No, Thomas Frank hasn’t gone conservative, though from the title of of his latest book, Listen Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, it might appear that way.
Frank (who has contributed to the Reader) is a onetime Chicagoan and the cofounder of the Baffler, a left-leaning journal of fiction, poetry, and cultural, political, and economic criticism (he’s currently listed as “founding editor” on the masthead). He has spent more than a decade writing books devoted to exposing the destructive reign of the Republican Party. Considering his CV and bibliography, it’d be fair to assume that Listen Liberal—a reexamination of U.S. politics during the 1990s—might cast Newt Gingrich as the central villain. But the toad-faced former speaker of the house who tried to strangle the federal government into submission during the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 is barely mentioned. Frank instead saves surprisingly sharp words for Gingrich’s charismatic, saxophone-playing public adversary, Bill Clinton.
“Bill Clinton was not the lesser of two evils, he was the greater of them,” Frank said in a phone interview. “The magic of him being a Democrat was that he did things that Republicans could have never accomplished. Welfare reform, the crime bill, NAFTA—things that injured members of his coalition. Clinton got done what Reagan couldn’t do and what Bush couldn’t do.”
In other words, Clinton’s crimes aren’t the ones that Gingrich once belabored (thankfully, Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater aren’t even mentioned in Listen Liberal). Rather, they’re the legacy of legislation that ultimately favored Wall Street above America’s working class and poor. Frank isn’t fooled by Clinton’s folksy rhetoric—he concludes that the president famous for feeling our pain delivered a heaping dose of it to his own coalition.
Frank began writing Listen Liberal in 2014 partly out of sheer boredom. From 2004 to 2012 he published an unofficial trilogy—What’s the Matter With Kansas?, The Wrecking Crew, and Pity the Billionaire—three politicals screeds with the same overarching theme: the GOP was filled with false populists who served the 1 percent and manipulated social conservatives into voting against their own economic interests. “This time, I wanted to look at the other participant in the two-party monopoly,” Frank said. “The real pitfall of the partisan mind-set is that you begin to think that what your side does is a natural and normal response to everything, but of course it isn’t. You have to be willing to look in the mirror.”
The timing of this change in approach is impeccable. During the past several months Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign has held that same mirror up to the warts of the Clinton and Obama administrations. There are moments when Listen Liberal reads like a 300-page endorsement of the Vermont senator, even if Frank says it’s a happy coincidence.
“I’m a journalist, I don’t endorse candidates,” he told me. “That said, Bernie and I share worldviews to an alarming degree. It wasn’t written with Bernie in mind, but I hope it captures a lot of what his supporters are thinking.”
Listen Liberal doesn’t go as far as to call for a Sanders-style political revolution—it’s an angry plea to the Democratic Party to return to its liberal roots. Frank claims that since Clinton’s presidency, the Democrats have been swooning over the “professional class”—an ascendant group of highly educated Americans with careers in tech, law, finance, banking, academia, entrepreneurship, and other “creative” or “knowledge” fields. Never mind the old scions of the world—say, the Koch brothers or Donald Trump. Think Jeff Bezos and Sergey Brin, socially liberal folks who approve of gay marriage and abortion yet share the views of conservatives on economic issues like free trade and deregulation—at the expense of the party’s old labor-loving New Deal coalition.
“Clinton treated different groups of Americans in radically different ways,” Frank writes, “crushing some in the iron fist of the state just as others were getting bailouts, deregulation, and a frolicking celebration of Think Different business innovation. . . . The ascendance of the first group requires that the second be lowered gradually into hell. . . .What the poor get is discipline; what the professionals get is endless indulgence.”
Frank lays much of the blame at Clinton’s feet, but also points fingers at the neoliberalism of Hillary, Obama, and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, members and protectors of this same vaunted professional class. Rahm’s Chicago—that of rampant and ever-rising inequality between the low-crime, highly manicured Green Zone and the high-crime, destitute neighborhoods of “Chi-raq”—is par for the course, says Frank.
“Rahm loves one class of citizens and strongly disapproves of another,” Frank says. “He’s interested in the entrepreneurs and innovators but goes to war with teachers’ unions. But it’s not just him. He’s following the exact same road map as the rest. The Democrats just aren’t interested in the fate of working people.” v