Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal (2016)
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