U.S. history. Why?
THOMAS FRANK: Exactly opposite of what you would expect. You know, if your model is the 1930s, everything went in the opposite direction…The populist feeling was really captured by the other side, by the conservative movement. You know, they got out there in the parks with the rallies—the Tea Party movement. And they were the ones denouncing the banks, denouncing Wall Street. They really captured that sensibility…
It is amazing when you think about it. The Republican Party, especially given the failure of the economic philosophy that governed it and governed the country, itself seemed on the edge of collapse after Republicans oversaw the near-collapse of the financial system.
As Frank said, one would expect a populist revolt from the left, like what happened much later with the Occupy movement. Wikipedia has a nice summary of the motivation of the “different local groups” that constitute what we know as the Occupy movement:
among the prime concerns is the claim that large corporations and the global financial system control the world in a way that disproportionately benefits a minority, undermines democracy and is unstable.
It’s not that hard to hear an echo of Tea Party resentment in those concerns. There is something of an overlapping outrage between populists left and right, when it comes to big banks and corporations and their inordinate influence.
But where were the Occupiers in the fall of 2008?
Well, oddly, the election of Barack Obama short-circuited that leftist revolt. Folks on the left were disposed to give him a chance to change things. I don’t think there is any doubt that if McCain had won in 2008, instead of witnessing the rise of the angry, ultra-conservative Tea Party, railing against bank bailouts and big government and that black man in the White’s House, we would have had a revival of left-leaning populism, one modeled very much on the Occupy movement, attacking the system from a different angle, an attack in support of the “99%” and most definitely an attack on the influence of money in politics.
Indeed, how different would our politics look today, in 2012, if there had been no Tea Party, no hysteria about the Scary Negro and his “socialist” policies? Certainly a President McCain would have had to bail out the banks in 2009, as Obama did, following George Bush’s tentative rescue. And certainly there would have been a 2010 mid-term resurgence by Democrats based on that bailout.
But would a populism from the left have been as fierce as what we saw, and continue to see to some extent, as that coming from the right? Would that populism have been as anxious to embrace every weird conspiracy dreamed up by liberal radio and television personalities? Would Democrats have regrouped after McCain’s election and secretly plotted to destroy his presidency on inauguration night, as Republicans did?
No. Why? Because there just aren’t that many liberal radio and television personalities to begin with. And those who do exist tend not to be Rush Limbaugh-size conspiracy fools.
More important, though, is that Democrats, the party of government, would have had no initial interest in sabotaging a McCain presidency, especially since McCain had periodically demonstrated in his career that he was willing to work with them to get things done. Because of their fondness for good government, it just isn’t in their nature to gum up the works (something that will have to change if Romney-Ryan, after a campaign of utter dishonesty built on Republican congressional obstruction, “takes back” the White’s House).
Left out of this analysis so far is the influence, which has come to be a dominating influence, of evangelicals on the Tea Party movement. The so-called teavangelicals have to a large degree muddled a movement that was energized by a libertarian antipathy to big government, debt and deficits, high taxes, and other “unconstitutional” intrusions.
Today the movement has been focused more on social issues, like contraception, abortion and homosexuality, because the movement is whiter, wealthier, manlier, and, most important, more evangelical than the population as a whole.
It’s entertaining to speculate about what might have happened if the country had chosen John McCain four years ago. But it is not that entertaining to observe what has happened to the country, particularly what has happened to the Republican Party, since America elected its first African-American in the midst of the worst economic turmoil in 80 years.
In fact, it is downright depressing.