For those still reeling from an election that put a nightmarish, fascistic buffoon into office, Listen Liberal is instructive to understand the self-sabotage that led to this moment.
The results of the 2016 American presidential election sent shockwaves around the world, but perhaps no one was more immediately, publicly bewildered and lost than the entire political punditry, all of whom were left holding the tatters of their useless predictions when the unthinkable happened and Donald Trump won. In the aftermath, book-length reactions have tended to take the form of one of two topics: a disgusted, superior excoriation of the kind of country we have become, and the hastily softened liberal victory lap penned with the full expectation of a Clinton victory. What makes Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People such a compelling read is that he got out ahead of the reaction by anticipating the fall. The book, originally published in March 2016 and freshly issued to paperback with a lengthy “I told you so” of a new afterword, it is a bracing indictment of a party’s slow collapse from the dominant political force of 20th-century America to a rudderless group that lost nearly 1,000 positions at all levels of government in the span of a single decade.
Frank provides a brief overview of the policies that brought the Democratic Party to new heights in the wake of the Great Depression, from New Deal job programs to enduringly popular entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. Then, he charts how that same party became the most effective saboteurs of said programs. Against the backdrop of an election that triangulated Barack Obama with the dual legacies of the Clintons to define the modern face of the Democratic Party, Frank places those three figures under a microscope to examine how the three most prominent Democrats boosted and enacted policies that undermined the party’s core tenets. Much of the book hones in on Bill Clinton in particular, who at first glance looks like a savior for a group that saw heavy, embarrassing presidential losses for more than a decade, stretching back to the McGovern rout of 1972. After years of attempting to move to the center to avoid the failure of a populist like McGovern, the party finally hit it lucky with Clinton, who mixed an exceptional level of popular charm with rigidly centrist, even right-leaning positions that allowed him to win a broad coalition. As Frank writes of Clinton’s smooth 1996 re-election, “Americans resoundingly chose the friendly young conservative Bill Clinton over the dour, old conservative Bob Dole.”
Smarmy as that sounds, it’s difficult to argue that designation when Frank lays bare the major achievements of the Clinton administration. Propped up by a deregulation bubble, the president enacted punishing welfare reform, labor-decimating trade agreements, and most notoriously, a 1994 crime bill that so transformed the penal state in the country that it turned up repeatedly as a topic during the 2016 election. All of these major accomplishments largely affected core constituencies of the Democratic base—the poor, organized labor, and people of color (the latter disproportionately and deliberately targeted by the crime bill)—and splintered a strong voting bloc. Frank tears into the failure of Clinton and Obama to adequately redress, and in many cases enthusiastically contributing to, mounting inequality. As he argues, only a Democrat like Clinton could attack liberal bulwarks like Social Security and welfare without suffering the backlash that a Republican would, and he calls out the Obama economy as a false recovery that failed to do anything to prevent a future collapse.
Obama’s close circle of Ivy League-educated, austerity-supporting liberals forms the core of Frank’s most policy-based critique, in which he suggests that the true keeper of the current-day Democratic Party’s soul is neither economic populism nor rainbow-coalition social liberalism but means-tested technocracy advocated by top-line donors and a professional class that espouses liberal causes but only deepens inequality and instability. This became all the more apparent in the Obama era, in which people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner stewarded the country through an economic crisis by largely protecting those who caused it and leaving ordinary Americans to drown in abandoned mortgage reform and austerity.
The core of Frank’s argument is strong here, but he does lose focus on obsessing over his interpretation of the word “professional,” which is too loose a term to assign the evil value he places upon it. Too often, Frank must acknowledge that his anti-professional screed must exclude fields of genuine qualification like science and medicine, only to bounce back and insist on the perils of leaving policy in the hands of merely the well-educated. The vagueness of the language dilutes what might otherwise have been a strong point against relying on the cloistered world of the Ivy League to understand a complex country. Furthermore, in a time where the White House has been gutted to install flagrantly unqualified people in charge of every department, Frank’s critique comes off as bitterly naïve.
Frank’s tone also softens in these chapters, delineating a broad split between a sense of disappointment in Obama for failing to live up to his ideals compared to the rage he saves for Clinton’s proud evisceration of liberal policies. As such, it’s the Clinton material that proves most satisfying for those looking to rage at a party that has strayed so far from its principles, and Frank’s dripping, sarcastic prose is better suited to splenetic fury than the more careful, second-guessing frustration of his Obama critique. When the author points out that Clinton’s planned rollback of Social Security was saved only by the frenzy surrounding the Monica Lewinsky scandal, his ferocity is unstoppable in highlighting the irony of Clinton inadvertently saving the program only by his indiscretion.
Nonetheless, the core of Listen, Liberals is strong, and for those still reeling from an election that put a nightmarish, fascistic buffoon into office, it is instructive to understand the self-sabotage that led to this moment as much as the groundswell of conservative resentment. One wishes Frank ventured outside the executive branch more often—there’s more to the story of a near-total party collapse on the state level than just the Clintons and Obama—but he at least takes a somewhat holistic view of the party’s slide into means testing and conservative compromise. For such a compact book, it contains numerous, cited attacks on Democratic strategists and lapdog media that may not surprise leftie readers with an antipathy for the party itself but do act as a passionate, inflammatory primer for those wondering where it all went wrong.