What best characterized the politics and culture of the nineties in the world’s most powerful nation? Thomas Frank, editor of The Baffler —Chicago’s liveliest counter-cyclical journal—offers the most pungent reply to date. The title of One Market Under God is in its own way misleading. For Frank’s central argument is that in the last decades of the twentieth century, the United States saw two successive waves of populism, both equally remote from the insurgent traditions of Tom Watson or Robert LaFollette, but opposite in their relations with the deity. In the eighties, Reagan rode to power on a crest of ‘backlash’ populism, mobilizing white blue-collar workers, small businessmen, traditional farmers as a ‘moral majority’ pitted against a liberal establishment pilloried as decadent, irresponsible and elitist, scorning the values of order, family and religion. ‘Enunciated memorably in the speeches of Spiro Agnew and Clint Eastwood’, backlash populism ‘reminded “normal Americans” of the hideous world that the “establishment” had built, a place where blasphemous intellectuals violated the principles of Americanism at every opportunity, a place of busing and crime in the streets, of unimaginable cultural depravity, of epidemic disrespect for men in uniform, of judges gone soft on crime and politicians gone soft on communism’. For all its electoral success, however, this version of populism did not—and could not—celebrate the free market and business culture as exclusive arbiters of the good life: the Bible, the frontier, the family stood in the way.

It was not under Reagan but under Clinton, Frank argues, that the true apotheosis of American capitalism as a system of belief was realized. Business, of course, had always viewed any regulation or restraint on its operations as inimical to the profit motive. But up to the 1990s its ideology did not completely command the levers of government or public discourse. Big corporations were still widely seen as avaricious, self-interested foes of ordinary workers, the environ­ment, the community at large. The market was not regarded as the last word in civic freedom and felicity. In the nineties this changed, as redneck populism was superseded by a polo-neck-and-earring populism that mocked most of what its predecessor cherished, only to install the values of money far more absolutely. Frank’s previous book The Conquest of Cool described the way in which counter-cultural tokens of the sixties came to be appropriated as selling points of the latest commodities by advertising executives and marketing divisions, coopting anti-authoritarian gestures and slogans for the slickest consumption. Here lay the germ of a much wider transformation, the emergence of a pervasive ‘market populism’ that became the reigning American ideology of the nineties. ‘While the backlash had been proudly square, market populism was cool. Far from despising the sixties, it broadcast its fantasies to the tune of a hundred psychedelic hits’, writes Frank. ‘It had little need for the Christian Right and the Moral Majority. It dropped the ugly race-baiting of the previous right-wing dispensation, choosing instead to imagine the market as champion of the downtrodden Others of the planet, speaking their more authentic truths to our corrupt, degraded power . . . It gave not a damn for the traditional role of women, or even of children. The more that entered the workforce the merrier’.

Beyond these cultural contrasts, the new configuration rested on a more powerful and universal orthodoxy—the idea that markets represent a ‘far more democratic form of organization than governments’. Not merely mediums of exchange but of consent, markets ‘express the popular will more articulately and meaningfully than mere elections’. As such, they are ‘anti-elitist machines’, casting down the ‘pompous and the snooty’ and empowering the ‘little guy’—or, as Fortune magazine put it in 1999: ‘What we have here is nothing short of a revolution. Power that for generations lay with a few thousand white males on an island in New York City is now being seized by Everyman and Everywoman’. For those who might have doubted whether ideological delusion could go so far, even in Clinton’s America, Frank provides an astonishing tour of the boosters and laureates of the new order. This is a gallery that includes the popular sage George Gilder, whose technology tip-sheet transformed him into ‘the stock-picker infallible, the bubble-blower as philosophe’; the one-time boss of Citibank Walter Wriston theorizing markets as ‘global plebiscites’ in his vademecum The Twilight of Sovereignty; columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, writing ‘as though his thoughts were somehow pegged to the insanely rising Dow, as though each advance on Wall Street was a go-ahead for a new round of superlatives and hyperbole’; multi-millionaire financial journalist James Cramer, intimate of Marty Peretz (Al Gore’s mentor) at the New Republic, hailing day-traders in the bull market—‘you have to love a game where the amateurs beat the pants off the professionals’—as himself ‘just a schlubby guy who goes home to his wife and kids in New Jersey’; and, most vociferous of all, managerial guru Tom Peters, ‘the Marat of the business revolution’, calling in his manifesto Liberation Management for ‘blasting the violent winds of the marketplace into every nook and cranny of the firm’. In this euphoric universe, no image or allusion could be too radical for upside-down usage in the people’s cause: Amazon cheered by Time for ‘dotcommunism’, online brokers E*Trade boasting a direct line of descent from Selma (‘From One Revolution to the Next’), Oracle software breezily simulating the Khmers Rouges.

The core evidence in Frank’s case for the rise of market populism comes from a survey of the new management literature. But his spirited investigation extends more widely than this—into the media, the movie industry, the academy and the political realm. Epitomizing the same trends in the press, he argues, is the Gannett empire and its dismal ersatz of a national daily, USA Today, a ‘masterpiece of mediocrity’ forged by the excruciating Al Neuharth, ‘simultaneously hard as screws and soft as flan, absolutely determined, with a Calvinist inner fire, to be other-directed’, hammer of editorial ‘elitism’ and inspirer of Clinton’s Buscapades through middle America. Hollywood, meanwhile, was offering a hipper version of the culture-switch at large in ‘épater-by-numbers fare like Pleasantville, where a scarcely believable smugness about the liberated present arose phoenix-like from the ashes of the old, grey-flannel smugness’.

Over in the academy, movies like these are just what the cultural studies industry should have been dispatching. Instead, there too vehement denunciations of elitism and breathless ratifications of the box office have proliferated, without acknowledgement of the roots of such cultural populism in a conformist American sociology of the fifties, or its convergence with management ideology in the nineties. Frank’s biting observations on cultural studies end with a reflection on ‘the fatal double irony of an academic radicalism becoming functionally indistinguishable from free market theory at exactly the historical moment when capitalist managers decided it was time to start referring to themselves as “radicals”, to understand consumption itself as democracy’. Frank finds a political counterpart of the cult-stud surrender—noting common origins in Marxism Today—in the puffery of the Demos group in the UK, gargling over the magical ‘connexities’ of the market and Bill Gates’s ‘pre-cognition’, as recipes for the ‘re-branding’ of Britain.