Book Review/Interview: “Listen, Liberal” — What’s the Matter with the Democrats?

Bay Staters, take heed: according to Thomas Frank, the problem isn’t just with the Party, but with the reliably blue states as well.

Listen Liberal by Thomas Frank. Metropolitan Books, 320 pages, $27.


By Matt Hanson

Ever since his bestselling and still-timely What’s The Matter With Kansas? Thomas Frank has been a crucial voice in American political criticism. His wittily caustic, unpretentious writing vividly analyzes how modern conservatism uses divisive cultural wedge issues (gay marriage, for example) to fire up alienated, working-class voters to vote Republican against their own economic interests. The GOP then proceeds to cut their bosses’ taxes and loosen up regulation, ensuring economic stasis and channels the fresh outrage at Washington to win election after election.

A proud son of the Midwest, Frank understands the cultural ramifications of political bait and switch like few others. But making fun of the Republicans isn’t enough, no matter how accurate it might be. The urgent and difficult question for liberals of all stripes now becomes: what’s the matter with the Democrats?

Listen Liberal turns the spotlight on the failures of the modern Democratic Party to live up to its reputation as “the party of the people.” Frank puts self-satisfied elites to task for abandoning the needs of a suffering working class in favor of the meritocracy, otherwise known as rule by PhD and the expertise of the professional political elite.

Instead of refocusing their efforts on rebuilding the economy to work better for poor and working people, Frank argues that the Democrats are in thrall to shiny new concepts like “innovation” and “the learning class.” The decision-making on policy is driven by the academically designated best and brightest, whose unofficial motto is “you get what you deserve, and what you deserve is defined by how well you did in school.”

While pillorying the technocrats who keep insisting that they alone have the expertise to solve problems their pet policies of free markets and deregulation have caused, Frank reminds us that FDR’s New Deal brain trust contained people like Harry Hopkins and Thurman Arnold, who cultivated real-world experience before becoming movers and shakers in Washington. Listen Liberal draws deeply from history and personal observation to show how we arrived at the way we live now.

Frank traces the ideological fault lines running through the party since the Clinton era. By the early ’90s, the influential centrist Democratic Leadership Counsel openly gave up on working-class voters once it “discovered the great Cause on whose behalf it would henceforth make its demands: not the forgotten worker but the future- the ‘postindustrial, global economy.’ It was in order to do business in this new realm…we needed to reform ‘entitlements’ (i.e., Social Security), privatize government operations, open charter schools, get tough on crime, and all the rest of it.”

With the charismatic Bill Clinton striding the public stage, the DLC chairman was a neoliberal man for all seasons: “[Clinton] lead the idealistic Sixties generation and he warred with the teacher’s union; he smoked dope and he never got high; he savored Fleetwood Mac and he got tough with welfare mothers.” Clinton may be an icon of modern liberalism to many people, but the record of his presidency tells a different story.

Proclaiming, “the era of big government is over,” Clinton pushed for NAFTA over the objection of labor unions and much of the Democratic congress. It was the kind of market-based, apparently historically inevitable move made palatable by a winsome New Democrat looking for a bridge to the 21st Century. In 1994 Clinton also signed the most sweeping police-state legislation the country had ever seen, building new prisons and establishing mandatory minimum sentencing, all to make sure there was no way he could fall into the Carter/Mondale/Dukakis trap of being “too liberal” or “soft on crime” to be electable. And as for the welfare state, Clinton signed a 1996 bill to end assistance to impoverished single parents, to the delight of pundits everywhere who enthused over Clinton’s “triangulation” and ability to forge a new Democratic brand.

After the election of Barack Obama, Frank describes how he too had high hopes for the new President, especially after the opportunities for change newly available in the wake of the financial crisis. Once the words “grand bargain” became a new term, Obama saying in a state of the union address that the government would tighten up on spending, and with economic whizzes like Larry Summers and Robert Rubin missing a landmark opportunity to crack down on the banks, hope began lose out to expediency, to the base’s chagrin.

“Those upset because Team Obama didn’t get tough with Wall Street would have nowhere else to go…It was science, political science: move to the center, and you can take such people’s votes for granted.” The signal was clear that the dynamic new president was quixotically looking to find common ground with the Republicans, only to find it more and more obvious that cooperation within the parties wasn’t in the cards.

Bay Staters, take heed: the problem isn’t just with the Party, but with the reliably blue states as well. Frank casts a critical eye on Massachusetts as an example of the dichotomy of the modern Democratic Party. We are often informed that Boston is the hub of the universe as far as education, medicine, and technology is concerned, and the state has been commendably forward-thinking about health care and GLBTQ rights. But all is not well in the Commonwealth.

Frank points our attention to the depressed ruins of postindustrial towns outside “the 128 corridor.” Former industrial centers like Fall River, Lowell, and Holyoke are living reminders of what happens when industry leaves and devastation creeps in, with otherwise abandoned citizens looking forward to the day when they might possibly work in an Amazon warehouse for minimum wage and no health benefits, transporting books to the education enclave back in Boston who save pennies on the dollar.

One of the most deliciously incisive moments of Listen Liberal takes place on Martha’s Vineyard. Frank visits a trendy coffee shop featuring — on one of its walls — a conspicuously edgy Bukowski poem bemoaning the soul-crushing nature of factory work. The irony is not lost on Frank, whose debut book The Conquest of Cool had a few things to say about the commercialization of the counterculture. Unmoved by the pseudo-hipness on display, Frank responds that when he talks to the factory workers he’s actually known, the lament he hears is the lost chance at supporting a family and a shot at a middle-class life.

For someone like myself, who has worked longer than I care to mention on behalf of various Democratic causes, reading Listen Liberal can be disheartening. Somewhat surprisingly, there isn’t very much in the book about the progressive wing of the party or the recent surge in support for strident leftists like Bernie Sanders. Frank is too smart and self-aware to wave a flag or descend into shrill preachiness, but his moral clarity and gimlet eye ought to revitalize the argument of Democrats who yearn for progressive change — as the saying goes, the first step towards fixing a problem is acknowledging it.

In many ways, the need for class-consciousness on the left is more urgent than ever. In order to stay true to the ideals that made it the dominant party for many years, and to respond to the needs of the people it is supposed to represent, the Democratic Party desperately needs to engage with progressive ideas that challenge the corporate,’innovation’ mantra. Amid a trudging economy and widespread inequality, the time is ripe for an ideological overhaul. Frank’s sharp, historically informed and wittily accessible critique should cut deeper into the mainstream of liberal thinking. Hopefully, the call for liberals to take a long hard look in the mirror won’t fall on deaf ears.

We caught up with Frank to talk about Listen Liberal, the legacy of the Clintons, and the inevitable implosion of Donald Trump.

Arts Fuse:: At one point in the book you mention the “Appalachification” of the country. Could you elaborate on that?

Thomas Frank

Author Thomas Frank –“I’m one of the liberals who is going to vote for Hillary anyways. Trump is simply too abhorrent to contemplate any other course of action.” Photo: Wiki Commons.

Thomas Frank: What I was trying to get at there is the cultural side of inequality — the idea that vast reaches of the country are now heading down, that the middle class is shrinking, that sort of thing. George Packer gives a really vivid description of what it looks like in The Unwinding.

AF: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to progressive change for the country right now?

Frank: If you asked me several years ago, I would have said the Republican Party, but they are in the process of self-destructing right now. The argument of Listen, Liberal is that Democrats are an impediment that is just as profound as the Republicans.

So I guess part of the answer has to be, the two-party system. That these two apparatuses are able to lumber along, doing what they do without fear of real competition, makes it very difficult to change course.

AF: A lot of what you’re talking about is similar to the issues raised by the Bernie Sanders campaign. You’ve interviewed Sanders. There isn’t very much about him or of the more leftist elements in the Democratic Party in this book. Why is that?

Frank: I left Sanders out of the book because he wasn’t a Democrat when I was writing it. I do acknowledge early on that there are many Democrats out there who are good people, whom I agree with right down the line. However, this kind of Democrat is rarely taken seriously in Washington, doesn’t run for the presidency, that sort of thing. What I was trying to get at in Listen, Liberal was the orthodox thinking of the presidential wing of the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders is an aberration in that he did so well after having been treated as a marginal figure his whole career. I hope we have more aberrations like him.

AF: Do you think that the Clintons (assuming there isn’t much difference between Bill and Hillary in terms of policy) are intellectually convinced of the correctness of neo- liberal policies or is it just opportunism on their part?

Frank: I would put it the other way around. They are profoundly convinced of the correctness of neoliberalism; everything else is opportunism. Remember, neo-liberalism (free-trade deals, deregulation, etc.) isn’t particularly popular stuff. You have to wash it down with all the fake populism that Bill Clinton was so good at. But things like the meritocracy, the glory of “innovation,” the virtue of high finance, the wonders of Silicon Valley — these are things in which they believe.

AF: You mention people like Larry Summers and Robert Reich changing their attitudes about the inherent superiority of the meritocracy. Do you think this could become a larger trend?

Frank: I hope so, but I doubt it. I think Robert Reich is a one-of-a-kind thinker, more forthright than most and with a series of life experiences that must have shaken him pretty profoundly. Generally speaking, I think that policy intellectuals of this sort are utterly blinded by their subjective class interests, by their identification with other successful professionals, by their glory days in college and grad school, and so on.

AF: What’s your current take on Trump?

Frank: I thought he was kind of interesting and was going to give us a really exciting election, with Republicans outflanking Democrats on the left in a bunch of ways, neocons flocking to Hillary, a real mess. It now looks like that’s not going to happen, that instead Trump is just going to implode, destroyed by the various demons that make up his personality.

AF: If liberals who agree with your criticisms of the Clintons end up voting for her anyway, out of disgust with the opposition or because of a lack of better options, what does this mean for the chance of progressive reform within the party?

Frank: Not great. Hillary showed where her true sympathies lay with her VP choice. It should have been a nod to the party’s left but it wasn’t, because she still believes the left has “nowhere else to go.”

By the way, I’m one of the liberals who is going to vote for Hillary anyways. Trump is simply too abhorrent to contemplate any other course of action. I really don’t have anywhere else to go.

Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.

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