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In an election year—one suffused with voter fury at jobs lost to trade deals, at Wall Street immunity to criminal prosecution, at stagnant wages and a pitifully low minimum wage—a year in which Bernie Sanders emerged as the standard bearer for millions of voters, the Democratic party has only grudgingly taken note of the populist anger. The party felt shocked when alarming West Virginia exit polls revealed that some Sanders voters would switch to Trump, should their candidate not be the nominee. But that wouldn’t shock readers of Thomas Frank’s new book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, which thoroughly documents the Democratic party’s abandonment of working people to a Republican-engineered “apocalypse,” from Carter through Clinton and Obama.
“It’s a little tiresome, is it not?” Frank asks about liberal effusiveness over their favorite winners. “We’ve heard about the learning class, the wired workers, the creative class and now the ‘smart creatives.’ But it always means the same thing: the well-graduated professionals.” Much of this new book is in fact a critique of the professional class’ self-congratulation, self-flattery, and cruelty to those below it.
Cruelty may seem like a harsh word, but what else can you call trade deals which throw millions of Americans out of work, hollowing out towns and cities across the country? What else can you call the destruction, under Bill Clinton, of the program that provided money to single unemployed mothers? Or the creation, in the ’90s, of our vast prison gulag? Or a foreign policy based on overthrowing governments, which leads to failed states like Libya and Iraq? Frank’s list goes on and on, and it’s so disheartening that the reader comes away rooting for the demise of the two-party system.
The first generation of young Americans who have come of age bankrupted by student debt and who voted in the millions for Sanders, Frank writes, will laugh at “the old middle class promise—retirement, pension, a better life than the previous generation had—because it is propaganda so transparent, it sounds like something the Soviet Union used to put out. They will understand that this isn’t a commonwealth; it’s a workhouse.”
Listen, Liberal is a long overdue attack on the left’s political establishment. It documents how the “well-graduated,” so many of whom were such mediocre financial managers that they poisoned the entire economy in 2008, look out for themselves and have taken over an entire political party, which now does the work of looking out for them. True, the Clinton and Obama administrations have achieved some notable successes, which were not at all replicated by Republican presidents. But in retrospect, even these look sparse.
Meanwhile, if the Democrats disappoint, the Republicans only outrage, with the result that there is really nowhere to turn. To make matters worse, as Frank observes, the Democrats have been running against their greatest and most popular New Deal and Great Society accomplishments for decades, in their appalling pursuit of “grand bargains” and consensus. While Republicans have slashed taxes with their phony “trickle down” economics and targeted everything in sight for deregulation, Democrats dismissed working people with the injunction to get some skills, “which explains the Democratic party’s flat inability to rise to the challenge of plutocracy.”
Listen, Liberal is a powerful addition to America’s political discourse. It is full of truths and, sadly, the truth hurts.