Thomas Frank

What’s the Matter with the Democrats?

Air Date: October 10, 2017

Thomas Frank, author of "Listen, Liberal: Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?" talks about politics.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. You may recall the musical 1776, which was said to be President Nixon’s favorite play, though he didn’t perform in fifth grade as I did. Suffice it to say, it’s mine too. And if you download the soundtrack on iTunes, you’ll note virtually every song has keen relevance to our evolving political experience, perhaps none more saliently than Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson’s ode to a rightward-bound American politics. “Cool, cool considerate men,” praise for wealthy aristocrats, “With our land, cash in hand. Self-command, future planned…” don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor. And that’s what he warned continental congress chair John Hancock. There’s no author more astutely prepared to consider the electoral reality of 2017, our present golden age of inequality than critic Thomas Frank. His books “What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” and more recently “Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?” have proven most precocious insights into the corporatist trajectory which America has permanently swung. Thomas Frank and I will explore the current creed of our politics, a resurgence of reality that may have awoken in Kansas, and the ongoing self-examination or lack thereof within liberal, elite classes. Welcome, Thomas Frank, it’s a pleasure to meet you finally.

FRANK: It’s great to be here, Alexander.

HEFFNER: So it was John Dickinson who said “Cool, cool conservative men, the likes of which may never see again.”

FRANK: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: We see them.

FRANK: Yeah oh yeah. Yeah. Absolutely and it’s funny that he uses that phrase “cool conservative men.” The you- you- you didn’t mention this but my- my first book was called The Conquest of Cool, and so my whole career that, that came out in 1997 and it was a sort of an alternative understanding of the 1960’s and it launched me, I mean it seemed, it was a study of the advertising industry in the 1960’s. It seems like a, you know a strange thing f- a strange way of getting started for someone who today- you know I’m known for writing about politics and that’s, that’s all, but these things are all connected and that’s sort of- the larger discovery by society of coolness in the 60s and the 70s in some weird way is connected to the great right turn that happened a little bit later. Um- we’re not gonna go into exactly how it is, but this is my grand theory of American- of recent American history. Just so you know- “cool conservatives” …

HEFFNER: Can you expound briefly?

FRANK: Yeah so- here’s- so you have two big changes happen at the same time. Politically- we’ll go into politics here. Two big changes happened at the same time uh- politically speaking. The- the uh- the Republican party moved way way way to the right beginning in the 1970’s you had this sort of uh- well actually it was earlier than that, Barry Goldwater in the 1960’s. Um- and uh- rediscovering sort of free-market thought, you know this sort of 19- what the British would call neo-liberalism. Uh- you know rediscovering uh- 19th century economics and that kind of thing. And at the same time you had the Democratic party deciding uh- in the early 70s, in the late 60s and the early 70s, when it is utterly enamored with the youth culture of that era.

You go back and read their policy statements and their manifestos, utterly enamored with what was happening on college campuses and this kind of thing. And the Democratic party, this is simultaneous now with the Republicans rediscovering uh- [LAUGHS] you know this right-wing past. The uh- the Democrats decided they didn’t want to be the party of Franklin Roosevelt any longer, and they didn’t want to be the party of the New Deal, and they didn’t want to be the party of the blue collar class. This is all while- you know Vietnam is going on all around them and you know all the sort of- the tumult of the late 1960’s, they didn’t want to be that party anymore. They wanted to be a party that spoke to a kind of educated- the sort of young, educated people then coming out of prestigious colleges, uh- who were so enlightened. I’m saying that sarcastically, you understand. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: I’m unfazed, but I do understand that.

FRANK: Yeah yeah. And uh- that’s who they wanted to be as a party. And they never really looked back, and the Republicans certainly have never looked back. I mean they’ve gone- advanced further and further and further down that road. Um- and so you know we- your show, you’re very concerned with the subject of inequality, so am I. This is my- life’s mission, is to understand how this great democracy of ours let that happen to us. You know when I was born, in the mid-1960’s I mean the difference between a white collar worker and a blue collar worker was mainly a matter of culture and taste and you know, this guy drove a Buick and this guy drove a Chevy, but they lived next door to each other in the suburbs. One, they didn’t earn a whole- you know what they earned was not a whole different one from the other. Uh- CEOs didn’t make that much more than uh- other white collar executives. And certainly you know not a whole lot more than their blue collar line workers. I mean uh- considerably more but not- you know- not like 400 times or whatever it is today. And we’re- you know this is- this country’s the greatest Democracy on Earth. We’re a country that- we don’t just- it’s not just pro-forma Democracy everybody gets to vote, we- we feel it in our bones. That is who we are as a people, we are profoundly hostile to aristocracy and pretension and arrogance of every kind. You know like- Thomas Jefferson, was he in that musical, I- I can’t…

HEFFNER: He was, I played him.

FRANK: [LAUGHS] Okay.

HEFFNER: There were- there were several TJs.

FRANK: I was gonna mention the musical that I was in which was The Wizard of Oz, you know which is a parable of populism.

HEFFNER: Absolutely.

FRANK: You know sort of a different chapter in that- in that long, long winding history, but here we are- this is- we’re this great democratic society, and we have chosen this path that has led to the- you know- basically the social fabric just coming apart.

HEFFNER: You decry, lament, acknowledge, sadly as the abandonment of Franklin Delano Roosevelt…

FRANK: Yeah.

HEFFNER: And New Deal politics and to the extent that Bernie Sanders adopted that platform in 2016, he was marginalized.

FRANK: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But Clinton attempted to coopt it, and no one believed her.

FRANK: Yeah. You’ve touched on four or five really critical themes right there. When I- when I was growing up, the New Deal order was regarded as that was the consensus that- that was the default state of American politics. That’s what we would always revert back to when everything else failed and you know people would go on wild adventures and everything, but we knew that that’s who we were as a people. That country that- you know Franklin Roosevelt’s had- had re-worked the politics of this country and they were- that was a- that was fixed, that was who we were. But today when we look back at that period now from say 1935 up to say 1980, we look at that as an aberration, and in fact what we’ve done and- I mean this is- this is deeply cynical, but more and more people uh- look at it this way, that the New Deal period, the New Deal era was an aberration and what we’re doing now, you know returning to this kind of 19th-century uh- political, you know economic, distribution of wealth, that that’s the norm.

And here you have- okay to bring it back to some of the issues that you mentioned in the- the politics of the present day, um- Bernie Sanders, you know fascinating guy. Uh- I interviewed Bernie Sanders a couple years ago, the interview was on salon.com. You can read it. Um- I voted for Bernie Sanders in the- in the Democratic primary, might as well know. [LAUGHS] Get that out front right away. Uh- but to me Bernie Sanders did not represent radicalism. Bernie Sanders represented, sort of Harry Truman Democratic party. I mean the stuff he was promising and that he was making a big deal out of is all- could have easily come out of the mouth of Harry Truman. Could easily have been in the Democratic platform in 1948, and in fact some of it was. Single payer, you know this kind of thing. And uh- so I didn’t think of him as a radical. He always appears in public by the way, in a suit like this, like the one you’re wearing. He’s very conservative in his personal tastes and manners. Uh- he’s not a shocking man, um- he’s not into like- disturbing in the way that Donald Trump is disturbing. And the uh- my colleagues in the media back in Washington, regarded- reacted to him as you would to a- it was like an allergic reaction, they despised this guy. They were constantly trying to reject him and uh- you know uh- categorize him as a marginal figure. You know someone who’s- who was an outsider, and that- I was really interested in that. I wrote a big story about this for Harper’s magazine I don’t know if you saw it about the media’s reaction to Bernie Sanders.

Uh- and I examined uh- op-eds and editorials uh- that mentioned him in the Washington Post for a six month period last year. They were of course profoundly negative towards Bernie Sanders. Profoundly negative. And I asked myself why that is. Because like I said he’s- he doesn’t strike me as- yes he calls himself a Democratic socialist, but if you look at what he’s actually advocating there’s nothing too radical there. And like I said, his personal manners and tastes are- reassuring if anything. I mean he seems like a grandfatherly figure you know. And uh- what- what is it about this man? And I tried to understand why they reacted so negatively against him. And what I finally came down to was that Sanders represents a sort of um- and I- this is a Freudian term that I’m using completely wrong, but a return of the repressed.

He is this Democratic party- he represents what the Democratic party used to be. Okay, before the uh- Clinton era, before the 1990’s, before they uh- fell in love with Wall Street. Before they fell in love with consensus and technology and- you know the white collar class and all the things that we- we identify with the Democratic party now. He is a throwback to that Harry Truman past, that- the sort of Bill Clinton generation of Democratic politicians and- it’s not just politicians of course, it’s an entire generation of uh- you know uh- public-minded people and thinkers and writers and all that. That they feel like they have put behind them forever. And here he comes, [LAUGHS] you know, here he comes this- this man who out of this- this past they thought was over and locked away and gone and buried and- and I’ll be damned that he’s making terrible problems for a candidate that they regarded as um- perfect.

HEFFNER: I would submit to you if Sanders did not have what was ostensibly was a provincial appeal of being a- the New Englander, curmudgeon…

FRANK: Yeah the accent too. I- I forgot-

HEFFNER: The accent too. That- that-

FRANK: I- I like his accent. I think it’s charming.

HEFFNER: Well someone with Sanders’ authentic politics who does rebel against what you critique in the book as the Democrats’ problematic association with innoquality, innovation meets inequality. Which is really the dominant thread of American, economic success story, which doesn’t resonate for the blue collar and even many white collar workers. So to your mind as the Democrats are considering the path forward, how do they rekindle a- a successful New Deal?

FRANK: The first thing is acknowledging that there’s a problem. Okay so I first started talking about this stuff in- well a long time ago, you’ve got a copy of “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” there, that came out in the year 2004 when I- I started writing about this problem and- and it goes back further than that. This is the problem of the- the blue collar class abandoning- or- particularly the white working class abandoning the Democratic party in larger and larger numbers over the years. And uh- allowing the Republicans to become dominant, and this begins a long time ago back in the late 1960’s, this is the story of our time. Uh- Democrats by and large have not acknowledged that that is happening. Uh- they’ve done everything they can to deny that that is happening to- and to claim that they don’t have to do anything about that problem. Um- and we’ll- we’ll come to why that is uh- eventually.

So the first- the first order of business is to acknowledge that there’s a problem. And right now the Democratic party by and large wants to blame what happened to Hillary Clinton on uh- interference by the Russians, uh- you know the Comey memo, you know the- various other sort of things. And- and look some of it is true to a certain degree, what they don’t under- of course it’s true, I mean the Comey, the impact of that was enormous. I remember where I was when I heard it come over the radio. I had actually just left the polling place after voting for Hillary Clinton. I walked out to the car and turned it on and here’s NPR announcing that he had reopened his investigation into her emails, and I’m like Oh my god. But uh, so we, that, it had an enormous impact. But this is a larger, long-term story that has been going on for decades. And until they understand that, no, they’re not gonna be, they’re not gonna do anything about it. What could they do? Let’s say they were to, to look at what, you know, to read, [LAUGHS] some of these books that I’ve written or something. The many articles that I’ve written over the years, let’s say they were to do that, and to understand that this is a problem. Uh eh, what, what steps would they take? Well it’s incredibly obvious. I mean we’re, we are on a race to the bottom in this country and we have been for four decades. You know, the, the—reverse that. Put that into reverse. Do something about uh, uh, do something about monopolies in this country. I mean the whole business model of Silicon Valley is monopoly. Do something about that. Do something about the incredible high cost of college tuition. Do something about the fact that it’s impossible to form a labor union in this country. I mean you can just start out with those three things. I could give you a whole list of other things, like go after the Wall Street banks [LAUGHS] you know and do—

HEFFNER: Right.

FRANK: Do some of the other Bernie Sanders sort of things. These would have an enormous impact on inequality. They would put this, you know, this, this 40 year race to the bottom that we’ve been on—this movement towards greater and greater inequality. Put that into reverse almost overnight. If you—

HEFFNER: But the quagmire therein is they can’t do those things because they’re not elected to governorships across this country. They’re not in charge of state houses.

FRANK: No they’re wiped out. Yeah.

HEFFNER: So how do you start from scratch, in effect?

FRANK: Ba.., uh, I mean basically they have to start over again. Uh now when I wrote Listen Liberal and what I, you know, I assumed that they, they were, uh Pres, President Obama was still President. He still had a certain amount of authority to do, to do things uh and uh you know, they are in a state of historic wipe out now. Historic defeat. By the way, I want to pause for a second—

HEFFNER: Yes.

FRANK: And dwell on the irony of this. You know, you talk about inequality on this show a lot, OK? And we can illustrate it in all sorts of different ways. It is striking. Everybody knows what is happening, whether you wanna call it inequality, or whether you wanna call it the hollowing out of the heartland or the—
HEFFNER: Right.

FRANK: You know, the destruction of the American way of life. And there’s all these ways of talking about it. And we’ve been talking about it for 30 or 40 years in this country, as it gets worse all the time. Here’s the amazing thing. The party of the left in our system, which is what the democrats are, the party of the left in our system can’t do anything, can’t, can’t build on that. You know, you’d think they’d be able to, the, they’d be, they’d be running up incredible election victories, you know. You’d think they’d be campaigning on this all the time. You’d think they’d be like uh, uh, just whipping the Republicans coast to coast—

HEFFNER: Well the problem, the reason—

FRANK: They’re doing the opposite.

HEFFNER: The reason they’re not competitive, frankly, is they’re not listening to you, they’re not listening to Drew Westin, they’re not listening to George Lakoff.

FRANK: In 2009 these people were flat on their back. The government was bailing them out. Barack Obama could have done anything he wanted with them. Uh if you look back at the precedent, the great precedent of Franklin Roosevelt, Roosevelt took that opportunity of bailing out the, all the banks of this country to basically reorganize the financial system of this country in a more uh, in a more democratic way. Obama had that same opportunity, perhaps an even greater opportunity, and he chose not to use it. And so what I always say about that, 2009, which I think was the great turning point of this century that we are in, is that we came to the turning point and we didn’t make the turn. We—I mean the, this man, he had everything going for him. he uh, you know, the, the country had elected him to make this change and the country expected him to make the change. The Wall Street bankers expected him to make this change and it didn’t happen. And that’s, I think that is a enormous missed opportunity that Democrats are going to… take a long time living down. By the way the, the, this, all of this raises, gets back to the cent—because I don’t think this is necessarily Barack Obama’s fault, you know. This is the fault of the Democratic party [LAUGHS].

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

FRANK: But uh, yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s the Democratic party, OK. And Barack Obama is, he is caught in a lot of different, uh, long term forces and, and different ways of, of looking at the world that are not of his own uh device. OK? And so the, when you, you wanna understand what’s gone wrong with the Democratic party, by and large the theme that most people focus on is the money. And this is huge. This is an important part of what, how the Democratic party has changed over the years. They uh by and large reach out to the same uh category of people that the Republican party reaches out to, you know, their donors and that sort of thing. But there’s a, there’s a larger shift …excuse me. There’s a larger shift out there that we don’t generally talk about. And that’s that the Democratic party understands itself in a different way today than they did at the time of Franklin Roosevelt, or at the time of Lyndon Johnson or at the time of Harry Truman or Hubert Humphrey or you, any one of these Democrats of, of, uh, of, of, of eras past that, that you care to mention. And that is that Democrat party today really understands itself, and you hinted at this a minute ago, they understand themselves as the party of—the representative of uh affluent white collar professionals. And they talk about this all the time. And when they talk about things like innovation, they under, understand innovation as the property of that class of Americans. Or when they talk about creativity, and you’ve heard this before, the creative class. Um the, they’re referring to that same uh group of people. When they talk about Silicon, but when you ask, why do they do these incredible favors for Silicon Valley? It’s because they see them as—that’s an industry that’s populated by—

HEFFNER: Right. Dick Cheney—

FRANK: Leaders from this class. Or big pharma.

HEFFNER: W-we only have—

FRANK: Or Wall Street.

HEFFNER: We only have four minutes, but uh—

FRANK: Are you…we’ve already run out of time? Are you kidding me?

HEFFNER: I know, I know, we’re, not yet, we’re gonna, but—

FRANK: We’re just getting warmed up here.

HEFFNER: So, so I know, so, so, so, uh there are a couple things I wanna touch on quickly. Um. Dick Cheney to Haliburton what Barack Obama to—

FRANK: Citibank.

HEFFNER: Or Facebook and Amazon or democrat—

FRANK: Yeah.

HEFFNER: So where do you see hope on the horizon that Democrats will um… leave this uh… generic identity politics in favor of uh a more workman like approach. Where do you see hope in the embodiment of that, to rescue the FDR legacy?

FRANK: Well—

HEFFNER: Do you see any individuals on the horizon?

FRANK: I do, I do, I actually, I actually do see some hope, but you should know that by and large, the attitude of the Democrats is that, uh, of the mainstream leaders of the Democratic party is that they did nothing wrong and they don’t have to change. And they look at Donald Trump and they see this incredible buffoon in the White House. I mean the, you know, tweeting…

HEFFNER: Right.

FRANK: These insane things, that you know making fun of people and picking these fights and the, and they, uh, and they say we don’t have to do anything differently. This guy is so awful that in two years we’re going to sweep back in. So the, the mainstream view among Democrats is that they don’t have to change. However you, we mentioned earlier, the better deal. Uh Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi’s…

HEFFNER: Right.

FRANK: Hey, if you, if you dig down into that, there actually is something really interesting which not many people have noticed, which is that the Democrats have decided to uh, uh, uh stand up for anti-trust again. This is new. The Democrats haven’t talked about anti-trust since oh, like the Carter administration [LAUGHS] you know and for a long a time ago. And this is, this is a, a really important change, that they, that—I mean you have to dig down into the document to see it, but that they have reversed their position on one of the I think critical issues of our time. Now they’re just getting started they don’t really know what they’re getting into here yet, but this is, this is, this is critical. This links them up to the party of Jefferson, the party of Jackson, the party of Bryan, the party of Roosevelt. This is one of the, the, the great turning points is when the Democrats decided they weren’t gonna enforce anti-trust anymore under Clinton and then under Obama. Well now they’re reversing course. That’s a wonderful thing.

HEFFNER: So I must ask you: reversing course in Kansas.

FRANK: Uh yeah.

HEFFNER: This might also be an example of where a Democrat, there’s a former mayor of Wichita running in Kansas, along with a young alum of DC politics… Kansas… there’s a rebellion in Kansas among Republicans. Rebelling against austerity politics, who finally woke up to the divestment from… education, all municipalities and said…

FRANK: Yes.

HEFFNER: Well what’s the matter with us?

FRANK: [LAUGHS] Yeah [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: And… and now they are—

FRANK: Oh goodness.

HEFFNER: Potentially considering uh not just overriding the veto of a governor but—

FRANK: But I thought they did—

HEFFNER: They did—

FRANK: Uh yeah.

HEFFNER: So they overrode the veto of a governor and now, but, could they be on the cusp of—

FRANK: Of something different?

HEFFNER: Changing course?

FRANK: I, I don’t, I don’t um, I haven’t written about uh the politics in Kansas uh for a long time. And uh so… I, I’ll let you know when I go back there and do that and, and, and look into that. What, what fascinates me is…

HEFFNER: I think it’s really important for you to go back and soon…

FRANK: Oh it, it is, it is absolutely important. And I hope, and, and, you know, and I, and I hope things work out in the way that you just described.

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

FRANK: Uh but I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Now, uh, uh why? Kansas is—so I’m from Kansas—we didn’t, we didn’t mention that. But it’s a deeply profoundly populist state, by which it, this, this distrust of authority, uh this distrust of elites, it runs in people’s blood there. And the whole power of the right in Kansas is that they latched onto that. They, uh, I mean, Kansas was once a radical state, not just a left-wing state, I mean, not just a Democrat state. Radical. In the 1890s. Uh and up until about you know, into the 1910s. You still had radicals running for office there in the 1930s. But uh… the, the, the right are the ones that have captured this language and this anti—anti-establishment feel. Uh, and that’s what I document in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Of course I wrote that 12 years ago now. Uh and it sure looks like this revolution that I described in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” has run its course. I mean think about the, consider the…the paradox and the irony here. That this is a—it was, what I watched happening in Kansas was a working class, blue collar uprising that was determined to take the power in the republican party away from uh your sort of uh, uh, uh, you know, Bob Dole style [LAUGHS] or you know, moderate Republicans and hand, you know, and hand it over, take it for themselves. And what they wound up getting was Sam Brownback. That was the sort of leader of this, of this rebellion, of this uh, of this uprising. And then he’s done this enormous uh harm to these very same people.

HEFFNER: The morality of abortion trumps voting for your economic security… eh… do you think that’s still the prevalent red state phenomenon or is, is it—

FRANK: Well it comes and goes. Uh and here’s what I mean by that. So uh when I wrote that in uh the, the, the early aughts uh, Kansas was doing, eh, OK economically. And so people were able to focus on the culture wars. When you have something like the financial crisis of ’08 and the great recession that followed, people tend to swing back to economic issues. Um you saw this by the way in the ‘20s and the ‘30s. The 1920s was a period obsessed with culture wars, remember? Prohibition [LAUGHS] you know, and, and so many other things. uh, this was the great rise of fundamentalism and all that. The depression comes along in 1929 and that stuff is forgotten. Like instantly. And uh, uh, you know, the, and you move to this, the, to the sort of 1930s style uh workerist populism. OK well, you, a similar thing happened in our time. Uh, uh, unfortunately for people like me, the uh, the, the Republicans got there uh, oh, you know, saw this coming, and got out ahead of us with the tea party movement. And caught that anti-pop—or that sort of populist wave as well. The sort of economic populism. But now uh that the economy has pretty much recovered, you’ll see people moving back to the culture war issues. But uh what fascinates me is that the right is able to uh win now in either situation. Why is that? Do—let’s, let’s close with that Alexander—

HEFFNER: Yes.

FRANK: Why is that? I mean what explains their, their, like that they are able to—that they win and win and win and win? This is the…

HEFFNER: Whether you’re rich or poor…

FRANK: Yeah but this is a…

HEFFNER: They’re voting for the right.

FRANK: This is a group that, that, the benefits of Republican rule are showered on a very [LAUGHS] small number of people you know, uh, a vanishingly small number of people. How are they able to win and win and win all, you know, from the, from the ‘70s up to today, when they serve this, just this tiny little, little group of people? And a big part of the answer to that has to be, has to be the feebleness of the opposition party. The fact that the party of the left, the, the, nominal party of the left in our system is not interested in doing what parties of the left used to do.

HEFFNER: They’ve got to man up or woman up. Thomas Frank, thanks for being with me today.

FRANK: It’s my pleasure Alexander.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.