Thomas Frank on the Demise of the Democratic Party
Katie Halper interviews Thomas Frank, author of ‘Listen Liberal’, who says the Democratic Party has become the party of affluent professionals and has lost touch with workers and the poor
Katie Halper: Hi. My name’s Katie Halper. I’m the host of the Katie Halper Show on WBAI and I’m reporting with the Real News Network live from the People’s Summit in Chicago. Joining me now is Thomas Frank, the author of “Listen Liberal” and “Whatever Happened to Kansas” and the founder of The Baffler magazine. Thomas.
Thomas Frank: Katie.
Katie Halper: Thanks for joining me.
Thomas Frank: You got it lady. I’m happy to be here.
Katie Halper: So happy to be talking to you. Now your book, “Listen Liberal: Whatever happened to the Party of the People” …
Thomas Frank: Yes.
Katie Halper: What did happen to the party of the people?
Thomas Frank: Yeah, well they took one hell of a beating didn’t they? They’ve dwindled down to a position of complete powerlessness on the national stage. It’s amazing how they’ve managed to do that. It’s largely self-inflicted. Of course the Republicans have been the ones beating them but yeah, the Democrats have, what happened is that some years ago they decided they didn’t want to be the party of the people anymore. They didn’t want to be the sort of traditional Democratic Party that I grew up with, the party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson. That’s not what they wanted to be.
They wanted to be something different. This involved … It was an enormous transition in the Democratic Party all through the seventies, all through the eighties, all through the nineties until they are what we see them as today. They are a party that represents a group of very affluent white collar professionals. That’s who leads the party. That’s who they speak for. That’s whose issues they care about. That’s really who they are. That’s … I mean to put it really, really, really bluntly, that kind of party is, just can’t … People aren’t interested. The general public is just, they’re not excited about that.
Katie Halper: How much does that explain Trump’s victory?
Thomas Frank: It’s in the details. If you dig down into the details, it explains it almost … Well, almost, I’d say 80%. One of the issues, I’ll give you an example of what I mean. Obviously look, the Democrats, as they moved away from their old working class base and they treated them very poorly and they did the same with other essential elements of their constituent groups, minorities for example … This is in the 1990s I’m talking about here. Remember the famous Sister Solider moment? When they did that and when they did things like got NAFTA passed which was really hard on working class people, when they did those things they used to have a saying. They’d say, “Well you know we don’t have to worry about that. Those people have nowhere else to go.” Nowhere else to go. This was a Democratic saying in the 1990s.
Trump gave those people somewhere else to go. This is the entire genius of Trump and he did it with the trade issue specifically. Hillary Clinton was uniquely vulnerable on the trade issue because she had been Secretary of State, had a hand in writing trade agreements. She was a free trader. Her husband got NAFTA passed and then all the other trade agreements after that. She was closely identified with these, and here’s Trump hammering her for it every day on the campaign trail. That really hurt her. It hurt with one of the sort of bedrock Democratic constituent groups, the working class. That’s how he won.
Katie Halper: Can you tell viewers about the Sister Soldier movement?
Thomas Frank: Say it again?
Katie Halper: The Sister Soldier movement with Jesse …
Thomas Frank: The moment?
Katie Halper: Yeah. Oh moment sorry.
Thomas Frank: Well that was when … I think it happened here in Chicago. This was when Bill Clinton very famously sort of contrived to insult Jesse Jackson to his face while the cameras were rolling. The reason he did it was to show to the general public that he wasn’t beholden to Jesse Jackson or anybody else, any of the sort of traditional Democratic interest groups that they couldn’t tell Bill Clinton what to do.
It was deliberately set up on purpose to do this. You’d think, well gee, those are your core voters. You know when you do something like that, they’re going to be pretty pissed off but that’s when this saying would come up, well they have nowhere else to go. What are they … They’re not going to go vote for the Republicans. Well Trump just like upended that whole dynamic, and that was black voters but with the working class voters.
Katie Halper: Right. Of course, some white working class voters went for Trump and then some black voters stayed home.
Thomas Frank: Stayed home. Well they weren’t excited about the Democratic candidate. It was Hillary Clinton this time. I don’t know if you’re aware of that, but she’s a sort of perfect professional class candidate. She ran as a resume candidate. If you went to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, she ran as a complete centrist. There was many Republican speakers at the Democratic convention. A lot of moments like this. I don’t know if you were there.
Katie Halper: Yeah, I was.
Thomas Frank: She ran as the consensus candidate, a candidate of national unity. All the leading professionals from all the different professions were arrayed around her. “She is the most qualified presidential candidate ever,” Barack Obama says. That’s not very exciting to most voters. Look, I voted for her, right. I’m like, okay yeah, she’s better than Trump. Anybody can see that.
For most people that means nothing. In some ways it’s actively insulting to be running as, I’m like … I’m the most talented person out there. I’m the most accomplished person out there. That’s not … It’s a weird thing for a Democrat to do. Look, Democrats do that all the time, but think about who the Democratic Party is. That’s just a strange … You know that offers the common people nothing. It’s not even about them, right? It’s about her resume.
Katie Halper: Yeah. Right. Yeah. “I’m With Her” was the unofficial slogan, right?
Thomas Frank: Yeah, that was the official slogan. The unofficial one is “America is Already Great.”
Katie Halper: Right.
Thomas Frank: Oh my God. It’s total complacency.
Katie Halper: Right. Yeah. It doesn’t speak to anyone who’s not already there or anyone who’s suffering.
Thomas Frank: Yeah.
Katie Halper: Right.
Thomas Frank: Exactly.
Katie Halper: What about, what role did the media play if any in handing Hillary the nomination or in defeating Bernie Sanders during the primary?
Thomas Frank: I have … Okay, so, I’ve written about media bias before and I’ve always poo-pooed it. I always thought it was kind of a silly idea. Well forget that. It was there this time around in an enormous way so I wrote a big story for Harper’s Magazine about how the media treated Bernie Sanders. The way I did it was to focus on one newspaper in particular and read all of their op-ed coverage of Bernie Sanders. I chose the Washington Post and I read every op-ed story and editorial that they ran that mentioned Bernie Sanders. It was five to one against him. I mean they hated this guy. Hated him. Made fun of the way he looks. Made fun of the way he talks. Made fun of his supporters. Made fun of his issues, in a really cruel way that totally incommensurate with who the man is.
I mean he’s a nice person. He’s avuncular, he’s a friendly … It’s hard to dislike Bernie Sanders. Well they did, man. They hated him. Then the question is and the New York Times is very similar, then the question is why? The answer is that, and they did the same with Trump of course. I think Trump deserved it more, but there’s … I don’t even know if there were any newspapers in America that endorsed Trump. The media was …
Katie Halper: The KKK did endorse him.
Thomas Frank: Right. Yeah. Things like that.
Katie Halper: Right.
Thomas Frank: The mainstream media absolutely loved Hillary Clinton, absolutely adored her without reservation. Why? You think about it for a minute and you realize there’s basic class solidarity. That resume stuff, that’s them. You know your East Coast sort of media elite, they go to this, they went to the same sort of school that she did. A lot of them know her personally. They went to … They have the same life trajectory, the same aspirations, the same demographics. They look at Hillary Clinton as one of their own. This was someone that they absolutely adored.
Now I voted for, as I said I voted for Hillary in the end as well, but when you do that, when you are just so absolutely in love with a candidate like they were with Hillary Clinton it blinds you to all sorts of things that you should be picking up on. Like I wrote a whole bunch of stories during the race about Donald Trump and about his supporters and about what was going on. I had to write those for a British publication. I couldn’t write them here in this country because they were so infatuated with Hillary Clinton.
Katie Halper: Right and then …
Thomas Frank: I mean they really were. This is true. They still are.
Katie Halper: Right. They still have the I’m with her in their Twitter bios and then they say that Sanders supporters have a messiah complex.
Thomas Frank: Well I, the bitterness towards the Sanders supports is like, still. Look Bernie Sanders was a good soldier. He did his duty. He endorsed, after he lost, he endorsed her. He did what he was supposed to do, and to still be pissed off at him, it’s like they’re pissed off at democracy itself. Like, yes you can challenge the front runner. That’s permitted in democracy.
Katie Halper: Oh my favorite moment, one of my favorite moments in the primary was when a New York Times reporter asked Bernie Sanders what he had to say to the people who thought it was sexist of him to not drop out because he was standing in the way of history, preventing the first female president.
Thomas Frank: Standing in the way of history, by raising a challenge. It’s like wow.
Katie Halper: Well I want to ask her if she was standing in the way of history and being an anti-Semite by preventing the election of the first Jewish guy.
Thomas Frank: Wait a minute. But they …
Katie Halper: I jest but ….
Thomas Frank: It’s … Arguably, arguably, all of this backfired. They loved Hillary so much that they were completely blind to what was coming right around the corner.
Katie Halper: Right. Or they didn’t hold her feet to the fire or pressure her to move in any directly that would have made her more electable.
Thomas Frank: Exactly. Look …
Katie Halper: Like with the Fight for 15.
Thomas Frank: There you go. I mean the total complacency that I just described. She ran a terrible campaign. Terrible.
Katie Halper: Why are you such a racist misogynist Tom Frank? Yeah.
Thomas Frank: Because to point out that she ran a lousy campaign?
Katie Halper: Yeah. It’s sexist.
Thomas Frank: Look she could have run a good campaign.
Katie Halper: It’s sexist to think she ever makes mistakes.
Thomas Frank: Had she run it … But she lost. Had she run a good campaign, she would have won. It’s that simple. Anyhow.
Katie Halper: What are the takeaways, because lots of people coincidentally the ones who continue to bash Bernie Sanders and praise Hillary Clinton, lots of them are saying, “Oh we can’t look back now. We have to look forward. We have to defeat Trump.” I think kind of traditionally, you do a post mortem to figure out how to move forward.
Thomas Frank: Yes. Look, the Democratic … You know I wrote a big book about the Democratic Party. That’s what we’re here to talk about.
Katie Halper: Listen Liberal.
Thomas Frank: Came out well before the … Came out in March of last year. Well before the election. If the Democratic Party has had post mortems, they haven’t contacted me here’s the big book about what went wrong with the Democratic Party. They’re not interested.
Katie Halper: Which is more important, what the Democratic Party did or what Russia allegedly did and which does the DNC have more control over?
Thomas Frank: Well look, there’s two Russia stories. One is the one that’s unfolding right now before our eyes, which is fascinating, with Comey and with General Flynn and all of this stuff. We have no idea where that’s going or what that is going to turn out to be. The other Russia story, the idea that Russia somehow tipped the election to Trump with the Podesta emails, that is false, in my opinion. There are many, many, many reasons that Hillary Clinton lost and that one is, in my view, pretty far down the list. You want to hear some things that are much …
Katie Halper: Yes.
Thomas Frank: I think Comey, the Comey memo by the way had a much bigger impact. I think the fact that they raised Obamacare premiums two weeks before election day had an enormous impact and the Democrats will not talk about that. Just, imagine this for a second, Katie Halper, would Lyndon Johnson have done that? Right before the election, it’s like raise everybody’s insurance premiums in America? How about Obama pushing the Trans Pacific Partnership all through the election while poor Hillary is trying to backpedal out of it and like, “Oh I’ve changed my mind about it. I’m not in favor of it anymore” and Obama’s like, “Yeah we’re going to pass it anyway.”
Katie Halper: And went on the Jimmy Fallon show.
Thomas Frank: What was he thinking? Yes. And boasted about it.
Katie Halper: To stump for it. [inaudible 00:12:06]. Yeah.
Thomas Frank: This was just bad … These, by the way, all of these are tactical.
Katie Halper: Right.
Thomas Frank: These are all tactical.
Katie Halper: For immorality or whatever, for now.
Thomas Frank: As long as you’re saying, “Okay what were the tactical blunders?” Oh my God. Look at Trump’s. Look at Trump’s. The Access Hollywood tape, insulting the parents of that kid killed in Iraq. Insulting the judge. Making fun of handicapped people. Going down the list of ethnic groups and making fun of them all.
Katie Halper: He was equal opportunity with that.
Thomas Frank: If you get to say, oh we’ll take away what Hillary did, a tactical blunder that Hillary made or that happened to the Democrats, well look. This guy had a lot more tactical blunders. There’s obviously, in terms of tactical blunders, this guy is the worse we’ve ever seen.
Katie Halper: Right.
Thomas Frank: Strategic is the question. There’s a level above this. We’re talking about the issues, the way these candidates appeal to people, the big, the real nature of politics. Democrats do not want to talk about that and that’s what we have to look at if you want to … Look, one more point, Katie Halper.
Katie Halper: Yes Thomas Frank.
Thomas Frank: Trumpism is not going away. Trump himself may get impeached. He may resign. Who knows?
Katie Halper: Right.
Thomas Frank: But the Republicans now understand, they know how to beat the Democratic Party. Trump if anything was a very flawed bearer of this message. He’s like one of the worst candidates we’ve ever seen and he still won. Well, look they now know, they can see what he did to beat the Democrats. They’re not going to give up on that. The next Trump is going to be someone that’s actually good at it, okay. If they don’t figure out what’s going on here in a grand strategic sense, the Democrats, I mean they’re in huge trouble.
Katie Halper: What do they have to figure out? What do they have to do to defeat Trumpism?
Thomas Frank: Well how do you, for God’s sakes, how do Democrats lose Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan? That’s a catastrophe. They better figure out how and why that happened and what they’re going to do differently. Look at inequality in this country. Look at the power of Wall Street. Look at what Silicon Valley is doing to the economy. People are outraged about these things. The idea that a left party can’t win, that a left party is in a state of historic defeat right now when the country is screaming out for the things that the Democrats used to offer. That is screwy. How, it should be easy for them to win and instead they’re wiped out.
Katie Halper: They’re going in the wrong direction it looks like.
Thomas Frank: Yup.
Katie Halper: They’re not going towards Fight for 15. Any lessons, any important takeaways from England?
Thomas Frank: Yes. I just came back from England. I interviewed a lot of voters, a lot of political candidates right before the election. Absolutely a fascinating place. You know they use the word socialist there and nobody is shocked. It’s like, they think that’s normal, to talk about people being … I heard many people self-identify as Socialists. I interviewed people from the UKIP party which is this, we think of it as a right-wing party that they are the ones that sort of masterminded the Brexit, but the guys interviewed were like, one of them was a Bernie Sanders supportor. Like, Sanders obviously would have beaten Trump in the election, you know a much better candidate than Hillary. Another one I interviewed was very far to the left. Fascinating country. Fascinating people. The thing that I came away with, this is what blows my mind about England, is the sense of social solidarity that they have that we do not. The sense that, at the end of the day, English people will all look after each other and make sure that you don’t die penniless in a hovel somewhere.
Katie Halper: What a bunch of Reds. Gulag central. Oh, anyway, we have to wrap it up. Thank you so much Thomas Frank, author of “Listen Liberal: Whatever happened to the party of the people.” Also “What’s the matter with Kansas.” Also founder of The Baffler Magazine.
Thomas Frank: All that stuff.
Katie Halper: All that good stuff. I’m Katie Halper from the Katie Halper Show and reporting from the People’s Summit for the Real News Network. Thank you. Thanks.