What does a middle-class democracy look like when it implodes? This is the question that animates Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society, the latest work from Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Pity the Billionaire, and Listen, Liberal.
In the tradition of Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, Frank is an astute, acerbic, witty, wry observer of American political history, and in Rendezvous with Oblivion, a series of interlocking essays written between 2011 and 2018, he directs a withering gaze on the fast-food industry, suburban McMansions, hipster cities, higher education, and his favorite target, the Democratic Party. In the years spanned in these essays, the Democratic Party went from controlling the White House and both houses of Congress to controlling almost no aspect of the American political system, victim of a populist backlash fueled by economic anxiety, social grievance, and its own stunning ineptitude. As Frank has documented in his previous books, and revisits in these essays, the Democratic Party is suffering the electoral consequences of its decision 40 years ago to turn away from the working class and toward the credentialed professional class. One result: The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump, who Frank refers to as “the most virulent fake populist of them all.”
The great majority that prevailed during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal era and continued through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society has been sundered, Frank writes, “not between the few and the many, but between the small minority of education and the small minority of wealth.” Enlightened technocrats stand on one side of this divide, and resentful billionaires stand on the other. To regain legitimacy with Roosevelt’s great majority, Democrats have no choice but to dump the ideology of the nineties and end their decades-long love affair with high tech, big banks, and globalization. This is a tall order for sure, but as Frank puts it, history is calling.