Thomas Frank has recently been in Australia, spruiking his book Listen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People. He told Richard Fidler that
- the Democratic Party has drifted away from its working class roots and been captured by technocrats — lawyers, financiers and professionals.
As a result, the Democrats have lost interest in the problem of inequality and the increasingly stressful lives of the everyday people who used to vote for them.
He told Fidler that Democrats believed that if people felt they had been left behind (“the deplorables”) it was because that is what they deserved. They had made the wrong choices, studied the wrong subjects, or hadn’t tried hard enough.
I checked my trusty Political Ideologies, second edition, by Andrew Heywood. Sure enough, Liberalism as a political philosophy, stresses individual responsibility and effort, which naturally lead to meritocracy – the cream rises to the top.
Frank says that the Democrats in the US had nevertheless traditionally been the workers’ party, the party of social solidarity. No longer, he says.
So what did Bill Clinton do that made such a difference?
Firstly, he signed the NAFTA Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico, an agreement that had been negotiated largely by the Republicans to favour big business.
Frank says that NAFTA was not essentially about free trade. It was about enabling big business to exploit its workforce. If the workers wanted more pay management could threaten to move to Mexico, or in fact actually move. Frank says that a lot of people who voted for Trump were still in well-paid jobs. However, they had seen what had happened to others, and their own positions were under threat. In this article from March 8 last year Frank warned that trade was central to Trump’s campaign, not bigotry, racism, building walls or whatever. He said:
- Left parties the world over were founded to advance the fortunes of working people. But our left party in America – one of our two monopoly parties – chose long ago to turn its back on these people’s concerns, making itself instead into the tribune of the enlightened professional class, a “creative class” that makes innovative things like derivative securities and smartphone apps. The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured, had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer.
Bill Clinton’s other big legacy was to entirely deregulate the financial markets, so they had no supervision, no constraints.
In time this gave us the GFC.
Obama took over in 2008, just as the GFC wrecking ball was doing its worst. Obama had the opportunity to remake the financial system. Certainly he got it working again, but no-one responsible was put in jail, and the system is basically the same as it was before. All he did was tweak the system around the regulatory edges.
Frank’s book was published in mid-March last year, so he’s not being wise after the event. Beverley Cage in this New York Times review gives a taste of what the book is about. This boggles the mind:
- Today’s leading Democrats actually don’t want to reduce inequality because they believe that inequality is the normal and righteous order of things. As proof, he points to the famously impolitic Larry Summers, whose background as a former president of Harvard, former Treasury secretary and former chief economist of the World Bank embodies all that Frank abhors about modern Democrats. “One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated,” Summers commented early in the Obama administration.
“Remember, as you let that last sentence slide slowly down your throat, that this was a Democrat saying this,” Frank writes.
Frank compares Obama unfavorably with Franklin Roosevelt:
- Roosevelt took advantage of the Great Depression to reshape American society in fundamental ways, introducing social welfare and labor protections that shifted real power into the hands of the middle and working classes.
We appear to be heading back to the early 19C, when the “social question” was a concern. Basically people in the emerging industrial economy were not being paid enough to live on. That spawned Marx and the unions.
Frank back in March 2016 was of course touting Bernie Sanders as the last hope for the Democrats*. After the election he said that Hillary Clinton was very much the wrong candidate, a system insider when people wanted change.
Beverley Cage points out that Frank has nothing of substance to offer as to what should be done. Jo Stiglitz certainly did in his critique of Barack Obama, which I plan to post on given time.
Meanwhile Yahoo’s Andrew Romano told Sarah Macdonald on Nightlife that the Trump healthcare package being out through in a rush will keep many of the elements of Obamacare. However, the poor will have to pay more, and there will be tax relief for the rich as the special levy to cover the program is reduced.
Reward the rich and if people choose to be poor, then more fool them.
*First published as “Republicans”, which was a typo.