Thomas Frank is perhaps most famous for What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004), a book arguing that Republican politicians exploit controversial social issues to manipulate working class voters into voting against their own economic interests. In subsequent years he published The Wrecking Crew (2008) and Pity the Billionaire (2011). This week we consider his latest, Listen, Liberal (2016), hoping to shed some light on the upcoming inauguration of Donald Trump.
By Election Day, the fivethirtyeight model was giving Hillary Clinton a 71% chance of winning the Presidency. I found that figure very reassuring until I read a Nate Silver blog post that put it into perspective. As the polls opened, Silver wrote, Hillary Clinton’s chances are “equivalent to an NFL kicker making a 38-yard field goal.” That analogy gave me chills.
Though others had criticized Silver for being too cautious in his predictions – Sam Wang claimed he was doing it for the clicks – that caution looked pretty defensible by 10pm on November 8th.
Election-wise, it was all over but the crying. But American politics-wise, there are lessons to be learned, mistakes to be corrected, and resistance to be organized.
To this end I committed myself to reading every book on this list, all of which were interesting in their own way but none of which satisfied entirely. The one that came closest was Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal.
In Frank’s telling, the Democratic Party is essentially a centrist party bent on appropriating the key terms of conservative politics. If this strategy found its avatar in Bill Clinton – with his commitments to NAFTA, welfare reform, and mass incarceration – it was inherited by Barack Obama, recognizable in the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, and many dozens of other well-intended but ill-fated reaches across the aisle. If these efforts were calculated to trade ambitious policy goals for mainstream credibility and credit, they don’t seem to have paid significant dividends.
What we need, Frank argues, is an honest-to-God liberal party that will make the working class the centerpiece of its mission, ditch Wall Street, and return to the New Deal – Great Society posture of the good old days.
There are criticisms of this position, for sure, and I think we will get into them. But I don’t think we can chalk this election up simply to racism or resentment or a worldwide populist wave. And we can consider Frank’s points without getting all despondent about Obama’s legacy. I think we have to.
I worked for a Democratic congressional challenger in 2006. It was mostly a bunch of us local folks without a ton of experience, but we did have one bigger gun: a campaign consultant who’d been a top staffer for Howard Dean’s presidential bid in 2004. The consultant and I were chatting one day, and when I mentioned the Clintons, he let loose a venomous screed.
I’d certainly seen this kind of Clinton-hating on the right, but never on the left. I’d been a teenager in the 90’s, so I didn’t know most of what the consultant was talking about. I tried asking a more basic question – why didn’t he like the Clintons? As if it were the most obvious thing in the world, and I was a total naïf for asking, he replied, “Because they destroyed our party.”
In Frank’s telling, the Clinton presidency didn’t destroy the Democratic Party single-handedly, but it sure did drive a bunch of nails in the coffin. I remember thinking I was supposed to like him – he was a vigorous young Dem, after all, and not one of those evil old Republicans – but I can’t remember feeling proud or uplifted by much of what he did.
When I was 18, I met him at a White House awards ceremony; in my six-second handshake moment, I found myself wondering whether there was more complexity inside of him, some secret knowledge that would help explain why he hadn’t done more on behalf of the values we supposedly shared.
I have basically the same feeling about Hillary. She sometimes says cool, compassionate stuff, but she doesn’t live it in any consistent way. When she gave those lucrative speeches to Wall Street – and then refused even to share what she’d said with the rest of us – something cracked for me. Here was an insanely wealthy woman, world at her feet, standard-bearer of the Democratic Party and very likely the next president, and the best thing she could think to do with her time was to stock the vault? How could this be our candidate?
So yeah, I think Frank’s right: the Democratic Party has become weakly centrist. Outside of Obama, I can’t say I’ve been pumped by any of the nominees we’ve seen in our adult lives, and even he turned out to be much more centrist than I might have hoped.
The cruel irony, though, is that the center doesn’t stay in one place; when the Dems move to the center, the center itself moves right. So I think the Party – and the country – would be stronger if somebody were to give much louder voice to traditionally Democratic constituencies and concerns.
Of course, a lot of people would probably suggest that this is exactly what Bernie Sanders represented, and that he came decently close to knocking off Clinton in the primaries. I certainly think that a stronger, louder left wing could make for a healthier party overall (and perhaps even lead to some more compelling candidates). But I’m also open to the idea of a genuine third party.
Frank seems to accept the charge that, for all of his dynamism, candidate Obama was also young and politically naive, which is why he surrounded himself with former Clinton surrogates like Larry Summers and Robert Rubin, and why he deferred to the big banks rather than nationalizing them. He also seems to accept that Obama’s commitments to political unity and bipartisanship played directly into Republican obstruction.
Clearly he (Frank) wanted a tougher executive more in the union leader mold – someone ready to stand up to the fat cats, punch them in the mouth, and revamp the system that they had engineered in such stunning and self-serving and ultimately destructive ways. If Obama hadn’t been so dead-set on proving his reasonableness and dignity and that he wasn’t a Marxist Muslim AntiChrist, he could have been a more effective leader.
The most obvious rejoinder to this position is that the President is not empowered to act unilaterally, and that Obama faced constant GOP obstruction from the beginning – and especially after the 2010 midterms. Frank doesn’t really buy this. Do you? Do you think Obama could have corrected Clinton-era mistakes if he hadn’t been so committed to perpetuating them?
At first, I admired Obama’s approach. By the third or fourth time that his opponents went bare-knuckle, though, I started to feel impatient. Part of me wondered whether Obama wasn’t seeing his opponents clearly. Part of me wondered whether his personality wouldn’t let him believe what they were doing – that they really could be that petty and mendacious. And part of me wondered whether he was making a calculation – that he knew that his opponents were gonna keep doing what they were doing, and that playing the same game would have accelerated the destruction of reason, fair-mindedness, and comity in our politics.
Or maybe it was some combination of the three. Maybe it was something else entirely. I never figured it out. Did you?
I was reading a lot of Andrew Sullivan in those years, and so became very enamored of the idea that Obama was playing the long game, allowing the nuts in the GOP to undercut themselves very gradually. As long as Obama always came out looking like the adult in the room, the American people would gravitate to his maturity – they would have to!
But what seems to have happened instead is that the Obama legacy has been imperiled by a strong rightward shift. That is very hard for me to understand. Since I was approaching the whole thing from the perspective that Obama’s calm, rationality, and reason were contrasting starkly with the unfitness of the rival party, I figured his own party would finally reap the rewards. In October, when that Access Hollywood video dropped, I thought the Senate was won and maybe the House as well.
Instead, as we know, the Democrats lost everything, for reasons that I do not and probably will not ever understand. That’s the context in which I find Frank helpful. He tells a story that makes an unintelligible situation (somewhat) intelligible.
And yet I still have at least one reservation about his plan of action:
When Republicans lose elections, they always say it was because their candidate wasn’t conservative enough. McCain, Romney, definitely Trump if he had lost – they were RINOs, not true conservatives. When Democrats lose, it’s often attributed to their perceived wimpiness in one area or another or in all areas. But Democrats generally do not say that we need a true liberal. The party mainstream does not think in terms equal and opposite to their rivals.
For all of their centrist failings, both Clinton and Obama did secure two terms and did finish with high popularity – Clinton did so even after getting impeached. Doesn’t that validate their method?
In other words, does (Hillary) Clinton’s loss prove Frank right? Or does Obama’s popularity prove Frank wrong? Was this election a one-off, or does it fit the long neoliberal narrative?
I’m not sure winning elections is enough. Cool, Bill Clinton, you won two terms – but what did you do with them? I know, I know – you had relentless opponents – but you ceded so much rhetorical, cultural, and political ground to them that you made it harder for left-of-center candidates to win down the line. You made reasonable, compassionate policies sound extreme.
That said, I also don’t think I like the Obama-was-reasonable, his-opponents-were-nuts narrative. (I know, I know – I brought it up 🙂 He definitely has a calm, cool temperament, but his views and policies weren’t always right or good or true, and his opponents’ weren’t always the opposite. Pretending otherwise – which way, way too many Democrats are happy to do – is part of what generated the backlash that Frank documents.
I think my question is more political than policy-ical. Frank counts himself among many on the left who suggest that Bernie Sanders should have gotten the nomination, that he probably would have won the general, and that the country would be much better off if he had. Now, I voted for Sanders in the primary, and I certainly would much rather have him than Trump.
But I think there is also a risk that Sanders’ policy choices would have summoned an unprecedented backlash on the right, and that his political failures could have done more harm than good to the left for the foreseeable future. Sanders came with a degree of liability that Obama did not, because Sanders is not nearly as polished or politically agile. Who is?
But I mean, the GOP spent eight years pillorying Obama as though he was President Che, even as he kept most of the status quo safely intact. What would they have done with a guy who calls himself a socialist?
Which is to ask: how would an actual leftist president be received by people in the contemporary US? Would an actual left administration be successful? Would the people stand for it?
I’m not so sure that they would, or that Sanders should be the guy to try the waters.
I don’t think Frank’s analysis stands or falls based on who he supported in the election. I’m also not sure if Sanders would have created the same backlash. A lot of Republicans hate Hillary personally, viscerally, with a kind of pull-your-hair-out rage that’s hard for me to understand; maybe her policies would have suffered the same response. Sanders, on the other hand, didn’t generate the same ire; he was objectionable to the right in more abstract (and maybe less motivating) ways.
All of that said, I’m not sure I’m super-invested in the idea of a leftist presidency. Like you, I think Sanders is just more of a decent, caring person than Trump, and I think he often did a nice job of translating his sympathies into humane policy. But more and more, identifying myself (or my political ideals) in left/right terms feels limiting, like I’m playing into the simplistic tribalism that’s dominated our politics for too long.
I feel that, and on some level I think many people would like to position themselves above the fray in some purer state of political engagement. But we live in partisan times, and the Obama example suggests that any attempt to bridge the partisan gap will likely play into the hands of the hard partisans. Isn’t that the point?