Robert Scheer and Thomas Frank on Democrats' Shift Away From Addressing Inequality (Audio)
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.RS: Yeah, but it also means, of course, that you’ve succeeded through dint of hard work, and not by selling out, not by betraying the people you came from, not by accepting benefits. So you know, if your son-in-law has a hedge fund that’s not doing well, but he’s making a lot of money, it’s not because Lloyd Blankfein helped him out; it’s not because they want to curry favor with the Clintons. No; he’s just finding his measure, and he’ll get it.
TF: [Laughs] I know what you’re talking about there. That’s not exactly the direction I was going to go in. What I was going to say is that, as a group, professionals are very interesting. So basically, you see what I’m getting at here, is I’m saying that the Democrats are a political party—they’re a class party. OK? They’re a party that has internalized, I mean completely and utterly, one hundred percent, have internalized the world view of a particular social class, OK? And one of the peculiar things about that—so they look at people like hedge fund managers on Wall Street, or Wall Street bankers. And they see those people as colleagues, as classmates; as friends, even. And this is just in the last 20 years; in the old days, as you know, Robert, Democrats habitually regarded Wall Street as the arch-fiend, you know. You look at Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman or William Jennings Bryan, these guys always, forever denouncing Wall Street—well, with Bill Clinton, and even before Bill Clinton, Democrats came to see it kind of differently. This is the creative class; this is a creative industry, they’re making these really nifty derivative securities, they’re addressing risk, there’s all this wonderful complexity going on. And so they see something like Wall Street and the meltdown there—you know, the complete collapse on Wall Street—and they’re like, oh, how can we help? How can we help? The idea that Wall Street was engaged in, like, world historic fraud is not an idea that occurs to them naturally, or that is even acceptable to them.
RS: My series here is an effort to find the saving grace of our system, which is individuals who don’t buy that malarkey, and who question. And you have one such person in the book, Brooksley Born. I don’t think she—frankly, one of my few criticisms of this book, which I think is a marvelous book—is I think she’s one of the great heroes of this whole, she is the great hero of this story. And the destruction of Brooksley Born tells you really what you need to know about this kind of Democrat. And for those who don’t know her, Brooksley Born, you know, was the first woman editor of the Stanford Law Review; very distinguished, in the meritocracy, and then went to work for big law firms and so forth, and got to know Hillary Clinton because she was also concerned about women’s rights. And she was somebody that they thought they might make Attorney General when Janet Reno was considered, but she was given the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. And anyway, she’s the one who said these derivatives are not cute and they’re not interesting; they’re, it’s thievery, it’s destructive—
TF: Yeah, it’s dangerous, it’s a dark market, and we have to—
RS: —yeah, and she said this five years before Warren Buffet called them financial instruments of mass destruction.
RS: And the Clintons, even though they knew her, respected her—she clearly knew more about banking than anyone they ran into; she was a highly regarded expert, legal expert on financial systems at one of the biggest firms. Yet when she blew the whistle, they went with the people you describe in the book, the Gang of Three, Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and Alan Greenspan, and you know, no—
TF: Oh, come now. They’re not a gang; they’re the committee to save the world! [Laughs]
RS: Right, Time Magazine cover—
TF: Remember, on the cover of Time Magazine, right? No, they’re the ones who—those three came together to shut her down. And you know, and not only to shut her down. So Brooksley Born proposed regulating derivative securities, certain kinds of derivatives that were completely unregulated at the time. This was in the sort of later years of the Clinton administration, and she was, as you said, a high-ranking regulatory official. And that’s what she proposed. And those three officials, Summers, Rubin and Greenspan, came together not merely to shut her down and to stop her from regulating derivative securities, but then they went ahead and got a law passed [laughs] that made it impossible. It made it, that went in completely the other way by, you know, by law. That these securities could not be regulated; they called it the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. Remember that word, now, Robert; modernization. That’s always the key in these matters. You got to get in step with modernity!
RS: It’s interesting you say that, because two years previously, when they pushed through the reversal of Glass-Steagall, that was called a Financial Services Modernization Act, the same use of modernization.
TF: Yes, exactly, exactly.
RS: So, what I’m—
TF: By the way, there were more than just those two. I mean, the Clinton administration was, it was a parade of deregulation. There were many different bank deregulations. And the repeal of Glass-Steagall took years; it wasn’t just this one act at the end, it went on and on and on, first under Reagan and then under Clinton. But it was, they repealed it by bits and pieces in slow motion.
RS: It’s interesting. I want to go back to your original point about the social class that they have, because I think there’s really a lot of wisdom in that concept that you have. In that what they discovered is, hey, these people on Wall Street, they go to Martha—you have a whole big thing about Martha’s Vineyard in your book—they socialize with us; these people are pro-choice, they’re not religious fanatics, they’re not crazy. They’re our kind of people. They [go to] our kind of schools.TF: Yeah, and they don’t pollute.
RS: Yes, yes.
TF: And they don’t pollute, remember that, this is very important. So Wall Street is not a polluting industry, and by their lights, neither is Silicon Valley.
RS: And Martha’s Vineyard will remain pristine, and they’ll even put up big hedges.
RS: So this was the idea, though, that in fact, you’re quite willing, consciously, to betray the people that the Democratic Party was supposed to be helping. The people that Bill Clinton, even more, much more than Hillary, came from, you know? And you’re going to betray these people, whatever their color; you’re going to ignore class; you’re going to pretend that you have an avenue up to the meritocracy; forget about anybody else who comes from a different background or has a different skill set. And, in fact, you’re not—you’re going to embrace these folks as winners on Wall Street, and you’re going to do what Ronald Reagan was not able to do. This goes to an argument that I’m going to have with you at the end of this interview, about lesser evilism. Because you know, here was Ronald Reagan, because of the savings and loan crisis, actually tightened regulations a bit at the end. It remained for Bill Clinton to come in, make an alliance with Phil Gramm, the Republican head of the banking committee—who then goes on to work for the Swiss bank UBS as his reward, and his wife is on the board of Enron that gets a loophole in that very modernization—
TF: Enron, yeah. OK, so Enron is an important part of this story. But can I just throw in something here? One of the many really interesting things that I found when I did the research for “Listen, Liberal” was an internal Clinton administration document where they, after one of their many bank deregulations, they were boasting that they got done what Reagan couldn’t. That Clinton did [Laughs] what Regan couldn’t. And I remember—and it seems like—that might as well be a motto for the Clinton administration, you know? For the kind of things they did. But I don’t want to just pick on Clinton here. And you mentioned Enron, so let me talk for just a second about that. You know, I used to be fascinated by Enron; I used to write about them when they were still a going concern. And when Enron went down in this, you know, in this blaze of fraud; and George W. Bush, who was president at the time—and this is very interesting—was intimately connected with Enron, had even let Enron basically write his administration’s energy policy—do you remember this?
RS: Oh, yeah.
TF: Even this guy, George W. Bush, knew that he had to get tough with them. And he went and he prosecuted Enron. And a lot of those Enron officials went to prison. OK? And you look at Barack Obama, a Democrat, who we all, you know, we elected with great relief—George W. Bush is gone, this is fantastic, we’ve got this wonderful president—and how many bankers has he prosecuted? You know, there’s this long tradition in this country of prosecuting white-collar crime; you get to Barack Obama, and it just completely stops. All of a sudden, these wonderful professionals on Wall Street are above the law. In fact—
RS: Well, they’re your classmates.
TF: Yeah, exactly. But at the same time, the Obama administration has been pretty zealous on prosecuting mortgage fraud by individuals. So if you lied on a mortgage application back in the bubble days, they’ll come right after you. But if [laughs] if you’re the CEO of a company that’s handing out liars’ loans in order to jack up fake profits and get, you know, ring the bonus bell—oh, no. Nothing wrong with that. Because you’re a professional.
RS: The Enron scandal really was made possible by the Enron loophole in that Commodity Futures Modernization Act that Bill Clinton signed as a lame duck president; he didn’t even have to do it. He signed it, it was a gift to Wall Street, Wall Street then backs his wife. And my wife Narda Zacchino has a book coming out on California, and she has a long interview with Gray Davis, who was our governor, driven from office because of the Enron scandal—not his doing at all, but Enron came in and wrecked the economy in California. And Gray Davis, plaintively, in this interview in her book, talks about going to Bill Clinton. And he said, I got the same answer from Bill Clinton that I got from George W. Bush: talk to Ken Lay.
TF: Hah—oh, my Lord.
RS: This is a Democratic, progressive governor of California—I don’t want to give away, I guess I am giving away one of the really good points in my wife’s book [laughs] which is coming out in August—but I, that interview, I was shocked, you know? Because I mean, here is Gray Davis, goes to Bill Clinton, says can’t you help us out? Enron is raping our economy in California. It’s destroying it! He’s then driven from office, and Bill Clinton says oh, Ken Lay’s a good guy, he’ll take care of it. Same advice he got from George W. Bush. They wouldn’t lift a finger to hold Enron accountable.
TF: What can I say, Robert? I mean, that’s what we’re talking about here. So basically, the story that I’m trying to get at in “Listen, Liberal” is, why don’t Democrats care about inequality? Why don’t they, why hasn’t Barack Obama done more, why hasn’t he been more aggressive with Wall Street, why hasn’t he been more supportive of efforts for workers to earn more money? You know, we can go on and on and on down the list of the ways that they’ve screwed it up legislatively. But at the end of the day, it’s because Democrats, their favorite constituency, the apple of their eye, the people that they listen to, that they admire, that they hold up as examples for our children to be like, is basically just a different stratum of the very top of American society. So you know, Democrats love to talk about the one percent, and the point one percent, and the Koch Brothers; and that’s all true, and that’s all fine. But the real mass constituency for inequality is not the one percent. It’s the ten percent.RS: The point you make—it’s like Nixon going to China.
TF: Yes, yes.
RS: Now, a Democrat couldn’t have gone to China and end this whole ridiculous phase of the Cold War. It took a Republican. Well, by the same token, Republicans could not have deregulated Wall Street. [Laughs] It took a Democrat.
TF: Right. That’s right. It takes a—I believe one of the people I quote in the book says that: “It takes a Democrat” to do some of these things. And what he was specifically talking about is something that the public to this day still doesn’t know about, which was Bill Clinton’s effort to privatize Social Security.
RS: I want to give a proper introduction to your book. [Laughter] I’m talking with Thomas Frank. The book is called “Listen, Liberal.” And I just want to quote from a blurb on the jacket about it. “Departing from the usual line that our raging inequality is solely the fault of greedy, heartless Republicans”—who were exposed, by the way, by Frank in a previous book—“Frank baldly states that Democrats bear no small part of the responsibility. And not just for inequality: the prison spree, the free trade agreements that cost so many Americans their jobs, deregulation, a free ride for Wall Street—it’s time, Frank says, for Democrats to own up to their part in this country’s downward slide.” And now you’re bringing up one that your book actually goes into in a way that hasn’t—the whole deal with Gingrich and Bill Clinton over destroying Social Security.
TF: If listeners can remember the late 1990s, there was this kind of mania for privatizing Social Security and investing it in the stock market. And what we now know, thanks to the work of a historian, is that in fact Clinton and Gingrich, who were, we at the time thought were these sort of mortal enemies, right, these political opposites, were in fact fully in agreement on a scheme to privatize Social Security. And they met secretly—there’s photographs of them meeting—they met secretly, they talked it over, they came up with a plan. And Clinton started on their plan; he announced, you know, that he was going to, you know, I forget how he put it, that he was going to save Social Security or something like that, by which he meant privatize it. And then they were [laughs] so rudely interrupted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, right? Which came along the next day and polarized the country, and polarized Washington; so, you know, so finally put Republicans in one corner and Democrats in another, that Clinton and Gingrich could not, they couldn’t have any kind of consensus activity. Or, no—that was the end of triangulation, let’s put it that way. So it never happened; it never happened, thanks to Monica Lewinsky.
RS: One of the arguments I had in my own career that I have some doubt about was with Christopher Hitchens, who had been a good friend of mine for a long time. And I still strongly disagree with his support of the Iraq war, which was a betrayal of his ideas. But I remember around the Monica Lewinsky thing, I went soft on the Clintons. And I was writing columns for the L.A. Times, and you know, I felt, as you say in your book, “Hillary Clinton is not a callous or haughty woman”—this is what I felt about Bill also—“She has much to recommend her for the nation’s highest office: for one thing, her knowledge of Washington; for another, the Republican vendetta against her, which is so vindictive and so unfair that I myself might vote for her in November.” Now, I read that, I thought, my goodness, that’s the folly I descended into. Because when this vast right-wing conspiracy was attacking Bill Clinton, I got a little soft in the head, and ah—
TF: But wait a minute! But that’s exactly what we all felt. It was so unfair, and so vindictive. You remember what that was like!
TF: The impeachment committee—oh, my God. It was ridiculous! [Laughs]
RS: I understand—
TF: It was the one moment when I liked Bill Clinton, you know! [Laughs]
RS: That’s exactly, that’s exactly my problem that I’m confessing to you. And so I actually wrote a column saying that Bill Clinton will be remembered as a very good president—I might have even said great president—I said “right of center,” I did say that; but someone in the Eisenhower mold, and so forth. Having now done three books on the record, really, of Clinton, I realize I was so unfair to Eisenhower—
TF: [Laughs] That’s good, that’s good, I like that.
RS: —who was a genuine—no, really, a genuine, sincere, ah, moderate—
TF: Yeah, a Kansan, a good man.
RS: —yes. In fact, he brought, you know, Khrushchev, end of the Cold War, to—not Kansas, but I guess it was Iowa, was it?
TF: That’s right, that’s a famous, very famous, yeah, that’s a famous story. And Khrushchev made fun of tail fins on cars—do you remember this? [Laughs] Among other things.
RS: Yeah. So, but I mean, he had a real sense of decency and limits and so forth. And I realized—and then I, you know, Clinton wrote me a letter saying yeah, oh, I liked your column, but what do you mean, right of center? I’m really this great progressive. And he listed all these things. Anyway, and then I get invited, thanks to Sidney Blumenthal, to a White House dinner; at which dinner, you know, Hillary Clinton, as I’m going through the receiving line, says oh! Robert Scheer, my favorite columnist in America—no, in the whole world! You know.TF: Wow.
RS: So these people know how to schmooze you, okay? And so forth—
TF: Yeah. No, can I tell you a similar—I’ve never met Bill Clinton, but I went to his presidential library. And you know me, Robert; I’m very cynical and sarcastic and willing to believe the worst. And I went to his presidential library, and I listened to the narration that he himself recorded, you know, with that wonderful voice that he has. And I came away from that library loving the man.
RS: Oh, yeah.
TF: And it wasn’t ‘til several days later that I was able to sort of recover my balance after that. It’s—he is so charming, you know, that it’s—you know, look, I think I’m pretty hard on him in this book, but let’s admit, he is a charming fellow.
RS: The book had a big impact on me. Because there’s such clarity about the socializing, corrupting power of the socialization that they’re involved in. You know, the Martha’s Vineyard hook; how you can get along [with] Wall Street; it’s all part of a notion of sophistication. So what I’m suggesting is maybe, you know, these people are—what’s the right word—maybe they’re not the lesser evil. [Laughs] Maybe it’s a different kind of evil—
TF: I think that’s, I think—you could make the argument that Bill Clinton did things in the 1990s that no Republican would have been capable of doing. As you yourself said, Reagan couldn’t push the—well, maybe it was me that said—Reagan couldn’t push bank deregulation as far as Clinton did; Clinton pushed it, did things that Reagan would never have dared to do. Welfare reform, all the stuff with the deregulation—he just went so much farther. NAFTA? George Bush couldn’t get NAFTA passed, lest we forget; that took Bill Clinton to do it. You know, there’s many examples like this. And 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—you know, it’s a two-party system, it’s a duopoly, and there’s—you studied economics; there is a sort of political economics of how we the voter 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. So in writing this book, I’m coming up against, I have a lot of friends who say well, you can’t criticize the Democrats, because you’ll just, you’ll 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 currently in.
RS: My only question would be, and this gets back to Nixon and the Cold War, at least when you have a Republican in power you have Democrats who will criticize. You have, you know, a dialogue going on. When you have a Democrat in power, it stifles the very people who could make the necessary criticism. Secondly—
TF: That’s right, we’re all supposed to get in line.
RS: Yeah, but also you start to implement policies, as Clinton did, that create the base of resentment in the country that can promote a right-wing jingoism, chauvinism of the kind that Trump has. After all, it’s the failure of our economy to address income inequality, and the condition of workers, including white workers; the failure of the union movement—all the things your book discusses in a compelling way—that created the basis of what could be a neofascism or something, you know, even more direct, as we’re seeing. Where you blame the immigrants, you blame others, you develop a hysteria, which we’re seeing on the right. And so the real question is, how do you counter such forces? Do you get in line?—
TF: Oh, my God. Well, you know, this is the exact, this is the question of the book. This is the problem that—you know, this is exactly what the book is about. It’s funny that you mention Trump; I just finished writing a story about Trump. I watched a whole bunch of Trump’s speeches, and I was—I’m no fan of Trump, OK? Let’s make that clear. But I was watching his speeches, and do you know what issue he emphasizes more than anything else? It’s trade. It’s trade. It’s, like, trade deals like NAFTA, brought to you courtesy, brought to you by Bill Clinton and the Democrats. And he drives this thing home, and he leaves, there’s no uncertainty in the minds of his listeners after they’ve sat through one of his speeches that he is a guy that is going to get tough with American companies that want to move their factories to Mexico or to China or anything 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 completely—not completely, but mostly turned on their head. The appeal of centrism, the appeal of people like Bill Clinton, was the idea that by moving to the center, they were winners, you know; they could do what people like Walter Mondale and Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis couldn’t do, right? By moving to the center, they were so practical, right? And they were going to triangulate, and they were going to win—these are the ones—but Bill Clinton, this great pragmatist who moved the Democrats to the center, the so-called center, is also the one that lost Congress. And Democrats, you know, my kind of Democrats, Franklin Roosevelt Democrats, had held Congress from the 1930s right up to Bill Clinton. From the thirties up ‘til the 1990s, with only two very brief interruptions.
RS: If that’s true, why are we kidding ourselves? Then the difference between a Bernie Sanders and a Hillary Clinton is enormous for the future of that party. It’s not that they’re basically, you know, in agreement, and they’re basically good—no, no. The debate between the two of them is fundamental. And you will not get progress with Hillary Clinton’s approach; you’ll get more of the same, and at least Bernie Sanders stands for a profound challenge of that way of doing business.
TF: I think that’s right, I think that’s probably right. I’m trying to not endorse candidates [laughs] or anything like that. But I—
RS: Well, then, be the theater critic—
TF: Look, the way—sure, but look at the way Bernie Sanders is challenging the Democratic establishment. I think he is saying exactly what needs to be said about these guys. I think he is hitting the nail on the head. He’s also challenging the Clintons on trade. And I think at this point, Hillary will say anything and change her opinion on anything in order to stave off that challenge. So the best, my biggest hope for Hillary is that as president, you know, maybe she’ll –maybe she’s had a change of heart or something like that. But I don’t think that’s really a good reason, you can’t really bank on that, you know? If you look at the entire sort of sweep of Hillary Clinton’s career, what Hillary Clinton is interested in has always just been meritocracy and professional achievement, which she usually expresses in these kind of feminist, you know, the sort of feminist vocabulary. But it’s always—it’s always about—
RS: Right—and when she—and when she breaks through the glass ceiling, all American women will have it made, right?
TF: Right. Well, the ones who want—no, I mean, women will be able to become, you know, CEOs of the Fortune 500 or something like that. The point that I’m making is that our country’s problems, and women’s problems, are much, much, much bigger than that.
RS: Well, thank you, Thomas Frank, for writing a really critical book for this election season, and actually for the future of American politics. “Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?” Please don’t ignore this book; it’s critical to getting a debate going in this country about what’s truly important. And thank you, Thomas Frank, for joining me.
TF: Thank you for having me, Robert.
RS: That’s it for Scheer Intelligence. My guest today was Thomas Frank, the author of a really important book that just came out called “Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?” Our producers are Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Mario Diaz was our engineer. Thanks to WAMU in Washington, D.C. See you next time.