“Listen Liberal – Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?” by Thomas Frank, 2016
The timing is perfect. In the shade of his credulous disappointment with Obama’s two stints as president, and the looming re-run of a Clinton II presidency, Frank has come out firing on all of his cylinders. He takes every cherished idea and myth of the ‘new’ Democratic Party (“DP”), gently describes it, quotes it succinctly, nicely pokes it, then puts a bullet in its brain. The Democratic Party clichés of ‘innovation,’ ‘the sharing economy,’ ‘the creatives,’ entrepreneurship, meritocracy, technology and education are all put on the rack and found wanting in the light of class reality. What Frank investigates is the class nature of the Democratic Party, finding it to be a ‘party of professionals,’ not a party of the working class. These ‘knowledge’ economy professionals who form the hard voting base of the DP are actually a capitalist ‘new economy’ echo of the ‘old-industry’ Republicans. Or as Gary Hart first called them, "Atari Democrats."
This is an intimate class analysis that even takes on the subtleties of righteousness and ‘goodness’ pushed by this strata. Frank does this after attending a glitzy back-slapping session put on by the Clinton Foundation, hosted by Hillary Clinton and Melinda Gates.
In the process, he lumps in the pro-Democratic top executives of Wall Street and Silicon Valley (unaccountably leaving out Hollywood) with the part of the 9% that forms the immediate base and transmission belt for the DP – academics, lawyers, doctors, engineers of various stripes, corporate and non-profit managers, the elite in media, software, arts and journalism – what Frank terms the ‘well degreed.’ In essence, the ‘smartest people in the room,’ as they fancy themselves.
Frank’s ‘professional class’ is really a wing of the petit-bourgeoisie / middle class in U.S. society – what Marxists have always identified as a prop for capital. Small businessmen form the other part of this class – they are the usual base for the Republican Party. The two parties share this strata, as they do the topmost strata of the 1%. Frank essentially says that the working class has been abandoned by the DP, which is why so many now vote Republican or don’t vote at all. Unlike the DP mantra that ‘they have nowhere else to go’ – they actually do. The DP’s triumphalist emphasis on ‘demographics’ is an example of this. It’s like a line from Blazing Saddles: “We don’t need no stinkin’ workers.’
Frank agrees with most other left economists (Piketty et al.) and sociologists that it is the 10%, not just the 1%, that have benefited in the last 40 years. This is crucial in understanding the role the professional strata plays in spreading the influence of the 1% into the rest of society. Leaving this out basically camouflages how the 1% rule. Occupy Wall Street, while having a catchy slogan, on a deeper level was essentially wrong. I pointed this out in December 2011 post (“Look Who We’re Calling Comrade”) that dwelled on the number of millionaires in the U.S., but was looked at as some kind of egg-head.
In the process Frank humorously reviews the dour history of the Clintons, then analyses Obama’s copycat version, which he called “Clintonism on monster-truck tires.” Jimmy Carter, the born-again peanut entrepreneur from Hicksville, Georgia is left out, but he certainly started things in the late 1970s. Clinton’s enormous failures – deregulating Wall Street, NAFTA, the incarceration and drug-war state, deregulation and privatization across other industries, strengthening a two-tier justice system, stranding unions, welfare ‘reform’ – all have been exhaustively covered, as have Obama’s versions of these policies. What Frank shows is how these policies really reflected a conscious move towards the ‘well-degreed’ strata of professionals in the U.S. and away from the great unwashed proletariat, essentially moving this section of moderate Republicans into the DP camp - where they are now.
You will note that nearly every reactionary measure negatively impacting the working class by Clinton or Obama was in league with the Republican Party. And yet these DP people – Hillary included – have the gall to picture themselves as the true opponents of Republicanism, when they have actually enabled a good part of it. Even their bickering around the Supreme Court indicates they cooperate to have a ‘split’ court – all of whom support increased government power, including the ‘liberals.’
After the romance with Wall Street fizzled a bit after 2008, the DP decided to love tech. Google was name-checked by Obama in half of his ‘state of the union’ speeches while its head, Eric Schmidt, is one of his close advisors. Schmidt called entrepreneurs the ‘value-creators’ of society. Sound familiar? The DP promotes the ‘sharing’ economy.' You know, tech firms like Uber, which takes jobs from tax drivers; TaskRabbit, which is nothing but a digital temp agency; AirBnB, which sidesteps housing, safety and tax laws for profit, or Amazon, which is a tax-free WalMart. This kind of ‘disruption’ is really part of their creation of a precariat of workers, where one day most can hope to be temps standing around in front of hardware stores hoping for day work. Just bring your ‘smart’ phone! This is the future for the majority that the enlightened DP describes as ‘progressive.’
Frank takes on the argument that the ‘big bad Republicans’ made the Democrats do all these things. As one answer he takes an in-depth look at Boston and Massachusetts to see what a paradise of DP control looks like, as this state is thoroughly Democratic. Outside the environs of the high-tech corridor, universities and pharmaceutical companies of Boston, Massachusetts is in a state of poverty and de-industrialization. Inequality is one of the highest in the nation. It is not just black people that have been left behind. High drug prices, high education costs and unemployment are the result of this ‘innovation’ economy. The DP’s black Massachusetts governor later went on to join Bain Capital, Romney’s firm! If Boston was the Capitol of Panem, it makes sense. Or perhaps its Martha’s Vineyard, where both Clinton and Obama take holidays among the deserving wealthy.
The ‘brainy’ Democrats love of ‘complexity’ even extends to the ACA and Dodd-Frank – two of the most complex pieces of legislation ever enacted, both running to thousands of pages, which probably no human being understands completely. Dodd-Frank is still being written years after it was voted on. Just on the face of it, there is something wrong here. But only if you’re not an expert!
Frank’s visit to the 2015 Clinton Foundation gala allows him to look into Hillary’s plan for women in other parts of the world (and shows her plan for American women too.) Essentially it involves promoting entrepreneurship among 3rd world women through micro-lending. Essentially this means getting 3rd world women involved in the banking industry. Essentially Peter Edelman showed that micro-lending does not alleviate poverty or empower women, but only increases indebtedness. (Duh…) Exxon, Goldman Sachs, Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart all have micro-finance programs. Frank points out that these corporations are buying ‘compassion credits’ similar to carbon offsets. Poverty is actually profitable, as is labor, which is why both endure. And so ‘gilt’ must be ‘suffered’ and the DP appears as moralistic as some Texas Baptist.
As Frank coyly notes, if you take into account the removal of welfare supports or housing foreclosures for many poor women, you can say that Hillary’s slogan is ‘No ceilings, no floor!’
What is missing here is the most deluded group of all - not counting many established black 'leaders.' It is top union leaders. In the run-up to the 2016 election, the edicts came from on high from nearly every ‘international’ union headquarters that Hillary Clinton was to be endorsed. Rank and file unionists were stunned. The slavish teachers’ union bureaucrats were first in line. This might reflect their role as the MA/BA aristocracy of labor that they fancy themselves, even though the ranks of their unions know better. Imagine teachers endorsing people who support charter schools and Rahm Emanuel! This is no different from poor rural people in Kansas voting Republican because of Jesus. Even the SEIU, which has been the union most out-front with “$15,” backed Clinton, who did not support the demand. The ‘hope’ placed in Trumka or the split in the AFL-CIO have come almost to nought. Four or more internationals and many local bodies have instead chosen Sanders, which certainly reflects that the union movement is not quite dead. But its damn close.
This is a fast, entertaining read, with Frank's characteristic understanding of the 'commodification of dissent' and his ability to see through 'hip' rhetoric. Frank was the editor of the "Baffler" and wrote "What's the Matter with Kansas" and other books that look at the culture of politics.
Other books on the DP: “The Democrats: A Critical History,” “Death of the Liberal Class,” commentaries, “Red Wedding,” “Sanders, a Left View,” etc. and books analyzing class itself – “Class Lives,” “Chavs,” “Understanding Class,” “Rich People Things,” “The Precariat.”
And I bought it at May Day Books!
April 10, 2016