If you’re struggling to understand what’s going on with American politics, you should add Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank to your summer reading list. Its a provocative and stimulating look at how Democrats since Bill Clinton have contributed to the current malaise.
Frank is a well-known commentator on American politics whose past works include the bestseller, What’s the Matter with Kansas?—the story of that state’s transformation from radical outpost to bastion of conservatism. Listen, Liberal is in the same vein and, as the author notes, might well have been called, What’s the Matter with Democrats?
As part of the American left, Frank regards Roosevelt’s New Deal as the high-water mark for the Democratic Party—a concerted effort to use the power of the state to defend working people’s interests in the face of economic calamity.
However, Democrats have ceased to be the party of working people, at least according to Frank. Under Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama, the party has begun catering to a new and very different class of people, which he calls professionals.
Basically, professionals are well-educated people who share a belief that education is the key to progress and prosperity in what Clinton called the New Economy. Frank goes back to a celebrated speech from the 1992 primaries to show how Clinton used this doctrine to reposition the party.
The speech was delivered to a room full of laid-off workers in a New Hampshire factory. (It’s also reenacted in Primary Colors.) Rather than promise to fight for their jobs, Clinton warned his audience that, if elected, he couldn’t get their jobs back. They’re gone forever, he declared. It’s a new world and a new economy and working people are going to have to adjust.
Clinton famously went on to propose a new bargain: In exchange for their support, he would ensure that workers like them had an opportunity to re-educate themselves, but they would have to do the hard work of learning and re-skilling. Opportunity, he cautioned, also entails responsibility. The audience loved it because it gave them hope for the future. It also paved the way for Clinton’s victory.
A quarter century later, Frank thinks the evidence is in—and this “new New Deal” is a fraud. Clinton, of course, was right about jobs in the New Economy: opportunity and wealth have migrated to new industries, such as financial services, digital technology and consulting. And the well-educated professionals have flourished as a result.
Unfortunately, the policies required to produce growth and high earnings in these industries have turned out to be devastating for working people, including free trade, workfare and deregulation of the financial sector.
Income inequality is the smoking gun. From the middle of the Great Depression up to 1980, Frank reports, the lower 90 percent of the population took home 70 percent of the growth in the country’s income. Look at the same numbers between 1997 and today and the same group pocketed none—zero, he notes emphatically.
Readers should pause to consider what an inconvenient fact this is for Democrats. They like to portray themselves as fighting to protect the middle class. They focus on the bank CEOs and captains of industry—the notorious 1%—who’ve profited so nicely from the New Economy. It turns out, however, that the professional class has also done very well.
While Frank is appalled that this wealth has come at the expense of the middle class, in his mind, the bigger scandal lies elsewhere. There is no evidence this gap is going to close again. The professional class is not, as Clinton promised, a rebirth of the middle class, but the birth of a new elite. Indeed, Frank’s real point is that the interests of the new professional class are profoundly at odds with working people.
There’s more. Clinton’s speech about education and the New Economy was not only misleading; it established the master narrative that the professional class has relied on ever since to justify government inaction. The new New Deal relieves a Democratic president of the traditional responsibility to shield working people from economic disaster—as did FDR. Such shocks are now seen as a necessary, if not inevitable, part of economic development; and there is little politics can do to prevent them. If working people want a good job, they should get an education.
Frank finds a similar note of resignation emerging from Obama’s presidency. He may have come to office on soaring rhetoric about how politics can make a difference in people’s lives, but Frank sifts through his later speeches to show how the anemic action on bank regulation and healthcare is increasingly explained away with phrases like “it takes time to turn a supertanker.” Basically, “Yes we can” sounds more and more like “No we can’t.”
Listen, Liberal will rankle people on both sides of the border: Frank tweaks a lot of noses along the way. But if there’s lots to disagree with here, there is also something timely and insightful in his impertinent unmasking of the professional class. Donald Trump’s anti-elitism may be simplistic and offensive, but it’s hard not to conclude that he is picking up on something real. The same goes for Bernie Sanders. Even Hillary Clinton has joined the chorus.
The message for political junkies–especially those in the professional class–is that popular support for Trump and Sanders should be viewed as a huge wake-up call. Working people are furious about what’s been happening to them. (Brexit provides further evidence of the unrest.) And Frank makes a convincing case that real debate over the causes has been stifled by group think for a quarter century.
Which brings us to the central thesis of the book: Bill Clinton’s new New Deal sells politics short. Globalization and the digital economy may be forces that no one ultimately controls, but there are all kinds of things that presidents (and prime ministers) can and should be doing to shield working people from the worst effects. And that should command their full attention.