This was originally published on March 28, 2016
I looked forward to reading Thomas Frank’s LISTEN, LIBERAL -or- What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? I finished reading it over the weekend, and it’s as good as I thought it would be.
It is an explanation of how the Democratic Party ceased to be an advocate for the interests of working people and organized labor, and instead became the party of the credentialed professional class, as exemplified by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Thomas Frank is best known for his book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? which is about how a once-radical state became a stronghold of the right wing. In this book, he explains how the party of the New Deal became the party of bank bailouts and pro-corporate international trade deals.
The change began with the split between college-educated idealists and blue collar union workers in the late 1960s. Young radicals thought that the New Deal was yesterday’s news and that labor leaders such as the AFL-CIO’s George Meany were obstacles to peace in Vietnam and justice for minorities and women.
The young radicals triumphed in 1972 when they nominated George McGovern for President, under convention rules written so as to guarantee representation for minorities, women and youth, but not for union members.
When McGovern went down in humiliating defeat, the party leaders rewrote the rules so as to prevent another McGovern from arising again. They did not, however, return to their New Deal roots. Instead they started to bid against the Republicans for support of the business class.
These two factions of the Democratic Party – social liberals and the business conservatives – eventually came together.
Their common ground was belief that the world should be run by an elite of smart people. Their liberalism consisted of belief that there should be equal opportunity to enter this class based on educational credentials and professional achievement.
The idea was not to raise the material standard of living poor people and the working class in general, as in New Deal days. It was to give everybody, through access to education, an equal chance to be part of the elite, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or social or economic class.
Then, if you still couldn’t succeed, it would be your own fault. Maybe you didn’t study hard enough in the fifth grade.
This is not to say that Democrats became the same as Republicans.
Republican leaders wanted to be governed by an elite of tough, successful competitors. Democratic leaders want to be governed by an elite of enlightened thinkers.
Republican leaders embrace economic inequality because they believe the laws of the free market are moral values. Democratic leaders accept economic inequality because they believe the laws of the free market are scientific laws. Republicans despise losers. Democrats sympathize with losers, but do not think it is feasible to help them.
Republicans govern in the interests of the top 1 percent of income earners. Democrats, as Frank wrote, govern in the interests of the top 10 percent.