Thursday, May 5, 2016

Thomas Frank: "What's the matter with the DC Dems?"

Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? was an extremely influential book on me when I read it in the mid-2000s. I got the book right after the re-election of George W. Bush in a time when I was teaching in a little town of 20,000 in NW Indiana, and was bewildered at why the country was deciding to continue on such an obviously wrong path, both economically and internationally. I found myself constantly nodding my head and relating to the examples Frank gave about small-town Americans with declining standards of living increasingly deciding to vote for a GOP that was clearly destructive for their own best interests.

Frank’s main hypothesis in What’s the Matter with Kansas? was that because Democrats had de-emphasized progressive, pro-labor economic policies, it led small-town America to avoid voting for them based on those reasons, and turn toward the GOP because of their beliefs in The Flag, Christianity, guns, and other social issues. His newest book, Listen, Liberal, goes after the Democratic Party in the Age of Obama for refusing to step up on economic issues, and not doing enough to stop the damage that many middle and working-class people continue to suffer from today.

Frank expounded on these thoughts in a column this week for The Guardian. He criticized the “self-satisfied, complacent” Democratic Party, which he feels only wants to coast to November as the “sensible alternative” to Donald Trump’s foolishness, instead of actually doing something to solve these deep-seated problems. He also thinks that many in party leadership have been separated from the tough reality the average American faces in 2016.
…The party’s leadership is largely drawn from a satisfied cohort that has done quite well in the aftermath of the Great Recession. They’ve got a good thing going. Convinced that the country’s ongoing demographic shifts will bring Democratic victory for years to come, they seem to believe the party’s candidates need do nothing differently to harvest future electoral bumper crops. The seeds are already planted. All that is required is patience.

Hillary Clinton is more or less openly offering herself as the complacency candidate. The least inspiring frontrunner in many years, she is a dynastic heir who stands to receive the Democratic nomination largely because it’s her turn – the logic that made Bob Dole the GOP leader in 1996. Clinton has scolded her rival [Bernie Sanders] for wanting to break up Wall Street banks since such a policy, by itself, would not also end racism and sexism. (In point of fact, the black middle class was disproportionately damaged by the detonation of the housing bubble.) Clinton’s unofficial slogan, “America never stopped being great” — supposedly a searing riposte to Trump’s “make America great again” – sounds like the kind of thing you’d see inscribed in a country club logo. In her words, we can hear the call of contentment, a would-be catchphrase for a generation of satisfied people.
The “demographics is destiny” smugness is something I remember Mike Tate and other Dem operatives having in Wisconsin circa 2012 when discussing Scott Walker, encouraging the Dem base to wait it out and not get too uptight. You see how well THAT’S worked out, especially in a still overwhelmingly white and blue-collar state like Fitzwalkerstan. But then again, Tate hasn't hurt for work or paychecks, even after being shit-canned as DNC Chair, has he?

Sure, de-emphasizing economic issues in favor of openness and tolerance on social issues and symbolic identity politics might work well among well-educated, upwardly-mobile people in big cities and other progressive-thinking areas. In isolation, this is largely a good electoral strategy that likely will win most presidential elections, and likely deliver a sizable bloc of non-white male voters for decades. But it also doesn’t impress a lot of folks in small-town America that have largely done the right thing, and are still struggling to get by.

When you de-emphasize real economic problems, and try to play footsie with corporate America and big money instead of making them pay for the damage they have caused, then don’t be surprised when those same small-towners turn to demagogues who use “divide and conquer” tactics. That comes from politicians (usually Republican) who try to deflect the dissatisfaction that arises from the hard questions of “why does this economy screw people?,” and if working-class people don’t see enough of a difference between the parties in their economic lives, they’re going to vote based on other, non-economic reasons, which tends to favor Republicans. Given the way our system is set up, a Republican advantage in small towns and suburbs means an advantage in the House of Representatives and especially in state legislatures.

Frank admits that Trump is such an absurd nominee that Dems will likely win in November no matter what happens to their nominee. But he also says that instead of using that as an opportunity to push the country in the more progressive direction that it needs to (and one that would be backed by a large number of Americans), today’s DNC/Clinton leadership won’t do that, which is a major tell.
[Trump’s nomination] in turn, frees the Democratic leadership to do whatever they want, to cast themselves in any role they choose. They do not need to move to “the center” this time. They do not need to come up with some ingenious way to get Wall Street off the hook. They do not need to beat up on working people’s organizations.

That they seem to want to do all these things anyway tells us everything we need to know about who they really are: a party of the high-achieving professional class that is always looking for a way to dismiss the economic concerns of ordinary people.
And this is exactly why Bernie Sanders must stay in this Democratic primary and compete hard until he is officially eliminated from consideration. Because everything isn’t fine in for most people in this country, and if people like Bernie aren’t calling attention to that reality, and speak out against the crippling inequality and favoritism that taking the “representative” out of our democracy, then who will? Not only does Sanders give a vital message that needs to be heard, I firmly believe he offers a winning message for Dems in all communities, big and small, and the best way they can start to gain back all that has been lost in the House and at the state level in the last 6 years. And if that message isn’t sent, then don’t be surprised if certain Dem-leaning blue-collar areas vote for the Donald in November just to “show those people” and “shake things up.”

Which is where Trump comes in – especially in a vacuum of a Hillary Clinton campaign of “Stay the course, things are great in America!” I think we know some of the Donald’s themes - racism, misogyny, and other complaints about “elites.” But also watch for Trump to use NAFTA and related trade issues to differentiate himself, as well as complain about how easily politicians can be bought, in order to convince everyday people that he understands their concerns (he doesn’t, but in the face of relative indifference1 to those concerns in Clinton/DNC World, it won't matter).

Even if the educated and urbane would more than counteract the “stick it to them smarty-pantses” at the statewide level, leading to an easy Clinton win in the Electoral College (which is the likely outcome), there’s a second tier of races that Dems have consistently failed to win at. And they are in danger of blowing it again, if they have a presidential nominee and party officials that avoid dealing with economic reality, and talking about bread and butter issues.


  1. This is a very good piece, and one that I hope Wisconsin Democrats take to heart as we head into this critical election cycle.

    One of my biggest frustrations is that I see a lot of the younger Democratic Party members in this state taking the course that you're criticizing...basically getting behind Hillary and hoping everything else pans out. I'm talking about the Mike Tate, consultant class type Democrats.

    Organizing and recruiting assembly candidates is a distant after thought to these younger Democrats, and that critical work is being left to the older generation still active in the party.

    I hate to say it...but I really don't care who our next president is (yes, I'll vote for Hillary if she's the nominee), because in the grand scheme of things, it means nothing for us here in Wisconsin. We're still saddled with a Republican governor, Republican assembly & senate, and a Republican bought state supreme court. None of those things will change if the DPW and progressives across Wisconsin fail to get their crap together in short order.

    1. I'm with you. Other than getting Russ back into the Senate, and getting Nelson into the House in GB, the state party should be caring about state races.

      We know the DNC/Hillary crowd doesn't care about the states, and I don't care too much about them. And it's downticket where the real change will/won't occur after November