Thomas Frank is back with a great article at Salon, The Matter With Kansas Now: The Tea Party, the 1 Percent and Delusional Democrats. It is the angriest I have ever seen from Frank. He argues that the pseudo-populism of the Republican base did not come about in a vacuum. The base really is angry at the elites of the country, but while the Republicans appealed to that in the most disingenuous way, the Democrats did nothing.
The only word I disagree with is “nothing.” The Democrats actively pushed the social conservatives away by turning into a socially liberal but economically conservative party. As a result, the social conservatives had no choice but to go with the Republicans. They could either get social conservatism with economic elitism from the Republicans, or social liberalism with economic elitism from the Democrats. At the same time, economic liberals have been effectively demoralized. They will vote for the Democratic Party, but they are none too excited about it.
Frank sums up what happened pretty well:
The problem is that being wrong hasn’t changed them. After the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, we needed up with yet another New Democrat who on economic issues is only distinguished from the Republicans in being slightly less eager to enact more neoliberal policies. It almost makes me think there was a conspiracy. The power elite took control of both parties so that we would have no real choice on economic issues. Then they made the Republicans so crazy on social issues that liberals dare not go to a third party for fear that it would cause a Republican to win. In this conspiracy theory, Ralph Nader would be key.
Of course, we need no conspiracy. It is simply that money is extremely important in politics. Politicians have to appeal to those who have money. They do it by giving them the rich policies that they want. Frank’s solution is for the Democratic Party to make a populist turn on economic issues. But the fundamentals of politics push against that. We see that right now in the jockeying for the Democratic presidential nomination. The reason that everyone thinks Clinton is unbeatable is only partly because of her poll numbers. The bigger issue is that she will be a fundraising juggernaut. And I don’t think anyone expects that as president she will be anything much different from her husband or Obama. Remember: Obama got lots of little donations, but he’s governed entirely in the interests of his big donors.
I expect for this to continue on for the rest of my life. As it is, in the mainstream press “liberalism” has been redefined to mean what I call “social liberalism.” But there is no doubt that the Democratic Party is better on economic issues than the Republican Party. The Republicans want to makes things far worse while the Democrats want to limit how fast things get far worse. But Thomas Frank is right: even on the level of electoral politics, it is likely that the Democrats will lose. There are too many people who are angry and if the Democrats don’t appeal to that on a rational level, the Republicans will on an irrational level.