Zombie Neoliberalism

Zombie Neoliberalism

Hillary Clinton campaigning in Orlando, Florida, September 21, 2016 (Barbara Kinney / Hillary for America)

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 parti...

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