Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal (2016)
Listen, Liberal, my latest read from the NYT list of “Six Books to Understand Trump’s Win,” can be summarized as follows:
1. Our country is screwed.
2. Don’t go blaming those crazy Republicans for this mess. Democrats (or at least the higher levels of the Democratic Party and especially the last two administrations) are just as much, and perhaps even more to blame.
I’ve never wanted to identify with one of our traditional political parties. My first political act I can recall was voting in a mock election in fifth grade, the year that Reagan defeated Carter. I — and the majority of my class, interestingly enough — voted for for neither of them, but for an Independent named Anderson. (Who the heck was Anderson? Does anyone else remember him?) I didn’t know much about any of the candidates, but at the age of ten I was already disgusted with our two-party system and wanted none of it.
By the time I was able to vote for real, politics seemed such an ugly, morally questionable enterprise that I wanted to know as little about it as possible. But with my limited knowledge, the Democrats usually seemed the only viable choice, the party seemingly on the side of greater equality and diversity, and of environmental causes. I would prefer some more progressive options, even a real socialist party, but given the unappealing choices, what could I do but vote blue?
In his blistering critique of the direction the Democratic Party has taken over the past forty years, Thomas Frank makes me ashamed of my ignorance and inattention. The one-time party of the people has betrayed its former constituency to the point of no return, and its smooth-talking rhetoric can no longer hide the fact that what Democratic administrations have done — NAFTA, welfare reform, and increased incarceration, for example — and what they have left undone — such as imposing any meaningful restraints on a rapacious banking industry, or enforcing antitrust laws — add up to a huge increase in economic inequality, for which they refuse to take responsibility.
Given a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, many Democrats are now mainly concerned to keep themselves on the right side of this abyss, prating of “innovation” and other meaningless solutions while they shuttle between legislative office and positions in the world of high finance and technology. In place of the working class, the highly educated “professional class” has become their new constituency, leaving most ordinary people in the situation mentioned in point #1 above, and deeply disillusioned with the party that once seemed to be on their side.
Frank’s portrait is one-sided, and should be taken with a large helping of salt. He focuses on the single issue of economic inequality and ignores others, like environmental concerns and civil rights, in which the Democratic track record might be considered a little better. And there are complexities and drawbacks to rule by “the people” — the role of labor unions, for example — that he does not attempt to go into, or that even seem to enter his mind. But as he relentlessly points out the hypocrisy, greed, and plain cruelty that pervade the policies and actions of a number of high-level Democrats, he makes the case that upholding the rights and dignity of the working class is no longer the party’s concern for many.
Such contempt for the very basis of our life on earth — for work that actually produces useful things — is a sickness of our time that threatens all of us. Instead of looking for ways to create a sound basis in physical reality for cultural life, the brightest among us are obsessed with intangible but wildly profitable fields like law and finance, or with creating companies like Uber or Airbnb that parasitically feed off of the work and resources of others. Virtue itself has become a commodity for them, a unit of exchange detatched from any basis in reality, as they reap the profits from disastrous do-good ideas like microfinance and congratulate themselves at incestuous celebrity functions.
Frank is good at complaining and ranting, not so good at offering solutions — other than to look back nostalgically to the golden age of FDR, and to suggest that the people take back their party. But even if that were possible, and even if we could figure out who “the people” are in this fractured age, what good would it do? Wouldn’t there be yet another moment of seeming triumph, followed by another creeping tide of corruption? The people are no nobler than the aristocracy, only different — and also, strangely, the same.
For a battle of extremes will always result, as this one has, in both sides mysteriously coming to resemble each other. The only way out of such a dualistic prison is not for one side to conquer the other, but for a third way to emerge — not a blending of both sides, not a compromise, not even a consensus, but a dynamic heart-center that can sense the true nature of both polarities, hold them in balance, and guide them to their rightful place. We all have both red and blue blood in our veins, after all.
And so, I think my ten-year-old self had something of the right idea. I’ll try to remain independent, while seeking for what of lasting worth might be discerned regardless of partisan polemics. I’ve started to get more involved in local Democratic groups, because at the moment this still seems like the best way to connect with people who stand for the values I support. But I will try not to judge individuals by the labels they wear, and attempt to see through political smokescreens to the real issues. I think many of us have been jolted into awareness that we need to do this, and Frank’s book, biased as it is in its own way, can be a help.
This is part 4 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land
13 thoughts on “Trying to Understand, Part 4: Listen, Liberal”
While it sounds like he has some points, I’m unhappy when I hear anybody expressing ambivalence about political parties right now. Whatever the complexities, the way forward is clear to me, and that’s voting for democrats in 2018.
The main point I think is that just the label “Democrat” is not a guarantee of anything any more. One has to look at the person’s actions and policies, not just their party label and rhetoric. I hope you have good candidates where you are — I think there are some good Dems here too.
For me, as a social progressive, I definitely see differences in the parties that effect every aspect of life as much as economic policies. When you say, “prating of “innovation” and other meaningless solutions, ” I think of the Democrat stance on pro-choice, civil rights, gay marriage, environmental rights, healthcare for all and so many other issues that are far from meaningless that the define the differences in Democrats and Republicans. You may be a working class man or woman, but if your employer can fire you for being gay, or lessen your health care choices because they don’t want to pay for certain medications or procedures economic growth will not matter to you if you are out of a job or sick or working class or middle class or upper class. In the ways these policies affect all of us, we ARE one.
On the other hand, though I agree with you and this author that labels should not define us, I still think the two major political parties offer very different aspects of what it means to hold American values, especially in light of the current Administration.
I agree the issues you mention deserve more attention than they get in this book — as I said, it’s very one-sided. When Frank talks about “innovation” it’s not referring to those advances in human rights, but to a vague faith in technological advancement for its own sake, without regard to the actual effects on our lives.
I definitely wish democrats would do more and that politicians in general were less self-interested. For instance, I’d like to see term limits, all health care decisions members of congress make should apply to themselves, and it would be nice of congress was in session a little more often. I’d love it if this author had suggested some ways to curb congressional self-interest. However, I’m with Jeanne. Right now, republican voters have clearly signaled that they’re alright with racism and sexism as long as they believe they’ll come out ok and I want no part of that. As someone living in California, I’m also very happy that my congress members (all democrats) can be counted on to vote the way I’d like them to on all the big issues that have come up recently. I’d love to not have such an antagonistic, two-party system, but I can’t see myself voting not along party lines in the near future. Thanks for reading some books that present the other side of things and sharing your thoughtful reviews!
Thanks Katie, I still feel very ignorant but I’m learning a lot!
I am a political Junkie. I would love this book.
From the sounds of it while I would agree with a fair number of Frank’s points I would also disagree with many of them. I am more on the moderate end of the Democratic spectrum then he his.
With that, I like to read things that I do not wholly agree with.
I would love to hear what you think of this book, Brian – you are so much more knowledgeable than I am.
My sense is that he has some good points, but does not try to look at the whole picture.
I am very ignorant of US politics in Britain we have a (more or less) two-party system too while in Belgium it’s a system of coalitions. I’m still very naive about Belgian politics so I can’t really compare them, though very broadly speaking the two-party system is more efficient in getting legislation enacted, the coalition system is more inclusive and less confrontational. No surprises there! Both have problems with corruption…
One difference between US politics and European politics, I think anyway, seems to be the amount of money involved. It seems very difficult to enter politics in America without an awful lot of money behind you. In Europe money is still a requirement and there is still a problem with some sectors of the population being poorly represented in parliaments and with people feeling that the political class is alienated from the general population. I mean, I’m not saying that we don’t have political parties in hock to powerful donors and interests, because we do. But the scale seems to be slightly different. Am I wrong about that? And the sheer size of the US is just mind-boggling in terms of governance.
Money is definitely key in American politics; Dark Money was another book I read with a lot of information about that. I do think it’s on a larger scale than in Europe. There are individual people who are able to pour billions into controlling the vote, plus the powerful lobbying organizations that seem always to be on the side of the wealthy and of big industries. If this is not plutocracy, what is?
Indeed. The whole voter suppression thing is really horrifying.
Not that we in Europe have any reason to be smug, alas.
I’m a lot like you—I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about politics as I should be and I often feel like I’m voting for the lesser of two evils. Until this latest election, I never felt particularly passionate about a candidate (and, honestly, this time it was more that I was passionately against a candidate. These viewpoints are pretty eye-opening, but I think you’re probably right that it’s a bit short-sighted. And solutions are always nice with a book like this.
I don’t think there are easy solutions, or maybe even any difficult solutions, but just complaining is definitely not going to get us anywhere.