What's the Matter With Liberals?

I listened yesterday to an engaging conversation on NPR’s On Point with Thomas Frank, the journalist and political analyst whose new book is Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? It’s worth listening to, if you’re a Democrat uncertain of the party’s current direction and paying attention to the Sanders-Clinton race.

You’ll remember Thomas Frank from his provocative first book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), in which he returned to his home state to dissect how conservatives used culture-war issues to bewilder and bemuse working-class people into voting against their own economic interests—in effect, parlaying Nixon’s Southern Strategy into a kind of Midwestern Strategy to secure the heartland for the Republican Party.

Whatever you think about this point of view, Frank can be credited for focusing on economic inequality; well before it became topic du jour on the talk-show circuit, he had it in his crosshairs as the vexing hallmark of contemporary American life and politics. His new book assigns Democrats a big portion of the blame. Put succinctly, Frank’s charge is that the party has crassly abandoned its traditional working-class base in order to romance wealthy and ambitious professionals—and that Bill Clinton did the heavy lifting in this betrayal. On his website Frank charges bluntly that “the Democrats are a class party in the most basic sense of the phrase, and the socioeconomic group whose interests they represent most enthusiastically—the satisfied and prosperous professional class—simply doesn’t care all that much about income inequality.”

What’s attractive to me in Frank’s views generally is his persistence in arguing against economic fatalism, his insistence that economic transformations are not merely the inevitable result of natural forces, but rather reflect political processes and decisions. Thus, in his view, the phenomenon we loosely call “globalization” – and our nation’s role in it, conducted in part via trade agreements worked out over recent decades – is not some inevitable process, but rather reflects a political decision to benefit the owner class at the expense of the worker class. In Frank’s view of the world, the “invisible hand” is not an underlying dynamic of natural economic laws, but rather a story of the active, fateful decisions of humans, acting politically to bolster some interests and undermine others.

In this view, everything is political—and Frank treats with contempt the opposing view, implicit in conservative economics, of politics as an intrusive force that “interferes” with the optimal natural functioning of the economy, to everyone’s detriment. He charges Democratic party leaders not only with capitulating to this worldview, but avidly romancing it. An embrace of semi-privatized public education fetishizing race-to-the-top competition and the mantra of “skills”; worship of high-tech capitalism; neglect of labor unions and excessive friendliness to Wall Street; a fatalistic acceptance of the “casualizing” of work in the new economy: all these, in Frank’s view, are the telltale signs of the New Democrat point of view.

Ably presenting that point of view on the show is Jim Kessler, former policy advisor to Sen. Chuck Schumer and co-founder of the centrist Democrat think tank, Third Way. Kessler’s basic take is that economic transformation occurs whether we like it or not, and that the relative decline of the American working class represents the convergence of huge historical, technological and economic factors that we can (and must) respond to, but can’t fundamentally alter. Thus his approach is to stress worker re-education, improving the social safety net, and so on. A lot of small moves to soften the blow, in other words.

To Frank—who at one point actually chuckles in derision at Kessler’s remarks—such talk of softening the blow is paradoxical at best, since Democrats have in fact landed that blow in the first place. “The trade deals were structured to benefit one class of Americans and to harm another,” he says. “The Democrats have decided to identify with the winners in our society. They have no problem with inequality today. That’s who they are.”

I’m going to put some information together on the TPP and trade deals generally, since we haven’t done much about that on this site and since I’m personally pretty ignorant about this important topic. But in the meantime, what about Thomas Frank’s view of the Democratic Party as the Great Betrayer. Agree? Disagree?

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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