Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People

Thomas Frank

Book cover

This is an entertaining, persuasive, polemical book. I ran across it because I read an excerpt from it in Harper’s, about Hillary Clinton, that I thought was really good.

I think it’s valuable reading for anyone who considers him- or herself a big-D Democrat, particularly in light of the presidential primary that has (nearly) played out between Clinton and Sanders. Frank’s message is that the modern Democratic party has forsaken its roots as a party of the working class, and become a class-based party focused on the professional class. To be sure, Frank recognizes–and has written multiple books about–the role of the far-right Republican party in preventing economic policies friendly to the 99% from being passed, but in this book he focuses on the problems with the Democratic party itself. He gives a pretty convincing historical description of the party’s shift from 1972 to the present–the repeated declarations that “the New Deal is dead,” the party’s move away from unions, support for welfare reform, support for NAFTA, closeness with Wall Street and financial deregulation, etc. Bill Clinton is really the bete noir of this book, but both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton come in for the same criticism. Frank sees “solidarity” and “meritocracy” as principles that ultimately conflict with each other, and describes a Democratic party that has fully embraced meritocracy at the expense of solidarity.

So, in Frank’s view, the party of the working class has deserted it, leaving it with no party advocating for its interests. Frank talks almost not at all about either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump–I don’t really blame him, since at press time it probably wasn’t at all clear what would happen–but it’s easy to read the book in light of this year’s primaries, and to see that a whirlwind is being reaped on both sides, for good and for ill.

It’s been interesting for me to read this book alongside Hacker and Pierson’s “American Amnesia.” The latter touches on many of the same topics, but is written from an academic rather than a polemical perspective (though, H&P make their views clear as well). Both are very necessary–the Thomas Franks and Matt Taibbis of the world to get people engaged, the Hackers and Piersons of the world to bring a more analytical and historical perspective. Elise, who is reading Frank right now, pointed out that he’s very pessimistic–he really doesn’t point to any signs of hope, or sketch a way forward. It can be pretty discouraging to read him, and I appreciated the more positive notes that H&P brought to the table while still being realistic.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars