Thomas Frank on the evolving Democratic Party, Hillary's Midwestern roots and Kansas' enduring 'populist streak'
Critically acclaimed author, Mission Hills native and Kansas University alumnus — Thomas Frank took the Republican Party to task in books like “The Wrecking Crew” and “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”. On Wednesday, more than a decade after Frank’s bestselling account of the rise of conservatism in his once-progressive home state first hit bookshelves, he’ll revisit his old stomping grounds to discuss his newest work, “Listen, Liberal.”
In it, Frank analyzes the failures of his own party, the Democrats, and how, by his argument, the once pro-labor “Party of the People” has abandoned the working class in favor of the elite professional class.
He’ll chat about the book (and sign copies) from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Lawrence’s Liberty Hall, 644 Massachusetts St. The event, brought to you by the Lawrence Public Library as an appetizer of sorts to this month’s upcoming Free State Festival, will be free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
You write at length about the professional class in the book. It’s a class that you grew up in and, having gone on to earn a PhD and living in the Washington, D.C., area, still belong to.
Oh yeah, I’m completely surrounded by it (laughs).
Exactly. So, for those who maybe aren’t familiar with that term, could you describe just who these “professional” people are?
They tend to be very neat and clean (laughs). They tend to be people with advanced degrees. It’s affluent, white-collar workers. They generally don’t think of themselves as a class, like the working class or business class or something like that. They think of themselves as “the talented.” They are where they are because they’re so smart. And smart is a word you hear a lot among these people. It tends to be their ultimate term of approbation. When they really like something, that’s the word they use to describe it. Or when they really like a person — they’re “smart,” or alternately “brilliant.”
Right, or “sharp.”
Yeah, but that’s pretty Midwestern, though (laughs). Look, one of the things I realized while writing “Listen, Liberal” is that you could fill a set of encyclopedias with observations about this social group. These are the people who write our books. This is the group that everything in our society is written for, this is who the audience is, this is who consumes cultural products. And what’s funny is that you start to consider them as their own class — as a sociological class rather than just as, you know, high-achieving people — your understanding of them changes a lot. And also your understanding of our politics.
You look at President Obama’s inner circle of advisers, these very high-achieving people, almost all of whom went to a very small number of colleges of graduate schools, most of them Harvard. He thinks he’s choosing the very best and the very brightest, and getting the very best advice there is. And when he came into office, I was in full agreement with that strategy. But since then, it has become clear that when you fill an administration with all of these people who come from the same background that they actually are acting on behalf of members of this class. They’re not just doing their best for us as a nation — they are acting on behalf of their social cohorts. And once you figure that out, all sorts of other things follow.
I think all future historians are going to wonder why Obama dealt with the Wall Street banks in the way he did. That’s the big mystery of his presidency. He’s elected to do one thing, and he does the opposite. Why did he do that? Why did he choose that course? Once you throw in this understanding of his advisers as representatives of this class, it all becomes clear. Because these people look at the Wall Street bankers, the investment bankers, the hedge fund managers that they are supposed to be getting tough with — they look at these people and say, “These are our peers.They’re good people. They made one mistake, you know? Let them off the hook.”
So, you have an administration that was incapable of getting tough with people at the top, but had no hesitation in prosecuting people at the bottom.
I wanted to talk a bit about how you’ve explored the history of the Democratic Party as “The Party of the People,” which is a sort of unofficial motto that you’ve said goes back to the days of Jefferson and Jackson. How does the Democratic Party of Jackson or Jefferson differ from the Democratic Party of today?
It’s evolved in many different ways over the years, and in a lot of ways, it’s evolved for the better. I mean, the party of Jefferson and Jackson — these are two people who really believed in democracy, but not for everybody. They were both slave owners, and the Democratic Party was deeply implicated in that. Thankfully, they’ve (the Democrats) put that behind them. But beginning in the 1930s or even before that, they were identified as the party of labor, of working people, and especially of the middle class.
I’m old enough — I’m 51 now — to remember when protecting the middle class was this kind of sacred duty for Democrats. You know, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter — this is what they lived to do. And today, we read in the paper that the middle class in this country is shrinking, not growing, and that for many people, a majority of the American public, the recession has not ended; it’s still going. A lot of people are never going to get the standard of living back that they had before the recession. This is shocking stuff. If headlines like that had come out in the 1970s, it would have been enormous. This would be the worst possible development. And this is the kind of thing when Democrats would have swung into action. They would have known what to do. But today, they don’t.
You watch Hillary Clinton talk about it, and the answer’s always the same: education. Everybody needs to go back to school, or something like that. We need more innovation. That’s what they say. And it is not an answer. It’s not a solution. It’s a way of evading the question. It’s a way of rationalizing what’s happened.
Now that Hillary’s the presumptive Democratic nominee, do you think she’ll make much of an effort to bring those working class voters who may have left the party and are now leaning more toward Trump, back into the fold?
Well, she should, because that’s obviously Trump’s strength. Trump is the “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” phenomenon on an enormous scale. But the Democratic reaction to that book was to basically blow it off and ignore what I was saying and to deny what was happening. The leadership faction of the Democratic Party — the group here in Washington that basically gets listened to — have a different theory on politics. Their theory is incredibly simple, and you’ve probably heard it a million times in your life: The voters that you have to reach out to are the moderates — the swing voters who are in between two parties. You have to reach out to them, and the way you do that is by moving to the right. So, once you’ve got the nomination locked down, a Democrat, anyway, has to pivot to the right and win those voters who are in the middle.
But that’s actually not where we are these days. The swing voters are not these people in between the two parties. It’s this white, working class group that is deeply embittered and angry, and is watching their way of life drain away. The way that Democrats reach out to these people is not by moving to the right but by embracing sort of New Deal programs and New Deal solutions that were the reason these people once voted for Democrats in the first place. But — and I’ve been saying this for a long time — you cannot persuade Democrats of this. It is impossible. I have tried and tried and tried. They don't want to hear it.
You’ve been a supporter of the Bernie Sanders campaign throughout the election. Even though it seems very unlikely that he’ll win the nomination at this point, do you think his system-bucking campaign will ultimately create lasting change?
There’s a really important point that he has made, which is that you can run a presidential campaign without the backing of a billionaire, without the backing of big money. Sanders has shown that in fact it’s possible, and that is a huge development.
Now, whether he’s able to transform his campaign into a movement that somehow persists within the Democratic Party remains to be seen. I hope he does. I would like to see that. And I assume there will be another Sanders in four years, (though) I think Hillary will probably be elected president. There will also be another Trump. And that’s kind of frightening. So, ultimately, Hillary might turn out to be this great success and turn the economic situation around and build the middle class and bring back good jobs. I mean, maybe she could do it. Wouldn’t that be great? But I don’t think she can.
Were you surprised to see Bernie win by such a wide margin in the Kansas caucus earlier this year?
Not really. Kansas has a real populist streak to it. It’s the kind of place that would warm to a guy like Bernie, if they hear him. Bernie’s problem was getting his message out, and there’s a lot of places that just weren’t receptive or weren’t interested. But Kansas is the sort of place where, deep down, there is that kind of populist sentiment.
And it hasn’t died out despite everything?
Well, I mean, it became a movement of the right. It’s everywhere now, but the conservatives in Kansas — I mean, the ones that I interviewed way back 12 years ago — are the inheritors of this populist mantle. Though they themselves probably don’t know it, and they certainly wouldn’t agree with the old-time Populists on a lot of issues, they certainly understand the world in the same way as “the little guy versus power.”
Going back to our talk about Bernie’s turnout in the Kansas caucus, Cruz also beat Trump by a fairly wide margin. Will those Cruz supporters stand by Trump come November?
Oh, I don’t know. When I was a kid, there was this real animosity or antagonism between Kansas and New York City. They were like opposite poles on some kind of cosmic spectrum. A lot of it came from sports, because the Royals were always playing the Yankees in the playoffs and were forever losing to them. But it was deeper than that, too, of course.
Trump is not a Kansas type. He’s not the kind of person that people in Kansas go for, but at the same time, the idea of Kansas going for a Democrat seems really hard to ... it will not happen, let’s put it that way (laughs).
Especially not for Hillary?
You know, Hillary has this very interesting Midwestern life story. She comes from the ‘burbs in Chicago. If you really listen closely to her, she has a distinct northern Midwest accent. But she never plays up that part of her life story. She never talks about it. She never tries to humanize herself that way. I’m not saying that she could win Kansas — of course, that seems impossible — but she could certainly make herself more human to Midwestern voters if she wanted to.
Why do you think that is, that we rarely hear about that aspect of her life?
She thinks of herself in different terms. She is a professional woman. This is who she is. It’s very important to her.
Hillary is in some ways the perfect kind of Democrat that I’m describing in “Listen, Liberal.” She has no understanding of the problems of working people. She might say the right thing from time to time because she’s been told to say it, or she’s figured it out somehow, but it’s not instinctive to her. Her natural understanding of the problems people are facing is, the problems that women have rising in the professions. What is her candidacy about? She always says it’s about breaking down artificial barriers that stop people from rising in life as high as their talents will take them. It’s about people not being stopped by racism or sexism but instead rising as high as their talents will take them. It’s what she believes in above everything else.
How do you think history will look back on Obama’s presidency, when all’s said and done?
He has achieved some very big things. Obamacare was big and the Dodd-Frank (Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act) was pretty big. I also think that, unlike so many other politicians, his charm has never really worn off. Being hopeful about Obama and then being disappointed by him is really what led me to write this book. But even as I say that, I still like the guy. I’d still like to have a beer with him, you know, like they’re always talking about (laughs).
The problem is that our admiration for the guy as a person gets in the way of our assessment of him as a historical actor, and it also really messes with the way Democrats think about him. The party will basically not tolerate any criticism of him. They’re in some ways dragged down by the hope of 2008, that they can’t allow themselves to see where he went wrong and that he made mistakes, because they want to think that he’s great. And he’s pretty damn good, let me say that. No, he hasn’t been a great president. But we are captive of our longing for him to be a great president, and so we find it very difficult to admit the truth about him to ourselves. I’m speaking of liberals here. Conservatives think he’s some kind of devil figure, which I just don’t understand (laughs).
I do think that ultimately the failings of his administration — a lot of them — are his responsibility. Those failures belong to him — not to Eric Holder, not to Tim Geithner, not to Larry Summers, but ultimately to him.