How Democrats Got To Where They Are Today
In her cautiously sympathetic review of Thomas Frank's hot new book, Listen Liberal-- What Ever Happened To The Party Of The People, Yale History Professor Beverly Gage wrote that his "most famous book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004), argued that Republicans had duped the white working class by pounding the table on social issues while delivering tax cuts for the rich." In the new, it's the Democratic Party elites who have duped the working class-- white, black, brown and whomever.
Liberals may be experiencing mixed emotions these days. The prospect of a Trump presidency has raised urgent fears: of the nation’s fascist tendencies, of the potential for riots in the streets. At the same time, many liberals have expressed a grim satisfaction in watching the Republican Party tear itself apart. Whatever terrible fate might soon befall the nation, the thinking goes, it’s their fault, not ours. They are the ones stirring up the base prejudices and epic resentments of America’s disaffected white working class, and they must now reap the whirlwind.
In his new book, the social critic Thomas Frank poses another possibility: that liberals in general-- and the Democratic Party in particular-- should look inward to understand the sorry state of American politics. Too busy attending TED talks and vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, Frank argues, the Democratic elite has abandoned the party’s traditional commitments to the working class. In the process, they have helped to create the political despair and anger at the heart of today’s right-wing insurgencies. They may also have sown the seeds of their own demise. Frank’s recent columns argue that the Bernie Sanders campaign offers not merely a challenge to Hillary Clinton, but a last-ditch chance to save the corrupted soul of the Democratic Party.
...In Frank’s view, liberal policy wonks are part of the problem, members of a well-educated elite that massages its own technocratic vanities while utterly missing the big question of the day. To Frank, that question hasn’t changed much over the last few centuries. “It is the eternal conflict of management and labor, owner and worker, rich and poor-- only with one side pinned to the ground and the other leisurely pounding away at its adversary’s face,” he writes. Today, polite circles tend to describe this as the issue of “inequality.” Frank prefers an older formulation. “The 19th century understood it better: They called it ‘the social question,’” he writes, defined as “nothing less than the whole vast mystery of how we are going to live together.”
...Echoing the historian Lily Geismer, Frank argues that the Democratic Party-- once “the Party of the People”-- now caters to the interests of a “professional-managerial class” consisting of lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, programmers, even investment bankers. These affluent city dwellers and suburbanites believe firmly in meritocracy and individual opportunity, but shun the kind of social policies that once gave a real leg up to the working class. In the book, Frank points to the Democrats’ neglect of organized labor and support for Nafta as examples of this sensibility, in which “you get what you deserve, and what you deserve is defined by how you did in school.” In more recent columns, he has linked this neglect to the rise of a figure like Sanders, who says forthrightly what the party leadership might prefer to obscure: Current approaches aren’t working-- and unless something dramatic happens, Americans are heading for a society in which a tiny elite controls most of the wealth, resources and decision-making power.
The problem, in Frank’s view, is not simply that mainstream Democrats have failed to address growing inequality. Instead, he suggests something more sinister: Today’s leading Democrats actually don’t want to reduce inequality because they believe that inequality is the normal and righteous order of things. As proof, he points to the famously impolitic Larry Summers, whose background as a former president of Harvard, former Treasury secretary and former chief economist of the World Bank embodies all that Frank abhors about modern Democrats. “One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated,” Summers commented early in the Obama administration.
“Remember, as you let that last sentence slide slowly down your throat, that this was a Democrat saying this,” Frank writes. From this mind-set stems everything that the Democrats have done to betray the masses, from Bill Clinton’s crime bill and welfare reform policies to Obama’s failure to rein in Wall Street, according to Frank. No surprise, under the circumstances, that the working class might look elsewhere for satisfying political options.
...Frank’s book ends on a pessimistic note. After two decades of pleading with liberals to think seriously about inequality, to honor what was best about the New Deal, Frank has concluded that things will probably continue to get worse. “The Democrats have no interest in reforming themselves in a more egalitarian way,” he writes. “There is little the rest of us can do, given the current legal arrangements of this country, to build a vital third-party movement or to revive organized labor.”
But this conclusion, too, may rest on a faulty analogy with the 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt did not suddenly decide on his own to enact Social Security or grant union rights. Those ideas came up from below, through decades of frustration and struggle and conflict. If Americans want something different from their politicians, there is no alternative to this kind of exhausting and uncertain hard work. In the end, it is the only way that liberals-- or conservatives-- will listen.
In her new Economics.com analysis of where the hell Trump and Bernie came from, Dr. Sally Goerner begins by mentioning that "the media has made a cottage industry out of analyzing the relationship between America’s crumbling infrastructure, outsourced jobs, stagnant wages, and evaporating middle class and the rise of anti-establishment presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Commentators are also tripping all over one another to expound daily on the ineffectual response of America’s political elite-- characterized by either bewilderment or a dismissal of these anti-establishment candidates as minor hiccups in the otherwise smooth sailing of status-quo power arrangements. But the pundits are all missing the point: the Trump-Sanders phenomenon signals an American oligarchy on the brink of a civilization-threatening collapse... Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. Internal pressures and the sense of betrayal grow as desperation and despair multiply everywhere except at the top, but effective reform seems impossible because the system seems thoroughly rigged. In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends. If we are lucky, the public will mobilize behind honest leaders and effective reforms. If we are unlucky, either the establishment will continue to 'respond ineffectively' until our economy collapses, or a fascist will take over and create conditions too horrific to contemplate." If every Democratic primary voter had read Frank's book, would Hillary still be the frontrunner? Perhaps not. But if you don't want more "Democrats" in Congress eager to turn their backs on the New Deal, here are a list of progressive House and Senate candidates who never will. No Steve Israels, Debbie Wasserman Schultzes or Chuck Schumers here: