The Party of What People?
This will be my last entry of 2016. Next year will begin, barring some unexpected act of fate, with the ascension to the presidency of Donald Trump, as dim-witted, incurious, crass, and crooked human being that has ever held public office in America. Trump has spent the hours since the election staffing his White House with the greatest collection of grifters and cranks this side of Tammany Hall, and trolling the country he is meant to be leading on Twitter. The primary occupation of politically-minded Americans these days has been predicting whether Trump will be world-historically bad — Adolf Hitler with nuclear weapons, essentially — or merely a repeat of some of our worst former presidents, an aggressive huckster on the scale of George W. Bush. Whatever flavor of bad he will be, he will certainly be bad, which brings us to a crucial question: what are the Democrats, America’s current party of opposition, going to do about it?
Thomas Frank, one of our most insightful and fearless political critics for the last three decades, thinks he has an answer, and that answer is, not a fucking lot. Years ago, Frank identified the Democrats — then led by Bill Clinton, whose approach has come to define the party in its current incarnation — as “an opposition that has ceased to oppose”. He wrote his current book, Listen, Liberal, or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, when it still seemed pretty obvious that Clinton’s wife Hillary was the heir apparent to his throne, and that she would be taking her place as President despite her egregious flaws as a candidate. Although history has made fools of those of us who thought she had the race in the bag (a failure increasingly attributable, despite postmortem conspiracy theories about Russian cyber-war, to the fact that she ran a campaign far more incompetent than anyone suspected), there is no reason to doubt his overall conclusion: that the Democratic Party, as currently constituted, long ago ceased to be an opposition party to the Republicans on many significant issues and has instead become merely the more socially acceptable face of neoliberalism, the ideology that teaches all issues have a market solution, all problems can be solved with the proper application of imperialist force, and all politics should flow from the minds of an elite professional class who truly know, by virtue of their education and expertise, what is best for everyone.
Frank lays out his argument with ruthless efficiency. His prose can be cutting, but he doesn’t need fancy language to present his case: he simply marshals quote after quote, document after document, statistic after statistic to illustrate the essential truth that the American people have not had a political party that fairly represents its interests for a good 40 years, and that the Democrats have not only failed to oppose the Republicans on many critical issues that have led directly to the impoverishment and immiseration of huge numbers of the citizens they are charged to govern, but have aided and abetted them and even led the charge towards neoliberalism themselves. It’s an argument familiar to anyone who’s been playing close attention since the 1990s, or even who listened to stump speeches by Bernie Sanders in the early days of the campaign: the Democrats have surrounded themselves with elite Ivy League professionals who govern by means of the spreadsheet and the push poll, ignoring the actual needs of their constituencies; they have become just as beholden or more so as the Republicans to a wealthy class of ultra-rich donors, to whose advantage they remake the law; they have become addicted to free trade and foreign oil, leading them down a disastrous path of hostile foreign policy; they have abandoned their traditional supporters among unions, rural voters, and the urban poor in favor of decorating the elite inner circles of power with ‘representative’ minorities; and they have turned ever further to the center right, hoping foolishly to capture the votes of Republican professionals in the suburbs while abandoning the working class to either turn to the G.O.P.’s cynical manipulations or stop voting altogether.
What is fascinating about Frank’s discussion of all this is its depth and thoroughness of historical detail. Abandoning the common but insufficient narrative that this all began with Reagan, he takes us back to the early 1970s, when cultural and economic upheavals led to a near civil war among the Democrats. He calls attention to such turning points as the McGovern Commission, Frederick Dutton’s Changing Sources of Power, and the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council, who produced leaders like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton whose primary goal was to rid the liberal party of any connection to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal — the greatest president America ever had and the greatest legacy he left it. Having won the culture wars, this breed of liberal discovered that it actually liked the comforts of vast wealth, and set about marrying its politics to a freewheeling big-tent social agenda that appeared to promote opportunity for gays, women, and minorities, while sponsoring legislation that choked the life out of those very groups unless they happened to be rich. The rise of the carceral state, the vast explosion of militarism into the civilian sphere, and the abandonment of the welfare state in favor of an austerity program drawn directly from management theory was the inevitable result of this transformation.
Listen, Liberal makes the airtight case that the Democratic leadership has pursued this center-right, pro-market position not because they have been forced to by the strength of the G.O.P., but because they want to — because these are the things they truly believe. He illustrates this principle again and again, most forcefully when he talks about how beloved outgoing President Barack Obama — raised now to sainthood by virtue of having been replaced by the Devil — wasted one opportunity after another: handed enormous political clout, a public mandate from justly outraged voters, and a widely hated Republican Party, he turned to the center again and again instead of handing out the kind of bold reform that was so desperately needed. The result was eight years of failures and compromises, the false sense of security that this was what everyone wanted, and, ultimately, loss after loss that crammed the House and Senate with right-wing ideologues and set the stage for a Trump victory. Frank didn’t get a chance to update the book to show what Obama and the rest of the party has done since their historic disintegration, but it’s hard to imagine he’d be very surprised.
Why is all this important? What does Frank hope to gain by illuminating the pathways of the past? As usual, it’s because what’s past is prologue. We are at a moment of importance on the American left whose importance cannot be overstated: the incoming Republican administration will at best be a disaster and at worst an apocalypse. The Democratic Party is in disarray, while record numbers of young people are attracted to socialism and a senator from Vermont who isn’t even really a Democrat has become the party’s standard-bearer of resistance to the G.O.P. Without question, what is needed now is unity and solidarity, and a determination to abandon the circular firing squad that usually characterizes progressive politics. But the question is, around what kind of program will this solidarity coalesce? Will it be around a truly left liberalism, a progressivism that represents the vast majority of Americans against the billionaire class that has robbed them blind for the last two decades unhindered? Or will it be around the liberalism of the past, against the billionaires’ co-conspirators, the party that lost an un-losable election, the party that Thomas Frank builds a case against as the one that killed the working class once and for all? Stay tuned We’ll find out.