The Liberals Didn’t Listen: The Immense Cost of Ignoring Tom Frank’s Warnings

By William K. Black

Cross-posted with New Economic Perspectives

November 8, 2016     Kansas City, MO

I am writing this article late on election night in my office at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, about a mile from the home in which Tom Frank grew up just over the state line in Kansas.  Beginning with his famous book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, first published in 2004, Tom Frank has been warning the Democratic Party of the increasing cost it was paying by abandoning and even attacking the working class, particularly the white working class.  Some political scientists tried to savage his work, pointing to Bill Clinton’s electoral success and arguing that the disaffected members of the working class were also less likely to vote.  Frank returned to the theme just in time for this election with a new book – Listen, Liberal – that documents in damning, lively narrative the New Democrats’ war on the New Deal, their disdain for organized labor, and their antipathy for what they viewed as retrograde white working class attitudes.

Frank kept showing the enormous price the working class were paying as a result of the economic policies of the Republicans and the New Democrats, and the indifference to their plight by the leaders of the New Democrats.  Senator Bernie Sanders consciously took up the cause of reducing surging inequality and became a hero to a broad coalition of voters, many of them fiercely opposed to the New Democrats’ embrace of Wall Street cash, policies, and arrogance.  Sanders set records for small donor fundraising and generated enormous enthusiasm.  Sanders knew he would face the opposition of the New Democrats, but he also found that progressive congressional Democrats would rarely support him publicly in the contest for the Party’s nomination and even union leaders sided overwhelmingly with Secretary Hillary Clinton, the New Democrats’ strongly preferred candidate.

Hillary did not simply fail to reach out to the working class voters that the New Democrats had turned their backs on for decades, she infamously attacked them as “deplorables.”  This was exactly the group of potential voters that was enraged because it believed, correctly as Tom Frank keeps showing us, that the New Democrats looked down on them and adopted policies that rigged the system against the working class.  Hillary’s insult confirmed their most powerful bases for their rage against her.  Her insult was an early Christmas present to Trump.  Her attempt to walk the insult back was doomed.

Hillary Clinton handled things so miserably that she allowed a plutocrat whose career is based on rigging the system against the working class to become the hero of the working class.  That is world-class incompetence.  Had she followed Tom Frank’s advice she would today be the President-elect.  The real cost, however, of her failure will be enormous damage to our democracy, the safety of the world, and the damage that President Trump will do to the working class as he systematically betrays their interests.

The first test of whether the Wall Street-wing of the Democratic Party has learned any of the lessons Tom Frank tried to teach them is whether President Obama will continue with his threat to try to have the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) approved by the lame duck session of Congress.  Obama, who was elected on the promise that he would stop TPP, should listen to Senators Sanders and Warren and honor his promise to the voters to stop TPP.  He must begin the process of the Democrats winning back the support of the working class.

The leaders of the democratic-wing of the Democratic Party need to move forward assertively to retake control of their Party.  The current head of the DNC has been exposed as part of the effort to prevent Senator Sanders from winning the nomination.  She should resign tomorrow.  The Clintons should cease acting as Party leaders.

A period of enormous corruption and elite fraud is coming soon as the Trump administration brings its signature characteristic – crony capitalism – to bear to control all three branches of government.  Trump promises to deregulate Wall Street, appoint top supervisors chosen for their unwillingness to supervise, and appoint judges who will allow CEOs to loot with impunity.  Trump promises to outdo even the savage anti-media and anti-whistleblower policies of the Obama administration.  The House and Senate committee chairs will intensify their blatantly partisan use of investigations while refusing to conduct real oversight hearings revealing the elite fraud and corruption.

The progressive Senate Democrats will have to be innovative and stalwart in these circumstances to find ways to blow the whistle repeatedly on the mounting corruption.  Their challenge will be to lead despite having no real institutional power.  Democrats should start by doing what they should have done in 2004 – take Tom Frank’s warnings deadly seriously.

New Issue!


Our November/December 2016 issue is out!  I just posted the cover story, Jerry Friedman’s Nativism: As American as (Rotten) Apple Pie.

Here is this issue’s editorial note:

Liberty in a Time of Crisis

It is both apt and ironic. The most “American” symbol of liberty is an immigrant.

The Statue of Liberty—or, as it is formally known, “Liberty Enlightening the World”—stood assembled in France (see photo this page) before packing, shipping across the Atlantic, and reassembly at its permanent home in New York Harbor. Of course, the pedestal also bears the famous lines:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The irony should be evident in today’s vile frenzy of nativism—the fulminations against Mexican immigrants, the fantasies of border walls and mass deportations, the disturbing calls for a ban on Muslim immigration and registration of those already here. From economic historian (and regular D&S columnist) Gerald Friedman, we have a historical account of America’s long history of anti-immigrant outbursts—from Benjamin Franklin before the United States even existed to the KKK of the 1920s (which, in addition to its white supremacism, gave voice to the ugliest anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant impulses). He explains how present-day nativism fits the patterns.

The aptness may not seem so obvious, but Friedman’s account also belies a view of U.S. history as one of unrelenting xenophobia. Between episodes of nativist rage, there were periods of openness to immigration; during the high tides of anti-immigrant sentiment, also noble defenses of equal rights and civil liberties; in their wake, an eventual reopening, and a reaffirmation of belief in this as an “immigrant nation.” Even today, the vocal anti-immigrant minority notwithstanding, most U.S. residents express positive views about immigrants and what they bring to the country.

Of course, the nativist eruption is only part of a wider turmoil gripping the United States and the world. Polly Cleveland reviews Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, the sociologist’s account of her foray into Louisiana Tea Party country. Hochschild’s attempt to understand and empathize with Tea Party supporters, Cleveland argues, reveals people jealously defending their place in the social pecking order—as is typical of high-inequality and low-mobility societies.

Biola Jeje’s “Active Culture” turns our attention to the Movement for Black Lives. This is a country, she reminds us, where Black people’s personhood has often been acknowledged more grudgingly than that of capitalist corporations. Activists are confronting a reality of police violence and mass incarceration, crises of housing and education, inadequate infrastructure and environmental degradation—all of which disproportionately impact African Americans. The disparities, of course, are not new. The movement’s bold vision confronting racism and neoliberalism today is an encouraging development.

Crossing the Atlantic, we see another continent where the future is uncertain.

Alejandro Reuss continues his series on the eurozone crisis and European social democracy. In this installment, he addresses the rise of “Third Way” figures—who turned their backs on class-struggle politics and counseled reconciliation with neoliberalism—to leadership of the social democratic parties in the largest European countries.
Two other articles on Europe explore similar themes. William Saas,

Jorge Amar, David Glotzer, and Scott Ferguson consider the economic program of Spain’s leftist Podemos party, and ways in which it has failed to embrace the changes necessary to pull Spain out of its current crisis. The authors point to the necessity of a universal job guarantee, a “left exit” (or “lexit”) from the euro, and an understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) in transcending conventional balanced-budget thinking.

Nina Eichacker, meanwhile, considers the ramifications of this past summer’s Brexit vote on the UK economy and especially its financial sector. She weighs factors pointing both toward stability and toward instability. Pro-Brexit voters, she concludes, might not get the populist outcome they hoped for, in an economy heavily reliant on finance and with a state committed to protecting financial interests.

The cover image for this issue shows Liberty under construction. (It is actually a model, on display at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.) That is an apt metaphor, in the United States, in Europe, and the world over. The version of “liberty” offered by those in power has been, at best, incomplete; at worst, a cruel hoax.

It’s high time for a redesign.