Thomas Frank Is Too Nice to the Democrats

Listen, Liberal - Thomas FrankI just got Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank’s new book. I have only read about a quarter of it and I don’t intend for this to be a review. It is, well, a Thomas Frank book. He’s such a fine writer and polemicist. The way he builds an argument is thrilling. It’s easy to get taken away in the same way that you are by a Martin Luther King Jr speech. But there is, I think a fundamental problem with his argument: he still blames the economic conservatism of this country primarily on the Republicans.

Don’t get me wrong, mostly the Republican are the direct cause. But the issue is kind of like when Derek Bentley told Christopher Craig, “Let him have it!” In that case, Craig pulled the trigger, but the court (incorrectly in my opinion), found Bentley guilty of murder and hanged him. The Democrats have been Derek Bentley. Throughout most of my life, the Democrats have moved to the right on economic issues. This has pushed the entire political playing field to the right. And this is not surprising. The DLC and similarly minded conservative Democrats wanted to do just that. It wasn’t about winning elections, it was about changing policy.

But the conservative turn of the Democrats started long before the DLC and Bill Clinton. It was not Reagan who started the deregulation trend in this country; it was Jimmy Carter. Republicans like to paint him as an ultra-liberal, but that is based upon nothing but the Iranian hostage crisis. Of course, today, Carter is extremely liberal. It just goes to show you what happens when the liberal party in a two-party country starts lifting policy from the conservatives. I don’t blame Carter; I think he was and is an honorable and decent man. But he was the start of our big right turn.

And think about that. The Democratic Party turned to the right because of two southern Democratic presidents. So by the time we had a chance to elect a president after an economic crisis unlike any in my lifetime, the “liberal” northern president can’t even think outside of the box created by those earlier southerners. Remember how people talked about how “liberal” Gore was? I remember when he ran in 1988 and he was far too conservative for any Democrats outside the south. Today: he’s a liberal hero.

I think that a kind of con has been done to liberals in this country. You see it most clearly on MSNBC (the small part of it that is still liberal). Liberalism becomes redefined as a subset of its former self: social liberalism. I think this was meant to just take economics out of the question. We would all just meet in that great Thomas Friedman center because for a certain class of people, it isn’t a question of opinion, but of Truth™. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, the Republicans felt the need for their own economic turf. So they moved further to the right (today into a fantasy land). So now the center is considered liberal, and someone who would have been called just a Democrat in 1965 chooses to call himself a socialist today. It’s a bad situation. I don’t think that Obama is as conservative as he is because he’s reasoned himself there; I think he’s that conservative because it doesn’t even occur to him that any more liberal position is possible. (I think showing that something else is possible is the greatest favor that that hippy socialist Sanders has done for the country and the party and, hopefully, Hillary Clinton.)

I suspect that Thomas Frank would agree with everything that I just said. But what I don’t think he fully comprehends is that the Democrats really didn’t give the Republicans any choice. There was never going to be a Kumbaya moment where the Republicans met with the Democrats in the middle. That’s not the way that politics works. Good lord, a third of this country is still trying to litigate the Civil War!

Of course, Thomas Frank knows who he’s writing for: liberals. And I’m not sure that most of us are ready to admit just how culpable we’ve been for the mess that this country has become on economic issues. They hanged Derek Bentley. They didn’t hang Christopher Craig, who was released from prison in 1991 and was still alive as recently as 2006.

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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.

14 thoughts on “Thomas Frank Is Too Nice to the Democrats

  1. I think this is where we fundamentally disagree. And it is the reason I keep pointing to what the congressional districts are doing since they are much more reflective of where we are as a country then not. Especially when those people who answer the phone surveys claim they are all for liberal polices…then vote against those policies come election time.

    And as a Red State liberal who is not looking forward to getting back into the political realm (I won’t have an excuse after this month since classes will be over), I really find this kind of scolding from Thomas Frank annoying. His own home state keeps electing horrible Republicans and yet all he can do is say how awful the Democrats are. The voters see that and think “well if the liberals think their own people are awful, I guess they are.”

    I don’t appreciate being told I am the problem with why the country sucks even though I do the hard work of trying to convince reluctant voters to first register, then sign up for early voting, then nag them about turning in their ballot then get yelled at because a Republican screwed up the polling locations. And doing so while being restrained from being too partisan about it because of the rules of my job.

    So exactly why should I or ANY possible Democrat put ourselves through a campaign if the reward is to be told we are the reason the country is terrible? The Democratic Party has a hard enough time recruiting good candidates to try to stem the tide of Republicans. Adding someone like Thomas Frank who has never run for office but certainly thinks he knows why we Democratic office seekers and holders suck makes it just that much harder.

    I don’t know if it is more than completely obvious but I am pretty annoyed at this point so I am going to go read the exit polls of NY and go to class.

    • After three books about how terrible the Republicans are, Frank writes a book about the hard right turn of the Democratic Party he is not allowed? And he isn’t talking about Democrats as a whole. He’s talking about how the DLC took over the Democratic Party. Are you seriously saying that unless he stands for elected office, he can’t make the case for his own position? That makes no sense whatsoever.

      Regardless, his biggest gripe is NAFTA and the fact that Clinton got Bush’s trade bill passed by working with the Republicans — more of whom voted for it in the Senate than Democrats did. But I understand and appreciate that you see party politics in a different way. It’s much more practical for you. That’s fine. But there is a feedback between the parties, and the Republicans have managed to do really well by not rushing toward the Democrats every chance they get. Maybe that’s because the nation has just gotten more and more conservative. But I’ve never seen anything that indicates that to be true.

      • I look at who gets elected to Congress. I look at the messaging that works and how it is crafted. Major political persons such as my friend Ruben Gallego can run on a very liberal policy platform because his district is so blue it looks like an ocean from space.

        Kyrsten Sinema can’t. She has to straddle the line (she does it too much as does Ann Kirkpatrick but I know why they do.) They do focus groups and polling to figure out what actually gets people to the voting booth. While I agree there needs to be a lot more standing up to the Republicans since they are a bunch of bullies, the fact is that we don’t have the ability right now to truly do so.

        I had a conversation with one of the money people after my loss and he said that the numbers he gets to see shows that we are never going to get to where we as Democrats want to be unless we go so toxically negative on the Republicans we will lose our own base. Our base is all about “be friends with the other side or we will punish you.” So we are stuck either way. I have no idea if Thomas Frank actually sees those polls but it made sense to me based on conversations held with Democratic voters.

        As for the running for office part…back in 2003 Elizabeth Warren went on TV and complained that Hillary Clinton voted for the bankruptcy bill Hillary had originally convinced Bill Clinton to veto. Warren rejected Clinton’s argument that it had provisions that made it barely palatable because to Warren at the time she didn’t understand that being office means making choices that churn your stomach but you do anyway. Frank strikes me as the same. He can have his opinion and certainly does and will sell many books. But he doesn’t understand the way that Warren now does that the legislative process is full of these choices you have to make. She hasn’t said anything similar since she was elected in her own right.

        So when Bill Clinton worked with the Republicans to pass legislation he hated or didn’t like very much, he was doing his job which is to govern the nation that kept sending him Republicans he had to work with.

        • I will leave this to you and James to work out. Let me know what the consensus is and I will join it.

          Listen, Liberal really is the follow up to What’s the Matter With Kansas? In that book, he said, “Why are you people voting for these Republicans?!” And in this one, he’s saying, “Why are you people voting for these Democrats?!” But a better question is, “Why aren’t you people even voting?!” But that question is only as good as, “Why doesn’t everyone love math?!”

            • Why people don’t like math? I actually know: bad teachers. Why they don’t vote? I think people like us are too hard on non-voters. The truth is that most people just don’t find it that relevant. And they are busy. It’s kind of the same thing I say to Sanders supporters: I wish Sanders had more support among Democrats than Clinton does; but he doesn’t; so we move on and improve things as best we can. I personally have had good success whining people into voting. And as you may know, whining is my super power.

              As for Molly Ivins: well, young lady, I was reading her in the 1980s! But I never made an obsession about it. She was extremely funny.

                • Thomas Frank is funny. But I will admit that this book is not particularly so. And his form of humor is wry. The first paragraph of this quote is hilarious and the second paragraph is profound.

                  • @Frank We have different senses of humor I guess. I need a bit more obvious in mine.

                    @James but that is the problem-that story is the sole story. There wasn’t any real thought behind it. Now I would do a lot differently but at the time I was a bored 24 year old who got mad.

                • Now I actually prefer long scolds to short ones! I grow quickly tired of Chris Hedges’s weekly doom-n-gloom columns, for example, but I devoured his last book. It’s simply a matter of personal preference; I like arguments which take longer to build, some prefer writing which gets to the point quicker.

                  That’s probably why you don’t think your experiences are worth your time to write more about (you give the nutshell version quite well) and I do. Selfishly, as I’d enjoy reading that book! But if you wouldn’t enjoy writing it, you’re right to avoid doing so. Writing should be fun.

                  And Ivins was a national treasure.

    • I understand your feeling offended as someone who’s worked in the trenches, but I wish you’d stop accusing Thomas Frank of making cheap shots to sell books. I’m familiar with most of his career and that’s just not what he’s about. He keeps getting fired from his columnist jobs because he won’t bend to editorial wishes. Would you criticize Noam Chomsky for insisting on being so liberal, or Naomi Klein for calling out environmental organizations that partner with polluters to save green space while staying silent on carbon emissions? They’re writers, not policymakers.

      Also, like both that Frank and this site’s, I look at NAFTA as a perfect example of what’s been wrong with Democratic national leadership. The public didn’t want it. The Clinton administration worked harder on passing that bill than anything else in eight years. It’s not because a far-right surge compelled them to. That may have been the case with welfare reform and the crime bills (I don’t know what was in Bill’s head, so I won’t speculate) but no wave of public opinion forced Bill to pimp NAFTA against his will. He though it was good for the party and good for the direction the country should take.

      I appreciate that all politics is truly local. A district that polls liberal on Social Security or mandatory minimum sentencing might vote for the Republican who promises to kill an environmental regulation hurting that region’s largest employer. And fighting against that must be exhausting/demoralizing. Divide and conquer is the right wing strategy and it’s hugely effective. I have high admiration for our Democratic governor despite the compromises he’s been forced to make

      However I don’t think the party’s national leadership was forced to make compromises. At least not by voters. They may have been forced to do so to equal the fundraising playing field.

      But still, those of us trying to hold the party to its highest principles need the right to criticize the likes of Larry Summers or Rahm Emanuel without being accused of sabotage. And Thomas Frank is no hack trying to sell books. He’s a gifted enough writer, he could easily be a David Brooks or Thomas Friedman if he didn’t care passionately about liberalism.

      • I used to agree James. I used to be the type of person who ate up these kinds of books. Then I started campaigning for Howard Dean and found out what the cost is in a Red State. i did read What’s the Matter With Kansas and it didn’t match what I was hearing from voters why they weren’t supporting the Democratic Party or our candidates.

        So as I told Frank-this is where we disagree. I base it on my own experience trying to organize in a red state and looking at what kind of Congress is being elected about six to eight years after a redistricting. It takes a while for the numbers to shift thanks to some of the gerrymandering that is done. That is one reason why the Republicans in Texas were pulling that redistricting stunt mid census cycle back in 2003. I also look at the history (that you two lived since I was too young to pay attention) and I saw the numbers of liberal lions in the Senate and House that were losing in various elections.

        Thomas Frank is a good writer. He is not a bad person but I don’t think he is correct in his conclusions and I don’t think this sort of thing is particularly helpful. This is my erroneous opinion obviously but it is mine.

        • You’re more than fair. I misinterpreted your comment about Frank selling books for you accusing him of being a hack; instead, as you write, what you meant was lots of people like myself (or you before you campaigned) enjoy books like his. You just want those of us who haven’t campaigned to understand more of the challenges Democrats face.

          I hate to be pushy, but this is a perspective I think you could really elaborate on in a book or series of essays (or one long essay.) How did you go from supporting Dean to running on your own? Describing your process might help others. There are potentially people in solid-red districts who are highly respected by their neighbors, understand their concerns, and have a chance of taking Republican seats who’ve never thought it’s worth trying and might be motivated/educated by your example.

          Although books/long essays like that are a nightmare to write, so I’m not criticizing at all if that’s not up your alley. Just that you have a pretty unique perspective (successful small-scale campaigns in a red state) which I haven’t seen a lot of before.

          And thanks again for criticizing TF’s conclusions, not his intentions. Most of us who disagree about strategy and policy on the left are on the same side!

          • My story is pretty boring “the election will be over…what should I do now? WHAT DO YOU MEAN JD HAYWORTH WROTE THE BILL THAT DOESN’T LET THE GOVERNMENT NEGOTIATE DRUG PRICES?! ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRH!” *runs off to file to run for congress.*

            That was it. He ticked me off and I looked at the numbers and thought I could show the district was winnable. I got 103,363 votes-the most votes any Dem had gotten until that time.

            Two years later Harry Mitchell showed the world I was right and I cried with relief more over his winning then my own. For me it was simply joy. I was okay with not winning in ’04 since I hate flying and it would have required twice weekly flights. I don’t know how to describe it any better.

            And that is why the story of my running for office isn’t very long.

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