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Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? Hardcover – March 15, 2016
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The role and image of the US President
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“Thoroughly entertaining . . . Frank delights in skewering the sacred cows of coastal liberalism . . . he 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 . . . A serious political critique.”
―New York Times Book Review (front page)
“What makes Frank’s book new, different and important is its offer of a compelling theory as to how and why the party of Jefferson, Jackson and Roosevelt is now so unlikely to champion the economic needs of everyday people. . . . In such a looking-glass world, Listen, Liberal is a desperately needed corrective.”
―History News Network
“In his new book, progressive commentator Thomas Frank says Democrats need to take a good long look in the mirror if they want answers to why blue-collar workers are feeling abandoned and even infuriated by what used to be their party.”
―New York Post
“The most important political book of 2016, and one that should disturb and hopefully influence progressives for years to come.”
“Over the past four decades, Frank argues, the Democrats have embraced a new favorite constituency: the professional class―the doctors, lawyers, engineers, programmers, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, financiers and other so-called creatives whose fetish for academic credentials and technological innovation has infected the party of the working class. . . . For that class, Frank argues, income and wealth inequality is not a problem but an inevitable condition.”
“An astute dissection of contemporary Democratic politics that demonstrates, cogently and at times acidly, how the party lost the allegiance of blue-collar Americans.”
“No one has written more consistently and stylishly about the conservative onslaught in America and the betrayal of liberal democratic values than Thomas Frank, arguably the Left’s leading essayists and the founder of The Baffler. This is Mr. Frank’s best book since What’s the Matter with Kansas?”
“A tough and thought-provoking look at what’s wrong with America . . . Frank puts forth an impressive catalog of Democratic disappointments, more than enough to make liberals uncomfortable.”
“Important . . . engaging . . . An edgy―even disturbing―analysis of the Democratic Party’s jilting of its traditional base.”
―The National Book Review
“An engaging and witty demolition of the [Democratic] party, especially its modern post-New Deal incarnation . . . Listen, Liberal is a great read for this election season.”
“Thomas Frank’s new book Listen, Liberal documents a half-century of work by the Democratic elite to belittle working people and exile their concerns to the fringes of the party’s platform. If the prevailing ideology of the Republican establishment is that of a sneering aristocracy, Democratic elites are all too often the purveyors of a smirking meritocracy that offers working people very little.”
“Long overdue . . . Listen, Liberal is a powerful addition to America’s political discourse. It is full of truths and, sadly, the truth hurts.”
―Washington City Paper
“Democrats often use the fact that Republicans have gone off the deep end to ignore their left flank, on the grounds that those liberals have nowhere else to go politically. Listen, Liberal contributes to the literature that expresses deep frustration with that decision, the fuel for a revolt.”
―The Fiscal Times
“As with Frank’s other books, Listen, Liberal is a piece of contemporary history that tells us not only what the powerful are up to, but how the trick is being pulled, with an admirable deployment of irony. . . . While his previous books are essentially about devils being devils, this one shows how the angels have fallen further than they realize.”
“An indispensable read . . . provocative and stimulating.”
About the Author
Thomas Frank is the author of Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, and What's the Matter with Kansas? A former columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Harper's, Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler. He lives outside Washington, D.C.
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The difference between Republicans and Democrats ain’t what it used to be, according to Frank. The Democrats have decided to put all their eggs in one basket: professionals. They staff their offices with them, just like the Republicans use only lawyers from the Federalist Society. Their backers are Wall Streeters, because the Democrats are at least as generous to Wall Street as the Republicans when in power. For the wealthy, it’s a win-win. Doesn’t matter who gets in. So while Republicans consider their base the uneducated, bootstrap entrepreneurs who create jobs, the Democrats consider their base the highly educated, networked professionals who create jobs. Two sides of the same coin. And neither one can be bothered with the rest of the population except when vote-gathering. Then, for a brief period, it’s all about inequality and jobs.
Frank focuses on the last two Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, and the upcoming contender – Hillary Clinton. He autopsies their administrations (and Hillary’s part in them) and finds them all the same – mouthing platitudes to gain votes from the electorate, then reverting to type and removing any and all support for them so they can to deliver on promises made to the rich. It was Bill Clinton who dismantled welfare and Glass-Steagle, not either Bush.
I particularly appreciated Frank’s discussion of glass ceilings – in terms of floors. While the Hillary Clintons of the world rail about glass ceilings, it was her Democrat husband president who removed the floor for mothers on welfare, creating extreme poverty where once there was a safety net. While Hillary grandly supports microloans for women (which do not work, other than to create more debtors and richer bankers), when in power, it’s all about supporting the rich at the expense of the poor. Garden variety hypocrisy, but coming from a Democrat, and about Democrats, it’s supposedly shocking.
Frank is overwhelmed by the Democrats’ adoption of professionals. Democrats think professionals can solve any problem, and every position is filled with one. Every event showcases them. Doesn’t matter that they have no real world experience; the fact they are professionals means they are highly educated creatives. That’s all that matters in a Democratic government. So to be disappointed in the Obama Administration is to show yourself as not being a professional.
It wasn’t always so. Frank shows that FDR’s Democratic cabinet had poorly educated secretaries who had street smarts, real life experience, and ideals. They could propose innovative programs that addressed real problems. And if they didn’t work, they had another idea waiting. His VP Harry Truman never went to college. Truman couldn’t even get an interview today. The Democrats’ solution to every problem is go back to school, preferably Harvard, Yale or Stanford, and every door will open for you. All you laborers – you’re fooling yourselves. Get an education and become professionals, because America doesn’t need or want anyone else.
Listen Liberal is a damning, upsetting polemic from a passionate, experienced insider. You might think it would make excellent fodder for a Republican. But it is actually a sad reflection of what has become of the country and its politics. Two sides of the same coin is not healthy. Someone needs to represent the 99%.
Frank traces the roots of this process to the Vietnam War era struggles, when the anti-war protests created a rift within the party between the pro-war blue collar labor and their unions and the anti-war students and intellectuals. The loss of the 1968 election to Richard Nixon sent the Democratic Party leadership on a long soul searching quest, in which the new social forces represented by professional and academic elites wrestled the control of the party from the labor unions and tied it to the socio-economic classes created by the “New Economy” – financial professionals and information technology specialists. This process was finalized by Clinton administration that performed one of the most spectacular turn-arounds in modern American history –the open abandonment of social protections favoring the poor and passage of the free trade agreement that eliminated large number of well-paying blue collar jobs (which the Clinton administration called “counter-scheduling”) coupled with deregulation of financial markets that opened the door for financial speculation, and massive subsidies for “innovation economy,” that is, information technology and big pharma.
These policies continued under Obama administration, which abandoned the campaign promise of “hope” for the notion of “pragmatism,” which according to Frank is a subterfuge masquerading policy choices favoring the elites as historical or technological inevitability. Despite his pro-working and middle class rhetoric, Obama filled his administration with experts of one particular mold – graduates of elite universities. In sharp contrast to FDR, who picked experts from various backgrounds, often representing unorthodox opinions, Obama’s “expertocracy” was the paragon of professional orthodoxy and right thinking. Frank explains this selection of experts by Obama, and Clinton’s, own personal histories – both men were of humble origins and propelled to the top of social hierarchy by elite university education.
Social science explanations of historical evens range between two polar opposites – voluntaristic and deterministic. The voluntaristic narratives, also known as “great men history”, attribute the causes of the events they try to explain to the preferences and choices made by individuals, especially those in leadership positions. The deterministic narratives, by contrast focus on impersonal factors – institutions, international relations, modes of production, natural events and the like that set the stage and define the roles for individual actors to play. Of course, in reality both factors must be taken into account. As Karl Marx aptly observed “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Frank’s narrative falls on the voluntaristic side. His explanation of why the Democratic Party does not represent the interests of its largest constituency is grounded in the moral judgment of its leadership. The judgment that prefers “meritocracy” or social hierarchy built on the claim to superiority based on (actual or claimed) knowledge to social solidarity, which is the underlying principle of organized labor. The remedy that Frank offers is voluntaristic as well – it explicitly denies the possibility of any change in the US political party structure and calls for a moral transformation of party leadership consisting in the abandonment of the sense of moral superiority linked to college credentials.
For someone who spent his entire adult life in the academia, Frank’s analysis certainly rings true. This institution is filled with “stuffed shirts” who raise to the top by becoming adept in what passes for “right thinking” at the moment, hiding their lack of originality under obscure technical jargon, and collecting handsome rent from their credentials, titles, and positions. Allowing this bunch near the halls of power can indeed be risky. As William F. Buckley quipped “I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Yet this moral explanation and moral remedy that Frank offers is somewhat disappointing when we consider the fact that similar transformations occurred in socialist and social democratic parties in many European countries as well. This coincidence cannot be simply explained by the change of heart of the people leading those parties. We must look into the structural determinants.
What structural elements are missing from Frank’s narrative, then? One clue can be found in his bibliography – despite impressive documentation of his claims, his bibliography misses a rather obscure, to be sure, work by Walter Karp titled “Indispensable Enemies”. This book attempts to answer the same question as Frank’s work does – why the US political parties do not represent the interests of their constituents – but the answer it provides emphasizes the structure of the party system rather than preferences of their leaders. Karp’s explanation is a variant of what is known as Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” which in essence claims that the leadership of an institution is first and foremost concerned about its own power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. In case of US political parties, the party bosses are more concerned with keeping their control of their respective parties than with winning elections, and they tacitly cooperate by excluding any challenge to their leadership by dividing up their respective turfs in which they maintain their respective monopolies. Paradoxical as it may sound, such behavior is well known outside politics where it is referred to as oligopoly or niche seeking.
Karp’s thesis offers a much better explanation of the abandonment of the working class and middle class constituents by both parties than the preference for meritocracy claimed by Frank. Even from Frank’s own account of the Democratic Party’s ‘soul searching’ in the aftermath of Humphrey’s defeat in 1968 it is evident that that the emerging party leadership was not afraid of losing a series of elections (McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis) before they could cement their hold on the party under Clinton. Clearly, a party whose leadership’s main goal is to win elections would not make such a cardinal mistake as losing elections for 20 consecutive years by abandoning their core constituency. Likewise, Obama’s abandonment of the “hope” promise led to a spectacular loss of both houses of Congress and numerous state legislatures, but that did not persuade the party leadership to change the course. Au contraire, they are determined to keep the course and undermine any challenge to the party leadership (cf. Sanders). This is not the behavior of a general who wants to win a war (cf. Robert E. Lee), but of one who wants to keep his position in his own army (cf. George Brinton McClellan).
Taking into account Karp’s explanation of partisan politics would also offer a far more dramatic finale for Frank’s book. Instead pleading for a moral change in the existing party leadership, a more effective solution would be to replace that leadership with a new one by using the same gambit of counter-scheduling as Clinton did against labor, and voting against Hillary Clinton in November. That would surely result in the electoral loss for the Democrats in the coming election, but it would certainly help to wrestle the control of the party from the leaders who “betrayed” their main constituents. Perhaps this is not the road that Frank, and many life-long Democrats for that matter, are willing to travel, but it certainly makes a better and more uplifting story - one that gives the downtrodden masses, whose side Frank takes, a promise of doing something about the problem instead of pleading their superiors, hat in hand, for a change of heart.
One of my favorite quotes was:
“Economies aren’t ecosystems. They aren’t naturally occurring phenomena to which we must learn to acclimate. Their rules are made by humans. They are, in a word, political. In a democracy we can set the economic table however we choose.”
Let's start choosing how the table gets set!
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