Thomas Frank on why Obama failed

Thomas Frank was recently interviewed by one John Siman, whom I’m not familiar with.  This part of the interview stands out for me.

TCF: …… I had met Barack Obama. He was a professor at the University of Chicago, and I’d been a student there.  And he was super smart.  Anyhow, I met him and was really impressed by him. All the liberals in Hyde Park — that’s the neighborhood we lived in — loved him, and I was one of them, and I loved him too.

Barack Obama

And I was so happy when he got elected.  Anyhow, I knew one thing he would do for sure, and that is he would end the reign of cronyism and incompetence that marked the Bush administration and before them the Reagan administration.  These were administrations that actively promoted incompetent people.  And I knew Obama wouldn’t do that, and I knew Obama would bring in the smartest people, and he’d get the best economists.

Remember, when he got elected we were in the pit of the crisis — we were at this terrible moment — and here comes exactly the right man to solve the problem.  He did exactly what I just described:  He brought in [pause] Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, considered the greatest economist of his generation — and, you know, go down the list: He had Nobel Prize winners, he had people who’d won genius grants, he had The Best and the Brightest.

And they didn’t really deal with the problem.  They let the Wall Street perpetrators off the hook — in a catastrophic way, I would argue.  They come up with a health care system that was half-baked.

Anyhow, the question becomes — after watching the great disappointments of the Obama years — the question becomes: Why did government-by-expert fail?

JS: So how did this happen? Why?

TCF: The answer is understanding experts not as individual geniuses but as members of a class.  This is the great missing link in all of our talk about expertise.  Experts aren’t just experts: They are members of a class.  And they act like a class.  They have loyalty to one another; they have a disdain for others, people who aren’t like them, who they perceive as being lower than them, and there’s this whole hierarchy of status that they are at the pinnacle of.  And once you understand this, then everything falls into place!

So why did they let the Wall Street bankers off the hook?  Because these people were them.  These people are their peers.

Why did they refuse to do what obviously needed to be done with the health care system? Because they didn’t want to do that to their friends in Big Pharma.

Why didn’t Obama get tough with Google and Facebook?  They obviously have this kind of scary monopoly power that we haven’t seen in a long time.  Instead, he brought them into the White House, he identified with them.  Again, it’s the same thing.

Once you understand this, you say: Wait a minute — so the Democratic Party is a vehicle of this particular social class!  It all makes sense.  And all of a sudden all of these screw-ups make sense.  And, you know, all of their rhetoric makes sense.

And the way they treat working class people makes sense.  And they way they treat so many other demographic groups makes sense — all of the old-time elements of the Democratic Party: unions, minorities, et cetera.  They all get to ride in back.  It’s the professionals — you know, the professional class — that sits up front and has its hands on the steering wheel.

Source: A Conversation with Thomas Frank

It’s true, as Thomas Frank has said and written many times, that the educated professional class does not identify with wage-earners who are struggling to survive, and that this has distorted American politics.

He probably over-estimates the power of the professional class compared to the raw power of money in spreading propaganda, financing campaigns and providing lucrative retirement jobs for compliant officials and politicians.  Experts may have a lot of influence, but those who pay the experts’ salaries have the real power.

The continuing crumbling of American society has not yet affected what Thomas Frank variously calls the Liberal Class, the Meritocratic Class or the Creative Class, at least not very much, but over time more and more of them will find themselves in the same boat as blue-collar wage-earners.  That will bring the possibility of radical change—maybe for the better, maybe not.

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