‘Listen, Liberal’ Exposes the Democratic Party

Author Thomas Frank Traces Party’s Pivot from Economic Egalitarianism Toward Ideas and Policies

The author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? and Pity the Billionaire is back, and this time out, his sardonic and often acerbic focus is on the Democrats. Give Thomas Frank credit for impeccable timing. Listen, Liberal arrives as two very different candidates vie for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton is the quintessential New Democrat, corporate-friendly, a staunch believer in meritocracy, and not afraid to bang the military’s drum in support of America’s interests abroad. Bernie Sanders, with his call for more equitable distribution of wealth, universal health care, and free college tuition, harks back to the FDR-New Deal-Great Society era that, Frank argues, the Democrats abandoned after George McGovern was crushed by Richard Nixon in 1972.

Frank traces the Democratic Party’s pivot away from organized labor, the New Deal, and economic egalitarianism and toward ideas and policies — best exemplified by Gary Hart and later the Democratic Leadership Council and Bill Clinton — that favored the professional classes and boasted an unwavering faith in meritocracy. The party’s decision to move away from its traditional constituencies and policy prescriptions was deliberate, and one consequence of the shift was, as Frank writes, to leave a swath of working people behind: “…if we want to understand what has wrecked the Democratic Party as a populist alternative, however, what we need to scrutinize is more like the Ten Percent, the apex of the country’s hierarchy of professional status.”

The professional class, which Frank refers to as the “well-graduated,” includes all manner of credentialed experts, technocrats, and lords of knowledge. What distinguishes the worldview of this class is its lack of empathy for everyone else. Lifting all boats on a rising tide of prosperity is low on the agenda, so when the bulk of income gains flow to those at the top of the pyramid, the professional class regards it as the natural order. The ideology, best described as “You have no one to blame for your problems but yourself,” is a bit crass coming from a party that still finds it politically useful to claim its tent has room for everyone.  

The people the new Democrats focus on are not the same ones that William Jennings Bryan, FDR, or Lyndon Johnson cared about. In this new order, notions of class solidarity are considered quaint if they are considered at all. It’s hard to imagine FDR waxing enthusiastic about economic growth and prosperity that only benefits the few.

One thing the Democrats perceived with remarkable clarity when they turned toward the professional class was that their former constituents had nowhere else to go; given the stranglehold that the Republicans and Democrats have on the machinery of democracy, the chance of an alternate party springing up to represent working people was nil. So, as Frank details, Democratic voters elected candidates who spoke in echoes of the old era but, once in office, supported policies (trade deals like NAFTA, financial deregulation, etc.) that largely betrayed the interests of common people.

This is why Listen, Liberal matters: It’s about the deliberate turning away from core values and issues and toward the neoliberalism peddled by the Clintons and other corporate Democrats. People need to understand what has happened, and Frank puts it in context. Whether we like his analysis or not is open for debate.

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