The Left asks: What happened to the Democrats?

There is a new book out by Thomas Frank, a journalist who writes for Harpers magazine.  His book was recently reviewed by the magazine In These Times

In These Times was founded in 1976 by author and historian James Weinstein to "identify and clarify the struggles against corporate power now multiplying in American society."  Weinstein was joined by noted intellectuals Daniel Ellsberg, E.P. Thompson, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Julian Bond and Herbert Marcuse, all of whom were among the original sponsors of the magazine.

Thomas Frank's new book is titled:  Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?  The title In These Times chose for its column on the book is even more explicit:


The column is in the form of an interview of Thomas Frank, conducted by Tobita Chow, chair of The People’s Lobby, an independent progressive political organization based in Chicago. Below are some excerpts from the column:

THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY WAS ONCE THE PARTY OF THE NEW DEAL and the ally of organized labor. But by the time of Bill Clinton's presidency, it had become the enemy of New Deal programs like welfare and Social Security and the champion of free trade deals. What explains this apparent reversal?

...According to Frank, popular explanations which blame corporate lobby groups and the growing power of money in politics are insufficient.

Frank instead points to a decision by Democratic Party elites in the 1970s to marginalize labor unions and transform from the party of the working class to the party of the professional class... The end result is that the party which created the New Deal and helped create the middle class has now become “the party of mass inequality.” 


The book is about how the Democratic Party turned its back on working people and now pursues policies that actually increase inequality. What are the policies or ideological commitments in the Democratic Party that make you think this?

The first piece of evidence is what’s happened since the financial crisis. This is the great story of our time. Inequality has actually gotten worse since then, which is a remarkable thing. This is under a Democratic president who we were assured (or warned) was the most liberal or radical president we would ever see.  Yet inequality has gotten worse, and the gains since the financial crisis, since the recovery began, have gone entirely to the top 10 percent of the income distribution.

This is not only because of those evil Republicans, but because Obama played it the way he wanted to. Even when he had a majority in both houses of Congress and could choose whoever he wanted to be in his administration, he consistently made policies that favored the top 10 percent over everybody else. He helped out Wall Street in an enormous way when they were entirely at his mercy.

He could have done anything he wanted with them, in the way that Franklin Roosevelt did in the ’30s. But he chose not to.

Why is that? This is supposed to be the Democratic Party, the party that’s interested in working people, average Americans. Why would they react to a financial crisis in this way? Once you start digging into this story, it goes very deep. You find that there was a transition in the Democratic Party in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s where they convinced themselves that they needed to abandon working people in order to serve a different constituency: a constituency essentially of white-collar professionals.

That’s the most important group in their coalition. That’s who they won over in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. That’s who they serve, and that’s where they draw from. The leaders of the Democratic Party are always from this particular stratum of society.

... Money in politics is a big part of the story, but social class goes deeper than that. The Democrats have basically made their commitment [to white-collar professionals] already before money and politics became such a big deal. It worked out well for them because of money in politics. So when they chose essentially the top 10 percent of the income distribution as their most important constituents, that is the story of money.

It wasn’t apparent at the time in the ’70s and ’80s when they made that choice. But over the years, it has become clear that that was a smart choice in terms of their ability to raise money. Organized labor, of course, is no slouch in terms of money. They have a lot of clout in dollar terms. However, they contribute and contribute to the Democrats and they almost never get their way—they don’t get, say, the Employee Free Choice Actor Bill Clinton passes NAFTA. They do have a lot of money, but their money doesn’t count.

All of this happened because of the civil war within the Democratic Party. They fought with each other all the time in the ’70s and the ’80s. One side hadn’t completely captured the party until Bill Clinton came along in the ’90s. That was a moment of victory for them.


Do you think there’s a connection between the fact that the Democratic Party has turned against workers and the rise of Donald Trump?

Yes. Because if you look at the polling, Trump is winning the votes of a lot of people who used to be Democrats. These white, working-class people are his main base of support. As a group, these people were once Democrats all over the country. These are Franklin Roosevelt’s people.

These are the people that the Democrats essentially decided to turn their backs on back in the 1970s. They call them the legatees of the New Deal. They were done with these guys, and now look what’s happened—they’ve gone with Donald Trump. That’s frightening and horrifying.

But Trump talks about their issues in a way that they find compelling, especially the trade issue. When he talks about trade, they believe him.

... Millenials’ take on the world is fascinating. Just a few years ago, people thought of them as very

different. But now they’re coming out of college with enormous student debt, and they’re discovering that the job market is casualized and Uberized. The work that they do is completely casual. The idea of having a middle-class lifestyle in that situation is completely off the table for them.

Every time I think about these people, it burns me up. It makes me so angry what we’ve done to them as a society. It really gives the lie to Democratic Party platitudes about the world an education will open up for you. That path just doesn’t work anymore. Millenials can see that in their own lives very plainly.