Book Review: “Listen, Liberal” by Thomas Frank

front book cover“Economics aren’t ecosystems. They aren’t naturally occurring phenomena to which we must acclimate. Their rules are made by humans. They are, in a word, political. In a democracy, we cannot set the table however we choose” — Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank’s “Listen, Liberal or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” eviscerates the Democratic Party for abruptly jettisoning its long held representation of blue collar American workers while simultaneously pursuing Wall Street, corporate cash and the professional class instead.

It’s a morality play of sorts. Not necessarily cardboard cutout good versus evil (although there’s certainly elements of that) but more the rich and powerful plus the Cool Kids lording it over Main Street America by rewriting the rules of economic fairness in favor of corporations, achieved by acquiring the allegiance of politicians through financial contributions and social standing. Granted, that’s been a long time given for the Republican Party but not so, or at least as complete, for the other side of the aisle.

Protecting the middle class, the working man and woman and the farmers used to be the Democrats mantra, “kind of a sacred mission for them” as Frank writes. That is certainly no longer.

Frank begins with Barack Obama’s squandered opportunity. He writes: “it was the perfect opportunity for transformation.” The Dems owned Congress for Obama’s initial two years and the country was in a financial and mortgage crisis. Yet changes were minimal and “predation resumed.”

Obama didn’t suggest, let alone propose, anything similar to Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). There was zero direct job creation. The rhetoric of Obama the candidate versus Obama the president was also startling as he campaigned vocally against NAFTA but soon said yes to the Trans Pacific Partnership. His choices of Tim (Mr. Wall Street) Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury and Eric (Mr. Covington and Burling D.C. law firm) Holder as Attorney General resulted in a tap on the wrist accompanied by a forlorn apologetic look to financial wrongdoers (not by financial wrongdoers) in addition to lows in white collar prosecutions.

To wit: on March 22, 2009, Obama addressed a gathering of Wall Street CEOs and opened by referring to pitchforks among the general populace. However, he quickly told those assembled not to worry, that changes would not be happening.  Frank’s take on this and other subservience: “it was a Democratic failure, straight up.”

What Obama was for, to a degree in a hardwired manner, was consensus, bipartisanship and the hallowed center. This while hundreds of thousands lost their jobs and homes and Republicans openly vowed to make him a one term president by refusing to cooperate.

Then, Obama lost Congress in 2010 and, true to form, he again reached out. This time for the so-called Grand Bargain of trading social insurance cuts in exchange for tax increases on the wealthy. Bear witness to the heresy of a Democrat, a president no less, proposing reductions and limitations in Social Security and Medicare.

Compare Obama’s political direction and important hires to those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) during the Depression era:

Frances Perkins, a longtime promoter of social justice and economic security, was named Secretary of Labor

Harry Hopkins, a social worker from Iowa, became FDR closest confidante and one of New Deal architects of the New Deal, especially the WPA

Robert Jackson possessed no law degree yet was named to the United States Attorney General position as well as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Marinner Eccles, a small town banker from Utah. became the Chairman of the Federal Reserve

Henry Wallace, owning no advanced degree, was named Agriculture Secretary and, later, became Vice President to FDR. He later ran for president as a member of the Progressive Party.

Thurman Arnold headed the Anti Trust Division. One of his prior achievements was writing “The Folklore of Capitalism.”

JK Galbraith, with the Office of Price Administration, even questioned classical economics

Frank also details the Democrats split with blue collar workers when a segment of Democrats began repeatedly calling for an end to The New Deal.  Future presidential candidate Gary Hart was vociferous in his willingness to drop union members and other blue collar workers for the burgeoning segment of white collar professionals. He even gave a campaign speech in 1974 titled “The End of the New Deal.” It was labeled a battle between the Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats versus the Atari Democrats. Neo liberals also detested labor unions, and the Democrats “cut bonds with the working class for the doctrine of individual excellence,” preferring high tech and the like over organized labor, farmers and the middle class.

Hart’s rise from helming the badly beaten 1972 George McGovern campaign to Democratic frontrunner is fascinating. His segment of the Democratic Party berated the presidency of Jimmy Carter and the presidential runs of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis as more of the same far-out liberal candidates with their out-of-touch ideas.

Frank strongly disagrees with those characterizations. He writes that Carter’s legislative agenda while president began with “…cancelling public works projects, and conspicuously snubbing organized labor. With the help of a Democratic Congress, he enacted the first of the era’s really big tax cuts for the rich and also the first of the really big deregulations…” as well as depictions of “…budget balancing Walter Mondale…” and “technocratic centrist Michael Dukakis…”

Also, the transparently phony Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) came to be in 1985, supposedly committed to working class voters because other Dems were “too weak on crime, too soft on communism, too sympathetic to minorities.”

For the DLC,  Dems could only win by moving further to the middle and supporting balanced budgets, free trade treaties, school privatization, social benefit reforms and the post industrial global economy. In other words, becoming Republicans.

As Frank directly notes, “how does any of these benefit middle class?”

Democrat Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential win was supposed to bring aid and comfort to the middle and working classes as he campaigned on such planks. Granted, Clinton got a minimum wage increase passed but that positive was crushed by the passage of NAFTA, as well as financial, telecom, energy deregulation, punitive welfare changes, large increases in incarceration, the 1999 repeal of Glass-Steagall Act and attempts at Social Security and Medicare privatization with help from Newt Gingrich.

Again, how did this litany of sins better the lives of of working people?

Compare FDR’s evisceration of ‘economic royalists’ versus the new Dems now favoring knowledge workers, professionals and the high status groups and where innovation and technology are the regurgitated answers to any problems or concerns. Such has led to damning unregulated credit default swaps, Amazon with zero sales taxes, Airbnb facing no regulatory or safety rules, safety concerns with Uber and a maximization of profit by new and unregulated means and monopolies. Also as Frank notes, does anyone recall Apple, Intel, Google and Pixar entering into an informal agreement not to hire away each other’s employees? A lawsuit resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement. So much for any ‘Do No Harm’ philosophical claims.

One question remains: why is it the Democrats can’t represent both blue AND white collar constituencies? Why is it the false choice of one or the other besides a stated disdain for those in lower classes? That’s hopefully grist for another Thomas Frank book.

Consider Democrat Deval Patrick, the former two-time (2007-2015) governor of very blue Massachusetts, in 2015 becoming managing director of asset management firm Bain Capital. Read Patrick’s Wikipedia entry here in order to get a sense of the personal and political choices he has made. The DLC and its ilk remain alive and completely out of touch with present day reality.

This book was published in 2016 prior to the national election.