Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Follow this dime
By Thomas Frank
Washington is the city where the scandals happen. Every American knows this,
but we also believe, if only vaguely, that the really monumental scandals are a
thing of the past, that the golden age of misgovernment-for-profit ended with
the cavalry charge and the robber barons, at about the same time presidents
stopped wearing beards.
I moved to Washington in 2003, just in time for the comeback, for the
hundred-year flood. At first it was only a trickle in the basement, a little
stream released accidentally by the president's friends at Enron. Before long,
though, the levees were failing all
over town, and the city was inundated with a muddy torrent of graft.
How are we to dissect a deluge like this one? We might begin by categorizing
the earmarks handed out by Congress, sorting the foolish earmarks from the
costly earmarks from the earmarks made strictly on a cash basis. We could try a
similar approach to government contracting: the no-bid contracts, the
no-oversight contracts, the no-experience contracts, the contracts handed out
to friends of the vice president. We might consider the shoplifting career of
one of the president's former domestic policy advisers or the habitual
plagiarism of the president's liaison to the Christian right. And we would
certainly have to find some way to parse the extraordinary incompetence of the
executive branch, incompetence so fulsome and steady and reliable that at some
point Americans stopped being surprised and began simply to count on it, to
think of incompetence as the way government works.
But the onrushing flow swamps all taxonomies. Mass firing of federal
prosecutors; bribing of newspaper columnists; pallets of shrink-wrapped cash
"misplaced" in Iraq; inexperienced kids running the Baghdad stock exchange; the
discovery that many of Alaska's leading politicians are apparently on the take
- our heads swim. We climb to the rooftop, but we cannot find the heights of
irony from which we might laugh off the blend of thug and Pharisee that was Tom
DeLay - or dispel the nauseating suspicion, quickly becoming a certainty, that
the government of our nation deliberately fibbed us into a pointless,
Bad apples all around
So let us begin on the solid ground of these simple facts: this spectacular
episode of misrule has coincided with both the political triumph of
conservatism and with the rise of the Washington area to the richest rank of
American metropolises. In the period I am describing, gentlemen of the right
rolled through the capital like lords of creation. Every spigot was open, and
every indulgence slopped out for their gleeful wallowing. All the cliches
roared at full, unembarrassed volume: the wines gurgled, the T-bones roasted,
the golf courses beckoned, the Learjets zoomed, the contractors' glass
buildings sprouted from the earth, and the lobbyists' mansions grew like
brick-colonial mushrooms on the hills of northern Virginia.
Democrats, for their part, have tried to explain the flood of misgovernment as
part of a "culture of corruption", a phrase at once obviously true and yet so
amorphous as to be quite worthless. Republicans have an even simpler answer:
government failed, they tell us, because it is the nature of government
enterprises to fail. As for the great corruption cases of recent years, they
cluck, each is merely a one-of-a-kind moral lapse unconnected to any particular
ideology - an individual bad apple with no effect on the larger barrel.
Which leaves us to marvel helplessly at what appears to be a spectacular run of
lousy luck. My, what a lot of bad apples they are growing these days!
Corruption is uniquely reprehensible in a democracy because it violates the
system's first principle, which we all learned back in the sunshiny days of
elementary school: that the government exists to serve the public, not
particular companies or individuals or even elected officials. We Are the
Government, insisted the title of a civics primer published in the
earnest year of 1945. "The White House belongs to you," its dust jacket told
us. "So do all the other splendid buildings in Washington, DC. For you are a
citizen of the United States." For you, young citizen, does the Post Office
carry letters to every hamlet in the nation. For you does the Department of
Agriculture research better plowing methods and the Bureau of Labor Statistics
add up long columns of numbers.
The government and its vast workforce serve the people: The idea is so deep in
the American grain that we can't bring ourselves to question it, even in this
disillusioned age. Republicans and Democrats may fight over how big government
should be and exactly what it should do, but almost everyone shares those
baseline good intentions, we believe, that devotion to the public interest.
We continue to believe this in even the most improbable circumstances. Take the
worst apple of them all, lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose astonishing career as a
corruptionist has been unreeling in newspaper and congressional investigations
since I came to Washington. Abramoff started out as a great political success
story, a protege and then a confidant of the leaders of the conservative
faction of the Republican Party. But his career disintegrated on news of the
inventive ways he ripped off his clients and the luxury meals and lavish trips
with which he bribed legislators.
Journalistic coverage of the Abramoff affair has stuck closely to the "bad
apple" thesis, always taking pains to separate the conservative movement from
its one-time superstar. What Abramoff represented was "greed gone wild",
asserts the most authoritative account on the subject. He "went native", say
others. Above all, he was sui generis, a one-of-a-kind con man, "engaged
in bizarre antics that your average Zegna-clad Washington lobbyist would never
have dreamed of".
In which case, we can all relax: Jack Abramoff's in jail. The system worked;
the bad apple has been plucked; the wild greed and the undreamed-of antics have
Misgovernment by ideology
But the truth is almost exactly the opposite, whether we are discussing
Abramoff or the wider tsunami of corruption. The truth is as obvious as a slab
of sirloin and yet so obscured by decades of pettifoggery that we find it
almost impossible to apprehend clearly. The truth slaps your face in every
hotel lobby in town, but we still don't get the message.
It is just this: fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an
accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of
triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that
understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the
ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by
force of campaign contributions but by conviction; it believes in
entrepreneurship not merely in commerce but in politics; and the inevitable
results of its ascendance are, first, the capture of the state by business and,
second, all that follows: incompetence, graft, and all the other wretched
flotsam that we've come to expect from Washington.
The correct diagnosis is the "bad apple" thesis turned upside down. There are
plenty of good conservative individuals, honorable folks who would never
participate in the sort of corruption we have watched unfold over the last few
years. Hang around with grassroots conservative voters in Kansas, and in the
main you will find them to be honest, hardworking people. Even our story's
worst villains can be personally virtuous. Jack Abramoff, for example, is known
to his friends as a pious, polite, and generous fellow.
But put conservatism in charge of the state, and it behaves very differently.
Now the "values" that rightist politicians eulogize on the stump disappear, and
in their place we can discern an entirely different set of priorities -
priorities that reveal more about the unchanging historical essence of American
conservatism than do its fleeting campaigns against gay marriage or secular
humanism. The conservatism that speaks to us through its actions in Washington
is institutionally opposed to those baseline good intentions we learned about
in elementary school.
Its leaders laugh off the idea of the public interest as airy-fairy