With Sunday comes another article by Thomas Frank, and I was very interested to hear what he had to say. After all, he sounded semi-hopeful last week when it looked like the Kansas voters might finally have had too much and would through out Sam Brownback from office. Yet the incompetent ideologue managed to stay in office, beating the extremely moderate Democrat Paul Davis by just short of four percentage points. But really, what is there to say? Frank has said as much himself: there is no line in the sand; for much of the American middle class, there is no level of incompetence and the total disregard of the interests of the people that will hurt a politician with an R after his name. In most states, the poor are reliably Democratic. But that’s not true in Kansas; even there they pull the lever for the Republican. Because freedom or innocent babies or something.
Well, this week, Frank doesn’t have anything much to say about Kansas other than to talk about the robo-calls, The GOP’s Poisonous Double-Speak. He lists low turnout first as a reason for the bad election results. But his main interest is the fake-populism of the Republican Party. And I’ll admit, in a general sense, it has been a very big thing. After all, why was the Tea Party — those angry middle-class voters — so dedicated to the interests of the power elite? But I think the reason for this is just that conservative rage is strong and aimed at some diffuse “other.” So they were always going to find a conservative agenda to follow.
Frank’s conclusion is this:
But I’m afraid we may be in “Old Man Yells at Cloud” territory here. It’s true. Of the two parties, only the Democrats have any kind of claim to economic populism. But it is the Republicans who manage to actually use it as an electoral tool — even if they never come close to it in terms of policy. And it isn’t like the issue hasn’t been out there. Thomas Frank himself has been making this argument. This was more or less the argument he made in 2004 with What’s the Matter with Kansas? And it is exactly the argument he made in 2011 with Pity the Billionaire.
We can rack our brains and try to figure out how the Democrats could use economic populism to its advantage. But I think that is missing the point. It isn’t that the Democrats can’t figure out how to use economic populism. It is that they think they already own the brand of “economic populism” too much for the comfort of their billionaire funders. This always reminds me of a line from The Right Stuff, “Our Germans are better than their Germans.” That is pretty much the Democrats’ line, “Our billionaires are better than their billionaires.” But as far as I can tell, they are only better in that they are pro-choice and pro-gay. In terms of economics, they don’t really seem to be different. And that means economically speaking, the Democratic Party isn’t much different from the Republican Party.
Look: I’m not saying that the parties are the same. Clearly, the Democratic Party is the one we need to work on. But it does need to be worked on. We, the Democratic base, have to force the Democratic Party to take a hard left turn into the heart of economic populism. The Republicans’ fake-populism on economic issues will remain powerful as long as real economic populism is not offered by the Democratic Party.