Yesterday, Thomas Frank wrote his weekly column, All These Effing Geniuses: Ezra Klein, Expert-Driven Journalism, and the Phony Washington Consensus. This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote another “Thomas Frank is an idiot” article, Have Nerds Betrayed the Left? And then Jonathan Bernstein went after him, Democratic Party Wasn’t Always Liberal. And finally, Ed Kilgore spent some time punching the hippie, No, Tom Frank, NAFTA Did Not Create the Christian Right. After writing my generally positive take on Frank’s article, The Dangers of Experts in Politics, I feel the need to defend him.
What really struck me about each criticism was that the writers focused on details while just assuming that his conclusion was silly. Kilgore goes so far as to assume things that Frank did not write. He didn’t even mention NAFTA. Having read Frank for many years, it seems he is talking about the entirety of the New Democratic economic platform. Regardless, Frank’s overall argument is that after the economic conservatism of the 1980s and early 1990s, the people were ready for economic liberalism. And they didn’t get it.
A commenter on my article, Colin Keesee, noted:
I would add that if both parties act the same on economic issues, it is rational for white men in rural America to vote Republican.
Exactly! On social issues, the two parties really do provide a choice. And social conservatism is more popular. Balance that with the extreme conservative economic policies of the Republicans and the slightly less extreme conservative economic policies of the Democrats and there really is no choice. The economy is going to suck for the poor regardless of the party, so they might as well go along with the party that flatters their cultural prejudices.
I don’t think Frank is arguing that all a Democratic politician has to do is embrace economic populism and he will be elected. The entire Democratic brand has been soiled for a large part of the electorate. This is a nationwide problem. But if the cultural conservatives noticed that the Democratic Party was actually pushing policy that helped them economically, the brand would change. I’m with Frank that the current choice for such voters is social and economic conservatism (Republicans) and social liberalism and economic conservatism (Democrats). By voting Republican, they at least get half of what they want; voting Democratic, they get nothing.
Now I probably disagree with Frank in that I think the social liberalism gets in the way of reaching out to these voters. Any single Democrat running in a red district would need to repudiate his social liberalism. Rhetorically, he would need to start sounding like Rick Santorum, who has always had very good economic rhetoric (although there is no doubt if he were ever elected, he’d be economically conservative). But Frank is looking at the broader issue — the long view. The problem with the Democrats is that they spend too much time making compromises for the sake of the next election, while the Republicans succeed in pushing the whole field of debate to the right. And what that means is that the Republicans win even when they lose.
It bothers me that Chait, Bernstein, and Kilgore are so closed to the broader argument. Frank is concerned that the Democratic Party is so conservative on economic policy. The question is why Chait, Bernstein, and Kilgore are not.
 I hate that people call Thomas Frank “Tom.” I’ve always taken it as a kind of boast, “I know him so I call him by his nickname.” But in the article, Kilgore notes that he has only met Frank once. So it isn’t even that. Regardless, I find it confusing. I know who “Thomas Frank” is immediately. When people use “Tom Frank,” it confuses me and takes a moment for me to figure out who they are talking about. I wish they would stop doing that.