I'm finding my progressive views being challenged by Thomas Frank's new book, "Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?"
He's the author of "What's the Matter With Kansas?" which took shots at Republicans. Now he's aimed his considerable rhetorical and intellectual skills at Democrats.
To great effect.
I'm about halfway through with the book. Though I'm still a Hillary Clinton supporter in this year's presidential primary contest, I can now better understand why Bernie Sanders' supporters feel like the Democratic Party has screwed over ordinary people.
I couldn't resist peeking at the last pages of "Listen, Liberal." As suspected, Frank doesn't cut Democrats any slack in his conclusions.
Now, all political parties are alliances of people with disparate interests, but the contradictions in the Democratic Party coalition seem unusually sharp. The Democrats posture as the "party of the people" even as they dedicate themselves ever more resolutely to serving and glorifying the professional class.
Worse: they combine self-righteousness and class privilege in a way that Americans find stomach-turning. And every two years, they simply assume that being non-Republican is sufficient to rally the voters of the nation to their standard. This cannot go on.
This is why I've come to feel that if Clinton is the Democratic presidential nominee, as she almost certainly will be, infusing her policy positions with a Big Dose of Bernie will be the best course for both this country and her campaign against Trump.
Not that Sanders has got everything right. But I've read enough of Frank's book to feel convinced that much of what Democrats have done over the past few decades has been misguided -- even though it seemed justified at the time. (Frank himself admits that he has changed his views over the years.)
I want to finish "Listen, Liberal" before I weigh in on Frank's overall conclusions.
So far, I think his general viewpoint is right on: Democrats have been, and are, way better than Republicans at standing up for ordinary people, the "99%," but still -- in many ways us Democrats have failed the non-professional, non-creative class, non-kale eating/latte drinking citizens of this country.
A few things are bothering me about what I've read so far, though. Frank has a habit of criticizing Democratic policy-makers for doing this-and-that without making much of a case for an alternative approach.
For example, he castigates President Bill Clinton for assuming that globalization was akin to a force of nature that couldn't be stopped, so the United States needed to adjust to the trend as best we could. Hence, NAFTA and other trade pacts.
Question is, though, how else could this country have dealt with globalization? Trade wars, higher tariffs, and such aren't exactly recipes for economic success. Further, globalization has helped hundreds of millions of people in other countries escape extreme poverty.
Sure, much needs to be done to make their working conditions more fair and equitable. And those hurt by the loss of manufacturing jobs in this country need more than a (Bill) Clintonesque, "The world we face today is the world where what you earn depends on what you can learn." (direct quote in the book)
But globalization is a ship whose course is pretty much set. Democrats need to adjust important details about where the ship is heading, while recognizing that business is going to be increasingly conducted across national borders -- and this is a good thing, overall.
I also am finding Frank's critique of "new urbanism" folks like me to be a bit off-putting.
Yes, it isn't enough to have cities with marvelous bike paths connecting mixed use areas with art galleries, coffee houses, restaurants, and other attractions for those with enough disposable income to enjoy these amenities. However, there isn't an inherent contradiction between a city being "cool" and being "socially equitable."
Meaning, we can take care of the less fortunate in this country while also making communities in the United States much more livable. European countries have shown that social democracy and livability go well together. Bicycling isn't just for hipsters; it also is a low-cost, green way to get around.
In general, though, I like Thomas Frank's style and substance. He presents a way of looking at the Democratic Party which is making me rethink the history of the Clinton years, and onward. These two paragraphs are typical of Frank's blunt prose:
On the financiers, the real Clinton legacy came down to four words: Grab what you can. For them, there were bailouts and trade deals that protected their interests and tax cuts and a timely shot of "liquidity" whenever stock markets seemed to be flagging. And a little deregulation should the laws of the land not meet with their favor.
But the poor needed to learn discipline. That seems to have been one of the ideas behind NAFTA: People employed in manufacturing had to accept working harder for less or else watch their jobs depart for Mexico. Discipline was the point of the '94 crime bill too: The poor were to live in a state of constant supervision where there was "zero tolerance" for those who stepped out of line. Mercy was to be a luxury item now, a thing reserved for those who could make big donations to the Clinton presidential library.
OUCH! Anyone who thinks my political blog is snarky, read Frank's book for some real snark.