By Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books 320 pp. $27
By Jim Swearingen
The Democratic and Republican Parties are the Chang and Eng of the American body politic. If one of these electoral Siamese twins goes on an ideological bender, it threatens to drag its counterpart down, as well. Much has been written about the impending demise of the GOP. Now, the question is: could a similar affliction be spreading to the Democrats?
Add Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal to the multiplying volumes of disillusionment with our current party politics. It is an edgy—even disturbing—analysis of the Democratic Party’s jilting of its traditional base of union labor and urban poor to woo sexier targets, notably tech barons and finance kings.
This is an important book, an engaging and skeptical analysis of where the Democratic Party’s politics and policies have been headed for some time. One of Frank’s great themes is the party’s abandonment of the working class, whose votes fueled the egalitarian New Deal juggernaut, to embrace a new “creative class,” whose money bankrolls the socially liberal—and economically more conservative—policies of a new generation of American technocrats.
This new generation of Democrat, as Frank describes it, holds graduate school degrees, often from prestigious universities; pursues professional careers, usually requiring high levels of expertise; supports social causes, predominately identified with the left; and advocates economic policies traditionally associated with cloth-coat Republicans. This creative class represents the top 10%, a Talented Tenth of the nation’s population.
In a gradual demographic shift over the past several decades, this smart set has come to dominate and refurbish a Democratic Party that fits their socially enlightened, scientifically grounded, aesthetically sophisticated tastes. But Frank is not celebrating. This well-matriculated class of Democrats is, in his view, a self-congratulatory, nepotistic bunch that admires its own handsome credentials and professional status a little too much.
They have, he charges, the smug self-satisfaction of people who have won the lottery and attribute it entirely to their own inherent worth. Among this righteous new meritocracy, an attitude of social Darwinism has resurfaced, one that credits the fortunate for their ingenuity and faults the destitute for their lack of initiative. Their good fortune has left them without humility or any empathy for the masses of Americans who didn’t get to go to the college of their choice, or to college at all.
As the pages of the book fly by, the reader gets more than a whiff of the smart set’s haughty distaste for the unemployed, the uneducated, and the underprivileged. Frank argues that the Democratic Party, in absorbing legions of self-satisfied professionals, has shed its New Deal mantle and come to disdain the manual class for its inability—or worse, unwillingness—to adapt to a new economy built on education, technological innovation, professional associations, and disposable capital.
The creative class’s philosophical convictions include a hazy, Utopian fantasy of all technical and economic problems magically solved. This is a very different idealized future from the class-less, poverty-abolishing dreams of the old-school New Deal Democrats.
The Democratic Party’s current leaders are in the grip of an uncharacteristically anti-government fever. They favor tax and trade policies that foster technological innovation and business start-ups that will, they believe, establish a spectacular meritorious economy with jobs for all—all, that is, who are adequately prepared to fill them.
Their idea that this rising tide of technological innovation will lift all boats generally goes unquestioned. But Frank peels away the fatuous Platonic sales talk to reveal that this is just the latest rationalization of capitalists trying to dismantle a system that imposes regulations and taxes on them.
In putting all their chips on “inno,” this cadre of Ivy Leaguers and Silicon Valley gurus seems indifferent to its unfortunate consequences: few low-skilled, full-time, livable-wage jobs for legions of non-college graduates. The result is a top-heavy hierarchy of all chiefs and no Indians. This new economy has left behind the lunch-bucket clock-punchers who once made their livelihoods doing the heavy lifting in an industrial economy.
Frank describes the impatience of this ostensibly liberal educated class with traditional federal limits on business. The innovation explosion, which sounds so inspiring on its surface, so quintessentially American, seeks to circumvent lumbering and obsolescent social, political, and economic structures – including restrictions on free trade – with rapid and inventive work-arounds.
Those antiquated, quasi-Socialist, government structures, however, were designed to stabilize a nation-state, to protect often unsuspecting and defenseless workers, consumers, and borrowers from reckless capitalists.
The book moves methodically through the Clinton and Obama administrations—as well as anticipating, through forensic political evidence, what a Hillary Clinton administration would look like—to lay the blame for destructive financial deregulation, tax cuts for the affluent, and free trade job dislocation squarely on their abandonment of traditional liberal concerns. Though the creative class frames these policy developments as inevitable, Frank disputes that any of this had to happen.
His solution to the puzzle of why two ostensibly progressive Democratic Presidents like Clinton and Obama would cozy up so warmly to Wall St. and Silicon Valley comes out of his central thesis: these well-connected policy wonks with Ivy League pedigrees gravitated toward helping fellow members of their own smart set, even going so far as to insulate them from prosecution for their reckless mistakes. Their loyalty to classmates—both in an academic and an economic sense—has superseded their fealty to the liberal mission they both claimed to embrace.
Although Frank spends a chunk of his book toppling Obama and the Clintons from their progressive pedestals, the most engaging theme of his book is the emergence of this new political class. He tracks the close ties between the executive branch and the tech innovators who are calmly and cold-heartedly degrading or circumventing economic and workplace standards of—to be quaint about it—decency and fairness.
Even though Frank is offering up an autopsy of the Party of the New Deal, he is no conservative shill. He is, rather, an equal-opportunity iconoclast, who in previous outings has turned his contrarian mind on the GOP and Wall St. He has no hesitation about challenging platitudes on all sides, and dissecting them to figure out what they really mean and who profits from them.
In the end, his analysis leaves us with a critical question: Where is all of this party dissolution taking us? Are we in the midst of a seismic political realignment in which the Democrats, once the more populist organization, become the party of the networked Haves, and the Republicans, once the bastion of the upper class, becomes the party of the volcanically enraged Have-Nots? As with every other question in this absurd election season, the only answer seems to be: stay tuned.
Jim Swearingen is a Minneapolis-based writer.