My unscientific poll of Maryland voters in next week’s Democratic presidential primary gives Bernie Sanders a 100 percent lead in early returns. “I just voted for Bernie Sanders today,” said Thomas Frank, author of several books, including 2004’s best-seller What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and this year’s Listen, Liberal: or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?
“I advance voted in Maryland. I have my little ‘I Voted’ sticker on my shirt,” Frank told me in an interview this week. Frank spoke with Sanders back in 2014, when he was deciding whether to run for president and whether to run as a Democrat. Frank asked Sanders about a series of laws — NAFTA, welfare reform, bank deregulation — all carried out when Democrats were in power.
“That’s supposedly the party of working people,” Frank said.
“I don’t think anybody would say, as a whole, that the Democratic Party is the party of the American working class,” Sanders replied.
Understanding why Democrats can no longer be seen as a working-class party consumes the bulk of Listen, Liberal. But Frank purposefully did not make his critique the way Sanders so often does, based on how Democrats were seduced by big money to compromise their beliefs. In an early draft, Frank included a chapter about the drift toward corporate fundraising pioneered by then-Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Tony Coelho in the 1980s to protect the liberal majority in the House. But he eventually took that section out.
“I decided I’ve told the story of money in politics before,” Frank said, referring to his earlier book The Wrecking Crew. “I wanted to make this book a pure play on the class question, and not the money question.”
Frank’s main point is that the Democratic Party has become more responsive to the needs of an elite social class, abandoning preoccupations that challenge the working class, like income inequality. All the while, Democrats put on the cloak of populism when they need to be bailed out of trouble during elections. But when they actually get into power, they shake off those slogans and advance the interests of the elites.
In this sense, Listen, Liberal recalled for me Frank’s first book, 1997’s The conquest of cool, which was all about how corporations in the 1960s used advertising to reposition themselves as the natural heirs of the counter-culture. Advertising targeted at the young generation turned consumerism into freedom, made it the ultimate expression of values to buy a Volkswagen.
The same people marketed to in The conquest of cool are now the ones running the Democratic Party. “The story of the boomer generation is from left to right, or as they would say from idealism into pragmatism,” Frank said. Listen, Liberal resurrects a remarkable quote from Hillary Clinton’s Wellesley College commencement address in 1969, saying that politics should not be the art of the possible, but the art of making the impossible possible. This is precisely the thinking that Clinton supporters denounce as fantastical when coming from Sanders’s mouth.
Frank believes that this iteration of Democrats was never interested in issues that afflict workers. “When the mainstream media would comment on idealistic kids in the 1960s and 1970s, they were always talking about kids at fancy colleges,” Frank said, “not kids working in factories, which would have still been at that time a larger majority of them.”
Instead, Democrats care about equalizing opportunities and letting the cream rise to the top through education, entrepreneurship and “innovation,” a meaningless buzzword that Frank slaps silly in a later section of the book. Listen, Liberal blames this obsession with “creativity” as actively holding our politics back. “Creativity is something you do on your own, through individual inspiration. It’s not something available to workers,” said Frank.
In this sense, policies that encourage everyone to be an individual entrepreneur atomize the working class and put their concerns on a lower status, so Democrats do nothing about them. Frank even identifies recent issues where Democrats didn’t need Congress to make progress — things like anti-monopoly enforcement or bank prosecutions. Instead of pushing ahead, they shrank from confronting power on behalf of ordinary people, specifically because “they didn’t want to do those things,” as Frank writes.
Democrats find more value in professional achievement, in reaching the heights of the meritocracy, than in producing better outcomes for people who work for someone else. Much of the Clinton campaign focuses on knocking down artificial barriers for those who want to rise to the top. That heralds great promise for those with the talent to execute, but for the losers in that scenario, there aren’t much more than crumbs.
A meritocracy that used the current system to succeed has no incentive to alter that system. And so you hear from Hillary Clinton the amazing statement that “If we broke up the banks tomorrow… would that end racism? Would that end sexism?” Set aside the fact that black and Latino homeowners were the most victimized groups in the financial crisis. But class, race and gender critiques were historically unified in American activist movements. “Think of organized labor and the civil rights movement,” Frank said. “Or in the old Populist days of the 1890s, they were also the biggest feminists in America. Women had the right to vote all over the frontier. Why would someone on the left want to split that?”
The book features a litany of slights from Democrats at the working class, going back to the Carter era (Frank quotes Carter economic adviser Alfred Kahn saying “I’d love the Teamsters to be worse off”) and even before. It presents the New Left of the 1970s as springing from the suburbs rather than the union halls, the professional ranks rather than the shop floors. And so naturally those Democrats coming from this tradition focus their liberalism in other places than economic issues.
Frank acknowledged in our discussion that this decades-long phenomenon has begun to create a backlash. The Sanders campaign’s against-all-odds accomplishment is one example. The successes of the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign are another. “I’m ecstatic that I managed to hit the same themes people are upset about,” Frank said.
At the same time, he wasn’t optimistic that the backlash would amount to much. Despite his vote, Frank has resigned himself to Hillary’s likely victory in the nominating fight, and in the general election in November: “I expect she’ll win, she’ll continue along the same path as Obama and not much will change.”
Democrats often use the fact that Republicans have gone off the deep end to ignore their left flank, on the grounds that those liberals have nowhere else to go politically. Listen, Liberal contributes to the literature that expresses deep frustration with that decision, the fuel for a revolt. And even without a rebellion today or next week or next year, the future of the Democratic Party if its leaders continue to make that choice looks increasingly untenable.