Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
by Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books, 2016, 320 pp.
It was in Indiana that Donald Trump may have won the presidency. In February 2016 employees at an Indianapolis Carrier plant—a massive building in an industrial park where members of United Steelworkers Local 1999 had made furnaces for decades—became icons of deindustrialization when a video of those workers being told that they were all going to lose their jobs spread across the internet.
Trump seized on the story with a flair worthy of P.T. Barnum and about as much sincerity, proclaiming confidently that if he were president, no more factories would close down and move overseas. It’s not that the workers at Carrier and the neighboring Rexnord plant (also due to close) believed him entirely, several of them told me later—but enough of them thought, “Well, hell, at least he’s talking to us.”
Thomas Frank has been one of the Cassandras crying for the Democratic Party to pay attention to people like the members of Local 1999 for decades. Today, the narrative around Trump’s victory seems to vindicate everything that Frank has written in books from One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (2000) to What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004) to The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (2008) to Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (2012) to Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? The shadow of Frank hovers over political journalism of the liberal persuasion, and the story he’s told has shaped the way the Trump moment is perceived (even though Democrats have rarely taken his advice). Frank diagnosed the market mania on the right and the various narratives used to sell it, while calling repeatedly for the Democratic Party to return to the politics of the New Deal, to the economic liberalism that built the American middle class. Ignoring the economic needs of working people, Frank has written time and again, would lead to disaster.
In 2016 disaster arrived. Parts of the working class bit back, repaying decades of neglect with a vote for Trump; a larger swath of the working class stayed home. That combination of anger and resignation made a president out of the greatest billionaire huckster yet produced by market populism, who promptly surrounded himself with a wrecking crew so vile it shocked onlookers into forgetting the demolition teams assembled by prior Republican administrations.
At a moment where the collapse of the global economy has led some into the arms of right-wing nationalists like Trump and others to sprint leftward, the work of Thomas Frank has a particular resonance. He is the last of the true New Deal liberals to survive in an age where the welfare state is steadily being dismantled, sometimes by the very people who claim lineage from those who built it. He has been telling us the story of that dismantling, hoping that we will realize, before it is too late, what it is we will have lost. But in lamenting what’s being taken away, it is necessary to remain clear-eyed about the failings of the past, the cracks in the political project that allowed neoliberalism to take root.
Raised and educated in Kansas, Frank was briefly drawn to conservatism before planting himself firmly on the liberal end of the spectrum. He was the founding editor, in 1988, of the Baffler magazine (the current version of which, I should disclose, I regularly contribute to), which took up the cause of the left at the height of There-Is-No-Alternative, with a literary flair worthy of Frank’s hero and curmudgeon extraordinaire of American letters, H.L. Mencken. He received a PhD in history from the University of Chicago in 1994, emerging with a dissertation that provided the basis for his first book. The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (1997) laid the intellectual foundation for much of his later work, documenting how the 1960s rebellion leached into the capitalist marketing of the 1980s and ’90s.
It is that style, honed at the Baffler and in his earliest book—defiantly proclaiming itself unhip but with a decidedly hip literary flair—that made Frank famous. He is a master of a kind of subtle irony that he combines with humor and genuine political beliefs. Frank mocks because he cares, deeply, about his country.
Most of his books have come just at the end of the moments they describe—perhaps fitting, as Frank is, above all, a historian. One Market Under God arrived alongside the popping of the first dot-com bubble; Wrecking Crew just as Democrats took back power and the economy imploded; Pity the Billionaire as the Tea Party lost steam and Occupy seized the stage; and Listen, Liberal in the year of Trump’s victory. Frank has a knack for naming things, giving phenomena titles that will be circulated far beyond those who’ve read his work. He bestows nicknames and abbreviations that keep his prose conversational while supplying little digs and jabs leading up to the moment he plunges in the knife.
Taken together, these works form a chronicle of the There-Is-No-Alternative years—of capitalism gone wild, bubbles inflating and popping, the takeover of government by capital, the capitulation of labor and liberals within the Democratic Party, and the narratives that were spun to sell all of it to the American people. Here is neoliberalism’s triumph, its collapse, and its zombie existence now as an ideology and political project discredited but not displaced.
In One Market Under God, Frank tracks the high-flying 1990s, the decade that brought us “personal branding,” privatization on a mass scale, the shredding of the already flimsy social safety net, increasing mass incarceration, alongside breathless paeans to the “freedom” brought to us by free markets. “Market populism” is Frank’s term for the argument—put forth by a bipartisan stable of capitalists—that markets expressed the democratic will of the people. It justified a world where workers’ rights were mostly a thing of the past and workers themselves unnecessary—after all, when workers got laid off, the market went up!
Market populism deflated with the bursting of the Clinton-age bubbles, though Wall Street and Silicon Valley continued to adhere to its precepts. In the 2000s, a different justification for capitalist principles arose alongside the War on Terror, where George W. Bush’s declaration that “they hate our freedoms” was coupled with crackdowns on actual freedoms, from bans on gay marriage and attacks on abortion rights to the rise of a surveillance state and a travel ban less hyped than Trump’s but no less real. Frank’s attempt to understand all this became his most famous tome: What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Let’s get this out of the way: the work Thomas Frank is most famous for, the one responsible for hundreds of bad summaries and hot takes about “social issues” and “class,” is his worst book. What’s the Matter With Kansas? is sold as a tale of why Americans vote against their best interests (meaning: against Democrats), but in fact it is a story of one-party rule in Kansas, where two halves of the GOP struggle over “social issues” that often boil down to whether one side is too loud and not genteel enough (think of Republican mandarins complaining about Trump).
I must confess that I have spent a lot of time mentally arguing with Kansas; it combines important bits of history with moments that literally make me shout at the page. (One can say many things about Frank but he is never, ever boring.) I won’t spend too much time here picking it apart because that has been done by a range of commentators, from political scientists questioning his assessment of working-class voting to cultural critics who reject his distinction between social and economic issues. (There is little that is more material than an unwanted pregnancy, as anyone who’s ever been pregnant can tell you.) Racism—another issue that blurs the divide between cultural and economic—is mostly absent from Frank’s account of the culture wars.
The omission of a racial analysis from Kansas is all the more striking when one has read The Wrecking Crew, since its best parts deal with the right’s affection for apartheid South Africa and the brutal conditions of foreign guest workers in Saipan. Class, in these two locations, is deeply racialized, demonstrating how the dehumanizing language of racism justifies ever more brutal exploitation.
Frank’s discussion of race is part of the book’s larger inquiry into how Americans got “more business in government, and less government in business.” As Trump assembled his cabinet, I found myself repeatedly referring to them as the Wrecking Crew.For those who were surprised when Trump nominated a fast-food CEO to run the Labor Department and an oil CEO to run State, or who wonder why public workers faced so much ire after the collapse of 2008, a re-read of this book in particular might be useful. The story of the right in power, after all, is the story of its destroying parts of the state, and then when said state doesn’t work as expected, demanding more power to break it further, often by handing it over to well-heeled friends.
Pity the Billionaire picks up this account after the wrecking crew’s biggest demolition job of all—when the right managed to drive protesters into the streets by calling for more of the deregulation that had caused the 2008 crash. It is a history, in other words, of the Tea Party, which Frank thoroughly mocks while also doing it the (somewhat rare) courtesy of examining its intellectual framework rather than the racist id expressed on signs that liberals loved to point to. Having read his previous books, one might assume that Frank could have predicted the emergence of the Tea Party, a raucous group demanding more capitalism, but he seems as shocked as anyone that New Deal liberalism—the object of his devotion—did not rise up victorious after the financial crisis. Frank often appears to predict something in one place and then when it happens, to be surprised that the entirely predictable thing occurred. Is he pretending to be gullible to bring readers along, or is he genuinely shocked by the formations he has been astutely tracking?
Listen, Liberal completes the other half of the story Frank has been telling us for years, turning his acerbic pen on the Democratic Party. If one hadn’t read One Market Under God one might assume that Frank finally figured out that the Democrats bear some responsibility for the situation the United States is in. Yet in One Market, and then in each subsequent book, there is a section, usually at the end, where he acknowledges that the Democrats—the “party of the people” of the subtitle—have in fact been no such thing for a while now. Listen, Liberal turns those sections into a book of their own, taking Democrats to task with the same kind of eye for theatrical detail as Frank has used for Republicans, and infusing an extra zing into his prose as he takes apart a long-awaited target—one that his typical reader might be more inclined to defend. Readers of Frank enjoyed the lurid descriptions of the farthest of the far right (or “wingers” as he likes to call them) in prior volumes, and chuckled over the depiction of GOP voters as not bright enough to know their own interests. In this one, though, he goes for the throat of the Democratic Party, clearly assuming, as so many did, that Hillary Clinton would be both nominee and eventual president.
Yet sometime between the release of the hardcover and the paperback edition of Listen, Liberal, America elected Donald Trump, a man who seems to roll up all of the worst parts of the conservatism that Frank loves to sharpen his claws on into one administration bent on nothing but more graft and more wreckage.
Frank, in some ways, deserves credit for seeing elements of Trumpism coming, but he also misdiagnosed some of its roots. The flaw in many of Frank’s zingers is a tendency to oversimplify, to reduce things to binaries—culture versus economics, business versus government—when the reality is more complex. His oeuvre tells the story of how the politics of class became another kind of identity politics; in telling that story, he inadvertently shows how so many people miss the fact that class is a relation of power bound up in one’s income, yes, but also race and gender, sexuality, education, even geographic location. To “talk about class,” as so many have exhorted since the 2016 election, is not simply to talk about the workers at Carrier, but to understand the material conditions that determine one’s position and power in society. Sometimes Thomas Frank seems to get that; other times he doesn’t.
The culture war that produced Trump wasn’t a battle on elite college campuses or in the pages of white papers read inside the Beltway. Instead it was a war that was fundamentally economic at its core, its cultural anxieties wrapped around the reality of decline. The culture that the workers at Carrier and Rexnord mourn is one of long days but predictable schedules, grueling work but relatively high wages and benefits, the occasional strike that bound them closer together and left them with battle stories for later.
What should have been shocking about Trump, in other words, was less that he used a combination of racism, brutish attacks on his opponents, and braggadocio about his business exploits to vault to the top of a heap of Republican nominees: it was that he combined it with at least some attention to the economic concerns of workers at Carrier.
This was, looking back over the past few decades, both shocking and inevitable.
For someone who demands that Democrats return to the questions of class that once supposedly drove the party, Frank has a fraught relationship with the radical left. Perhaps it’s to be expected of someone who cut his political teeth in the decades when the idea of socialism was all but dead. His books are peppered with denigrations of communists past that feel particularly dated in a post–Cold War era where many of today’s Bernie Sanders supporters and new Democratic Socialists of America members scarcely remember the USSR. He often draws equivalencies between left and right, positioning himself, like any good New Dealer, as the compromise keeping the commies at bay—the only reasonable position between two wildly irrational poles. This leads, at times, to a curiously apolitical reading of politics, one that strikes an above-the-fray pose that ignores the realities of struggle.
Frank is sharper when he examines the Democratic establishment. Listen, Liberal is a biting diagnosis of the cult of smartness that has become liberalism’s fatal flaw. Given his own weakness for pretending to float above partisan conflict, the book is a self-critique as much as anything. In previous books he glanced at the failures of liberalism, only to return to pointing out how very bad the right is. When he notes today that “Nothing is more characteristic of the liberal class than its members’ sense of their own elevated goodness,” this is an unsubtle rebuke to his own earlier assumptions.
Criticizing the fetish for smartness within the liberal class (the term that he uses for what others have called the “professional-managerial class”) puts Frank in familiar territory. His skewering of tech-fetishists from the first dot-com era turns into a skillful reading of Obama’s turn toward Silicon Valley (and the fact that so many former Obama staffers have wound up there). The failure of the “knowledge economy” has been a subject of Frank’s since way back. There is, he notes, a difference of degree, not kind, between the Republican obsession with entrepreneurs and business and the “friendly and caring Democratic one, which promises to patch us up with job training and student loans.”
Since Trump’s win, Democratic strategists have doubled down on the idea that victory lies with Frank’s “well-graduated” professional class, the “Panera Breads” or the suburban voters of Chuck Schumer and Ed Rendell’s famed predictions that Democrats would make up any losses with blue-collar voters who defected to Trump by gaining ground in affluent suburbs. The most obvious problem with this strategy is that it does not approach a majority: only a third of the country has a bachelor’s degree, and only 12 percent an advanced degree beyond that. The other, and more significant, problem is that this assumption encourages a belief in meritocracy that is fundamentally anti-egalitarian, fostering contempt for those who haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps—and Republicans already give us far too much of that.
Liberalism’s romance with meritocracy has also fostered an obsession with complexity for its own sake—a love of “wonky” solutions to problems that are somehow the only realistic way to do anything, even though they require a graduate degree in public policy just to comprehend. Politics by experts gives us a politics that only experts can understand. Complexity allows people to make things slightly better while mostly preserving the status quo and appearing to have Done Something Smart.
In Frank’s description of Hillary Clinton we see where all this leads: a feeling of goodness that replaces politics. This isn’t entirely fair, of course—for the millions of Clinton voters (and there were, we should remember, some 3 million more of them than Trump voters), one can assume that at least as many of them were motivated by her actual stated policy goals as Trump voters were by promises of jobs and a wall. Yet Clinton came up short in the key states that lost her the Electoral College as much because poor and working people stayed home than because of any sizable flip of the mythical “White Working Class,” those bitter non-degree-havers of the coastal media’s imagination, to Trump.
Feeling good about voting for Clinton because she was less crass than Trump—the campaign message that the Clinton campaign seemed to settle on—was not enough to inspire a winning majority at the polls. Feelings, Frank would agree, are no substitute for politics.
What is left of liberalism these days, then? Surveying the wreckage of the Democratic Party, one is tempted to answer: not much. On the other hand, the 2016 election (and the 2017 elections in the United Kingdom and France) show us the rise of a current presumed dead for decades. In the wake of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the United States has seen the awakening of socialist politics, breathing life into the kind of class talk that Frank has yearned for his entire career. It is important, then, that we take note of the limitations of longing for a vanished past, that we salvage the lessons from recent history that Frank offers in order to move forward.
Frank’s books presume that a return to the New Deal is the best we can hope for. His frequent invocations of FDR demonstrate the problems with Frank’s take on “culture.” Many New Deal programs, after all, excluded workers who were not white men, and while the best parts of the New Deal have resisted right-wing attempts to take them down, nostalgia for its peak is similar to that which motivates right-wing populism. It is the left’s version of “Make America Great Again.”
The echoes of Kansian arguments have returned to a left grappling with the best way to respond to Trump; some have forthrightly said that pandering to presumably cultural-reactionary Trump voters is necessary, that Democrats should discard “identity liberalism,” in Mark Lilla’s words. In Kansas, Frank wrote, “If basic economic issues are removed from the table . . . only the social issues remain to distinguish the parties.” But this is also true in reverse: when Trump ran to the left on trade, denouncing deals that Hillary Clinton had backed, few people were able to successfully explain why Trump’s racism and sexism made him, still, a bad deal for working people.
Frank demonstrates both liberalism’s promise and its limitations—which are also the limitations of Bernie Sanders and those who, in trying to defend the left against its more disingenuous critics, wind up casting the New Deal–state as the apotheosis of all possible politics rather than as one temporary phase in the class war.
For it is class war that we are in, whether we like it or not, and we will not win it with smartness or with better billionaires. It is a power struggle in which the right will aim to divide and conquer, to mobilize racism and sexism to maintain a hierarchy, and the center will attempt to smooth the roughest edges in order to hold onto its own power or, what’s worse, because it genuinely believes that there is still No Alternative.
“Liberalism,” Frank notes in The Wrecking Crew, “arose out of a long-ago compromise between left-wing social movements and business interests.” In most of his books there is a brief acknowledgment of this kind of struggle—nods to what Kansas refers to as “decades of movement building, of bloody fights between strikers and state militias, of agitating, advocating, and thankless organizing.” We need that kind of fight once again, if we are to hope for things to get better.
John Feltner of Rexnord knew; he joined his union comrades on the picket line even as he was preparing to lose his own factory job. Feltner told me about his time at “union school,” held on the grounds of the great labor leader and five-time Socialist presidential candidate’s home, and how compared to Debs’s day, neither political party spoke to him.
We need to ensure that our politics are not just a welfare-state version of Make America Great Again, a kinder fetishizing of the industrial working class that leaves so-called “social issues” out of the picture. For that hope, we need to turn to the social movements of recent years, to the growth of the Movement for Black Lives and the promise of the Women’s March and particularly the Women’s Strike, to the activists sitting in and disrupting town halls to save healthcare and even improve it, as well as the burgeoning membership of socialist organizations and the rise of Chokwe Antar Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi. The groundwork is being laid, but as Frank notes, no benevolent leader is going to bring us the change we need.
That is going to be up to all of us.
Sarah Jaffe is an editorial board member at Dissent, co-host of its Belabored podcast, and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Nation Books, 2016).