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Robert Scheer and Thomas Frank on Democrats’ Shift Away From Addressing Inequality (Audio)
Posted on Oct 23, 2016
Editor’s note: Thomas Frank will join Robert Scheer on Sunday, Oct. 30, at 4 p.m. in Los Angeles for a public discussion about the upcoming presidential election and Frank’s new book, “Listen Liberal: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.
This article was originally posted on March 18, 2016.
In this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer sits down with journalist Thomas Frank to discuss his new book, “Listen, Liberal,” about how the Democratic Party abandoned working Americans.
Frank has written several books—including the acclaimed “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”—as well as founded the magazine The Baffler. His newest book, “Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” seeks to understand why Democrats have moved away from addressing inequality.
In their conversation, Frank tells Scheer how the party has become class-based, now representing primarily the “professional” or upper socioeconomic class. Frank also talks about the Clintons’ role in this shift and why he believes people who might have earlier voted for Democrats are now flocking to Donald Trump.
When Scheer suggests that Bill and Hillary Clinton may not represent a lesser evil—when compared to Republicans—but merely a “different kind of evil,” Frank responds: “You could make the argument that Bill Clinton did things in the 1990s that no Republican would have been capable of doing. ... Reagan couldn’t push bank deregulation as far as Clinton did. Clinton did things that Reagan would never have dared to do: welfare reform ... [and] NAFTA. George Bush couldn’t get NAFTA passed. ... So you start to think that the game that the Clintons play with us, where we vote for them because we have nowhere else to go. ... There’s a sort of political economics of how we the voters are manipulated in this situation, and they’re very, very good at playing that game. And so people like you and me who are on the left are captured, basically. We don’t have anywhere else to go. And they play us in a certain way.”
He continues: “I have a lot of friends who say you can’t criticize the Democrats because you’ll just weaken them and then the Republicans will get in. But I say that we can’t give up our critical faculties just because of the ugly historical situation that we’re in.”
Frank also adds that while he is no fan of Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner for the presidency leaves “no uncertainty in the minds of his listeners, after they’ve sat through one of his speeches, that he is a guy that is gonna get tough with American companies that want to move their factories to Mexico or China or anywhere like that. Left parties the world over were founded in order to give voice to and to help and to serve working people. That’s what they exist for. And those people are now flocking to Donald Trump, who is railing against things like NAFTA. We’re in this situation now where thanks to the Clintons and thanks to Obama, the social dynamics of the two-party system have been ... mostly turned on their head.”
Read the transcript:
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, the intelligence coming from my guests, which in this case is Thomas Frank, who first came to public attention, or at least to my attention, with a great book about whatever happened to Kansas. A, you know, basically enlightened state that was the center of all sorts of change and dissenting thought and enlightenment in America, and he grew up there. And then, you know, it went off into madness, and actually it even continues, with somebody who is the governor and is sort of against most modern standards of intelligence. And then he’s written a number of other books. But the one that we’re here today to discuss is one that might not be as endearing to people who liked his Kansas book, which really took on the vast right-wing conspiracy that Hillary Clinton used to talk about. And this one is called “Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” Thomas Frank, you know, I read this book, finished it just before the debate in Michigan. And it was really quite interesting, because Hillary Clinton at that debate—one of the liberals that you presumably want to have listen—brought up Marian Wright Edelman again, and the Children’s Defense Fund, and her concern for poor people, her concern for black people going back to her earliest days. And I had just finished reading in your book where you discuss Marian Wright Edelman’s husband’s book, Peter Edelman. And Peter Edelman—in case you forgot, it’s on page 243—and it was interesting to me, because after I had read that, you know, maybe a half hour later I’m watching television and there’s Hillary Clinton once again saying, you know, she’s in that great tradition of concern for poor people. And Peter Edelman, for people who don’t know him, is a brilliant scholar, and in addition to being married to Marian Wright Edelman, was in the Clinton administration. And in that administration, the first years, Bill Clinton implemented what he called welfare reform, which was basically ending the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program that was the main poverty program we had in this country. And 70 percent of the recipients were children, and the rest were mostly single mothers. And Peter Edelman, who was no fan of the old system, as you point out, nonetheless left the administration because he thought it was a betrayal of any federal obligation to help poor kids. And then he wrote really a scathing, but very detailed critique of what happened afterwards. And I noticed in the Michigan debate, Hillary Clinton did not do what her husband once did—well, a number of times has done. He has actually defended his welfare reform, and the fact is, she sort of seems to be backing away, but still says it was only—it would have been a good program but it was hurt by George W. Bush. The Clintons really figure in this book, and you know, what you’re basically talking about is, what happened to the Democratic Party?
Thomas Frank: Yeah.
RS: And a lot of what went wrong, in your eyes, with the Democratic Party, really is Clintonism. And—
TF: Yeah. Well, he’s the pivotal, he’s the pivotal figure in all of this, in the sort of great transition of the Democratic Party. It’s a bigger story than one man, though, of course; it’s a bigger story than even his little clique of friends, you know, the Democratic Leadership Council. It’s a story that goes way back to the early 1970s. But let me just say in broad outline, what I’m talking about here in the book is this problem of inequality that I think is the biggest problem we face as a society. And in fact, I think the word inequality is a euphemism for problems that are much bigger than that—you know, for the crumbling communities—like, they were debating in Flint, Michigan, you know, there is no better evidence for what inequality looks like than a place like Flint, Michigan, you know. De-industrialization, the withering of the middle class—all of these things happening at the same time. And you know, we call it inequality; it is the one great problem that we have. And so my, the question in the book is, you know, the Democrats have been talking about inequality forever; this is why they exist as a party, is to take this on. Why haven’t they been able to do anything about it? And the answer isn’t what you think. You know, it’s not just because Republicans are so diabolically clever and stop them all the time. And it’s also not just because of the money that is sloshing around in politics, although that’s, you know, obviously that’s a huge part of the story. But the answer is because the Democrats aren’t who we think they are. You know, they talk about inequality, but their heart really isn’t in it. Income inequality is really not something that they have cared about for a very long time. You know, there are individuals here and there who do, but you talk about people like the Clintons—I mean, Hillary Clinton, her concern for inequality is, this is, I would say is almost completely feigned.
RS: Underwriting that, if I can intrude—as somebody who studied economics in the sixties in graduate school and so forth—with the exception of people like Michael Harrington and Gabriel Kolko and C. Wright Mills, the conventional wisdom in liberal circles was that, you know, capitalism was really working. And what they ignored was, yes, it was working to a considerable degree because you had labor unions that had developed; you had enlightened policies developed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration in response to the Great Recession. It wasn’t some free market bubble going on its own; it required government intervention, it required citizen activism, it required labor organizing, and so forth. And, but what became, I think, the conventional wisdom in the party over the years was, no, the system works real well, and what we have are these social restraints against women, against minorities, and so forth, and those can be tinkered with. And that’s sort of what I got out of your book; an emphasis on the meritocracy, let’s get more people back into school and so forth, and that will solve the problem.
TF: Yeah, that’s the key word, is meritocracy. Or, you know, the different word for it is professionalism. So what I looked at is, why has the Democratic Party—why haven’t they been more aggressive on the subject of inequality? Why do they do things like, you know, the Clintons’ welfare reform? By the way, he did that in 1996; this is simultaneous with the series of bank deregulations that he’s doing. So he’s cracking down on poor people—you know, they passed the big omnibus crime law in 1994—cracking down on the poor, and at the same time letting Wall Street do whatever it wanted. You know, giving them unprecedented freedom; the law is not going to be enforced on these people anymore. These are Democrats that did this, it’s not Republicans. And they did it wholeheartedly. So the question is, why do they do things like that? And so you know, it’s a historical mystery. So I went back, and the answer that I finally came up with is, because, is that the Democratic Party itself has changed. And in particular, what’s changed about them is the social class that they answer to, that they respect, that they come from OK? And this is—the social class—you know, we used to identify Democrats with workers, with organized labor, with the sons of toil, blue collar—whatever you want to call it, right? But that changed, and beginning in the 1970s, Democrats began to identify themselves with the professional class. And they have all sorts of really nifty ways of describing that group of people, very flattering ways. And you’ve heard some of these. Remember, the “symbolic analysts” was one; “wired workers” is one; the “creative class” is one they use a lot right now. But this is basically, this is the group that Democrats idolize; this is the group that they, from where their support comes; and it’s also the group from which leading Democrats themselves are drawn. So they have internalized the way this certain stratum of society view the world. They’ve internalized that; it’s very natural to them, and the centerpiece of that way of viewing the world is meritocracy. You get what you deserve, and what you deserve is defined by how you did in school.
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