Goodbye New Deal, hello Wall Street

How the Democrats ditched the working class

March 15, 2016
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event at the Grady Cole Center in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, March 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event at the Grady Cole Center in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, March 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? Thomas Frank, Macmillan  

One of the notable features of this carnival of bunkum we agree to call the US presidential election, with its insurgent candidates and controversial rhetoric, is how none of it should come as a surprise. Not, that is, for anyone who has been reading American political analyst Thomas Frank, whose new book Listen, Liberal is released in the UK today. For the Frank-literate, the sight of working-class Americans falling at the feet of a vulgar billionaire who poses as a champion of the little guy is just what we’ve come to expect.

Frank’s books on the populist Right—in particular What’s the Matter With Kansas? (amusingly renamed What’s the Matter With America? in the UK) and Pity the Billionaire—presage the rise of Donald Trump, and offer a map of recent American history, making sense of the goon’s rodeo of US politics.   

A subplot in Frank’s work has been a burning critique of what he calls “my side”: American liberals and the Democratic Party (now facing their own populist challenge from the Bernie Sanders campaign). The sell-out of liberalism to corporate interests and ideas formed the night sky behind The Baffler, a permanently pissed-off magazine Frank founded in 1988 (and relaunched in 2009), which took delight in goring the management jargon and bourgeois uplift of the 1990s.  

This theme of trahison des libéraux takes centre stage in his new book, Listen, Liberal: or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? As the title suggests, Frank’s come looking for a fight. With his trademark humour and scholarship, Frank traces how the party that set up the closest thing America has ever had to a welfare state—President Roosevelt’s "New Deal" of the 1930s—ditched the workers and became the organ of “well-educated professionals”; doctors, lawyers, academics, bankers and the tech industry.

A switch of this magnitude has required an ideological tea-cosy, and liberals have one in “meritocracy.” This breed of liberal—what Frank calls the “liberal class”—is so convinced of having earned its place at the top through its own excellence, (rather than, say, luck or privilege), that it believes through hard work and a positive attitude, the "proles" too can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The thinking seems to be: "We did it, so why can't they? And if they can’t, well, maybe they’re just not good enough." As the old hymn has it: “The rich man in his castle / the poor man at his gate / God made them high and lowly / and ordered their estate.” Not surprisingly, talk like this has a magical loosening effect on the purse-strings of campaign donors from Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

This effective surrender by the Left, Frank writes, has meant “the erasure of economic egalitarianism from American politics,” and just when inequality is at its apex.

From the earliest pages, we find the author is playing for high stakes: “Inequality is about you working harder than ever before while others work barely at all and yet are prospered by the market god with every imaginable blessing. […] Inequality is not an ‘issue,’ as that term is generally used; it is the eternal conflict of management and labour, owner and worker, rich and poor—only with one side pinned to the ground and the other leisurely pounding away at its adversary’s face.”

The echo here of Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face, forever” is even more fitting than it might first appear, as Frank later quotes the "newspeak" common in the technology sector. While they speak about “innovation incubators” and an inevitable, glorious future, workers scurry around Amazon.com warehouses being electronically tracked to “maximise efficiency.”

And the people who held the door open for this dystopian present are the supposed keepers of the flame of liberalism, the Democratic Party.

Frank tries to be fair to the “New Democrat” Bill Clinton, whose Democratic Leadership Council schemed (with success) to move the party of Roosevelt to the Right, but the sheer weight of the historical record makes this impossible. Despite talking about inequality and “the one per cent” when running for office in 1992, President Clinton swiftly got to work on reforming welfare out of existence and enacting the most heartless criminal justice bill in modern US history. Meanwhile, Clinton signed the North-American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which helped US companies move their jobs to Mexico, and repealed the Glass-Steagal Banking Act of 1933 which had put a firewall between retail and commercial banking, (see: the world financial crash of 2007/8).

Frank is as generous as can be expected (and strives to avoid concluding that there may be a connection between nasty people and nasty policies), but the evidence in this chunk of the book confirms Bill Clinton as the grave-digger of the New Deal.

Frank’s take on Barack Obama is more in the vein of “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed,” though in some ways it is even more damning. He argues Obama had a historic opportunity when elected president in 2008 to change course, break up the banks and use the power of government to improve the lives of working people. Instead, he appointed the architects of George W Bush’s bailout of Wall Street and hangovers from the Clinton team to “foam the runway for the banks,” before pursuing a NAFTA-style free trade deal and cementing the insurance companies’ role in America’s healthcare “system.” As Frank writes, this was not because of the limitations of office or a conspiring Republican Party, but a pure lack of will on the part of the Obama team to do any differently; they simply had a different agenda to New Dealers like himself.

Foreign policy is mentioned hardly at all, and is not Frank’s subject. But Obama’s quest for a “grand bargain” with Russia and Iran (his “reset” and “deal” respectively) would certainly fit Frank's theory, in its preferring consensus among ruling elites to state intervention, and in effect leaving the people of Syria to the tender mercies of a "free market" of violence. (Frank does mention that Obama’s defence secretary Ash Carter, when searching for a word to condemn Russia’s bombing of Syria last October, tellingly settled on “unprofessional”.)

There follows a hilarious and devastating chapter on what the principles Hillary Clinton is always offering to balance with pragmatism actually are, and on her belief that internet access and microloans are the ultimate in internationalist feminism. (Frank mentions the claim that discussion on Twitter somehow caused the 2009 protests in Iran and dismisses it, but could have added that secretary of state Clinton’s main response was to launch an “online embassy”—which was blocked by the Iranian government after just 12 hours.)

As with Frank’s other books, Listen, Liberal is a piece of contemporary history that tells us not only what the powerful are up to, but how the trick is being pulled, with an admirable deployment of irony, and a new, more poignant tone in certain passages, in particular those on the 1994 labour strikes in Decatur, Illinois. But while his previous books are essentially about devils being devils, this one shows how the angels have fallen further than they realise.

Now read: The US primaries, a political failure