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Thomas Frank (1975, Kansas City) has a habit of looking close to home in search of answers to the big questions facing all of us. The process isn’t always comfortable to him, but its results often prove remarkably revealing. In 2004, he put his native Kansas under the microscope to analyze how what once was a hotbed of progressivism and counterculture had become the most faithfully Republican state in the Union. Frank’s dissection of his birth state had him face the fears, anxieties and aspirations of fellow Kansans, most of whom he confesses he disagreed with on almost everything. The result, What’s the Matter with Kansas, was one of the most celebrated books about American politics in decades. It was also extraordinarily universal. The book offered pristine insight into how working class people can vote against their direct economic interests. Frank’s message was clear – Republicans had become hegemonic in Kansas by making ‘cultural issues’ such as abortion, guns, school prayer or the teaching of evolution the vernacular of the state’s politics. In his newest book, Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? Frank turns to the Democratic Party to interrogate its complicity in the obliteration of the US middle class. Brilliant and hilarious, polemical and flamboyant, Frank met with CTXT in his house in Bethesda, a wealthy suburb of Washington, DC, to discuss how people like his neighbors –and Manhattan investment bankers— came to run what was once the party of the American working class, and why accusing Donald Trump’s supporters of racism misses a crucial point.
When you agreed to do this interview you said, ‘Let’s talk about American politics and how awful it is.’ What makes you so pessimistic?
I'm actually in a good mood these days because of Sanders. Even if he loses, which I think he will, eventually there will be another one, another Sanders. People are finally figuring all of this out.
Does he represent a challenge to the party itself?
Yeah, I think so. Look at how the party is reacting to him. The leadership is unanimously opposed to him. He’s not part of their group. What's funny is he is closer to who they traditionally are. He's a Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman-style Democrat and they hate him. Isn't that amazing?
Because they've become ... You argue that they've abandoned the working class.
Yeah, pretty much.
What kinds of policies show that?
First of all, they said they were doing that in books and and magazine articles. They were very open about it. But there's all sorts of ways that you can show that. NAFTA –the free-trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, under Clinton— is the classic example. It has permanently altered the balance of power between management and labor in this country, as have all the other trade deals. Each of the last three Democrat Presidents, Obama, Clinton, and Carter, they were all elected with the support of organized labor. Labor worked their butts off and each of these presidents, when they came in, they immediately decided that labor would not get their basic one or two demands. I forget what it was with Carter. Clinton, obviously, NAFTA, he went right against them and with Obama they wanted something called card check, which would have made it easier for them organize, to form unions. Obama said he was in favor of it but he didn't lift a finger to get it passed and so it just died and that was that.
Was that a strategic decision though? Why would one abandon its base?
Yeah, isn't that a good question? As I have gone on this book tour and as I've spoken to many, many, many people in the media, almost all of them Democrats or liberals, they don't like working-class people. They just don't like them... Specifically white working-class people. Whenever you talk about this they always say, ‘Yeah those people are racist.’ This is the stereotype in America. It’s like, ‘Good riddance that they're not voting for us. We don't want their votes.’
Is that due to elitism?
Yes, snobbery, but it goes farther than that. They do want their votes of course. And they especially want their money. They're just not willing to do anything to really help these people out. Now, you look at what the Democrats do for other groups. You look at what they did for Wall Street, for example, or the favors that they do for big Pharma or Silicon Valley. It's amazing what they did for those guys.
When the Obama presidency started a lot of people who wanted progressive change were hopeful. You’ve argued that he could have gone after Wall Street, but chose not to.
Choice is the most important word that you just used. It’s the path that he chose to follow. Because if you talk to people in Washington DC they will say Obama he can't do anything – Republicans in Congress won’t let him, so he never has any choice. But in 2009 when he was elected, there was great sweeping enthusiasm about him. He could have done anything he wanted, especially with Wall Street. He totally had the upper hand because of the bailouts.
What could he have done?
It would have required imagination, bravery or boldness. He could have done all sorts of things. When Roosevelt bailed out the banks in the 1930s the guy he put in charge of it, a businessman from Texas, hated Wall Street. He went around the country putting banks out of business if they had committed any kind of fraud. Obama didn't do any of these things. He put Tim Geithner in charge of it. Geithner had been working for the New York branch of the Fed. He's was very, very friendly with the Wall Street banks. Obama just went along with it, exactly the way that George Bush did it. He didn't hold these people accountable in the least. He could've prosecuted some. That would have been enormously important to show that the rule of law applies to everyone, and not just people at the bottom, but no. None of that happened.
Is it a question of affinity, one of ideology, or is it all a big conspiracy?
I think of it as simple class solidarity. The Democrats are a class party, but it's not the working class, it's the professional class. This is the great misunderstanding in our politics. They are a class party. They’re exceptionally dedicated to the interests of a social class. It's just that class is the professional class.
Can you explain who the members of the professional class are?
It includes almost anybody with an advanced degree. You're talking about the top 20% or so of the American population. I write books so I'm, by the way, one of these people. They also use the term white-collar. Sociologists say there is two hierarchies of power in America. One is a hierarchy of business, of money -so the Koch brothers, the Walton family, the business people- and then the other is hierarchy of expertise, or status— people whose career is based on their achievements in school. The professions are all based on education.
Does tech play a big part in that?
Tech, Pharma, and Wall Street are filled with professionals. Wall Street you'd think ‘Oh, well, that's just money,” but it actually isn't anymore. It's a whole bunch of people who’ve usually gone to a very prestigious college, have advanced degrees in math and they're working on supposedly very creative things.
Going back to Obama and the choices that he made. One argument you hear in the mainstream media all the time is Republicans are so right-wing, and they might have just become all-powerful if Obama had been more vigorously progressive. Is there any truth to that?
They are right-wing. They are very conservative. They are frightening. In truth, though, that argument is mainly used against people like me to tell us that we should stop criticizing the Democrats. The political scientists –another professional group—have a term when they talk about people who are a ‘captured constituency.’ This means they can't leave their party. Organized labor is a good example. Liberals like me are another good example. The Clinton people used to say, ‘They've got nowhere else to go.’ Our fear of the Republicans is greater than any kind of doubts we might have about the Democratic leaders. The Democrats know this so they are forever reacting to people on the left with contempt. Did that keep Obama from doing things? No, it didn't. The right wing did not make him appoint Larry Summers. They didn't make him appoint Tim Geithner. It's the same with Clinton. Clinton was moving to the right all the time. He could have chosen to go the other direction. These people have free will.
A lot of the book focuses on economics. You write that the youth knows that “no amount of labor they can produce will catapult them to the ranks of the winners.” But Obama seems very proud of the recovery, as a recent New York Times interview revealed.
Look, the word to remember here is inequality, which is really a euphemism. For people in certain classes and certain cities there's been a wonderful recovery. Around here where we are sitting right now, in Washington DC suburb, in the Montgomery County, Maryland, which is a prosperous suburb, everything is fine. The world looks good. Real estate prices are going up. People have jobs. They generally get paid fairly well. But you get outside of these very successful places and America is falling apart. America looks like West Virginia. The middle-class way of life for working-class people is off the table – it doesn't exist anymore. For them there has been no recovery. They do these polls and they ask people, ‘Is the recession over?’ And the recession has been over, technically, for seven years, but people still say, ‘No, the recession is still going on.’ Because it is for them.
Is there anything in particular that motivates you to write that way about the youth though?
Their situation is unusually bad, because of two things – The student debt problem and the gig economy –the idea that all jobs are going to be like driving for Uber. Everything is just very short little piece of work that you do. Everything is piecework. All employment is casual employment and that's the economy that young people are entering.
What responsibility do Democrats bear in the heightened levels of inequality in the country?
A huge part of it. Barack Obama did not take the opportunity that history afforded him in 2009 to attack the financial industry which is really the heart of inequality. Another thing he might have done is enforce antitrust. When you have monopolies, the government is supposed to go after them. We don't do that anymore in this country. Look, the Republicans certainly deserve the lion's share of the blame for inequality. They're the ones and took on organized labor and built this lobbying industry in Washington. But neoliberalism doesn't work unless you have a consensus, unless all the people at the top agree. You don't have that without the Democratic Party also signing on. You don't have neoliberalism until you have Bill Clinton. You have this sort of crazy right wing market philosophy with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, but you don't have the real neoliberal society until you have the other side capitulating. That's Clinton and that's Obama.
What sorts of policies did Clinton implement that make you say that?
NAFTA is the main one. He also did something called welfare reform, which basically removed the floor from under poor people. Poor people can now sink. At the same time, he was doing a whole series of deregulations of the banks. That's basically what neoliberalism is. A lot of these are things that Republicans could not do. Republicans could not get NAFTA to pass. They had negotiated it with Mexico and Canada but they couldn't get it through Congress. That was Clinton, they had to have a Democrat to do that. The Republicans would never have been able to get bank deregulation done on their own because the Democrats would have fought them to the end. Same with welfare reform. None of these things would have ever happened if Bill Clinton hadn’t been president. In some ways he achieved more than Reagan did.
There was also the crime bill, around the same time. What strikes me is Hillary Clinton's most faithful constituency are the people who arguably…
Are most harmed by these policies.
Exactly. What's at play there?
I don't really know. It's a mystery to me why anybody likes the Clintons. I guess people look back and they remember two things about him. First of all, the economy boomed in the late 90s. It was pretty much the last good times that a lot of these people have ever had. The economy has been lousy ever since and you can say well, that was built on a bubble that couldn't last, but still they had a good time. And they also remember the Republican persecution of Clinton. He was impeached, you know. The Republicans went after them for crazy reasons. It was so unfair that people identify with the Clintons. I myself did at the time.
You’ve argued democrats attribute inequality to technological change and globalization, saying nothing can be done about those shifts. What is wrong with that analysis?
Globalization is not just something that happens. It's something that we do. NAFTA didn't just get handed down by God like the 10 Commandments. These weren't discovered in a cave somewhere. These were written by humans, by lobbyists. It's the same deal with technology. Every economic relationship is a political relationship. You take something like Uber. It’s very convenient. It's an amazing little device, a little application, but it also has these terrible effects on taxi drivers and on wages generally and especially in if the Uber model is spread all over the economy and it will be. It's going to have very predictable downward effect on wages and on job security and on benefits on everything.
A model of casual employment.
Yes. Exactly. It's an inequality machine. When Uber comes to a city and they want to put the local taxi industry out of business, it's up to the politicians. There are laws. We have laws about safety and about wages and hours. They can figure out a way to make the law apply to Uber but they do the opposite. That's just bogus. So many of the great technological advances of our time are devices for circumventing the law. Credit default swaps, the great financial innovation of the last decade. They were completely unregulated. You can just say ‘Oh, technology. It's God. There's nothing we can do’ or you can say, ‘We’re going to make the law apply to this.’ It's amazing to me that Democrats would rather just say, ‘Nothing we can do.’
You also point out Democrats focus almost exclusively on education.
To the Democratic Party every economic problem is really an educational problem. You're having all these issues in your town: everybody's unemployed, everybody's poor, everybody's doing meth, everybody shooting themselves. The problem is that they didn't go to college. There's a bunch of reasons why they say it. First of all, because there’s is no real challenge to the system, but more importantly, because they really believe in education. Education is the prime directive of the professional class. Their professionalism arises from education. They look at the world and they are like, ‘You just need to do what we did.’ The Republicans look at the world and say the exact same thing— only it has to do with money. Why don't you get out there and start a business? Why aren't you working hard and putting money in the bank? It’s the exact same logic except that one of them is this very high-brow, NPR listening, New Yorker reading…The other is this really gross Republican-Chamber of Commerce philosophy, but they're very similar.
You wrote recently in ‘The Guardian’ that a lot of the coverage of Trump that emphasizes his supporters’ racism is shortsighted. Why?
Trump is a bigot. The things he said are bigoted and intolerant, no doubt. However, to say that that is what motivates his supporters is a logical fallacy. There’s always been people like that. Why is Trump so successful? I just watched a bunch of his speeches. I noticed that he talks about more than just being mean to immigrants. What he talks about, excessively, is trade. He's always talking how bad the trade deals are. This has struck a chord with working-class people because they know that what NAFTA, PNTR with China and all these other trade deals have done to them. There was a video shot recently at a Carrier plant in Indianapolis where the boss tells employees they are moving the plant to Mexico. Trump talks about this, and he fantasizes about how as president, he would call the CEO of that company and threaten him with tariffs just for his products and about how quickly the CEO would capitulate. People love this. They love to hear this. The New York Times went up to Indianapolis and interviewed people who work at that plant. These people are not racist. There was a guy who said, ‘Look, members of my family are Mexican and it really bothers me what Trump said about Mexicans. However, if he really is going to threaten the CEO my company, yes, I will vote for him.’ It's easy to understand this.
Have Democrats paved the way for that?
Oh, sure. Democrats set themselves up for this, because they pushed these people away from the Democratic Party.
Nacido en Pamplona en plenos Sanfermines, ha vivido en Barcelona, Londres, Misuri, Carolina del Norte, Macondo, Buenos Aires y, ahora, Nueva York. Dicen que estudió dos másteres, de Periodismo y Política, en Columbia, que trabajó en Al Jazeera, y que tiene los pies planos. Escribe sobre política, economía, cultura y movimientos sociales, pero en realidad, solo le importa el resultado de Osasuna el domingo.
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