Book Review: Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank


Author: Thomas Frank
Title: Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
Publication Info: Metropolitan Books (2016)
Previously Read By Same Author:  What’s the Matter With Kansas and Pity the Billionaire
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Thomas Frank asks the question – if the Democrats have held the Presidency for 16 of the last 24 years, and have the demographic majority to take full control of the country, and have been in control in many states and regions for some time, why is it that the middle and working class continue in steep decline while Wall Street gets bailouts and the rich get richer?  The answer is that the Democrats have abandoned their traditional base of working class people and organized labor, instead becoming enamored with what Frank calls the professional class.  These are the wealthy and well-educated people credited as being “creative” and “innovators” and who are called upon to resolve problems with their innate brilliance on a revolving door among prominent universities, corporate boardrooms, and political office.  Meritocracy is baked into this idea of the professional class with the people who’ve succeeded being credited with working hard to earn their degrees and get to the place where they are (with the unspoken counter being that those who fail and are poor can only blame themselves for not trying hard enough).

Frank traces the Democrats connection to the professional class to the wake of the troubled 1968 election when Democratic leaders made a conscious decision to move away from their traditional base of organized labor and working people (assuming that these people would have to vote Democratic anyway).  The Democrats lost several Presidential elections over the 1970s & 1980s and the assumption for party insiders was always that they were always too Liberal and moved the party further to the right.  The core of the book is several chapters about the 1990s and Bill Clinton where the Democrats finally could win again and the professional class took control of the reins of government.  Only Nixon could go to China, but only Clinton could ratify NAFTA, approve the sweeping crime bill, dismantle the social safety net of welfare, repeal regulations of the financial industry, and other things that had been on the Republican wishlist for decades.  Frank even details negotiations between Clinton and Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security, the cornerstone of the abandoned New Deal, that were only scuttled due to the impeachment proceedings against Clinton. With only professionals represented in the Clinton government, alternatives were not considered, and all problems were resolved by doing what would most benefit the professional class.

Frank also covers the Barack Obama presidency  where Obama was swept in to power on a populist movement in the wake of the financial crisis.  Frank notes that Obama had the powers to punish those responsible for the Great Recession, but instead chose to bring Wall Street professional class “innovators” into the government to regulate themselves and work towards bipartisan consensus with the Republicans who were clearly not interested.  The presumptive 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is described as someone working to advance women’s equality, but doing so in a narrow way that only sees women working hard to become successful “entrepreneurs”  (another variation on the meritocracy of the professional class) and working class women are just not seen at her events or in her policies.  The book also details how the place where the New Democrat ethos of the professional class has had it’s greatest implementation – Massachusetts – is emblematic of this  reverence of the “creative class,” and also why the state has the greatest level of inequality in the nation.

This book does an excellent job of explicating what has happened in the Democratic party over the last several decades where it’s gotten to a point that a lot of their ideology is indistinguishable from Republicans and the large portion of Americans have suffered as a result.  The year’s still young, but I think this is going to be one of the most important books of the year and I suggest that everyone should read it.

Recommended books: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander andThe Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Rating: ****

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