In Defense of Thomas Frank

Thomas FrankYesterday, 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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Thomas Frank

  1. Frank’s been pretty clear that he thinks the Democratic focus on social issues, instead of economic ones, has hurt them. There’s a passage in “Kansas” where he sympathizes utterly with those who find pop culture insulting to their standards. In “The Conquest Of Cool” (his least well-structured book) he seems to be suggesting that the counterculture, when it became adopted as the norm, abandoned its original rebelliousness against genuinely harmful social repression and instead became a way of branding oneself as Hipper Than The Squares. Essentially, he’s saying that the sell-out (or buyout) of sixties radicalism is something we’re paying for to this day. Failed, stalled movements can still inspire. Movements which have been turned into something neutered cannot.

    In his younger writing I believe Frank was trying to determine blame for this; was the counterculture inherently self-centered, inherently hostile to poor square whites, or did it become that way once capitalism picked up on what a vibrant marketing tool “rebellion” could be? I suspect he’s come down on the latter side, although I think one could make a case for the former. The Beats and Thompson were skilled, passionate writers, yet their dream always seemed to be establishing miniature Edens where the hip could live in groovy harmony, less than changing society as a whole. Almost as if it wasn’t worth changing. “If you have to ask, you’ll never know” was something of a counterculture mantra. In a way, they gave birth to uber-rich, uber-liberal communities like Boulder, or the self-satisfaction of the TED Talks crowd.

    Anyway, if people are going after Frank’s columns, that’s a good sign. It means people are reading them. He wrote some killer stuff for the WSJ for a brief stretch and nobody said “boo,” because non-subscribers couldn’t read most of the columns and WSJ subscribers ignored them. Whatever one thinks of Frank (I’m not always sure I agree with him, but I admire him enormously) it’s a good thing when he’s read.

    • I haven’t read The Conquest Of Cool. It sounds interesting, so I might pick it up. Having grown up with punk, I have always had the idea that the bands who were really doing it were not about the style. The style was this thing that grew up around it. And afterward, no one can remember what was real about it. I was interested to see on the Minutemen Wikipedia page, there is no mention of them being a punk band. Unbelievable.

      What bugs me about some of the criticisms of Frank is that they claim he has this one idea that he’s wedded to: the Democrats are losing because they aren’t offering the people economic populism. Of course, all the people who are complaining are people who have always embraced the New Democratic movement. Adolph Reed wrote a great article in Harper’s earlier this year. His argument was that if liberals want to improve the country, we have to stop settling for “not as bad as the Republicans.” But of course, Chait, Bernstein, and Kilgore are pragmatists of the type that will win every battle and lose the war. The conservative movement hasn’t won the political debate by winning elections. And the point of Frank’s article — which is not mentioned in any of the criticisms — is that you can’t depend upon what the experts tell you if you want to make change. The experts would have said the colonies could never separate from England. I’m all for realism. But it is hard to knock Frank when the Democratic Party’s push to the right has not succeeded, even if it did manage to elect two moderate presidents with Ds after their names.

      I like Thompson, but I’ve always felt he was a pretender. He’s similar to but not as bad as Tom Wolfe. I feel that Jim Hogshire and I have done actual emersion journalism. And we’ve paid the price for it. There’s nothing wrong with standing outside it. But I think both those guys wanted credit for being on the inside, and they never were. But I enjoy the work of both.

      • “Conquest Of Cool” is Frank’s most frustrating book (to me) because he’s trying to put his finger or something very ephemeral and elusive. It’s a lot easier to pin down the rotten behavior of Grover Norquist (well, it probably isn’t, but Frank makes it look easy.)

        Dammit, Hogshire. Brings up a bad memory. I lent my copy of “You Are Going To Prison” (picked up at a used bookstore for $0.50) to a friend who didn’t deserve it, and now I’ll never get that book back. It’s totally out of print. That is a great book!

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