The Terrible Cost to Democrats and Our Nation of Ignoring Tom Frank’s Warnings

By William K. Black
June 27, 2016     Kansas City, MO

Thomas Frank is a historian and writer.  He is also the man who tried to save the Democratic Party and our Nation from great harm.  He is the great chronicler of one of the most grievous, self-inflicted wounds in modern American history.  Twelve years ago, in What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Frank tried to warn the Democratic Party’s dominant elites’ that their policies and contempt for workers were pushing a large part of its base out of the Party.  Many of the workers that were the Democratic Party’s traditional base were leaving the Party and failing to participate in elections, but some were supporting the far-right wing of the Republican Party.  At the national level, the New Democrats’ candidates remained highly competitive, but the Republican Party was able to attain complete political domination of most states.

This year, Frank renewed his warnings in Listen, Liberal, which explains with characteristic verve, facts, and candor how the “New Democrats” made the New Deal, labor, and the working class their targets for attack and ridicule.  The book explains why the New Democrats’ policies, which adopted traditional Republican policies, proved so destructive to labor and the working class.

The New Democrats cannot claim to be shocked that many members of the working class and labor eventually responded to the New Democrats’ contempt and policy betrayals and the terrible harms those policies inflicted upon the working class by increasingly refusing to support such Democratic candidates.  Frank’s books show that the contempt of the New Democrats for the New Deal, labor, and the working class was and is palpable.

Today, Nate Cohn warned Democrats that “Right-Wing Populism Is Prevailing in Left-Wing Strongholds Around the World.”  Cohn’s warning repeats Frank’s warnings, but ignores entirely the reasons for Frank’s warnings, the fact that he made the warnings, the New Democrats’ scorn for his warnings.  Cohn vaguely references the fact that the workers have been on the losing side of a policy of rigging the financial system to favor the wealthiest and most immoral financial leaders for three decades of rule by Republicans and New Democrats, but ignores the tie between those the anti-labor policies, the rigging of the system, and the resultant losses to the working class while the wealthy grow far richer.  This is deliberate, for Cohn writes from the policy perspective of the New Democrats and the Republicans on these issues.  He cannot, therefore, address Frank’s analysis of the nature and horrific results of the New Democrats’ anti-worker policies and contempt.

Cohn’s article makes the broader point that the same dynamic put in place in the U.S. by the New Democrats and the Republicans has occurred in the UK with the BREXIT vote, but fails to explain that Tony Blair consciously modeled “New Labour” on the Clinton’s “New Democrats” and adopted a broad range of the Tories’ policies.  New Labour’s adoption of the same contempt for labor and anti-labor policies pioneered by the Clintons produced the same horrific results for the working class in much of the UK that the New Democrats’ policies produced in the U.S.  It also produced the same smoldering rage in much of the working class and resulting loss of support of the working class for the Labour Party that the New Democrat’s produced in the U.S.

Across the postindustrial world, the populist right is excelling in the old bastions of the left.

If there is a lesson for the United States in the decision by British voters to exit the European Union, it is the importance of the emerging split between the beneficiaries of multicultural globalism and the working-class ethno-nationalists who feel left behind. These issues have the potential to overcome longstanding partisan ties, even in the United States.

Focus on Cohn’s sleights of hand in that passage.  The “bastions of the left” is a nasty way to describe labor.  “Beneficiaries of multicultural globalism” is a grandly vague phrase.  The folks that made out like bandits under the New Democrats’ and “The Wrecking Crew’s” (another Tom Frank book about George W. Bush’s administration) assault on workers and effective financial regulation were the elite bankers that rigged the system to make themselves wealthy by leading the three epidemics of accounting control fraud that drove the financial crisis and caused catastrophic losses to the working class.  Elite bankers grew ever wealthier, with complete impunity from the criminal laws, through the “sure thing” of running the most destructive epidemics of financial control frauds in history.

Cohn’s euphemisms were designed to obscure all of those unpleasant facts about why so many workers have turned their back on New Democrats and New Labour because they have suffered so greatly at the hands of the New Democrats, New Labour, the Republicans, and the Tories.

The working class is also sick of being reviled by New Democrats’ and New Labour as “working class ethno-nationalists.”  Indeed, Cohn’s column uses that exact phrase to disparage the working class.   To be more precise, Cohn derides them as “working class ethno-nationalists who feel left behind.”  Notice that in Cohn’s disingenuous tale they only “feel” “left behind.”  Cohn’s thing is data, so he knows that the working class is in fact being left in the dust by the financial elites.  But making that point would undercut his preferred policies.

Cohn misses the great irony in the BREXIT vote from the Labour Party’s perspective.  Jeremy Corbyn is the imperiled leader of the Labour Party who may well lose that position imminently because of BREXIT.  Corbyn was in an impossible position.  He became Party leader based on his willingness to oppose New Labour’s betrayal of labor and the working class.  He knew that New Labour’s contempt and anti-working class policies had led enormous numbers of traditional Labour voters to support BREXIT.  He has long, and accurately, warned that the EU is a neo-liberal institution that typically pursues policies that harm labor and the working class.  He could not honestly oppose BREXIT on the basis that the EU was a wonderful institution that did not require fundamental reform.  He would have caused great harm to the Labour Party if he denounced BREXIT supporters because so many traditional Labour voters supported BREXIT.

Corbyn’s strongest supporters in his run for leadership of the Labour Party were the young. Corbyn knew that the young were the strongest demographic group opposing BREXIT.  Corbyn could not support BREXIT without destroying the base of his support.  Corbyn knew that if BREXIT were approved it was likely that Scotland would vote for independence.  If Scotland became an independent nation it would be a major electoral advantage to the Tories in what remained of the UK by removing one of the most reliable bases of progressive voters.  Corbyn also knew that the Scots were among the strongest opponents of BREXIT.  If he campaigned for BREXIT he would destroy any chance that Labour had to reverse its virtual electoral destruction in Scotland at the hands of the SNP if BREXIT were rejected.  Corbyn also knew that many members of his shadow cabinet were sympathetic to New Labour, ambitious to replace him as party leader, and intense opponents of BREXIT.

Politically, Corbyn had only bad options on BREXIT.  Prime Minister David Cameron’s BREXIT gamble was a self-inflicted wound, but Corbyn never wanted a referendum on BREXIT.  Corbyn is simply collateral damage from Cameron’s failed gamble.

Cohn’s column returns to the parallel he sees between the effect of the New Democrats and New Labour’s policies.  Note that he does not use the name of either political movement and he never openly acknowledges their anti-worker policies and rhetoric even though he uses that rhetoric.

But in much the same way that immigration and nationalism proved to be more persuasive to the more secular European working class, European-style populism — now embodied by Donald Trump — could do additional damage to the Democrats in many parts of the United States.

The parallel is striking. The European center-left, like Democrats in the United States, have embraced lower taxes, free trade and immigration over the last few decades.

Note Cohn’s description of the New Democrats and New Labour’s policies in the second paragraph.  Cohn erases from history the defining policies of New Democrats and New Labour – the destruction of effective financial regulation, supervision, and prosecutions and the resultant epidemics of fraud and abuse led by elite bankers caused the financial crisis and the payment protection insurance (PPI) scandal in the UK.

The New Democrats and New Labour did not embrace “free trade.”  They embraced deals that gave CEOs exceptional leverage to prevent effective environmental, financial, and safety regulation and increased leverage against their workers.  Those deals were drafted and negotiated largely by corporate CEOs for the benefit of corporate CEOs.  The key to the deals is not “trade,” much less “free trade,” but the kangaroo, non-judicial arbiters that can bankrupt smaller nations that dare to protect their citizens and workers’ health and safety through law and regulation.

The New Democrats did not embrace “lower taxes,” they embraced greatly reduced government services and protections and an eroded safety nets.  Some of them even embraced the Republicans dramatically lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans, even hedge fund billionaires.  Collectively, the New Democrats and New Labour’s policies were designed to swing sharply against the working class and labor in favor of the wealthy, particularly financial elites.  The policies were accompanied by rhetoric reviling labor and the working class.  Those policies transformed America and the UK, harming labor and the working class while making the wealthiest far wealthier.

Cohn is correct to warn the New Democrats that they have pushed huge numbers of the working class to such despair and anger that they have lost their support.  But if you want to understand why that happened you need to read Tom Frank, for you will never learn it by reading writers like Cohn.

7 responses to “The Terrible Cost to Democrats and Our Nation of Ignoring Tom Frank’s Warnings

  1. I can suggest one reason people may tend to ignore Mr.Frank , based on my experience after watching many videos of him in interviews , book reviews etc : I get a very uneasy feeling that Mr. Frank could actually be mocking us , that he could be an insider himself , one of the very elites that have been plundering the masses for decades , and now , with glee , is showing us exactly how the plunder takes place , knowing there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.

    Do I really think that’s what he’s doing ? No. It’s just that I can never understand how someone can have so much fun relaying information that he knows will make his intended audience furious. Here’s a recent interview he did on PBS – not the best example but it gives an idea of what I’m talking about . Every minute or so he seems about to bust out laughing. It’s easy to imagine Tom and Judy talking over cocktails afterwards , giggling about how they played the rubes for suckers , once again :

    My advice : When it’s tragic or infuriating , it ain’t funny , so don’t laugh. Want to practice your stand-up ? Hit the local comedy club.

    Other parties similarly guilty : Bill Black , Ray McGovern.

    Disclaimer : I have tremendous admiration and respect for these three men , all of whom have a history – right to the present day – of speaking truth to power , and I’d hate to see any of them stop doing that. Also , it may well be that the perception of this particular irritant of inappropriate humor is mine alone , and that others are not so bothered in the least , in which case the above can be simply ignored. I’ll live.

    • Blue Pilgrim

      Being enmeshed in a personal investigation of poverty I have not read or heard Frank before, and can not currently do analysis of political economics and the various characters involved as I’d like to, but going by only that video so far I can say I’m not impressed with him, or his glib evaluation of the enigmatic Trump, who seems to be campaigning by telling whoever people he happens to be talking to what they want to hear (as do the rest of the politicians) and applying the acting skills he developed in Wrestlemania exhibitions (as the head-shaving contest between him and Vince McMahon. This showmanship and carnival barking is not to be taken seriously. “The Stakes of the Election” (from NYC speech), however has too much of substance to ignore.

      I can’t tell how much of Trump is phony, how much egomania, how much typical American salemanship, and how much real, but going by Clinton’s record and genocidal war mongering when it comes down to lesser evil I’ll award that honor to Trump any day.

      As a nominal ‘anarchosocialist’, ‘left communist’ or ‘left libertarian’, whatever category seems closest at the moment, neither of the major US parties come even close to either morality, sense, or sound cybernetic principles, and the same goes for most current definitions of ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’.

      Give me Michael Parenti, Chris Hedge, Brian Becker, or even Noam Chomsky to listen to — or Michael Hudson, Bill Black, and the rest of the MMT crowd. I gave up listening the the News Hour and PBS back when it was flogging for the Iraq war, and regularly airing neocons and zionists such as Richard Perle.

      Frank talks about the Democrats and (neo)liberals as if no one knew about them for a few of decades. Maybe he hadn’t. What he said had little depth or insight, and I would have hoped for little of it at least, in a 6 minute video. He sure didn’t touch on the fundamental problem which is capitalism — sometimes redundantly called predatory capitalism — which is an early stage of some variety fascism, where profit and power are the prime values, over people or ethics, and corruption endemic. (“The love of money”, etc.)

  2. Bernard Eckholdt

    The Democrats and the Republicans have both sold out the average working American. NAFTA, thanks to Bill Clinton, (D), is where the Democratic Elites joined with Republican Elites and sold out American Society for and to Business. Payback is the Consulting position on the Board, when they leave DC. simple business decisions we pay for.

    It is amusing to watch the “excuses” as to why voters are not following the Democrats like they used to. the Republicans fear their base, the Democrats hate theirs. Austerity and neoliberalism kills. without jobs there is no money to buy anything. and if we had money,in what economy? The Great Recession never ended for America or the 99%. you need money from a living wage jobs to buy things. things, like cars, homes, college educations and what used to the American Dream. George Carling was right. lol

    NAFTA sent our jobs and our money overseas. The Carrier corporation and now Oreos are using NAFTA to move to Mexico. Remember that next time you eat an Oreo. NAFTA and Mexico in one cookie! Yet, TPP will make NAFTA look like penny ante theft. They aren’t stupid. We are. They won’t allow us to see what is in TPP/trade agreements.

    Sunlight kills corruption, or it used to. Nowadays, however it’s different! the Supreme Court just excuses bribery, overturning the conviction for the Virginia Governor. Laws are secondary to the Men who write them.

    Democrats hate their base, calling them cheetos eating pajama clad DFH’s. lol hopefully enough of these “voters” will think twice about voting for such Vichy traitors. Democrats certainly don’t care about keeping their voters “satisfied.” where are they going to run to? a dead end.

  3. I just finished Listen, Liberal myself and it is incredibly compelling stuff. I’m not sure his nomenclature is quite there, calling the problem group “the liberal class,” the “well-graduated” and also sometimes “elites” – I get it, but these terms make it a little hard to comprehend his meaning, which is made clear through the rest of the content. I see SO MUCH of current life reflected there, including why the cost of college has gone up so much during this same time period when it’s been so valued to the point of fetishization among wealthy, well-graduated liberals, and also why people around me are willing to go into extraordinary debt for one of these “well-graduated” degrees. Meanwhile, where are the jobs? The ones you couldn’t already get without that degree? The ones that are supposed to service that debt.

    For the the timing of finding and reading this book was incredible, coming a day or two after the BREXIT vote. It sure speaks to why people would reject the so-called “dilemmas of modernity” as some of our well-graduated elites like to blithely describe poverty and hopelessness. At least here in the US, the national pols are “smart” enough to know never to ask the rubes if they (we) would like to opt out.

  4. Marko…what you must realize about Frank is that he is a wonderful, truth telling class traitor. He is completely in the tradition of Roosevelt in this sense. For God’s sake, he graduated from the University of Virginia. Were he to gain any political power, he would be as virulently hated by his class peers as Roosevelt was. And he is totally right on. And he even has Roosevelt’s little self satisfied ironic smirk. And he’s talking to what I call the Clueless Liberals, from his class, who have no clue how bad it is for those down the class scale in Freedom Fries America.
    As Jonie Mitchell sang a long time ago “Laughter, Tears, it’s all the same release.”

  5. Actually Tony Blair (and possibly Bill Clinton to some degree) took his inspiration from Paul Keating, Australian Treasurer. Keating and Prime Minister Bob Hawke launched the Australian Labor Party into neoliberal policies in 1983. Australia and New Zealand were probably the first to tread this disastrous path.

  6. urban legend

    During 28 years of Republican Presidencies — Nixon/Ford through Reagan Bush I and Bush II — median real wages actually declined about 10%. During the Clinton administration, real wages increased almost 20%. I wonder whether Clinton’s Secretary of Labor Robert Reich would have considered himself and the administration he worked for “anti-labor.”

    If you want to know why many Democrats don’t hew strictly to Thomas Frank’s views — including those who think he has valuable things to say — it’s because he tosses everyone into the same basket. Hillary Clinton as a Senator had 95% ratings from the Americans for Democratic Action. Most Democrats had at least 75%. Most Republicans had 10% or less. Hillary Clinton is proposing a 70% increase in the national minimum wage. Not a single Republican is proposing even a 1% increase in the minimum wage.

    Not good enough — a reasonable opinion — is not the same as no difference. It’s dishonest to suggest it is.