I 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.