By Jim Miller
Thomas Frank has written the most important political book of 2016, and one that should disturb and hopefully influence progressives for years to come. If you have ever found yourself not just horrified by the lunatic right but also frustrated by the hapless and compromised “left,” Frank is your man. If you want to feel good about “your side” but are still troubled by the fact that economic inequality remains at historically high levels despite the last eight years of Democratic Presidential rule, Frank has some uncomfortable truths for you to ponder.
And it’s not just about those damn Republicans.
In his new book, Listen Liberal: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Frank does his usual stellar job of research and analysis where he painstakingly makes his case by using the words of his subjects to illustrate his argument. Take, for example, the following gem:
One of the challenges in our society is that the truth is a kind of disequalizer. One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated.
Surely, this must have come from some evil Republican operative taped in a back room talking about the difference between the “takers” and “makers” to some plutocratic donor at a swanky resort. Alas, this is not the case. As Frank reveals in the midst of his study, this is Larry Summers speaking on record to journalist Ron Suskind, the same Larry Summers who is “a prominent Democrat, a high-ranking cabinet official in the Clinton years and the man standing at the right hand of power in the first Obama administration.”
And though Summers has since recanted this view after he left government, his statement gives us an unpleasantly unvarnished glimpse into the thinking behind much of the Democratic policy over the last several decades. While Frank is careful to note that there are many individual exceptions to the rule, his basic argument is that the leadership of the national Democratic Party transformed America’s “party of the left” into nothing more than the socially liberal wing of the economic elite.
In his very sharp review of Listen Liberal, Jim Swearingen nails the book’s central thesis:
Frank argues that the Democratic Party, in absorbing legions of self-satisfied professionals, has shed its New Deal mantle and come to disdain the manual class for its inability—or worse, unwillingness—to adapt to a new economy built on education, technological innovation, professional associations, and disposable capital.
The creative class’s philosophical convictions include a hazy, Utopian fantasy of all technical and economic problems magically solved. This is a very different idealized future from the class-less, poverty-abolishing dreams of the old-school New Deal Democrats.
The Democratic Party’s current leaders are in the grip of an uncharacteristically anti-government fever. They favor tax and trade policies that foster technological innovation and business start-ups that will, they believe, establish a spectacular meritorious economy with jobs for all—all, that is, who are adequately prepared to fill them.
Their idea that this rising tide of technological innovation will lift all boats generally goes unquestioned. But Frank peels away the fatuous Platonic sales talk to reveal that this is just the latest rationalization of capitalists trying to dismantle a system that imposes regulations and taxes on them.
As Frank puts it himself in his book, the liberalism of recent years is a betrayal of the ethos of the New Deal era. The New Democratic liberalism of the last few decades or what he calls “the blue state model:”
[I]sn’t the stuff of Franklin Roosevelt or the United Auto Workers; it’s the Route 128/suburban-professionals variety. (Senator Elizabeth Warren is the great exception to this rule.) Professional-class liberals aren’t really alarmed by oversized rewards for society’s winners. On the contrary, this seems natural to them — because they are society’s winners. The liberalism of professionals just does not extend to matters of inequality; this is the area where soft hearts abruptly turn hard.
Innovation liberalism is “a liberalism of the rich,” to use the straightforward phrase of local labor leader Harris Gruman. This doctrine has no patience with the idea that everyone should share in society’s wealth. What Massachusetts liberals pine for, by and large, is a more perfect meritocracy — a system where the essential thing is to ensure that the truly talented get into the right schools and then get to rise through the ranks of society. Unfortunately, however, as the blue-state model makes painfully clear, there is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The ideology of educational achievement conveniently negates any esteem we might feel for the poorly graduated.
This “failure of the Democratic Party” cannot, Frank argues, be laid at the feet of the evil Republicans. It is part of a decades-long shift inside the party away from the New Deal Democratic coalition that had working people and unions at its core, to a party of the “top 10 percent” that is, at base, deeply suspicious of unions, government intervention in the economy, and anything else that would seriously address the fundamental causes of economic inequality in a way that does not blame the victims by suggesting that they just need to go back to school and learn new skills.
The heart of Frank’s argument is that the values of the Democratic elite have decisively moved away from solidarity and its egalitarian trappings toward an idealization of meritocracy. And because the professional class believes in the myth of meritocracy they confuse their good fortune with moral and intellectual superiority. But this “professional ideology” goes beyond smugness and condescension in that it breeds, according to Frank, both a remarkable ideological obedience and the deeply held but false belief that the “well-graduated” are “apolitical problem solvers” free of ideology or class privilege.
So for the liberal technocrat, there is “no social or political problem that cannot be solved with more education and job training.” This makes perfect sense because, as a class, professionals are “defined by educational attainment, and every time they tell the country that what it needs is more schooling, they are saying: Inequality is not a failure of the system; it is a failure of you.”
The only problem in education, for the professional crew, is that it is “not meritocratic enough.” Thus all that needs to be done is bust the teachers’ unions (whose sin is their outdated belief in solidarity), open charter schools, test our kids to death, give tax breaks to “innovators,” and make sure that the cream that rises to the top is “diverse” in nature.
Put another way, when neoliberalism meets superficial identity politics you get corporate liberalism that talks about breaking the “glass ceilings” for a handful of women and people of color in board rooms and government while it blithely promotes trade deals like NAFTA and TPP along with deregulation and bad government policies that lower the floor for the majority of folks at the bottom and hurts the very people the party claims to represent.
Hence, as Frank observes of the Clinton years, “What the poor get is discipline; what the professionals get is endless indulgence.” Or later of Obama’s economic advisors, “Thus did the Party of the People turn the government over to Wall Street in the years after Wall Street had done such lasting damage to . . . well, the people.”
This will surely be dismaying reading for anyone who views the Democratic Party through rose-colored glasses or even for those of us who are just trying to feel some level of good conscience about voting for the lesser of two evils. But Frank’s analysis is both compelling and deeply researched. As opposed to the pervasive horse race banality and ahistorical blather that passes for political discussion in the mainstream corporate media during this election season, Frank actually takes the time to refer to history and accurately trace the real world evolution of the Democratic Party.
In perhaps the most interesting section of the book for those already familiar with the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in the eighties and nineties, Frank locates the beginning of the party’s shift away from the New Deal to the period “between ’68 and ‘72” when “unions lost their position as the premier interest group in the Democratic coalition.” Frank adeptly points out that the reforms of the McGovern Commission in 1971, “which seemed to be populist” on the surface, actually led the party to “replace leaders of workers’ organizations with affluent professionals.”
Frank digs deep and goes to the source citing a 1971 manifesto by Fredrick Dutton, a liberal lobbyist, Democratic strategist, and power broker, who argued that the old New Deal coalition was “the principal group arrayed against change,” and that, “In the 1930s, the blue-collar group was in the forefront. Now it is the white-collar sector.”
Of course, the notion here was that it would be college educated liberal young people changing the world for the better, but the result was, Frank persuasively argues, that it “opened the way for something truly unfortunate: the erasure of economic egalitarianism from American Politics.”
Listen Liberal continues in this vein for much of the rest of the book, engaging in a rigorous history and analysis of the rise of neoliberalism in the DLC and later New Democrats, while skillfully eviscerating the sacred cows of the Clinton and Obama administrations along the way. Frank digs beneath the rhetoric and populist style that so many observers confuse with substance and convincingly illustrates that “What distinguishes the political order we live under now is consensus on certain economic questions, and what made that consensus happen was the capitulation of the Democrats.”
Hence, whether it be the Clinton Administration’s embrace of NAFTA, mass incarceration, welfare reform, and financial deregulation or the Obama Administration’s failure to act more boldly in response to the financial crisis, abandonment of the public option in the Affordable Care Act, capitulation to Wall Street, and aggressive promotion of TPP, Frank meticulously unmasks the illusion that Bill and Barack are worthy heirs to the legacy of FDR. As he pithily notes of Obama’s legacy, “Having put so much faith in his transformative potential, his followers need to come to terms with how nontransformative he has been.”
While it would take too much time to specifically outline Frank’s case against these Democratic heros in this review, suffice it to say that any progressive who wants to have a clear-eyed view of the current state of the Democratic Party and how it got so far from being “the party of the people” should swallow hard and read this book.
Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? became a go-to source for Democrats looking to understand the “backlash populism” of the American right, giving us a history that makes the rise of the Bushes and Trumps of the world understandable. What he does in Listen Liberal is give progressives a usable history that can help us understand the terrain on which we are fighting against both a deeply reactionary right and a fundamentally compromised “party of the left.”
Frank understands that there are many exceptions to his characterization of the Democratic Party, and he openly acknowledges the party’s key role in standing between the Oval Office and “the radicalized GOP.” But, in his conclusion, he smartly notes that the very flaws he underlines in Listen Liberal have made the party electorally vulnerable to the populist right in that, “the direction that the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure both for the nation and for their own partisan health.”
Why? Frank pulls no punches:
The Democrats posture as “the party of the people” even as they dedicate themselves ever more resolutely to serving and glorifying the professional class. Worse: they combine self-righteousness and class privilege in a way that Americans find stomach-turning. And every two years, they simply assume that being non-Republican is sufficient to rally the voters of the nation to their standard. This cannot go on.
Despite this, Frank is pessimistic about our current ability to either rebuild the labor movement or start a third party so he ends by calling on progressives to “strip away the Democrats’ precious sense of their own moral probity” because, “The course of the party and the course of the country can both be changed, but only after we understand that the problem is us.”
What about the Democratic Primary?!!!
One of the most interesting omissions of the book is a focus on the ongoing Democratic primary and the promise of the Sanders campaign. This is perhaps because much of it was written well before the release as is often the case.
Nonetheless, as of this writing, with most polls showing Clinton likely to win New York and further cement the probability of her being the Democratic nominee, Frank’s analysis still holds true. All one needs to do is refer to Bill Clinton’s recent comments mocking Sanders supporters by joking that they think that we should, “Just shoot every third person on Wall Street and everything will be fine.” The real problem, according to Clinton, is with Sanders’ focus on economic inequality as “the unilateral explanation for everything that’s wrong.” On the question itself, Clinton opined that, “The inequality problem is rooted in the shareholder-first mentality and the absence of training for the jobs of tomorrow.”
This is, in many ways, a perfect illustration of what Frank claims is the matter with the Democratic Party. At base, the fundamental misunderstanding that they have about inequality is that it is somehow a “technical problem” or a “single issue” rather than, as Frank puts it, “nothing less than the whole vast mystery of how we are going to live together.” It is, in the end, not a “problem” to be fixed but a deep injustice that needs to be made right—a moral rather than a technical issue. But seeing it this way bucks up against the meritocratic assumptions undergirding much of contemporary Democratic policy with all of its undying love for market-friendly technocratic solutions.
So perhaps progressives who will continue to tactically support Democrats might think about doing so in a more honest way, as dressing up Hillary Clinton as a genuine progressive will be a hard pill to swallow for the millions of young people and others who have finally tired of business as usual in American politics.
Thus, despite the odds, we should continue pushing for something better than the tired hegemony of the current moment. Even if we lose the present battle, we should have our eyes on the long war. As Mike Davis recently said, “Fight with hope, fight without hope, but fight absolutely.”