Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thomas Frank, _Listen, Liberal, or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?_

IT'S THE QUESTION of the year, and I suppose of the next four: What do all those salt-of-the-earth folks see in Donald Trump? That question--or its ancestor, i.e., what do all those salt-of-the-earth folks see in the Republicans?--lay explicitly or implicitly at the heart of several books this year, and I have been reading a few of of them.

Let's start with this one by Thomas Frank, whose 2004 What's the Matter with Kansas? perhaps founded the genre. Trump is mentioned but once by name in Listen, Liberal, and Frank's answer to the question has little to do with what Trump is offering. Instead, it has much to do with what the Democrats are not offering, namely, attention to the issues of the working class (of any color or any region).

Frank argues that an influential cadre within the Democrat party, going back to the McGovern reforms of the early 1970s, believed that the Democrats could prevail nationally by being the party of the educated liberals, the professional class, women, and ethnic minorities, and thus could stop kissing the ring of crusty old labor types like George Meany. In other words, the Democrats had, in a way, told the Reagan Democrats to get lost before even before Reagan came along to scoop them up.

Bill Clinton exemplifies the trend. Frank's chapter "It Takes a Democrat" (on the model of "it took a Republican to open relations with China," since the Republicans would have crucified any Democrat who attempted it) portrays Bill Clinton's presidency as eight years of selling out the former heart of the Democratic Party constituency, with one measure after another undermining the nation's most vulnerable: NAFTA, welfare "reform," sentencing "reform," and financial deregulation.

Obama, Frank thinks, was not a great improvement ("Chapter 8, "The Defects of a Superior Mind"), and Hillary seemed  to him even less of one (Chapter 11, "Liberal Gilt"). Bernie Sanders does not come up, but I suspect Frank found his program a bit closer to what the Democrats ought to be talking about. Frank obviously views with distaste any cozying up to Wall Street or to various internet gazillionaires (see Chapters 9 and 10).

I've found all the books by Frank that I have read cogent and persuasive, and I think he's right this time, too, Can the Democrats re-connect to folks? Mark Lilla in the Sunday Times gave pretty much the same advice, and the scorched earth in the comments section made me think we're not there yet.

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