Thomas Frank. Listen, Liberal: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016)
After devoting several books to understanding the rise of the Republican Party and the plutocratic class, historian and social critic Thomas Frank has turned his eye towards the Democratic Party. And he’s not happy with what he sees. The subtitle What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? tells you everything you need to know about where Frank’s book is heading. Listen, Liberal is a 280-page polemic long on indictments of the last two Democratic administrations, but lacking in historical nuance.
The Democratic abandonment of the working class, Frank contends, began in the aftermath of the 1968 election and found its intellectual justification in the 1971 work of Democratic strategist Frederick Dutton. Dutton concluded that the traditional New Deal Democratic coalition was on its way out and Democrats needed to appeal to the growing number of white professionals. Instead of embracing the policies of the New Deal, the “New Democrats” led by Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council clothed themselves in the language of serving the working class, but pledged themselves to its destruction. Frank’s analysis of Clinton’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies like NAFTA and his social policies like the 1994 Crime Bill and the 1996 destruction of welfare is devastating, but hardly novel. (Marisa Chappell’s The War on Welfare, for instance, offers a much more sophisticated analysis of destruction of welfare.) Frank concludes that “What he [Clinton] did as president was beyond the reach of even the most diabolical republican. Only smiling Bill Clinton, well-known friend of working families, could commit such betrayals” (122).
Barack Obama is the other villain of Listen, Liberal. After his election in 2008, Frank argues that “History had dealt Barack Obama four aces. He could not lose” (6). Instead of devoting himself to dismantling the banking system that had triggered the crisis in the first place, Obama “saved a bankrupt system that by all rights should have met its end” (6). Rather than install new regulations or demand Congress reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act (enacted in 1933 and repealed in 1999 under Clinton), Obama put the foxes back in-charge of the hen house. In came the Clintonites and the venture capitalists. Frank concludes that the financial system did not change because Obama and his administration did not want it to.
The survival of the big banks, Frank stresses, was the result of Obama’s (and by extension the Democratic Party’s) belief in a system of meritocracy and that hiring those with the best qualifications was the best way to reform the government. Those with the best credentials—from the Ivy League or high finance—were best suited to rule. The markers of intelligence, Frank contends, became proof of ability. Nowhere did it matter that these people did little to actually benefit the working class. Instead they pursued policies of self-interest. Frank points to the number of Obama-alums who left his administration for the worlds of finance, tech, and innovation. The biographies of men like Clinton and Obama reified this belief in meritocracy. After all, neither man had come from high class roots, but had worked their way up the ladder to the Ivy League, proving the virtues of meritocracy.
Frank points to Massachusetts, the most consistently blue state in the country, as the epitome of this Clinton-Obama meritocracy. He criticizes the devotion of the educational institutions and the government of Massachusetts in stressing innovation and the development of new tech, pharmaceutical, and other industries. Outside of the 128 corridor, Frank finds that cities like Fall River have never recovered from the decline of American industry and manufacturing. Instead, they have become inundated with the same drug problems that plague other areas of the country. Meanwhile, Democratic politicians and the innovators they desperate seek to court, like Eric Schmidt of Google, summer on Martha’s Vineyard together, cementing their alliance. The problem with this “innovation liberalism” as Frank defines is it “has no patience with the idea that everyone should share in society’s wealth. What Massachusetts liberals pine for, by and large, is a more perfect meritocracy—a system where everyone gets an equal chance and the truly talented get to rise” (196).
This innovation liberalism, Frank stresses, reveals the devotion to inequality that lies at the heart of the Clinton-Obama Democratic party. Once this meritocracy is in place, Frank writes, “once diversity has been achieved and the brilliant people of all races and genders have been identified and credentialed—this species of liberal can’t really conceive of any further grievance against the system” (196). Tech firms, like Apple or Google, promote civil rights in service of their own ideas of meritocracy but have no interest in addressing the ever-growing problem of economic inequality. Inequality is the natural by-product of the meritocracy. Innovation liberalism is Ayn Rand by way of MIT and Uber.
While much of Frank’s criticisms of Obama and Clinton are valid, he canonizes FDR and the Labor Movement while ignoring the darker shades of their history. During his administration, FDR never dismantled the American banks. FDR’s signature domestic achievement, Social Security, excluded African-Americans in order to win the support of Southern Democrats. To preserve the New Deal, FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court with justices of his own choosing. The Labor Movement, meanwhile, is not blameless in its own decline. AFL-CIO leader George Meany defended the Vietnam War, supported loyalty oaths, and purged left-wing organizers from unions. More than two-thirds of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for the 1994 crime bill. Additionally, Obama entered office at the beginning of the Great Recession while FDR was elected three years into the Great Depression. Three years into Obama’s term, the economy was already on its way to a slow, but steady recovery. The past is much more complicated than Frank makes it out to be.
Frank’s refusal to engage with the historical context of his arguments undermines his entire analysis. A more nuanced understanding of say the global manufacturing boom of the 1960s and 1970s would complicate what Clinton, Obama, or others could have done to reverse a decades long trend. When you gloss over the nuances of the past, Frank finds the mistakes and flaws of the Democratic Party comically obvious. It’s hard to fight for the future of the party when you can’t (or won’t) understand its past.