What’s the matter with the Democrats?

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.

Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank

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.  [1]


President Jimmy Carter’s administration anticipated Ronald Reagan by deregulating major industries and cutting upper bracket tax rates, but it was Bill Clinton who provided the first clear example of the Democratic turn away from the interests of working people.

He ran for office by snubbing Jesse Jackson, presiding at a public execution and promising that “the era of big government is over.”  Once in office, he balanced the budget, secured passage of NAFTA, deregulated the banking industry, signed tough anti-crime laws and “ended welfare as we know it.”

listen,liberal.9781627795395Clinton is remembered fondly because of his charm, because the dot.com boom durinmg his administration didn’t crash under George W. Bush took office, and because of the crazy extremes to which the Newt Gingrich Republicans went to bring him down.

Nevertheless, he and Gingrich worked together on the landmark legislation mentioned above.  His strategy was “triangulation” –  trying to make himself seem independent and impartial between both parties.  In reality, he governed more in the interests of those who voted against him than voted for him.

After the failures of the George W. Bush administration, a majority of Americans looked to Barack Obama for hope and change.  What they got was more of the same – bank bailouts, refusal to prosecute financial fraud, refusal to enforce the anti-trust laws.  Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, was vetted by the insurance and drug industries, not by labor union leaders or patients’ rights advocates.

The things Obama refused to do would have been both politically popular and good policy.  His supporters say he didn’t attempt them because he “couldn’t”. They refuse to consider that he never wanted to do them.

The big difference between the Obama and Clinton administrations is Obama’s strong ties with Silicon Valley executives such as Google’s Eric Schmidt.  His speeches echo their rhetoric of innovation and change.

As Frank noted, innovation and change can be either good or bad, depending on the circumstances and nature of the changes.  Many current innovations, such as the Über taxi system, are aimed not at a public benefit, but at evading taxes, labor laws or safety and insurance regulations.

He devoted a chapter to Massachusetts as a case study of a state public policy devoted to university-based start-ups, which is the current economic panacea. [2] His conclusion was that these policies have benefited the professional class, but not the majority of working people.  Massachusetts is noted for extreme economic inequality.  Gov. Deval Patrick did not do anything or advocate anything that would change this.

Hillary Clinton follows the path of the two most recent Democratic presidents.  She is the favorite candidate of Wall Street.  Like her predecessors, she uses high-minded rhetoric that never threatens the power or wealth of the elite.

I highly recommend Listen, Liberal.  Thomas Frank is a witty and entertaining writer, a solid reporter and an independent thinker.  He cuts through a lot of fog.  I haven’t really done justice to his book in this brief post.


Listen, Liberal on Thought Matters | HuffPost Books.

Bill Clinton’s odious presidency: Thomas Frank on the real history of the ’90s on Salon.

Nor a Lender Be: Hillary Clinton, liberal virtue and the cult of the microloan in Harpers magazine.

The Blue State Model: How the Democrats Created a “Liberalism of the Rich” on TomDispatch [added 3/29/2016]

Withering on the Vine in The Baffler.


Author Thomas Frank Talks Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and His New Book, ‘Listen, Liberal’ for Moyers and Company.

Q&A: Thomas Frank on the Democrats’ Disgrace, Abandoning Working-Class Americans for the National Book Review.

Thomas Frank on How Democrats Went From Being the ‘Party of the People’ to the Party of the Rich Elites for In These Times.

Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump.  Here’s why by Thomas Frank for the Guardian.

Why must the Trump alternative be self-satisfied, complacent Democrats? by Thomas Frank for The Guardian.

Why Hillary Clinton’s 90s nostalgia is so dangerous by Thomas Frank for The Guardian.

How Bill, Hillary and the Democratic Leadership Council gutted progressivism by Paul Rosenberg for Salon.

What the Democratic Party will look like when Silicon Valley takes over by Greg Ferenstein for Medium.


 [1]  All these statements are over-generalizations with many exceptions, but I think they are true on average.

[2]  Start-ups, entrepreneurialism, innovation and other currently fashionable buzzwords represent good things, or things that could be good.  What I say, and what I take Thomas Frank to say, is these words don’t represent answers to the larger problem, which is the increasing and excessive concentration of wealth and power.

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One Response to “What’s the matter with the Democrats?”

  1. The wisdom of the cheeseheads? « Unqualified Offerings Says:

    […] with people who disagree with Trump.  I could (and probably should) read Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal, but even that seems to really be a book about liberals, not a book about people who aren’t […]


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