When Dems ditched Workers for Professionals, they opened Door for Trump


Adam Barnett/ Thomas Frank | ( OpenDemocracy ) | – –

The Democrats ditched the working class in favour of a professional elite leaving Trump  a master of ‘resentment politics’  to hoover up their votes. An interview with Listen Liberal! author Thomas Frank.

Now that the Republican Party has chosen a coiffured gargoyle as its nominee for president, the panicked eyes of the world turn to the Democrats, who have just selected Hillary Clinton at their national convention in Philadelphia. Author and historian Thomas Frank has seen his fair share of party conventions, having covered US politics for over 25 years. I spoke to him recently about his new book Listen, Liberal and the state of the union ahead of November’s election.

“The Democrats are not a Left party,” he tells me. “In fact there really isn’t one in the US.” Frank’s book is no broadside against liberals by a weary defector, but a Left critique of the Democratic Party. He charts its mutation over recent decades from being a workers party into the party of the ‘professional class’ – the experts, bankers, academics and tech-masters, who imagine themselves the natural winners of the great American lottery.

Frank names Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as typical specimens – and since we spoke, the president has expressed an interest in working with “Silicon Valley and venture capital” after leaving office…

How is this reflected in the country’s two-party system? “They represent two different hierarchies of power,” Frank explains. “One, the Republicans, who represent business and the hierarchy of money – the Koch brothers and the 1% – and the Democrats, who represent the hierarchy of status, the professional class. One is the Wall Street Journal, the other is the New York Times.”

Does this mean there’s little to choose between the two parties? “They tend to have similar views on economic matters, but they come from different places. And they’re very different on the cultural issues – the abortion issue for example, the guns, for god’s sake. Some of these things are enormously important.”

He adds: “I would also say the Democrats are of course marginally better on things like the welfare state. But then again, as soon as I say that, as soon as those words passed my lips, Bill Clinton and welfare reform – a Republican could probably have never got that done, because the Democrats would have fought him to the death to stop something like that. But with Clinton doing it, it suddenly becomes okay.”

Frank’s book demolishes Bill Clinton’s presidency, the legacy of which is key to understanding the anger of this year’s campaign, from Donald Trump to Black Lives Matter, to Bernie Sanders supporters booing at the Democrats convention. Clinton’s dismantling of welfare, draconian criminal justice laws, job-exporting trade deals, and deregulation of Wall Street, have resurfaced as major issues in this year’s campaign – and not just because his wife is running for president.

“People look back on those years with such fondness now,” Frank says. “The things that he actually got done were awful things. I thought it was really important to go back and correct the record.”

Is Frank apprehensive about the prospect of Bill Clinton being back in the White House? “Well, unlike nearly everybody I know, I think I like Hillary more than I like Bill. I think she’ll be better than he was. But yes, of course I’m apprehensive about it.

People like me are going to be voting for Hillary because Donald Trump is so frightening

“This is the sort of quintessentially American situation that we’re in here, where it’s a two party system, and given that, you have to constantly choose someone who’s not optimal for the situation, in order to avoid something that’s really dreadful. People like me are going to be voting for Hillary because Donald Trump is so frightening.”

Trump seems to have walked out of the pages of Frank’s earlier books, Pity the Billionaire and What’s the Matter with Kansas? – a silver-spoon demagogue railing against the ‘rigged system’ he has profited from and the ‘elite’ of which he is a member. His ability to hoover up votes from the Democrats’ natural constituency is partly explained in those books – Trump has mastered the resentment politics of the ‘culture wars’ – but as Listen, Liberal makes clear, the door was left open to him by the Democrats themselves.

This is even reflected in the way liberals have responded to the book. “There’s deep suspicion of working class people among the kind of liberals I’m describing,” he says. “They don’t like working class people. They just don’t like them.” Surely that’s a bit harsh? “That’s the sense that I get from these people. That’s not the kind of party they want to be in.”

“Trump has brought everything to a head,” he adds, “the fact that he’s got these working-class supporters. There’s a lot of contempt for these people. The Trump supporters are generally thought to be figures of idiocy.”

Given this, I asked Frank about the subject of those earlier books, the conservative ‘backlash’ critique of liberalism, which portrayed liberals as snobbish, well-educated, rich, and uncaring about working-class people. Was there more truth in that critique than he might have previously allowed?

“Conservatives have been saying this about Democrats for years,” he said, “but it’s never rigorous, they don’t really follow through, they don’t do their research. And their intention is always to show that liberals are in fact socialists, and that’s just completely wrong.

“So yes, there’s some validity to the conservative critique, but it’s so scattershot and wild, and it really misses the sociological reality of who these people are.”

Things are getting worse and worse for working people, and have been for quite a while in this country

One thing conservatives paper over – or did pre-Tea Party-and-successor-Donald Trump – is how economic forces, rather than a ‘liberal elite’, are kicking people in the rump every day.

“Things are getting worse and worse for working people, and have been for quite a while in this country,” says Frank. “We call it inequality, but it’s a much bigger problem than that implies. It’s the middle class coming apart, it’s working class people being unable to afford a middle class standard of living any longer.”

“A big part of the American population is in a state of decline,” he adds. “And they know it.

“People know that the standard of living they had in 2007 is never coming back, and they are upset about it – they’re very angry. But the impulse among liberals is to deny it. To say, look, everything is fine, the sky is blue, it’s a wonderful world out there. On paper, America is doing great. So turn that frown upside down.”

Frank is merciless about the ‘Let them eat cake’ brigade, and takes a scalpel to the self-serving idea of America as a meritocracy. “What you discover when you write about the professional class is that it is profoundly unaware of itself as a class,” he says. “They act like a class, and they do all these things that social classes do, but they don’t think of themselves as a class. They think of themselves as ‘the best’. We are who we are because we’re the smartest.”

A punk rocker at heart, (he wrote this book listening to Joy Division and Iggy Pop), Frank delights in blasting those living high on the hog – an instinct that gives him, as a Kansan who went on to get a History PhD at the University of Chicago, an edge over his liberal fraternity.  

“I feel much more at home mocking professional class liberals than writing about people in Kansas,” he says. “I’m describing highly educated and prosperous people, people with every advantage, and people who are very familiar with ideas, and who nevertheless go through this pantomime with themselves. I had no trouble switching on the inner HL Mencken when I went to Martha’s Vineyard. I was completely at home mocking those people.”

As the gala of self-congratulation among Democrats continues, and will likely continue up to November and beyond, it’s worth recalling that their conceit – they who, having ditched working people, now use the threat of a President Trump to discipline those same people into voting ‘correctly’– is not just about place and position, but about moral superiority too.

“One of the rewards of being a liberal is you think you’re very virtuous,” Frank says. “Once you start digging though, this is a movement that is profoundly self-interested. They love to look in that mirror and think about how fine and noble they are. My objective is to put a crack in that mirror.”

Via OpenDemocracy


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Truthdig: “Robert Scheer and Thomas Frank Discuss DNC”

10 Responses

  1. Article about man 20 years ago predicted rise of Trump. An adviser to Patrick Buchanan in his run for president.

    The theme is the same as Thomas Frank’s point that the democratic party walked away from the people.

    link to theweek.com

    And here is a salon.com article which is a chapter from Thomas Franks’ book “Listen Liberal.” Frank makes an incredible point that GLOBALIZATION was for the Clintons like God to others. The force of globalization was going to sweep aside those objecting to “progress.” And Hillary is quoted that to bring about change, you have to attack your friends. So when Bill signed NAFTA it showed that he could stand up to those unions. He was tough. Like Hillary is tough and out to start more wars.

    Here is a question: will this campaign result in a new peace movement?

    Here is the link to Franks’ salon.com article

    link to salon.com

    And here is the title

    Bill Clinton’s odious presidency: Thomas Frank on the real history of the ’90s
    Welfare reform. NAFTA. The crime bill. Prisons. Aides wondered if Bill knew who he was. His legacy is sadly clear

  2. This is exactly right – and the problem goes back to George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, and the infamous “Reagan Democrats.”

    Remember how the New Dealers kept losing presidential elections to the Republicans because the “Silent Majority” wanted to elect people who would punch hippies? Remember how Bill Clinton won by “triangulating”?

    Starting with Ronald Reagan, the Republicans have convinced the American working class that the elitist environmentalists and the degenerate, unpatriotic hippies have destroyed the US middle class and allowed all the good working-class jobs to be outsourced overseas. Using “God, gays, and guns” as a wedge issue, Republicans convinced many working-class voters to vote Republican.

    It’s been 20+ years now, and the media and the voters treat these wedge issues as facts rather than clever propaganda. It sounds as though the Democrats have finally woken up to the idea that they can’t ignore the working class any more. Hopefully, it’s not too late.

    • You and I have very similar analyses, but i disagree with your conclusion. It is not that the Democrats abandoned those people, but those people voted against their economic interests because of their opposition to civil rights due to the racism of many. If the Democratic Party had used the appeal of the Republicans, they would have been abandoning minorities, people of color, and many other constituencies that make up their base. And, it is a question of values. Should the Democrats have worked against equal rights for all in order to try and retain the blue collar workers? The Republicans had no problem doing that since they prize political power above principle. Rachel Maddow, in her show tonight (Friday, 7/29) related how Reagan’s first campaign stop after he got the nomination was Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the 3 civil rights workers had been murdered. There he spoke to 30,000 in an all white crowd and supported “states rights”, which they all knew meant segregation. As a Democrat, I am glad that my party did not, in the main, do that. Another important aspect of all this is that it shows the inadequacy of Marxism in explaining and predicting behavior. According to Marxism, class should trump all else. The Republicans have shown that people will put a higher value on things like racism than on their economic interests. Social wedge issues, based on fear, are stronger than the binds of class. Also, these type of issues can be used to stoke resentment between groups to promote the belief that those “others” are going to take your jobs, rather than the Marxian view that class members would stick together.

    • Thank you for recalling the first chapter of this sad story, which current critics of the Democrats conveniently forget. The anti-war movement had no problem hating unionized workers when the latter hated them violently.

      The rift that Frank describes exploded out into the open at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The irony is that the respectable, well-paid hardhats who bashed dirty hippies got screwed by automation and globalization, and a portion of the dirty hippies got into the new feel-good lifestyle industries that arose on the ruins, cleaned themselves up and became the new defenders of liberal capitalism and enemies of the working class. Only to find they’ve embraced a free market that keeps creating too many poor people. But conversely, that White working class refused at every step to embrace the reality that their successors would be people of color, and branded the latter as categorically “lazy” even as they took their own jobs. It was a racist betrayal within the working class. Which is why the very term “Working Class” is now contaminated by racism such that now a new wave of leftists can express sympathy for White racists as an excuse for Trump while ignoring what will happen to the real, non-White, working class under Trump and his tribalist army.

      They needed each other all along, and they’ve sabotaged each other all along, and here we are.

  3. I think that Franks is guilty of cherry picking and also using a bit of a strawman argument. First, the ablation of the working class from the Democrats to Republicans began with the Southern Strategy, was really developed under Reagan, and then flourished thereafter. It was the brainchild of people like Roger Ailes and Lee Atwater, who used social wedge issues to get blue collar workers to vote with the Republicans and against their own economic interests. They were called Reagan Democrats. The social wedge issue was really a code word for racism. The emphasis on law and order was really a campaign to get less educated whites to fear “the black man.” They accused the Democrats of being soft on crime with the implication that since they supported civil rights they supported black people who were the “real” criminals. Throughout this time Republicans continued an attack on unions while Democrats supported unions. Democrats have supported unions since FDR while Republicans have almost always opposed them. Thus, the idea that the Democrats have somehow abandoned the working class is just not true. The Taft Hartley Act and right to work laws, especially in the South where state legislators are staunchly Republican, led to a huge drop off in private sector unions, so that the public sector is the last bastion of unionism. This is a big reason the Republicans have gone after teachers, public employees, and public employee pensions. They want to privatize everything and then, with non-union labor, right to work laws, and the like, corporations can rake in even huger profits than ever before. The DLC, headed by Clinton was a reaction to this in order to try and reverse Democratic losses. I did not and have never agreed with their approach. However, it has resulted in greater electoral success. The Democrats tried to blunt the soft on crime issue by being tough on crime and criminals. The DLC approach was to be more business friendly in order to get more campaign funding. And they were aided by the recession in the first Bush administration. Through it all, the Democrats have supported unions, minimum wage hikes, and civil rights. The Republicans broadened their wedge issues to include attacks on homosezuals and the support for right wing evangelicals. Ed Schultz some years back summarized their issues as God, gays, and guns. So, I think Franks view is oversimplified and ignores the big picture and doesn’t take enough of a historical over view.

    • It is forgotten that the first great wave of outsourcing was from the North to the South. The Southern workers have already been betrayed by their jobs moving further south to Mexico, and Mexican workers in turn have been betrayed by their jobs moving to China. This keeps happening until the capitalists run up against the last cheap labor pool they can utilize and it then turns to unions to reverse the process.

      • The last cheap labor pool is robots and The “Rust Belt” and agricultural jobs are GONE FOREVER.

        The blue collar manufacturing and agricultural jobs are NEVER coming back no matter what trumper says.

        While some of the jobs went to places with lower labor costs, most have now been replaced by technology. Technology is so cheap and efficient, even humans making 50 cents per hour cannot compete. In fact, right now many Chinese workers are being replaces by robots.

        Some examples to think about:

        – GM-Toyota-Tesla factory in Fremont, CA. During the 60s and 70s GM produced 5000 cars a week with 6500 union workers. From the mid-80s until 2010 Toyota produced 6000 cars a week with 4600 UAW union workers. Now, Tesla produces about 2000 cars per week with about 5000 employees. BUT keep in mind that Tesla builds the cars from raw materials and the GM and Toyota plants were assembly only, using parts made elsewhere by thousands of other workers. Most of the Tesla production is done by robots.

        link to youtube.com

        – In the 50s and 60s the USA government helped AT&T ensure that virtually every house and business in the USA had land-line phone service. This required EVERY small town in the USA to have a telephone building with a large analog mechanical switching system that required from 10 to 30 humans to keep it going. Then Bell Labs invented the transistor which was used to invent computer–based digital switching systems with 99.99% reliability and self-healing capabilities. These switches required only 10% of the space and 80% to 100% LESS humans to keep them running. In fact all the digital switching systems in the western USA can be monitored by a single office in Texas and some telephone office have no humans in them for months at a time. This is why AT&T employment has dropped by 75%.

        – GPS guided auto driving tractors can now get 10% greater yield per acre and GPS guided auto driving combines can harvest much more accurately. To check the progress of crops, a farmer can launch a GPS guided autonomous drone every morning. Using its infrared and other spectrum cameras, the drone examines all the fields and returns to the farmer. The farmer then puts the memory card in his computer and software analyses the moisture content and other aspects of the growing crops, optimizing watering and harvest planning. All of this automation requires minimal humans.

        BTW – robots and computer-based technology is no longer expensive. The same processor that is in an iPhone 5 can also be purchased as a complete computer system for US$35 and competitors are trying to drive that price down to US$5.

        The bottom line is the USA has a huge number of humans that are unemployable due to technology. The technology evolution is exponential and millions more humans will become unemployed over the next few years and there is absolutely NOTHING the politicians can do about it except transfer wealth from the rich to the poor.

        • I agree. And Trump isn’t going to get very for with his protectionist band-aids as long as the technology giants oppose him.

        • @rbtl – Considering that smuggling and tax evasion are as old as mankind, there is ZERO chance trumper’s protectionist band-aids will do anything to help anyone but the already wealthy. Transnational companies have a huge number of ways to evade country laws (note that trumper is just as guilty as other wealthy at doing this).

          The bottom line is the racist, used to be middle class, people that will vote for trumper are being sold a false future, but they are so anger over their lost status and wealth, they will grasp at any delusion.

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