Books for Our Times: [ital] Listen, Liberal [ital], by Thomas Frank

Books for Our Times: [ital] Listen, Liberal [ital], by Thomas Frank
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Seventh in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times.

Much analysis this presidential season has focused on how far adrift the Republican party has moved from its base and its principles, this drift allowing for a take-over by an outsider (Donald Trump). But the same drift---from base and principles---has occurred in the Democratic party as well, as Thomas Frank describes in his broad and blistering survey, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

Frank, author of the influential What's the Matter with Kansas? and other books, is unsparing in his brief against the Democratic party. After all, the modern-day GOP never held itself out as anything other than the party of the plutocrats, with a bank vault for a heart. But the Democrats: It was "the party of the people," or supposed to be, until it too suffered a take-over by money, money, money and betrayed its historic dedication to the working and middle class. Frank writes as a broken-hearted liberal. This book might be titled What Ever Happened to Liberals?

Happily for the reader, Frank is a broken-hearted liberal with a sense of humor, as seen in his opening:

"There are consequences to excessive hope, just as there are to other forms of intemperance. One of these is disillusionment, another is anger, and a third is this book."

The "excessive hope" he refers to, of course, was raised with President Barack Obama's signature campaign slogan of "hope and change." In a pattern repeated throughout the book---raised hopes, dashed dreams---the author, a self-described "person of vivid pink sentiments," had his liberal heart broken when Obama, once inaugurated, spoke of striking "a grand bargain" on his pet deficit and tax deal with the obstructionist Republicans. "In a split second I understood the whole thing: that big compromises like this were real to the president, but 'change' was not."

What infuriates Frank even more: Mr. Obama early on had "the perfect opportunity for transformation": an Ivy League "brain trust," a Democratically-controlled Congress, a public yearning for far-reaching reform. But: It didn't happen. Instead, Obama "saved a bankrupt system that by all rights should have met its end." Obama whiffed. But so did an earlier Democratic president, Bill Clinton. "This is a book," the author declares, "about the failure of the Democratic Party---about how they failed when the conditions for success were perfect."

Not only that, but since the 1970s Democrats have even turned on "the people" and tried to undo Franklin Roosevelt's nation-saving New Deal! How could this happen?

To explain how, Frank introduces the subject of inequality. Our "bankrupt system" desperately needs transformation because it allows gross and growing inequality---of income, well-being, spirit. But the dry term "inequality" doesn't begin to convey Frank's meaning. With heart and fire, he writes:

"'Inequality' is shorthand for all the things that have gone to make the lives of the rich so measurably more delicious, year on year for three decades---and also for the things that have made the lives of working people so wretched and so precarious. It is visible in the ever-rising cost of health care and college; in the coronation of Wall Street and the slow blighting of wherever it is you live; in the dot-com bubble, in the housing bubble, in whatever bubble is jazzing the business pages as you read this."

Frank nails the problem thus: "'Inequality' is a euphemism for the Appalachification of our world" [my italics]. Inequality is why "some people find such significance in....the hop content of a beer while others will never believe in anything again" [my italics again]. In a word: Appalachification crushes. To ameliorate the crushed, Frank accuses Democrats of doing "vanishingly little." He further cites them for "snoozing through the liberal hour": Rather than take action, they're merely waiting for demographic shifts in the future to give them the Congressional majorities they need.

Stepping back further, the author says that, properly understood, inequality is not just an "issue," but "the eternal conflict of management and labor"---"with one side pinned to the ground and the other leisurely pounding away at its adversary's face." Frank harks back to the nineteenth century, when inequality was understood as "the social question": For once, he says, "their polite Victorian euphemism beats ours." In properly grand fashion, Frank states the central question: "This is nothing less than the whole vast mystery of how we are going to live together" (my italics again).

By now, the reader will say: "This is what Bernie Sanders has been shouting about." Apparently Frank's book went to press before Sanders launched his presidential campaign in May 2015---and went on to catch fire with progressive Democrats in the primaries---for Sanders is mentioned nowhere in the book. (Lopsidedly, Hillary Clinton, Sanders's opponent, comes in for extended examination.)

Frank charts a brief history of "the party of the people"---perhaps too briefly: He devotes one sentence to the ignominious period when "the Party of the People was also, once, the Party of Slavery and the Party of the Klan." Taken in the overall, though, the noble lineage stretches from James Madison, who identified "unequal distribution of property" as the main cause of "faction," to Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, who in 1835 distinguished the two parties as "founded on the radical question, whether PEOPLE, or PROPERTY, shall govern." Skipping over the slavery period, Frank picks up with William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold speech in 1896 and Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 deploring "economic royalists." And of course there was FDR's New Deal, which saved a nation brought low by the Great Depression. Frank quotes Harry Truman for a 1948 a speech explicitly identifying the Democrats with the common folk. "The Democratic Party represents the people," Truman said:

"It is pledged to work for agriculture. It is pledged to work for labor. It is pledged to work for the small businessman and the white-collar worker. The Democratic Party puts human rights and human welfare first. But the attitude of the Republican gluttons of privilege is very different. The bigmoney [sic] Republican looks on agriculture and labor merely as expense items in a business venture. He tries to push their share of the national income down as low as possible and increase his own profits. And he looks upon the Government as a tool to accomplish this purpose."

This brief history is only a prelude for Frank to level his most damning accusation: that---starting in the Seventies and Eighties with "futurist" liberals, whose thinking was acted on with special vigor in the administration of Bill Clinton but also in that of Mr. Obama---the Democratic party betrayed this sacred pledge to the people by shifting its focus to the professional class.

Among these "futurist" Democrats (Frank names names), the "thinking" went thus: Industrial society has gone into eclipse, the future belongs to "change" and "high-tech," the workers---the core of the New Deal coalition---are the principal group arrayed against these forces of change, labor unions are an economic drag on this change, let's welcome the technical expert! (One sees the moral vacuity of the term "change.") By the early '90s the Democratic Leadership Council (DNC) declared that to "do business" in a "post-industrial, global economy," we (these are Frank's words) "needed to reform 'entitlements' (i.e., Social Security), privatize government operations, open charter schools, get tough on crime, and all the rest of it."

This "grubby dialectic" of the DNC, led by Bill Clinton, infused his administration when he took power in 1992. Frank is acid on his legacy of betrayal to the people:

"[I]t was Bill Clinton's administration that deregulated derivatives, deregulated telecom, and put our country's only strong banking laws in the grave. He's the one who rammed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress and who taught the world that the way you respond to a recession is by paying off the federal deficit. Mass incarceration and the repeal of welfare, two of Clinton's other major achievements, are the pillars of the disciplinary state that has made life so miserable for Americans in the lower reaches of society. He would have put a huge dent in Social Security, too, had the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal not stopped him. If we take inequality as our measure, the Clinton administration looks not heroic but odious."

And for whom were the people betrayed? The professionals, the "well-graduated":

"an enormous and prosperous group, the people with the jobs every parent wants their child to grow up and get. In addition to doctors, lawyers, the clergy, architects, and engineers---the core professional groups---the category includes economists, experts in international development, political scientists, managers, financial planners, computer programmers, aerospace designers, and even people who write books like this one."

Wrenching liberalism even further away from a philosophy exalting the sons of toil is the new "knowledge economy"---"specifically, the knowledge economy's winners: the Silicon Valley chieftains, the big university systems, and the Wall Street titans."

Warming to his theme---radiating actually---Frank excoriates the "well-graduated" for their betrayal. What gives this class its status is learning and expertise, which a complicated world requires; thus we grant them elevated status---in exchange for a tacit promise of public service: "The professions are supposed to be disinterested occupations or even 'social trustees.'" But---and this is Frank's key question:

"What happens when an entire category of experts stops thinking of itself as 'social trustees'? What happens when they abuse their monopoly power? What happens when they start looking mainly after their own interests, which is to say, start acting as a class?"

But it did happen: The well-graduated betrayed "the people." Of course there are many exceptions---individuals who are educated and conscientious---but, as a class, Frank has a point about professionals. While the Gilded Age reformers known as "progressives" saw professionalization as a positive thing---an enlightened managerial class would "bring about an industrial peace that would be impossible under the profit motive alone"---today, "that system of professionalism was long ago subverted and transformed into something different and more rapacious":

"Today we live in a world of predatory bankers, predatory educators, even predatory health care providers, all of them out for themselves."

The turn toward predatory behavior Frank traces to the modern-day liberal's unquestioning respect for expertise: their "blindness to predatory behavior if it comes cloaked in the signifiers of professionalism" [my italics again]. Exhibit A: the "complex" financial instruments that drove the 2008 financial crisis:

"For old-school regulators....undue financial complexity was an indicator of likely fraud. But for the liberal class, it is the opposite: an indicator of sophistication. Complexity is admirable in its own right."

About inequality, Frank cites professionals for a "profound complacency." Indeed, he contends, inequality is essential to professionals' class identity. Frank traces this complacency to the "pathologies of professionalism": the need for status, the tendency toward orthodoxy, the fact that professionals don't listen to anybody but other professionals, certainly not to the people. It's this complacency that allows liberals now to prioritize social issues over the economic reforms the people so desperately need. Finally, in advocating that blue-collar workers become better educated, liberals take the pressure off themselves to reform base economic conditions:

"While this interpretation might have made....narcissistic sense to the well-graduated, it allowed Democrats to ignore what was happening in the real economy---from monopoly power to financialization to labor-management relations---in favor of a moral fantasy that required them to confront no one."

Sadly, organized labor, a traditional Democratic constituency, has lost its primacy of place, largely because it "signifies lowliness, not status." "Solidarity, the core value of unions, stands in stark contradiction to the doctrine of individual excellence."

In sum: Frank's indictment of liberals is stinging and comprehensive. Note there's not much here about Republican obstructionism. According to Frank, Democrats betrayed the people all by themselves.

The bulk of the book is Frank's detailed defense of his argument. He documents liberals' hopeful junctures and wrong turns from the Seventies to the present. On occasion he wields too broad a brush; for one thing, he shorts education for its humanistic value. Also, Frank is short on prescription. Probably he would agree: Liberals need to grow a heart as well as a spine again.

For me, the value-added element is Frank's revelations of the "well-graduated," set out in the first 50 pages. Suddenly, Republican gibes about Democrats as "limousine liberals" computed---the condescension of today's liberals of "fly-over country," of "red-necks," of organized labor. Not that the Republicans themselves got out of their limousines to help "the people." But between the contempt of both Republicans and Democrats, no wonder some working- and middle-class Democrats will vote for Donald Trump, the outsider who promises better trade deals and jobs, jobs, jobs.

Thomas Frank has written a book as original and compelling as George Packer's The Unwinding. In its broad-gauge tracing of the shifting contours of our modern landscape, it resembles C.P. Snow's 1959 book, Two Cultures, about the growing chasm between the arts and the sciences. I hope delegates to the Democratic national convention, underway this week, have copies of Frank's book on them. A convention would be a good place to throw the metaphoric grenade, pull out the drawing board, and demand of the like-minded: Listen, liberals! We need a reset!

For video interviews with Thomas Frank, see here, here, here, and here. For print interviews with Frank, see here and here. For Frank's column in The Guardian, "Why Hillary Clinton's 90s nostalgia is so dangerous," see here.

Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."

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