Adam: Hi, Frank. You wrote in the magazine this week about class war — and your sense that, though people may feel queasy about the phrase, we’re in it now. What does class war mean to you — that is, how do you personally define it?
Frank: At its simplest level, it means a gap between those who are in power and those who are not. While part of that is the 1 percent versus the 99 percent income inequality that’s the rallying cry of Occupy Wall Street, it is not just about economics. What’s extraordinary — and volatile — about our moment is that those on the left, right, and many in between feel they have the short end of the stick when it comes to the elites of all types in America.
Adam: So this class war was ignited, but not inflamed, by the financial crisis (in one ironic sense, anger at the elites helped elect Obama). Then, as you point out in your essay, the tea partiers were the first movers, escalating the rage. Now the left has joined in with OWS. Why do you think it took the left so long to find its populist movement — and does OWS feel real to you, or does it feel more like a faux -uprising?
Frank: TARP was the ignition, all right, for the class war on both sides. The right was furious that Bush, Hank Paulson, and the GOP leaders in Congress (not to mention their unloved presidential candidate, McCain) all endorsed a taxpayers’ bailout of the banks. Democrats were no less angry at the bailouts, but at first didn’t hold TARP against Obama, since he wasn’t in power yet and could skate through that fall of 2008 retaining his hope-inducing image as a change agent, opposed to the D.C.–Wall Street elites’ status quo. It was faith in a new, seemingly insurgent president that put the breaks on the left’s anger. Now, three years later, the right’s anger at the old GOP Bush elite has only grown (he is barely acknowledged by the presidential contenders), and many garden-variety Democratic liberals, not just the left, share a disappointment in Obama. But the leadership vacuum left by Obama has not been filled by any liberal populist leader as galvanizing as Palin was to the populist right in her heyday of 2008–2009. OWS is not faux, and is playing a role in channeling this outrage, but it’s too early to predict whether it’s for keeps or a way station on the way to some other political vehicle. What we do know is that, for the foreseeable future, class anger is not going away on the left or right.
Adam: I went down to Zuccotti Park over the weekend and here are two observations: The first is that it looks nearly identical, in its outward aspects, to almost all sixties-style protest sites — stunning how the atmospherics don’t change; it’s like a lefty backlot. There are as many people taking pictures as being the subjects of those pictures. I find it plausible that the rage itself is sustainable — but I have a hard time seeing how the Zuccotti Park manifestation of it lasts much longer. It looks too fringe not to eventually be dismissed as fringe. The media will turn against it when it’s no longer convenient to the narrative.
Second is that the park is about two blocks from the 9/11 memorial. On Sunday, there was almost nobody visible at the 9/11 memorial (I’m told it was a day set aside for first responders). Zuccotti Park was a mob scene. The visible contrast between the two sites was striking. There’s a metaphoric point in there somewhere.
Frank: I thought that was you at Zuccotti Park with the bongos, Adam, but I was too embarrassed to come over and call you out … But in truth, I missed you by a few hours, arriving just as it was getting dark Sunday night. In any case, I saw the scene a bit differently. Yes, there are parts of it that look like a tired road company of Hair. But here’s how it’s different from the sixties as I remember it: far more diverse in age and race, zero signs of sexual activity or provocation, and — truly shocking — I couldn’t smell any pot. Polite cops, and not as much music, let alone loud music — instead, the hum of earnest talk. It’s certainly a hodgepodge. The 99-ers are there, but it’s inevitably a magnet for anyone with any cause: End the Fed, Free Bradley Manning, whatever, as well as a goodly assortment of crazy people. But to me, the point is that a happening this inchoate, this small, this amateur could enjoy national approval ratings above 50 percent (in both Time and National Journal polls). The Zuccotti Park encampment is frail and may well not last longer, as you say, but in a way, it’s already achieved its purpose. And I, like you, walked over to the 9/11 memorial. It — and the whole ground zero site — seemed desolate and a bit eerie next to all the OWS activity so nearby, with only a few tourists venturing over from Zuccotti Park. And yes, there is a larger point. This was the week that Obama announced our final withdrawal from our endless, costly, self-destructive war in Iraq, but his “mission accomplished” barely registered among Americans. 9/11 and the wars it spawned are history. The class war is now.
Adam: When you think about it, the class war and the war on terror juxtapose in several interesting ways. Neither is a war, in a proper sense; both have inchoate, nameless enemies; both are significantly propelled by fear and rage at the unbridled effects of globalism, though in different mixtures; and they present themselves here exactly ten years apart (I’m afraid I can’t stop thinking like a magazine editor). But to move from the abstract to the concrete, I agree that the most interesting aspect of Occupy Wall Street is the significant poll support they’re getting — quite a bit more than the tea party got when it first appeared. But the tea party became a true force in American politics when we all saw their electoral consequences in the 2010 election. In your essay, you say, convincingly, that the class war won’t resolve in 2012 — the opponents will likely be two candidates of the elite facing off. But short of resolution, how do you imagine the “class war” will play out electorally? Is it ultimately to the benefit of Democrats or Republicans — or do all incumbents just get washed away, regardless of party?
Frank: I wouldn’t want to be an incumbent in either party (except, of course, in all those gerrymandered House districts — part of our democracy’s problem). I am wary of predictions, but my guess is that there will be a political stalemate until one of the following: an unexpected speedy recovery on the jobs and housing fronts; an external existential threat to the country (see Depression and WWII); the emergence of a reformist populist leader with enormous public support. All unlikely at least in the near future; we may stew in our anger and this listless economy for quite some time.
Adam: Okay, thanks. Readers, check out Frank’s essay “The Class War Has Begun” if you haven’t already. Anyone with questions for Frank to answer in this space should write to AskFrankRich@nymag.com. Until next time.