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Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

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by Thomas Frank

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Hailed as “the most prescient book” of the year, Listen, Liberal accurately described what ailed the Democratic Party even before the election of 2016 made their weaknesses obvious. It is the story of



Hailed as “the most prescient book” of the year, Listen, Liberal accurately described what ailed the Democratic Party even before the election of 2016 made their weaknesses obvious. It is the story of how the “Party of the People” detached itself from its historic constituency among average Americans and chose instead to line up with the winners of our new economic order.

Now with a new afterword, Thomas Frank’s powerful analysis offers the best diagnosis to date of the liberal malady. Drawing on years of research and firsthand reporting, Frank points out that the Democrats have over the last decades increasingly abandoned their traditional goals: expanding opportunity, fighting for social justice, and ensuring that workers get a fair deal. With sardonic wit and lacerating logic, he uncovers the corporate and cultural elitism that have largely eclipsed the party’s old working- and middle-class commitment. And he warns that the Democrats’ only chance of regaining their health and averting a future of ever-increasing inequality is a return to their historic faith.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Thoroughly entertaining . . . Frank delights in skewering the sacred cows of coastal liberalism. . . . He argues that the Democratic party—once 'the Party of the People'—now caters to the interests of a 'professional managerial class' consisting of lawyers, doctors, professors, scientists, programmers, even investment bankers. . . . A serious political critique.”—The New York Times Book Review (front page)

“What makes Frank’s book new, different and important is its offer of a compelling theory as to how and why the party of Jefferson, Jackson and Roosevelt is now so unlikely to champion the economic needs of everyday people. . . . In such a looking-glass world, Listen, Liberal is a desperately needed corrective.”—History News Network

“In his new book, progressive commentator Thomas Frank says Democrats need to take a good long look in the mirror if they want answers to why blue-collar workers are feeling abandoned and even infuriated by what used to be their party.”—New York Post

“Over the past four decades, Frank argues, the Democrats have embraced a new favorite constituency: the professional class—the doctors, lawyers, engineers, programmers, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, financiers and other so-called creatives whose fetish for academic credentials and technological innovation has infected the party of the working class. . . . For that class, Frank argues, income and wealth inequality is not a problem but an inevitable condition.”—The Washington Post

“An astute dissection of contemporary Democratic politics that demonstrates, cogently and at times acidly, how the party lost the allegiance of blue-collar Americans.”—Publishers Weekly

“A tough and thought-provoking look at what’s wrong with America . . . Frank puts forth an impressive catalog of Democratic disappointments, more than enough to make liberals uncomfortable.”—Booklist

“Important . . . Engaging . . . An edgy—even disturbing—analysis of the Democratic Party’s jilting of its traditional base.”—The National Book Review

“Thomas Frank’s new book Listen, Liberal documents a half-century of work by the Democratic elite to belittle working people and exile their concerns to the fringes of the party’s platform. If the prevailing ideology of the Republican establishment is that of a sneering aristocracy, Democratic elites are all too often the purveyors of a smirking meritocracy that offers working people very little.”—The Huffington Post

“Democrats often use the fact that Republicans have gone off the deep end to ignore their left flank, on the grounds that those liberals have nowhere else to go politically. Listen, Liberal contributes to the literature that expresses deep frustration with that decision, the fuel for a revolt.”—The Fiscal Times

“As with Frank’s other books, Listen, Liberal is a piece of contemporary history that tells us not only what the powerful are up to, but how the trick is being pulled, with an admirable deployment of irony. . . . While his previous books are essentially about devils being devils, this one shows how the angels have fallen further than they realize.”—Prospect magazine (UK)

The New York Times Book Review - Beverly Gage
Listen, Liberal is the thoroughly entertaining if rather gloomy work of a man who feels that nobody has been paying attention. Frank's most famous book, What's the Matter With Kansas? (2004), argued that Republicans had duped the white working class by pounding the table on social issues while delivering tax cuts for the rich…This time Frank is coming for the Ivy League blue-state liberals…Think of it as "What's the Matter With Massachusetts?" Frank's book is an unabashed polemic…Frank delights in skewering the sacred cows of coastal liberalism, including private universities, bike paths, microfinance, the Clinton Foundation, "well-meaning billionaires" and any public policy offering "innovation" or "education" as a solution to inequality…Behind all of this nasty fun is a serious political critique.
Publishers Weekly
In an astute dissection of contemporary Democratic politics, Frank (Pity the Billionaire) asserts that stagnant wages and the decline of the American middle class were neither unavoidable nor wholly the work of a plutocratic Republican party. He skewers Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and lesser liberal lights such as former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick with the savage clarity of a man who never bought what they were selling. He tracks three grim decades of the party's abrogation of the working class that once filled its rank-and-file membership, replaced by harmful fealty and obsequious reverence toward the "Liberal Class," well-educated, impeccably credentialed white-collar professionals. By the first Clinton administration, non-college-educated laboring voters were left open to widening inequality, a shocking erosion of workers' rights, and a growing concentration of power and capital facilitated by trade pacts like NAFTA. Worse, Democratic establishment figures such as the Clintons have embraced this dynamic, failing to confront abusive financial practices and engaging in fatuous reverence for "innovation" and startup companies. Frank demonstrates, cogently and at times acidly, how the party lost the allegiance of blue-collar Americans. (Mar.)
Library Journal
The author of What's the Matter with Kansas? thinks that there's something the matter with Democrats, arguing that they are ignoring the traditional liberal commitments to greater opportunity, greater social justice, and fairness for workers in favor of free-market pandering and more elitist concerns. Now it's time to go in reverse. Great conversation fodder.
Kirkus Reviews
How the party of the working class has switched its focus to well-heeled professionals, more concerned with social issues than economic inequality. "This is a book about the failure of the Democratic Party," writes political analyst and Baffler founding editor Frank (Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right, 2011). "What ails the Democrats?" he asks. "So bravely forthright on cultural issues, their leaders fold when confronted with matters of basic economic democracy." Where David Halberstam once showed how reliance on "the best and the brightest" resulted in wrongheaded decisions on Vietnam, Frank builds a similar case for economic policy, as Ivy League presidents (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) have surrounded themselves with Ivy League advisers whose perspectives aren't those of what was once the blue-collar base of the Democratic Party: "Thus did the Party of the People turn the government over to Wall Street in the years after Wall Street had done such lasting damage to…well, the People." Frank is particularly acidic on the Clinton presidency, calling his cabinet "a kind of yuppie Woodstock, a gathering of the highly credentialed tribes," and claiming, "what he did as president was far outside the reach of even the most diabolical Republican." In the author's estimation, the hope of the Obama administration turned hopeless. Since Frank is far from a lone voice in the wilderness in his perspective, you'd think he might see allies in the Occupy movement and the Bernie Sanders campaign, but he barely acknowledges the former and makes no mention of the latter, making it seem as if more recent developments lie outside his analysis. Rather than insisting on radical reform from the left or even a third party alternative, he seems to feel that Hillary Clinton is inevitable: "I myself might vote for her," because it would be a "terrible thing" if any of the Republicans became president. A hard-hitting analysis that may leave readers confused by the author's ambivalent, punches-pulling conclusion.

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Listen, Liberal

Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

By Thomas Frank

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2016 Thomas Frank
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-540-1


Theory of the Liberal Class

Let us put the question bluntly. What ails the Democrats? So bravely forthright on cultural issues, their leaders fold when confronted with matters of basic economic democracy. Why? What is it about this set of issues that transforms Democrats into vacillating softies, convinced that the big social question is beyond their control?

The standard explanation is money and the way it runs through politics, adjusting incentives and distorting priorities wherever it flows. The country's leaders, this theory goes, are the products of a corrupt campaign finance system, their values whacked by the revolving door between Congress and K Street, between the Treasury Department and the banks. While parts of the oligarchy that rules this land and funds our politicians might not really object to something like gay marriage, when it comes to putting big banks into receivership — oh, no. In the land of money, that kind of thing is verboten.

There is plenty of evidence for this theory, and I will present quite a bit of it in the pages that follow. But the Democrats' problems go deeper than this. To diagnose their particular malady we must understand that there are different hierarchies of power in America, and while oligarchy theory exposes one of them — the hierarchy of money — many of the Democrats' failings arise from another hierarchy: one of merit, learning, and status.

Money and merit: sometimes these two systems of power overlap and sometimes they are separate. Occasionally they are in conflict, but more frequently they are allies — contented partners in power.

We lampoon the Republican hierarchy of money with the phrase "the One Percent"; if we want to understand what has wrecked the Democratic Party as a populist alternative, however, what we need to scrutinize is more like the Ten Percent, the people at the apex of the country's hierarchy of professional status.


Let us start with the institution of the political party itself. There are countless reasons why voters come together in factions and why they register for this party instead of that one: race, ethnicity, region, religion, generation, and gender, to name a few of the categories we like to talk about nowadays. There is another criterion, however, that we sometimes have trouble acknowledging: social class.

Once you start thinking about it, though, the role of class in political parties is obvious, and it goes back to America's very beginning. In Federalist Paper No. 10, published in 1787, James Madison famously identified "unequal distribution of property" as the main cause of political "faction." Madison deplored these factions, but he also made them seem, well, natural:

Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views.

"Classes" were thus observed to be the very stuff of faction and parties, and it is a surprisingly short walk from the anti-partisanship of the Federalist Papers to the fulminating, class-based factionalism of U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a fiery Democrat in the Jacksonian tradition. "There are but two parties, there never has been but two parties," Benton thundered in 1835, "founded in the radical question, whether PEOPLE, or PROPERTY, shall govern? Democracy implies a government by the people. ... Aristocracy implies a government of the rich ... and in these words are contained the sum of party distinction."

Benton's exact phrases may not be familiar these days, but his sentiment certainly is. Democrats have fancied themselves as the "Party of the People" since the beginning, squaring off against what they love to caricature as the party of the highborn. This populist brand-positioning has served them well on many occasions, as Mitt Romney can no doubt attest. On other occasions it has had about as much to do with reality as the theory that the moon is made of green Play-Doh. After all, the Party of the People was also, once, the Party of Slavery and the Party of the Klan.

But the idea of two great parties corresponding to two great economic groups has been accurate enough often enough for the idea to stick. Whatever the class conflict happens to be at a given time — creditors versus debtors, bankers versus farmers, owners versus workers — the Democrats have usually sided with the weak and the downtrodden. For a few reminders of what this sounds like, here is William Jennings Bryan, in his "Cross of Gold" speech in 1896:

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

And here is Franklin Roosevelt, deploring the rise of "economic royalists" in 1936:

The hours men and women worked, the wages they received, the conditions of their labor — these had passed beyond the control of the people, and were imposed by this new industrial dictatorship. ... Those who tilled the soil no longer reaped the rewards which were their right. The small measure of their gains was decreed by men in distant cities. Throughout the Nation, opportunity was limited by monopoly.

Lastly, here is Harry Truman, speaking to farmers at a plowing competition in Iowa in 1948:

The Democratic Party represents the people. It is pledged to work for agriculture. It is pledged to work for labor. It is pledged to work for the small businessman and the white-collar worker. The Democratic Party puts human rights and human welfare first. But the attitude of the Republican gluttons of privilege is very different. The bigmoney Republican looks on agriculture and labor merely as expense items in a business venture. He tries to push their share of the national income down as low as possible and increase his own profits. And he looks upon the Government as a tool to accomplish this purpose.

This was rhetoric, of course, but there was also something real behind it. Working people, or rather, their organizations, once carried enormous clout within the Democratic Party. Thanks to its solid identification with the common folk, Democrats held a majority in the House of Representatives from the early 1930s all the way to the mid-1990s, with two short GOP interludes. "It was a proletarian House of Lords," is how one political journalist has described that body in the late 1960s.

Today, the American class divide is starker than at any time in my memory, and yet Congress doesn't seem to know it. Today, the House of Representatives is dedicated obsessively to the concerns of the rich — to cutting their taxes, to chastising their foes, to holding the tissue box as they cry about the mean names people call them.

How is this possible? Just about everyone not among the top tier of the income distribution these days expresses a kind of bitter cynicism about our financial overlords. Regardless of party, everyone is furious about the Wall Street bailouts. Books about the disappearing middle class have gone from the fringe to the mainstream. Our economy has been reliving the 1930s; why hasn't our politics?

The answer is staring us in the face, if we care to see it. Yes, social class is still all-important in politics, just like Madison, Benton, Bryan, and Truman thought it was. And yes, the Democrats are still a class party. In fact, they show admirable concern for the interests of the social class they represent.

It's just that the class they care about the most doesn't happen to be the same one Truman, Roosevelt, and Bryan cared about.


In his syndicated New York Times column for November 21, 2008, David Brooks saluted president-elect Obama for the savvy personnel choices he was then announcing. This was before Brooks had become one of the president's favorite columnists; before the fabled "bromance" between the two men burst into the raging blaze of mutual admiration it would one day become. But the spark was there already.

It was the educational pedigree of the then-forming Team Obama that won the columnist's esteem. Nearly every person Brooks mentioned — the new president's economic advisers, his foreign policy advisers, even the first lady — had collected a degree from an Ivy League institution, more than one in most cases. The new administration would be a "valedictocracy," Brooks joked: "rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes."

Brooks has been obsessed with the tastes and habits of the East Coast meritocracy for as long as I've been reading him, and though he sometimes mocks, he always comes back to his essential conviction, the article of faith that makes a writer like him fit so comfortably at the Times: the well-graduated are truly great people. And on that day in 2008 when Brooks beheld the incoming Obama crew, with their Harvard-certified talent — Lord! — he just about swooned. "I find myself tremendously impressed by the Obama transition," he wrote. Why? Because "they are picking the best of the Washington insiders": "open-minded individuals" who are "not ideological" and who exhibit lots of "practical creativity." They were "admired professionals," the very best their respective disciplines had to offer.

Brooks did not point out that choosing so many people from the same class background — every single one of them, as he said, was a professional — might by itself guarantee closed minds and ideological uniformity. Nobody else pointed this out, either. We always overlook the class interests of professionals because we have trouble thinking of professionals as a "class" in the first place; like David Brooks, we think of them merely as "the best." They are where they are because they are so smart, not because they've been born to an earldom or something.

Truth be told, lots of Americans were relieved to see people of talent replace George W. Bush's administration of hacks and cronies back in 2008. Those were frightening times. Still, if we want to understand what's wrong with liberalism, what keeps this movement from doing something about inequality or about our reversion to a nineteenth-century social pattern, this is where we're going to have to look: at the assumptions and collective interests of professionals, the Democratic Party's favorite constituency.

The historian Christopher Lasch — a kind of cosmic opposite of David Brooks — wrote in 1965 that "modern radicalism or liberalism can best be understood as a phase of the social history of the intellectuals." My goal in this book is to bring Lasch's dictum up to date: the deeds and positions of the modern Democratic Party, I will argue, can best be understood as a phase in the social history of the professionals.

Who are professionals? To begin with, they are not the same thing as Lasch's "intellectuals." His category is made up mainly of writers and academics; it is defined by the critical stance they take toward the workings of society. There aren't really enough intellectuals to make up a distinct social class, in the way that term is traditionally used.

"Professionals," on the other hand, are an enormous and prosperous group, the people with the jobs that every parent wants their child to grow up and get. In addition to doctors, lawyers, the clergy, architects, and engineers — the core professional groups — the category includes economists, experts in international development, political scientists, managers, financial planners, computer programmers, aerospace designers, and even people who write books like this one.

Professionals are a high-status group, but what gives them their lofty position is learning, not income. They rule because they are talented, because they are smart. A good sociological definition of professionalism is "a second hierarchy" — second to the main hierarchy of money, that is — "based on credentialed expertise." Which is to say, a social order supported by test scores and advanced degrees and defended by the many professional associations that have been set up over the years to define correct practice, enforce professional ethics, and wage war on the unlicensed.

Another distinguishing mark of the professions is their social authority. Ivan Illich, a critic prominent in the 1970s, once defined professionals by noting their "power to prescribe." Professionals are the people who know what ails us and who dispense valuable diagnoses. Professionals predict the weather. They organize our financial deals and determine the rules of engagement. They design our cities and draw the traffic patterns through which the rest of us travel. Professionals know when someone is guilty of a moral or criminal misdeed and they also know precisely what form of retribution that culpability should take.

Teachers know what we must learn; architects know what our buildings must look like; economists know what the Federal Reserve's discount rate should be; art critics know what is in good taste and what is in bad. Although we are the subjects of all these diagnoses and prescriptions, the group to which professionals ultimately answer is not the public but their peers (and, of course, their clients). They listen mainly to one another. The professions are autonomous; they are not required to heed voices from below their circle of expertise.

In this way the professions build and maintain monopolies over their designated fields. Now, "monopoly" is admittedly a tough word, but it is not really a controversial one among sociologists who write about the professions. "Monopolizing knowledge," according to one group of sociologists, is a baseline description of what professions do; this is why they restrict entry to their fields. Professions certify the expertise of insiders while negating and dismissing the knowledge-claims of outsiders.

Specialized knowledge is, of course, a necessity in this complicated world of ours. From ship captains to neurosurgeons, modern society depends heavily on people with technical expertise. And so nations grant professionals their elevated status, the sociological theory continues, in exchange for a promise of public service. The professions are supposed to be disinterested occupations or even "social trustees"; unlike other elements of society, they are not supposed to be motivated by profit or greed. This is why we still find advertising by lawyers and doctors somewhat off-putting, and why Americans were once shocked to learn that radio personalities took money to play records they didn't genuinely like: because professionals are supposed to answer to a spirit more noble than personal gain.

With the rise of the postindustrial economy in the last few decades, the range of professionals has exploded. To use the voguish term, these are "knowledge workers," and many of them don't fit easily into the old framework. They are often employees rather than independent practitioners, taking orders from some corporate manager instead of spending their lives in private practice. These modern professionals aren't workers per se, and they aren't capitalists either, strictly speaking. Some professions share certain features with these other groups, however. The accountants at your neighborhood tax preparation chain, for example, are sometimes just scraping by. And teachers are often union members, just like blue-collar workers. At the other end of the scale, certain lucky professionals in Silicon Valley happen to be our leading capitalists. And the gulf between professional hedge fund managers and the rich folks whose money they invest is small indeed.

As these last two examples suggest, the top ranks of the professions are made up of highly affluent people. They are not the billionaire Wal-Mart clan, but they have a claim to leadership nevertheless. These two power structures, one of ownership and the other of knowledge, live side by side, sometimes in conflict with one another but usually in comity.

The concern of this book is not investigating the particular expertise of any given profession, but rather the politics of professionalism in a larger sense. As the political scientist Frank Fischer writes in Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise, professionalism is more than an occupational category; it is "a postindustrial ideology." For many, it provides an entire framework for understanding our modern world.

As a political ideology, professionalism carries enormous potential for mischief. For starters, it is obviously and inherently undemocratic, prioritizing the views of experts over those of the public. That is tolerable to a certain degree — no one really objects to rules mandating that only trained pilots fly jetliners, for example. But what happens when an entire category of experts stops thinking of itself as "social trustees"? What happens when they abuse their monopoly power? What happens when they start looking mainly after their own interests, which is to say, start acting as a class?


Excerpted from Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank. Copyright © 2016 Thomas Frank. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

THOMAS FRANK is the author of Pity the Billionaire, The Wrecking Crew, and What’s the Matter with Kansas?. A former columnist for the Wall Street Journal and Harper’s, Frank is the founding editor of The Baffler and writes regularly for Salon. He lives outside Washington, D.C.

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Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
--Stephen_Brassawe More than 1 year ago
From the point of view of one whose first presidential vote was cast for Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Mr. Frank’s new book has been a valuable aid in coming to grips with how I myself was conned by William Jefferson Clinton into my own small complicity in his destruction of the Democratic Party and the damage that he wrought upon the working people and the poor in the United States of America, the natural and traditional constituencies of that party. After having earlier completed Christopher Hitchens’ “No One Left to Lie To,” I had chalked it all up to “Christopher being Christopher.” “Listen, Liberal” is a true indictment, however, brilliant in its research, annotation, and draftsmanship. It is a sobering endeavor to come to grips with the proposition that when one voted for the apparent lesser of two evils, one actually voted for the greater evil.
Anonymous 5 months ago