Listen, your party is the “neo” kind of liberal

Why do the Democrats always disappoint their most loyal supporters? Thomas Frank’s excellent book helps explains the party’s betraying ways, says Lance Selfa.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

THE NEW York Times headline on July 28 said it all: “After Lying Low, Deep-Pocketed Clinton Donors Return to the Fore.”

Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick’s article proceeded to document the myriad ways in which corporations, from the Wall Street firm Blackstone Group to for-profit college giant Apollo Education Group, peddled influence at fancy parties around Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.

Yes, that Democratic convention. The same one that featured dozens of speakers denouncing Wall Street and crushing student debt? Whose presidential nominee pledged to get big money out of elections?

Turns out that “it’s business as usual,” as Libby Watson of the Sunlight Foundation told the Times writers.

Author Thomas Frank wouldn’t be surprised by this latest glimpse of how the Democratic Party does business. His Listen, Liberal is an engaging and witty demolition of the party, especially its modern post-New Deal incarnation.

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THE DEMOCRATS don’t see it as a contradiction to issue election-year platitudes about supporting “working families” while courting millions from the “rocket scientist” financial engineers behind the Wall Street hedge funds or the self-styled “disrupters” who run for-profit educational corporations.

REVIEW: BOOKS

Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Henry Holt and Co., 2016. 320 pages, $12.99. Find out more at ListenLiberal.com.

As the GEICO TV ad might say, “It’s what they do.”

To Frank, this provides much of the explanation for why the Obama presidency has been such a disappointment for those who believed in candidate Obama’s message of “hope and change” in 2008.

In 2008, the economy was melting down, taking free-market orthodoxy with it. The Democrats swept to power in Congress and the White House. If there was ever a time that the conditions were ripe for a bold reformist program–which would have been massively popular–this was it.

Yet it didn’t happen. Two years later, the Tea Party Republicans took back the House in the midterm elections, and the administration deepened its commitment to austerity and the search for a “grand bargain” for bipartisan support to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Frank rehearses the standard liberal excuses for Obama’s failures, quoting the president himself about how hard it is to get things done (“It’s hard to turn an ocean liner”). Frank then proceeds to knock these down, one by one.

He shows convincingly how, using only executive action, Obama could have unwound the Bush administration bailouts for the Wall Street bankers and pressed bankruptcy judges to reduce or wipe out the mortgage holders’ debt. At the very least, he could have refused to allow executives from the insurance giant AIG to collect their multimillion-dollar bonuses from the taxpayers’ dime.

Instead, Obama and his Treasury team of Ivy Leaguers on leave from Wall Street reassured the banksters that he was on their side. Frank reprises the critical scene from Ron Suskind’s 2010 book Confidence Men: A description of a high-level meeting that began with Obama warning Wall Street that “my administration is the only thing between you and pitchforks”–and ended with a relieved CEO telling Suskind that Obama “could have ordered us to do just about anything, and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t–he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

As Frank concludes:

Having put so much faith in his transformative potential, his followers need to come to terms with how non-transformative he has been. It wasn’t because the ocean liner would have been too hard to turn, or because those silly idealists were unrealistic; it was because [the administration] didn’t want to do those things.

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HOW DID the Democrats come to power amid the worst crisis since the Great Depression and basically operate according to the same-old-same-old model? In trying to explain this, Frank lands on an explanation that is inadequate–more on that below–despite the insights it offers.

To him, the Obama team, like Bill Clinton before him–and probably Hillary Clinton after–couldn’t conceive of a different course because they approached problems from their vantage point as wealthy, highly educated professionals.

Like the whiz kids on Wall Street or health care industry policy wonks, they appreciated complex solutions that balanced multiple interests while generally preserving the status quo. Think of Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, whose enforcement regulations are still being written six years after its passage.

The roots of this worship of professional expertise and support for market-based policies, according to Frank, can be found in party operatives’ desire to build a new Democratic coalition to replace the New Deal coalition of the 1930s through the 1960s. From George McGovern’s early 1970s “new politics” to the Democratic Leadership Council’s “new Democrats” of the 1980s and 1990s, these figures sought to distance the party from organized labor in favor of the “new middle class” of credentialed professionals.

Voting statistics show that college graduates still tend to be Republican territory more than Democratic. But there’s little doubt that a middle-class ideology of “social liberalism and fiscal conservatism” reigns supreme in the Democratic Party today.

To show this in full bloom, Frank considers the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston as exemplars. Both depend heavily on the “knowledge industries” of higher education, finance and health care. And both have been Democratic bastions for generations.

If the Democratic mayors of Boston and a Democratic-dominated statehouse hand out tax breaks to corporations, enact anti-labor pension “reforms,” and promote charter schools or amenities catering to middle-class professionals, it isn’t because Republicans forced them to. It’s because the Democrats actually believe this stuff, and profit from it.

In this “blue state model,” Frank writes:

Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and yet which increase at a pace far more rapid than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, thirty grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.

Left behind are places like Lynn, Massachusetts, a once thriving industrial town, now depopulated and deindustrialized–“engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats,” Frank writes. Or Decatur, Illinois, which Frank revisits 20 years after he had reported on the “War Zone” labor battles that dramatized the death of the American dream for thousands of blue-collar unionized workers

In the mid-1990s, Frank writes:

Decatur was far away from Washington, and its problems made no impression that I could detect on Bill Clinton’s wise brain trust. The New Economy was dawning, creativity was triumphing, old industry was evaporating, and those fortunate enough to be among the ascendant were absolutely certain about the direction history was taking.

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AS WITH so much about the Democratic Party today, all this somehow works its way back to the Clintons.

Frank’s assessment of Bill Clinton’s two terms in office in the 1990s is a crucial antidote to the free-flowing Clinton nostalgia of 2016. Frank says that while he was writing the book:

I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for–you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president. Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him– apart from his obvious personal affability, I mean? It proved difficult for my libs…

No one mentioned any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation. His presidency was all about campaign donations, not personal bravery– he rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, for chrissake, and at the end of his time in office, he even appeared to sell a presidential pardon.

Frank concedes a few small positive efforts by Clinton: a small increase in taxes on the rich, a failed attempt at health care reform. But the biggest initiatives Clinton won were things that would have been considered Republican policies of an earlier era: the 1994 crime bill that put the “New Jim Crow” described by Michelle Alexander into overdrive; the destruction of the federal welfare system; free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and various forms of financial deregulation.

Frank notes that Clinton was conducting backdoor negotiations with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a scheme to privatize Social Security. That attempt collapsed during the impeachment battle connected to Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Frank’s crucial point is this. It took a Democrat–one skilled in the double-talk of “feeling the pain” of ordinary people and bolstering those “who work hard and play by the rules”–to push through a wish list of conservative policies that not even Ronald Reagan could win. As Frank writes:

What distinguishes the political order we live under now is a consensus, at least in the political mainstream, on certain economic questions–and what made that consensus happen was the capitulation of the Democrats. Republicans could denounce big government all they wanted, but it took a Democrat to declare that “the era of big government is over” and to make it stick. This was Bill Clinton’s historic achievement. Under his direction, as I wrote back then, the opposition “ceased to oppose.”

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MUCH OF what Frank writes will sound very familiar to regular readers of Socialist Worker. But for liberals who might know Frank from his What’s the Matter with Kansas? or The Wrecking Crew, Listen, Liberal might feel like a bucket of cold water. Especially for those who might be “ready for Hillary” in 2016.

For my money, the entire book is worth the price of the chapter “Liberal Gilt,” where Frank skewers the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and, by extension, what he calls the “liberal class’s virtue quest.”

At the center of this chapter is, of course, Hillary Clinton, whose public persona of “doing good” for “women and children” dissolves against a backdrop of her support for ending welfare in the 1990s and pushing poor women in developing countries into debt through “microcredit.”

As Secretary of State, Clinton marketed global entrepreneurship and the endless “war on terror” as crusades on behalf of women. Through “partnering” on these initiatives with the Clinton Foundation or the State Department, the likes of Walmart and Goldman Sachs can win praise for their social consciousness–or what Frank brilliantly describes as their “purchasing liberalism offsets”:

This is modern liberalism in action: an unregulated virtue-exchange in which representatives of one class of humanity ritually forgive the sins of another class, all of it convened and facilitated by a vast army of well-graduated American professionals, their reassuring expertise propped up by bogus social science, while the unfortunate objects of their high and noble compassion sink slowly back into a preindustrial state.

Frank weaves this analysis around an unforgettable eyewitness account of a Clinton Foundation celebration–held on the socialist holiday of International Women’s Day, no less! The event, at midtown Manhattan’s Best Buy (now Playstation) Theater, touted entrepreneurship for women in the global South. The Clintons, Melinda Gates, Hollywood stars, fashion magazine editors and Fortune 500 leaders came together for an afternoon of self-congratulation.

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YET FOR all that is spot-on in Frank’s critique of the Democrats, the book’s analysis is flawed on two interrelated points.

First, its theory of the Democrats as a party of educated professionals suffers from what might be called a crude class analysis.

When Marxists argue that the Democrats and Republicans are “capitalist” parties, we don’t mean that a cabal of capitalists acts as their puppet masters from behind the scenes. We mean that through various means–from political contributions to expert advice to control of the media–various capitalist interests assure that the mainstream political parties implement policies that allow the capitalist system to thrive and reproduce itself.

Scholars such as Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers have documented why we should understand shifts in the mainstream capitalist parties as shifts in blocs of capital rather than shifts in voting bases. Ferguson has even demonstrated how Obama’s support from Silicon Valley is linked to the administration’s care and nurturance of the surveillance state.

Frank doesn’t cite any of this analysis. Thus, in arguing that the Democrats’ current embrace of Silicon Valley neoliberalism is somehow a product of “well-graduated” Democrats’ fascination with “complexity,” “innovation” and “disruptive” app-driven services like Uber and AirBnB, Frank misses the close integration of the Democratic Party with the capitalist class.

The Democrats may have been capitalism’s B-Team over the last generation, but they’re not the Washington Generals, forever bested by the Harlem Globetrotters.

Second, understanding the Democrats as a party of Ivy League professionals–and not as one of the two big business parties in the U.S.–implies that it can be reclaimed as the “party of the people” or the party of the “working class,” as Frank believes it was in its New Deal heyday.

This characterization forgets that, in many ways, the Democrats were capitalism’s A-Team during that period. And if the Trumpization of the Republicans continues, the Democrats may end up as the first-stringers again. The 2016 Clinton campaign certainly hopes so.

Listen, Liberal is a great read for this election season. While Frank concludes that the state of affairs that brought us to Clinton against Trump “cannot go on,” he’s not sure where to go. Charting that course is a challenge the left faces today.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/04/your-party-is-the-neo-kind-of-liberal

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Bill Clinton’s Five Major Achievements Were Longstanding GOP Objectives

Sunday, 15 May 2016 00:00

Truthout | Interview with Thomas Frank: 

Bill Clinton, standing between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, taking the oath of office of President of the United States on January 20, 1993. Clinton ran for president as a champion of the working class, but largely abandoned their economic interests while in office – preferring Wall Street to Main Street -- beginning with his signing of NAFTA.

Bill Clinton, standing between Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, taking the oath of office of president of the United States on January 20, 1993. Clinton ran for president as a champion of the working class, but largely abandoned their economic interests while in office – preferring Wall Street to Main Street — beginning with his signing of NAFTA. (Photo: White House)

What is the core philosophy of today’s Democratic Party and does it serve anyone’s interests other than a wealthy elite? Thomas Frank lays bare Democrats’ abandonment of their purported values — and the role this has played in entrenching economic inequality — in his sardonic new book, Listen, Liberal. Order your copy by making a donation to Truthout today!

Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal, discusses the Hillary Doctrine’s basis in neoliberalism, how the Democratic Party stopped governing on behalf of the working class and how President Bill Clinton’s major achievements actually enacted conservative goals, and ultimately hurt working people.

Mark Karlin: The innovation class, the creative class, the wealthy class, the professional class with Ivy League degrees: How did President Obama become the avatar for believing these groups should be the decision makers in government?

Thomas Frank: Obama thinks such people should be in charge because they came up through the same system as him. “Because he himself was a product of the great American postwar meritocracy,” his biographer Jonathan Alter writes, “he could never fully escape seeing the world from the status ladder he had ascended.”

Most of our other Democratic leaders (the Clintons, for example) came up the same way and believe the same thing. Indeed, what Alter describes is standard-issue stuff for Democrats these days. The Democrats are a class party in the fullest sense of the phrase, and the class whose perspective they reflect and whose interests they serve is the highly educated, white-collar professional class. Theirs is a liberalism of the rich.

Can you describe a little about what you call “The Hillary Doctrine,” including how microlending is a good example of her belief in opening doors of entrepreneurship to solve the world’s economic problems?

The Hillary Doctrine was Clinton’s understanding of American national interest when she served as Obama’s secretary of state. The idea was that the US would henceforth be the world’s defender of women and girls. Hillary didn’t mean this in a general sense, however. The kind of women we were committing ourselves to specifically were female entrepreneurs.

The source of this notion of liberation through female entrepreneurship is the microlending movement, in which Hillary has been an enthusiastic participant for many decades. It arose as part of neoliberalism in the 1990s: The IMF [International Monetary Fund] and World Bank would “structurally reform” a country’s economy, and to help out with the human dislocation that resulted, they would give microloans to small entrepreneurs, who were encouraged to start tiny businesses like gardening or handicrafts. Over the years, the microlending movement accreted all these details: The entrepreneurs had to be women. They had to be hooked up to a bank. They had to have a Western mentor. They had to have smartphones. And so on.

You can see the appeal of this movement: It’s telling you that the solution to poverty is not unions or government or anything like that, but for everyone to work hard and start their own businesses — and, incidentally, to extend the reach of Western financial institutions to every village on the planet. A pure win-win. Everyone feels good. Everyone feels virtuous.

Except for the people who live in those countries, of course, because they know it doesn’t work. You don’t build a country’s economy by having everyone buy a goat and sell milk to one another. All these people have to show for this strategy is debt. Some empowerment.

I was captivated by your description of Hillary Clinton being surrounded by a “microclimate of virtue.” Can you describe what you mean by that and how it was represented in your section, “No Ceilings,” that included Melinda Gates and a panel to show how much women in power “cared” for poor women? I love your sardonic description, “the presenters called out to one another in tones of gracious supportiveness and flattery so sweet it bordered on idolatry.”

Every biography of Hillary Clinton talks about her goodness, her high-mindedness, her rock-solid dedication to principle. Reading those books, I couldn’t imagine what they meant, since Hillary is as much of a shape-shifter and a compromiser as any other politician.

When I saw her in person, however, it all made sense. It was at a Clinton Foundation event, as you mention. Everyone took their turn on the stage, praising everyone else, in the highest and most gracious forms you can imagine. There was an almost intoxicating sense in the room of the goodness and virtue of everyone present, with Hillary herself anchoring the swirl. It must be hard for someone who wasn’t there to believe, but these people seemed to regard her with an idealism that was almost cult-like.

The exaggeration of it all showed me that this sense of virtue is not only central to Hillary Clinton’s appeal, but to liberalism generally. This is a movement that has done tremendous harm to minorities and working people over the last few decades, and yet liberals have such an elevated sense of what fine people they are. It is a precious self-image.

You trace the modern abandonment of working men and women by the Democrats to a book by Fred Dutton in 1971. Can you explain the tome and its implications?

Dutton was a high-ranking Democratic Party official who later became a prominent Washington lobbyist. Among other things, he served on the McGovern Commission, which worked to reorient the Democratic Party away from labor and working people. Dutton’s book was called Changing Sources of Power, and it was sort of an explanation of why the McGovern Commission did what it did. Basically, Dutton was one of those establishment people who were simply bowled over by the sheer righteousness of the youth movements of the 1960s — something I also found a lot of in the advertising industry in my first book, The Conquest of Cool. The kids were so wise and so profound, Dutton thought. They had brought politics to a whole new philosophical level. And, meanwhile, as everyone could see, working people were so backward and so ugly, supporting the Vietnam War and all that stuff. Of course you wanted to ditch one group and embrace the other.

Given what was going on back then, it’s easy to understand why Dutton felt as he did. He wasn’t totally wrong about blue-collar workers and the Vietnam War, for instance. But turning your back on the concerns of working-class organizations for whatever reason meant turning your back on their issues, with consequences that are all too clear today.

You argue the abandonment of labor by the Democrats came to full fruition in the two administrations of Bill Clinton? How did Clinton who came from a working-class upbringing eventually betray the workers of the United States?

First of all, I’m not so sure about his background. It is true that he came from a very poor state, and that his family struggled, but Clinton’s biographers always emphasize that he wasn’t really of the working class: He always drove a new Buick, etc.

Clinton never had a really great relationship with workers’ organizations, but the worst thing Clinton he did to them was NAFTA. There were many trade agreements, of course, but NAFTA was the one that mattered, both because it was the first one and because labor put everything into stopping it. Indeed labor had stopped it when George H. W. Bush tried to get it through Congress. Clinton got it done, however, with a little muscle and a vast fog of preposterous claims about how NAFTA would increase exports and manufacturing employment.

His admirers saw NAFTA as his “finest hour,” because he had stood up to a traditional Democratic constituency. What an achievement. NAFTA handed employers all over America the ultimate weapon against workers: They could now credibly threaten to pick up and leave at the slightest show of worker backbone — and they make such threats all the time now.

How did the Clinton administration become a surrogate of Wall Street, resulting in the far-reaching repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act?

In 1992, Clinton ran as a populist, deploring income inequality, but that was just an act. As president he seems immediately to have decided to cast his fortunes — and those of his party — with Wall Street. Bank deregulation was a persistent policy of his from the very beginning — he signed the Riegle-Neal Act in 1994, for example, and the Mexican bailout (a big favor to Wall Street) came shortly thereafter. Along the way, he helped bail out a too-big-to-fail hedge fund, he twice appointed Alan Greenspan to run the Federal Reserve and he ensured that certain derivative securities would not have any kind of federal supervision at all.

At the time, Clinton’s admirers thought this record was something to boast about. He had brought his party out of the Rooseveltian dark ages and had embraced modernity, etc.

Why did he do it? My explanation is simple class identification. Clinton’s real class story has to do with his career in college and graduate school, where he became a star of the rising professional cohort. People with this kind of background saw (and still see) Wall Street as a part of the enlightened world, a part of the world inhabited by people just like them. They’re so smart! Plucking wealth from thin air!

This is a little off message regarding the book, but can you speculate why the Republicans were so obsessed with removing Clinton from office when he was fulfilling so much of the GOP agenda, including negotiating with Newt Gingrich about cutting Medicare and Social Security?

“Fulfilling so much of the GOP agenda”: That is a point worth reiterating. Clinton had five major achievements as president: NAFTA, the Crime Bill of 1994, welfare reform, the deregulation of banks and telecoms, and the balanced budget. All of them — every single one — were longstanding Republican objectives. His smaller achievements were more traditionally Democratic (he raised the earned-income tax credit and the minimum wage), but his big accomplishments all enacted conservative wishes, and then all of them ended in disaster.

So why did the right try so hard to get rid of him? For one thing, because they always do that. They never suspend the war or stop pushing rightward. There is no point at which they say, “OK, we’ve won enough.” For another, because Gingrich couldn’t control the rank and file, a problem that persists to this day.

The final conservative consequence of the impeachment, although this one was surely not intended: impeaching Clinton made him a martyr and hence a hero to Democrats. It secured his family’s and his faction’s grip on the Democratic Party apparently forever.

You write in your last chapter: “And every two years, they [the Democrats] simply assume that being non-Republican is sufficient to rally the voters of the nation to their standard.” That sure sounds to me a bit like Hillary Clinton’s basic pitch (paraphrased): “I’m not going to get a lot done because that’s reality, but I’ll be sitting in the Oval Office instead of that demagogue Trump. So vote for me.” Any resonance there?

That is exactly how I meant it, although of course I couldn’t see that Trump was going to be the GOP nominee when I was writing the book.

Is the Acela Express the main transportation route between lawmakers, regulators, lobbyists and financiers?

The Acela runs between Washington and New York just a little bit faster than the ordinary Amtrak train. It costs much, much more, however. Because once you’re on that Acela train, you’re instantly in the secured precincts of the tidy and prosperous professional class. All these nicely dressed people typing away on their keyboards. People looking over spreadsheets. People reading management books and talking management talk. People flattering each other. People shushing each other in the quiet car. Shushing each other so vehemently I once saw a quiet car dispute almost turn into a fistfight. It is literally the express train of the class war. Every sort of narcissism and upper-class social pathology is on full display.

A few weeks ago on the Acela train, I sat near a man who seemed to be some sort of Hillary Clinton adviser. He was talking very loudly on his cellphone about her latest TV commercial, about how she was finding her own voice, which sounds banal but which I guess is a good thing to do if you want to be president of the United States.

When you end with a rather pessimistic notion that the betrayal of the Democrats in power will not easily change, you state “that the problem is us.” Who are you referring to as “us”? Liberals? How does the Bernie Sanders movement that came near to toppling Clinton Inc. fit into your answer?

“The problem is us” in the sense that liberalism is dominated by a certain class outlook and that I am part of that class. I am calling on other members of that class to look in the mirror and understand who they are — that they are just as much products of their economic position as are the blue-collar workers they so hate. In particular, I am calling on them to understand that they aren’t the fine and virtuous people they believe they are. That it is because of them that inequality is out of control, that Wall Street is wrecking the world, that middle-class America is falling apart. And that they have an obligation to do something about it.

I like to think that Bernie is saying the same thing, in his own way.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Mark Karlin is the editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout. He served as editor and publisher of BuzzFlash for 10 years before joining Truthout in 2010. BuzzFlash has won four Project Censored Awards. Karlin writes a commentary five days a week for BuzzFlash, as well as articles (ranging from the failed “war on drugs” to reviews relating to political art) for Truthout. He also interviews authors and filmmakers whose works are featured in Truthout’s Progressive Picks of the Week. Before linking with Truthout, Karlin conducted interviews with cultural figures, political progressives and innovative advocates on a weekly basis for 10 years. He authored many columns about the lies propagated to launch the Iraq War.

 

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/36035-thomas-frank-bill-clinton-s-five-major-achievements-were-longstanding-gop-objectives