Monday, May 21, 2018

Review: Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank's latest book, Listen, Liberal, revisits his longstanding theme of the decline of New Deal liberalism and its implications for the country. However, where previously he concentrated on the rise of "market populism" (One Market Under God), the use of the culture wars as an instrument of right-wing economic policies (What's the Matter with Kansas?), the undermining of the public sector as an effective actor from Reagan on (The Wrecking Crew) and the manner in which, counterintuitively, the right rather than the left made capital out of the very financial crisis that made neoliberal economics appear bankrupt as never before (Pity the Billionaire), here he sets his sights on precisely those whose duty it was to bear liberalism's standard, the Democratic Party. In particular he recounts the turn of the Democratic Party, post-'60s, traced all the way down through the years of Clinton, Bush, Obama to the election of 2016 (when the book first hit print).

According to Frank's history, the party decided circa 1970 that New Dealish, working class politics were passé amid the affluence of the postwar boom, reeling from the working class voters it identified with Archie Bunker and inclined to a countercultural embrace of "cool" urban professionals. By way of figures like Frederick Dutton, the Democratic Leadership Council and the "Atari" Democrats, it allowed itself to be transformed into a party of yuppies who, despite reality being far from the perfect meritocracy that Michael Young once tried to imagine, displayed the worst of the thinking portrayed in that too often overlooked dystopia, epitomized by the self-satisfied meanness of Larry Summers, publicly attributing rising inequality simply to people being "treated closer to the way that they're supposed to be treated"—the withering middle class, the harder-pressed working class, the growing ranks of poor deserving their fates.

As might be expected, Frank's book has its moments of humor and insight. The book's latter portion is especially strong, eviscerating such buzzwords as "innovation" and "entrepreneurship" (he's not the only one sick of these words thrown about so much and so meaninglessly), and such pieties as micro-finance. More daring still is the book's critique of "woke" neoliberalism (seen in Chapter 11, which has been made available for free on the book's promotional website).

Still, if there is much right with Listen, Liberal, as a larger history the book is not without its weaknesses, alas, not minor ones. Perhaps as a result of Frank's beginning the narrative after the '60s, his book takes the New Deal as the norm rather than the exception for the Democratic Party, and as a result he does a better job of chronicling than explaining these changes. To do that effectively, he would have had to look to the much earlier roots of these events, which imply not a break with tradition, but a return to it. American liberalism/progressivism's unease with class politics and class conflict (in the sense of lower class politics, at least), and strong preference for consensus; its exaltation of expert, professional, technocrat and the elitism that goes with it; have been features of the ideology since the Gilded Age, and to a great degree remained with it through the 1950s. At mid-century this was modified by a New Deal—but that, in turn, was a matter of the extraordinary circumstances of Great Depression, World War, Cold War and post-war boom pushing the center leftward, and that to only a limited degree. The turn of the liberals to Freud and Arendt after their brief Depression-era flirtation with Marx; the haste to declare the Social Questions merely not ameliorated but solved, the business cycle tamed and the ills of capitalism cured once and for all; the readiness of the liberal center to align itself with the right against the left; all bespoke only a limited commitment to change, as did the fact that practical reform in America went only so far, the New Deal state never approaching the scale or comprehensiveness of the welfare states of Western Europe or Canada.

Indeed, by the late '30s economic reform had largely run its course, as liberals shifted their attention to other issues, whether the threat from Fascism abroad, or civil rights and civil liberties in the Cold War, concerns which spoke less to the working public than the Wall Street types with whom they aligned themselves (all of which has been very well-covered by those '50s-era social thinkers to which the very title of Frank's book alludes). There was the Great Society in the 1960s, but Vietnam and an overheated economy quickly imposed limits on that. By the 1970s the fading of the memory of the Depression and World War II, the weakening of the left by the militant anti-Communism of the Cold War in which liberals eagerly joined, the economic stagnation that made concessions to working people like the New Deal, or the Great Society, seem less necessary or palatable to those who were better off, or simply identified themselves in different terms—freed it to return to its default mode. Indeed, as the Age of Reform gave way to the Age of Neoliberalism, it was not only predictable that the Democrats would lose interest in the lower classes, but that they would go so far in doing so, and in the manner that they did so. And after his book came out in early 2016, the behavior of the party only reaffirmed its loyalty to its post-New Deal course, and despite this being at its cost, apparently without any regrets.

Interestingly, I found a work of film criticism picked up for quite different reasons, Peter Biskind's Seeing is Believing, rather helpful in understanding all this. You can read my review of it here.

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