A Frank and Occasionally Funny Analysis of Contemporary Politics


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Here’s a way to think about Thomas Frank’s dissection of the current political terrain, especially the identity of the Democratic Party: Imagine a 2×2 matrix with the political parties on the horizontal axis (Republican on the left, Democrat on the right) and income/wealth on the vertical axis.

The upper-left hand Republican quadrant would represent the 1%, that is those oligarchs who Bernie Saunders rails against and threatens with large tax increases. [You might draw the line through this column in a different place on the axis. In the last presidential contest, Republican Mitt Romney envisioned a national divide between the 53% makers and the 47% parasitic takers.]

The oligarchs include CEOs who make 200 times the wages as the average corporate worker, the hedge-fund managers who have seen their profits grow during stagnant economic times, and beneficiaries of inherited wealth. Most but not all are Republicans and more than a fair share contribute to Republican candidates and political action committees.

The lower half of this column includes the alleged base of the Republican party, average or below-average wage earners whose political actions have been more animated by social issues than by economic inequality. In What’s the Matter with Kansas, Frank demonstrated how Republican strategists used social issues to court heartland citizens and then failed to deliver on their promises to change the moral landscape of America. The 1% was not really interested in repealing Roe vs. Wade or enabling municipalities to display a crèche at Christmas time or upholding the Defense of Marriage Act. All of it was a smokescreen to win elections and to preserve minimally regulated capitalism. Putting a proposal on the prohibition of gay marriage on the ballot was a sure way to bring out oppositionists who would vote Republican.

The Trump revolution might be understood as the result of the discovery of this deception. Wealth didn’t trickle down as promised; trade treaties didn’t result in a proliferation of new jobs; gay marriage was approved in numerous state referendums. It became harder for women to get an abortion, but this was the result not of advocacy by the 1% but instead the result of state legislatures populated by men  from the religious right.

In the Democratic column on the right side of the matrix the division is between the upper 10% and the 90% below. According to Frank, this upper 10% is now the most important constituency in the Democratic party. It’s made up of an elite professional class, the winners in the meritocratic game in which going to the right schools and forging synergistic relationships with like-minded others in fields of education, public policy, medicine, and the law. To say nothing about having children who will have a considerable advantage in the meritocratic game and who will marry other professional strivers to form power couples. As the histories of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama illustrate, being born into humble circumstances is not an impediment for going to an Ivy League institution and spring boarding to success.

The members of the 10% in the Democrat column have been labeled in various ways. They are the “new knowledge workers” or “the symbolic analysts” or “the creative class.” These are the people who have passed through a rigorous credentialing process. These are the folks who are hailed as the innovators of society who will lead all of us to a better future by solving knotty economic and social problems and international challenges. Silicon Valley is the most famous locus for this demographic. These are the believers in education as the best way out of poverty and into upper middle class respectability and influence. This is the ideal preached to the 90%. So what that social mobility has become more rigid since 1990.

So in the top half of the matrix we have two different elites who eye one another suspiciously. The Republican elite think of the Democratic elite as virtuecrats, people who in no uncertain terms know what is best for others and try to impose their solutions on all. The Democratic elite is mostly concentrated on either coasts or in university towns in the interior and, thus, they are impervious to “fly over” country, to real Americans. To the Democrats, the Republican elites are unsophisticated types (even though, like the Rockefellers of old, they build libraries and art museums) who have made their money in the outmoded extraction industries and in obsolete shopping malls. They are the old model capitalists who the cyber revolution is certain to leave behind.

Despite these differences Frank sees that these two elites have one thing in common: they are unconcerned about the lower parts of the columns, that is, neglectful of the needs and concerns of the average American. Furthermore they are only marginally interested in engaging in the real political battles (rather than the sloganeering) that will produce the systemic changes that will address the problem of inequality, a problem that they pay only lip service to. In this sense, Frank confirms a truth that novelist and social critic Gore Vidal espoused: that we have only one political party in America.

It is the major goal of Frank’s book to document the history of the Democratic shift from its role as the representative of America’s blue collar, working-class citizens, the fabled middle class, to its role as the promoter and the defender of meritocratic privilege. While the Republicans courted yet ignored the average citizen, the Democratic Party abandoned the working class while occasionally evoking the memory of the Roosevelt New Deal. It now applauds start-ups like Uber that “disrupt” old ways of doing business. It imagines that the “gig economy” is what millennials want, even though the cadre of drivers have no health plans or long-term commitment from their distant employer. It is indifferent to the plight of old guard taxi drivers, almost always from the lower middle-class, whose livelihoods are threatened.

This is a process that began in the 1970s as the Democrats sought a new identity in the law and order years of the Nixon Administration. The turn to identity politics as well as toward a party of the “best and the brightest” meant that the long time labor union constituency of the party, alarmed by social disorder and a more diverse America, somewhat easily became “Reagan Democrats.” If labor was excluded from a party made up of minorities and university professors, where else could it go?

Bill Clinton comes in for a particularly withering attack from Frank. For his election and political survival, Clinton embraced many odious policies that had large support among Republican legislators. His support for NAFTA did not bring the promises for jobs on both sides of the borders. His termination of “welfare as we know it” broke a 50 year long commitment to the assistance of the vulnerable. His embrace of “three strikes and you’re out” crime legislation at a time when crime was diminishing resulted in a twenty year long period of mass incarceration, an approach that Clinton today believes was overzealous and counter-productive. His deregulation of the banks and his endorsement of “innovative” financial instruments paved the way for the economic collapse of 2008. Wall Street had little difficulty accepting this kind of Democrat in the White House. The prosperity of the 1990s, built principally on increases in Wall Street wealth, enabled Clinton apologists to paper over his betrayal. Furthermore, their support during the impeachment trials led by an over-reaching Republican morals police deflected attention away from his transgressions.

Obama receives slightly more generous treatment, but Frank still criticizes him for his allegiance to new Democratic orthodoxies and his foundational belief in the meritocracy. In his first presidential years he surrounded himself with Ivy Leaguers and political strategists who urged a cautious approach to the financial calamity. Given a golden opportunity to fundamentally alter a failed economic system, he punted. As Frank demonstrated in Pity the Poor Billionaire the financial industry, against all probability, emerged better rather than worse off after the catastrophe.

Like his immediate presidential predecessors Clinton and Bush, he indulged the Wall Street “masters of the universe” while at the same time imposed discipline and hardship on the victims of Wall Street malfeasance. Little was done to help under water homeowners to refinance their loans. Despite a pledge to stop the revolving door between government and Wall Street, some appointees kept the door spinning. Despite his desire to get money out of politics, he outraised Romney by a wide margin. Although he’s no friend of Sarah Palin, Frank asks the question that she posed, offered not in the spirit of derision but disappointment: “How’s that hopey, changey stuff working out?”

Obama’s failure to take bold action is only partly the result of Republican obstructionism to economic stimulus programs in infrastructure improvement or to the imposition of tougher banking laws. Or even to Obama’s unrealistic commitment to bi-partisan accord. A better explanation can be found in the Obama’s mindset which is in thrall to and blinded by an unquestioned faith in the wisdom of the crony- prone, tight-circled professional class.

One thing that the professional class can do well is to create and explain rules. Thus, the Affordable Care Act is a complex, gargantuan bill that keeps intact the power and of the insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers; it’s a bill that requires a battalion of lawyers to interpret. Thus, the Dodd-Frank bill designed to impose tighter regulations on the banking industry is intentionally complicated in part to protect vested interests.

As you might expect, there’s a warning about what we can expect from a Hillary Clinton presidency. Hillary, a forceful advisor to her husband, will give us Clinton 3.0. Deeply indebted to Wall Street campaign contributors, she will do little to diminish their power and influence, a point that her opponent keeps hammering away at. Nor can we expect anything concrete in the improvement of American working class lives, especially the lives of women who Clinton frequently celebrates. Clinton (and the Clinton Foundation) is interested in innovation on a global scale. Frank describes a recent conference at which a panel of self-congratulatory professional women honored the entrepreneurial achievements of women from different parts of the globe. There was not a single mention of the challenges of being a low-wage working class woman in America. Like other members of the Democratic consensus, she’s just not interested in reducing inequality.

Surprisingly, Frank not once mentions the name of Bernie Sanders whose critiques of the 1%, the idiocies of the Republican Party, and the open biases of the Democratic National Committee parallels his own. While Frank can rip Bill and Hillary, Sanders must tread lightly on the reputation of the Clintons; he somewhat cautiously asks her to provide the transcript of her speech to the directors at Goldman Sachs and doesn’t press the matter.

Perhaps he doesn’t identify Sanders because he fears that were Bernie to be elected, the intrepid journalist would be disappointed once again.



About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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