By Beverly Gage | 26 April 2016
The New York Times
Liberals may be experiencing mixed emotions these days. The prospect of a Trump presidency has raised urgent fears: of the nation’s fascist tendencies, of the potential for riots in the streets. At the same time, many liberals have expressed a grim satisfaction in watching the Republican Party tear itself apart. Whatever terrible fate might soon befall the nation, the thinking goes, it’s their fault, not ours. They are the ones stirring up the base prejudices and epic resentments of America’s disaffected white working class, and they must now reap the whirlwind.
In his new book, the social critic Thomas Frank poses another possibility: that liberals in general — and the Democratic Party in particular — should look inward to understand the sorry state of American politics. Too busy attending TED talks and vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, Frank argues, the Democratic elite has abandoned the party’s traditional commitments to the working class. In the process, they have helped to create the political despair and anger at the heart of today’s right-wing insurgencies. They may also have sown the seeds of their own demise. Frank’s recent columns argue that the Bernie Sanders campaign offers not merely a challenge to Hillary Clinton, but a last-ditch chance to save the corrupted soul of the Democratic Party.
Frank has been delivering some version of this message for the past two decades as a political essayist and a founding editor of The Baffler magazine. “Listen, Liberal” is the thoroughly entertaining if rather gloomy work of a man who feels that nobody has been paying attention. Frank’s most famous book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” (2004), argued that Republicans had duped the white working class by pounding the table on social issues while delivering tax cuts for the rich. He focused on Kansas as the reddest of red states (and, not incidentally, the place of his birth). This time Frank is coming for the Ivy League blue-state liberals, that “tight little network of enlightened strivers” who have allegedly been running the country into the ground. Think of it as “What’s the Matter With Massachusetts?”
Frank’s book is an unabashed polemic, not a studious examination of policy or polling trends. In Frank’s view, liberal policy wonks are part of the problem, members of a well-educated elite that massages its own technocratic vanities while utterly missing the big question of the day. To Frank, that question hasn’t changed much over the last few centuries. “It is the eternal conflict of management and labor, owner and worker, rich and poor — only with one side pinned to the ground and the other leisurely pounding away at its adversary’s face,” he writes. Today, polite circles tend to describe this as the issue of “inequality.” Frank prefers an older formulation. “The 19th century understood it better: They called it ‘the social question,’ ” he writes, defined as “nothing less than the whole vast mystery of how we are going to live together.”
As Frank notes, today some people are living much better than others — and many of those people are not Republicans. Frank delights in skewering the sacred cows of coastal liberalism, including private universities, bike paths, microfinance, the Clinton Foundation, “well-meaning billionaires” and any public policy offering “innovation” or “education” as a solution to inequality. He spends almost an entire chapter mocking the true-blue city of Boston, with its “lab-coat and starched-shirt” economy and its “well-graduated” population of overconfident collegians.
Behind all of this nasty fun is a serious political critique. Echoing the historian Lily Geismer, Frank argues that the Democratic Party — once “the Party of the People” — now caters to the interests of a “professional-managerial class” consisting of lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, programmers, even investment bankers. These affluent city dwellers and suburbanites believe firmly in meritocracy and individual opportunity, but shun the kind of social policies that once gave a real leg up to the working class. In the book, Frank points to the Democrats’ neglect of organized labor and support for Nafta as examples of this sensibility, in which “you get what you deserve, and what you deserve is defined by how you did in school.” In more recent columns, he has linked this neglect to the rise of a figure like Sanders, who says forthrightly what the party leadership might prefer to obscure: Current approaches aren’t working — and unless something dramatic happens, Americans are heading for a society in which a tiny elite controls most of the wealth, resources and decision-making power.
The problem, in Frank’s view, is not simply that mainstream Democrats have failed to address growing inequality. Instead, he suggests something more sinister: Today’s leading Democrats actually don’t want to reduce inequality because they believe that inequality is the normal and righteous order of things. As proof, he points to the famously impolitic Larry Summers, whose background as a former president of Harvard, former Treasury secretary and former chief economist of the World Bank embodies all that Frank abhors about modern Democrats. “One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated,” Summers commented early in the Obama administration.
“Remember, as you let that last sentence slide slowly down your throat, that this was a Democrat saying this,” Frank writes. From this mind-set stems everything that the Democrats have done to betray the masses, from Bill Clinton’s crime bill and welfare reform policies to Obama’s failure to rein in Wall Street, according to Frank. No surprise, under the circumstances, that the working class might look elsewhere for satisfying political options.
Frank is hardly the first critic to remark upon a disconnect between the lives of wealthy liberals and the grittier constituencies they supposedly serve. As the historian Steve Fraser demonstrates in his wide-ranging new book, the idea of the “limousine liberal” has a long and messy history all its own. The term originated during the 1969 New York mayoral campaign, when the Democratic candidate Mario Procaccino charged the highborn Liberal Party incumbent John Lindsay, formerly a Republican, with acts unbecoming to his social class. Procaccino’s accusation differed slightly from Frank’s: Procaccino believed that Lindsay genuinely sought ambitious programs to empower the poor and the black and the disenfranchised. The problem was that Lindsay did it all from the “silk-stocking district” of the Upper East Side, where his wealth insulated him from the dire consequences of his actions.
Though Procaccino lost the mayoral election, his biting phrase went on to have an illustrious political career of its own. “Nowadays,” Fraser writes wryly, “Hillary Clinton serves as ‘Exhibit A’ of this menace,” “the quintessential limousine liberal hypocrite.” Despite its title, however, Fraser’s book is not really about liberals and their supposed foibles. Instead, he seeks to describe how “right-wing populists” have insulted, vilified, mocked and analyzed those liberals in both the present and the past.
According to Fraser, suspicion of highborn reformers extends back at least to the Progressive Era, when the idea of an activist government administered by well-educated experts began to take hold. Since then, these villains of American consciousness have labored under a variety of epithets: “parlor pinks,” “Mercedes Marxists,” “men in striped pants.” In each iteration, what seems to drive the attacks is not only the tincture of hypocrisy but the unrestrained confidence with which such liberals express their expert views. In that sense, Frank’s fuming at the smug knowledge workers of Boston might have come straight from the pages of National Review, circa either 1955 or 2015.
Fraser does not deny a certain reality behind the “limousine liberal” image. “Limousine liberalism was never a myth,” he writes, however “absurd and scurrilous” the political rhetoric may have been. Something did change beginning in the early 20th century, as the complexities of modern society began to demand new forms of expertise and new institutions to coordinate them. Resentment of “limousine liberals” is nothing less than a reaction to the modern condition, Fraser argues, though some politicians have more effectively navigated its challenges than others. Franklin Roosevelt managed to transcend his patrician upbringing to emerge as a genuine champion of the “little man” — and to become enormously popular while doing it.
Fraser agrees with Frank that the Democratic Party can no longer reasonably claim to be the party of the working class or the “little man.” Instead, he argues, the Republican and Democratic parties now represent two different elite constituencies, each with its own culture and interests and modes of thought. Fraser describes today’s Republicans as the party of “family capitalism,” encompassing everyone from the mom-and-pop business owner on up to “entrepreneurial maestros” such as the Koch brothers, Linda McMahon and Donald Trump. The Democrats, by contrast, represent the managerial world spawned by modernity, including the big universities and government bureaucracies as well as “techno frontiersmen” like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. These are two different ways of relating to the world — one cosmopolitan and interconnected, the other patriarchal and hierarchical. Neither one, however, offers much to working-class voters.
One liberal whose reputation still seems to be up for grabs is Barack Obama, now on his way out of office and into the history books. Frank gives Obama a middling-to-poor grade — something in the D range, let’s say — for what he deems to be the president’s vague and rambling answer to the “social question.” Frank compares Obama unfavorably with Franklin Roosevelt, another Democratic president who inherited an economic crisis from his Republican predecessor. Roosevelt took advantage of the Great Depression to reshape American society in fundamental ways, introducing social welfare and labor protections that shifted real power into the hands of the middle and working classes. (Frank largely gives Roosevelt a pass on the New Deal’s own structural inequalities, including its exclusions of women and nonwhite workers.) Obama, by contrast, let the crisis go “to waste,” according to Frank, tweaking around the regulatory edges without doing anything significant to change the economic balance of power. “Our economy has been reliving the 1930s,” Frank mourns. “Why hasn’t our politics?”
Part of the answer may be that our economy did not, in fact, relive the 1930s. By the time Roosevelt won his first presidential election, the economy had been in free-fall for more than three years and the stock market had lost nearly 90 percent of its value. Three years into the Great Recession, the stock market had begun its climb toward record highs, though that prosperity failed to trickle down to the middle and working classes. Frank sees this uneven recovery as a tragedy rather than a triumph, in which Obama “saved a bankrupt system that by all rights should have met its end.” He says little, however, about what sort of system might have replaced it, or about what working-class voters themselves might say that they want or need. In a book urging Democrats to pay attention to working-class concerns, there are decidedly few interviews with working people, and a lot of time spent on tech conferences and think tanks and fancy universities.
Perhaps as a result, Frank’s book ends on a pessimistic note. After two decades of pleading with liberals to think seriously about inequality, to honor what was best about the New Deal, Frank has concluded that things will probably continue to get worse. “The Democrats have no interest in reforming themselves in a more egalitarian way,” he writes. “There is little the rest of us can do, given the current legal arrangements of this country, to build a vital third-party movement or to revive organized labor.”
But this conclusion, too, may rest on a faulty analogy with the 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt did not suddenly decide on his own to enact Social Security or grant union rights. Those ideas came up from below, through decades of frustration and struggle and conflict. If Americans want something different from their politicians, there is no alternative to this kind of exhausting and uncertain hard work. In the end, it is the only way that liberals — or conservatives — will listen.
Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
By Thomas Frank
305 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $27.
THE LIMOUSINE LIBERAL
How an Incendiary Image United the Right and Fractured America
By Steve Fraser
291 pp. Basic Books. $27.50.
Beverly Gage teaches American history at Yale.
Conversations: Thomas Frank – The Transformation of the Democratic Party
Conversations w/Great Minds – Steve Fraser – The Second Gilded Age? Part 1
Conversations w/Great Minds – Steve Fraser – The Myth of the Free Market – Part 2
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