What's wrong with our politics? What Thomas Frank & Steve Fraser think.Roundup
Liberals may be experiencing mixed emotions these days. The prospect of a Trump presidency has raised urgent fears: of the nation’s fascist tendencies, of the potential for riots in the streets. At the same time, many liberals have expressed a grim satisfaction in watching the Republican Party tear itself apart. Whatever terrible fate might soon befall the nation, the thinking goes, it’s their fault, not ours. They are the ones stirring up the base prejudices and epic resentments of America’s disaffected white working class, and they must now reap the whirlwind.
In his new book, the social critic Thomas Frank poses another possibility: that liberals in general — and the Democratic Party in particular — should look inward to understand the sorry state of American politics. Too busy attending TED talks and vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, Frank argues, the Democratic elite has abandoned the party’s traditional commitments to the working class. In the process, they have helped to create the political despair and anger at the heart of today’s right-wing insurgencies. They may also have sown the seeds of their own demise. Frank’s recent columns argue that the Bernie Sanders campaign offers not merely a challenge to Hillary Clinton, but a last-ditch chance to save the corrupted soul of the Democratic Party.
Frank has been delivering some version of this message for the past two decades as a political essayist and a founding editor of The Baffler magazine. “Listen, Liberal” is the thoroughly entertaining if rather gloomy work of a man who feels that nobody has been paying attention. Frank’s most famous book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” (2004), argued that Republicans had duped the white working class by pounding the table on social issues while delivering tax cuts for the rich. He focused on Kansas as the reddest of red states (and, not incidentally, the place of his birth). This time Frank is coming for the Ivy League blue-state liberals, that “tight little network of enlightened strivers” who have allegedly been running the country into the ground. Think of it as “What’s the Matter With Massachusetts?”
Frank’s book is an unabashed polemic, not a studious examination of policy or polling trends. In Frank’s view, liberal policy wonks are part of the problem, members of a well-educated elite that massages its own technocratic vanities while utterly missing the big question of the day. To Frank, that question hasn’t changed much over the last few centuries. “It is the eternal conflict of management and labor, owner and worker, rich and poor — only with one side pinned to the ground and the other leisurely pounding away at its adversary’s face,” he writes. Today, polite circles tend to describe this as the issue of “inequality.” Frank prefers an older formulation. “The 19th century understood it better: They called it ‘the social question,’ ” he writes, defined as “nothing less than the whole vast mystery of how we are going to live together.”
As Frank notes, today some people are living much better than others — and many of those people are not Republicans. Frank delights in skewering the sacred cows of coastal liberalism, including private universities, bike paths, microfinance, the Clinton Foundation, “well-meaning billionaires” and any public policy offering “innovation” or “education” as a solution to inequality. He spends almost an entire chapter mocking the true-blue city of Boston, with its “lab-coat and starched-shirt” economy and its “well-graduated” population of overconfident collegians. ...
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