Listen, Liberal: What Ever Happened To The Party Of The People?
By Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt
305 pages, $27
By Michael D. Langan
The pointed, accusative finger on the cover and the “Liberal” Democrat appellation almost put me off.
But “Listen, Liberal” is an excellent book. It’s clear, literate and concise.
It drops a bomb on the Democratic Party. For what, you might ask? Answer: for its execrable failure over a generation to fix what Thomas Frank calls the “Appalachification of our world.”
Frank, a balanced writer, has excoriated Republicans in the past. He is the author of “Pity The Billionaire” and “The Wrecking Crew,” which take aim at other unattractive political targets.
Here’s what he says about the debacle party: “This is a book about the failure of the Democratic Party – about how it failed when the conditions for success were perfect.”
Frank says he is not talking about familiar Beltway gripes: gridlock in Washington, or Americans’ polarization.
Instead he is talking about “Inequality” – “shorthand for all the things that have gone to make the lives of the rich so measurably more delicious … and also for the things that have made the lives of working people so wretched and precarious.”
Once upon a time, Frank tells us, protecting the middle-class world was a sacred mission for the Democratic Party. Remember Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, deploring the rise of “economic royalists,” writing that “Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right”; and Harry Truman in 1948, explaining, “The Democratic Party represents the people.” Of course this was rhetoric, but as Frank explains, it was real.
Now, Democratic leaders acknowledge that inequality is awful, but they don’t raise an otherwise-occupied finger dialing for re-election money to fix it. Instead, they remind us that not much can be done about it anyway. They argue that globalization and technology are the boogey-men here.
Instead, Democrats don’t care about their historic roots. Now they care about the high-born and the well-graduated, offering them charter schools, job training and student loans, says Frank. It’s what our author calls “Democratic failure, straight up and nothing else.”
If so, who’s to blame?
Frank says it’s not the Republicans, although they keep thwarting righteous liberal will. It’s the Democratic failure. The agent of change isn’t interested in the job at hand. Inequality just doesn’t spark their imagination. It’s at the point where their compassion peters out.”
Our author claims that he can finger the exact moment when political saltpeter dissipated any Democratic urge to do anything.
It was the day that “the Obama administration formally renounced any intention of making the big historical turn it had been elected to make: it was the meeting between the new president and a roomful of nervous Wall Street CEOs on March 27, 2009.”
There, according to Frank, Obama reassured the frightened bankers that he would protect them and that he had no intention of restructuring their industry or changing the economic direction of the nation. “Grand bargains,” Obama’s phrase for his proposed deficit and tax deal with the Republicans makes it clear to Frank that Obama had no intention of making significant change, only to making a deal with the opposing party.
In short, Obama believed these clichés because he was an ordinary consensus Democrat. Gone were the days, says Frank, when Obama could act on in his Cooper Union speech of 2008, when he promised that he would rein in deregulation, corruption and income inequality.
Instead, Frank continues, “The suckers being the people who could hear the pillars of their middle-class world snapping … the people who could see that the system was crumbling and thought maybe we ought to do something about it.”
How is it, Frank asks, that in our moment of utmost need, a fake crisis like the problem of “extreme partisanship” was able to trump the real deal?
Here’s why: because President Obama’s belief is in the meritocracy, “the cream that rises to the top,” as writer Jonathan Alter puts it, describing the early days of the Obama presidency. Why? Alter continues, because he could never fully escape seeing the world from the status ladder he had ascended.”
This is the same route that both President Obama and former President Clinton took, “plucked from obscurity by prestigious universities,” following what Thomas Friedman of the New York Times describes as “education being the path to sustainable power,” a fixed idea to the liberal class.
But there are weaknesses to what Frank calls “the pathologies of professionalism.” One of them is that high status people aren’t necessarily creative or original. Another flaw is that they are obedient thinkers. Example, Frank notes, is that “professional economists screw up again and again, and no one cares.” Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers is one example that our author offers up.
So where do we go from here? Frank has some kind words for Hillary Clinton and her concern for professional women rising as far as they can. But, he reminds us, “For poor and working-class American women, the floor was pulled up and hauled off to the landfill some twenty years ago….There is no State Department somewhere to pay for their cellphones or pick up their daycare expenses.”
Take one statistic that Frank offers and you’ll sense his frustration with the new Democrats who are more interested in Martha’s Vineyard than Decatur, Illinois.
Here it is: in 1946, a scholarly paper by sociologist C. Wright Mills found that “Big Business and Executives” in Decatur earned a little more than two times as much as the town’s “Wage Workers” did.
In 2014, the CEO of Archer Daniels Midland, company that dominates Decatur today, earned an estimated 261 times as much as did average wage workers.”
But meanwhile, in Martha’s Vineyard, Frank informs us that Democrats deliver in all the conventional ways. What’s on offer by the power elite? They hand out generous subsidies for businesses, a favorable regulatory climate and legal protection for innovation.
After counting the ways liberal Democrats have let the country down, we don’t get a clear course of action from Thomas Frank as the country looks to the future. Instead, he writes, “Even if Democrats do succeed in winning the presidency in 2016 and the same old team gets to continue on into the future, it won’t save us.”
The contradictions in the Democratic Party are unusually sharp, pretending to be the party of the people even as the leaders serve and glorify the professional class, he observes.
Real solutions are “off the table,” Frank tells us.
What are they, I want to know?
No reply yet from Frank. It may be the grist of another book.
But Frank does offer that in the meantime, we can “strip away Democrats’ precious sense of their own moral probity; to make liberals live without the comforting knowledge that righteousness is always on their side.”
That is the sensibility, our author claims, which must be cracked first, before anything else becomes possible, “but only after we understand that the problem is us.”
This seems a disagreeable and abrupt ending, but it may be true. Defining the problem is always the first step.
Sometimes there are innumerable seemingly intractable troubles with American democracy.
Michael D. Langan worked in the federal government for both Democratic and Republican administrations over a 20-year period in Washington. While at the Treasury Department, he was nominated a Senior Executive Servant to help investigate the Waco siege in 1993.