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Liberals are finally listening to Thomas Frank about what’s wrong with the Democratic Party

The author of Listen Liberal looks prescient in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory.

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Perhaps Thomas Frank should have added an exclamation mark to the title of his latest book. As it was, Listen Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? largely fell on deaf ears when it was initially released in April 2016. Echoing arguments frequently made by Bernie Sanders during the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, Frank's pointed polemic attacked the Clintons, Rahm Emanuel, and the mainstream Democratic Party for abandoning America's working people in favor of Wall Street and the professional classes. But the mainstream media and political commentators mostly shunned the book until after Election Day—when it suddenly looked prescient. On November 9, it was listed in the New York Times article "Six Books to Help Understand Trump's Win."

The liberals, in other words, are listening now—even if it's too late to avoid the horrors of a Trump presidency. Back on the road promoting the paperback edition, Frank will appear for a reading at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park on March 27. But despite the recent attention his analysis is getting, the onetime Chicagoan and cofounder of the Baffler isn't necessarily more hopeful about the Democratic Party than he was a year ago.

When we spoke last year, there was a media silence around your book. How much has that changed?

The book has sold well, lots of people have read it, I get a lot of e-mails, and people talk about it all the time. But the national American media is still not interested, by and large. It's weird because in other countries I'm on TV and radio all the time. I just came back from Australia and Scandinavia, and both places were very interested in it. The same is true in Canada and in the UK.

How do you explain the greater interest abroad?

They're very worried about Trump overseas. In Australia they're worried he might get them into a war. The other thing is that a lot of these countries think they're going to have their own Trump one of these days. If you look at what's happening to these left parties in Europe—they're getting slaughtered. It's happening all over the place.

What do you think blinded the Democrats and liberals to your critique?

That's a good question. The Democrats had all these postmortems and "What went wrong?" inquiries, but they refuse to admit they did anything wrong. For a long time, these people denied that the working class was walking away from the Democratic Party. Now they see it's plain and then switch to a new line of thinking: "Well, there's nothing we can do to win those people back, because the only possible appeal is to become a more racist party, and we're not interested in that."

So they're determined not to adopt left populism, which is what the Democratic Party used to do. The problem is that for the Clinton wing of the party, it's essential to their identity that they turn their backs on that kind of politics. That's who they are. They can't go back now.

It also seems like a lot of Democrats have used the Russian hacking scandal and the alleged Putin-Trump ties to paper over flaws with their own party. It was like, "Putin hacked the election so why should we change?"

Yes, they've made plenty of excuses. And as far as excuses go, it's pretty lame. The Comey intervention had a much bigger impact. And you know what had a bigger impact still, which they never talk about? The big increase in Obamacare premiums a few weeks before the election. I couldn't believe that Barack Obama didn't move heaven and earth to keep it from happening. Secondly, the [Trans-Pacific Partnership]. What the hell was Obama thinking pushing it right up until the end while poor Hillary was out there trying to distance herself from it? When you talk about blunders, those were worse than Russia—if it was Russia—stealing John Podesta's e-mail.

What are some specific things you think the Democratic Party could do to get back on track?

The problem is that all of my suggestions had to do with exercising power. But they don't have any power now. But it's not hard not to figure out what they have to become and what the issues have to be. This is the end of professional-class liberalism—this is it. It's at the end of its rope. They should go down the list of Bernie Sanders's issues: regulating Wall Street, making college tuition free, universal health care—these are all great, popular ideas. If they got out there and deployed a left version of populism to counter Trump's fake version, it would win. The right-wing populism, it's a fake. It's an imitation of a past left-wing movement. The problem is that the party of the left isn't interested in being being the party of the left.


—Thomas Frank, author of Listen Liberal


What do you think about Bernie Sanders's role now? He's been trying to continue his political revolution. Where do you see that sect of the party going?

It's hard to imagine, but the Sanders wing has to win and unseat the Clinton faction. I'm not sure it's going to happen, even though I just saw a poll that Bernie is the most popular politician in the U.S. He's more popular than Trump by a mile. It's crazy. A couple years ago, he was a marginal figure and was perceived as a something of a crank. The world is a funny place.

It does seem like since the election "socialism" isn't quite as dirty of a word as it once was. Beyond Sanders, do you see a continued rise of socialism?

Personally, I think it's a positive thing that people aren't scared of the word "socialism." On the other hand, Sanders isn't really a socialist—he's a welfare-state liberal. His ideas are out of Harry Truman's time, not all that radical really.

There have also been signs of a nascent organized resistance to Trump: the Women's March, the response to the Muslim travel ban.

Yes. On one hand, the Women's March was a very positive thing. I went to both the inauguration and the Women's March in D.C. Trump's inauguration was pretty sparsely attended, but the Women's March was enormous—you couldn't move down there in that part of the city. That was a huge event because it reminded the world that Trump didn't have a mandate and he lost the popular vote.

However, with a popular movement like this, you're going to have a lot of opportunists climbing aboard. You're going to have centrist politicians and people selling whatever in the name of the resistance. The big thing with the Democratic Party is that there has to be accountability for the failure of 2016, and a lot of Democrats want to use this resistance as a way of staving off accountability. Did you see that Tony Blair op-ed in the New York Times? His argument is basically, here we are in the age of Trump, the first thing we have to do is suppress the left. It's like, "Huh?"

It sounds like Clintonism: To beat conservatism, forget the left and move right in order to win.

But the problem is that it's been proven to be untrue. The Clintons sold out Democratic principles in all these different ways with the idea that they'd win the White House and that made it all worth it. So they're supposed to be the faction that delivers victory—but what just happened? The party is destroyed across the country. These are the fruits of that strategy. It's done. Clintonism exists in order to put down the left wing and subdue the left wing. That is its role in the world and in history. That's who they are.

Thomas Frank
  • Thomas Frank

I've also noticed corporate co-opting of the resistance. I was on the Red Line recently and saw an ad with the tagline "March on DSW" [Designer Shoe Warehouse] featuring a young woman wearing a "The Future is Female" T-shirt.

I wrote Commodify Your Dissent awhile ago while living in Obama's old neighborhood. Here we are again. This thing never gets old, right?

The danger is that the resistance just becomes a style, something you wear on a T-shirt rather than political action.

Yep, but that's so much of our political lives.

You were harsh on the Clintons in Listen Liberal but gave Obama a very mixed review. Looking back, would you change your critique of Obama?

I think the Obama legacy is Trump. It's inseparable. His presidency led to Donald Trump. Obama didn't vote for him or support him, but in some way made him possible. That's going to hang over his presidency forever. He remains a very popular figure. Even though a lot of people say they dislike certain policies, they really like the man. I agree with that. I went to the Democratic National Convention—and I spent the last four years criticizing Obama—and I'll be damned, I was bowled over one more time. I admire him so much. He's still got the magic.

But the true account of the Obama era has to end with the election of Trump. His admirers do not take that into account. I'm also amazed at all the excuses made for Obama. By the end of his presidency, I came up with a list of things he could do without Congress. And he didn't do any of them except disciplining universities on extreme tuition stuff—he went after them a little bit. Obama apologists used to say that the presidency just isn't that powerful of an office. That he can't do anything. But it's like, oh my god, look at Trump!

In his farewell speech, Obama talked about the people's responsibility to affect change. And that we have to push to make our leaders change.

He likes to say that, and he uses it as an excuse.

But does he also have a point that a lot of liberals spent the last eight years sitting back and expecting Obama to do everything and not holding him accountable?

It's an extreme cop-out. People worked their asses off to get him elected. And they go to him with their issues and he does nothing. Of course social movements are important. But he's using liberal idealism as an excuse not to do anything liberal. Everyone knows social movements are important—just look at labor movement. If he'd gotten card check passed, people would be organizing at every Starbucks in America right now. You'd have vibrant social movement on the left that would bring new voters into the Democratic Party. Donald Trump would have never happened. But they can't do that, because the laws in the country prevent them. They came to Obama with their one issue after the election of 2008: "Get us card check to make it easier to organize in this country." No, he didn't do it. To blame his failures on them is so deeply cynical.

In a recent column you talked about the elite-media consensus. You said, "Follow our prestige media for a while and you will start to notice an uncanny unanimity of opinion." How much are they to blame for Trumpism?

I don't really know the answer. But look at who the newspapers endorsed and it was almost unanimous for Hillary Clinton. That's fine, it's their prerogative. But look at the way their anti-Trump opinion was expressed. They thought they were fighting the Klu Klux Klan. And they always missed it. I wonder, perhaps, if their contempt for Trump backfired in some way. I've never seen enmity in the media like there was for Trump in 2016. There was the famous one in the New York Times in which Jim Rutenberg says reporters feel like it's their patriotic duty to take sides. Well, that's new.

Trump campaigned a lot on economic populism and jobs, but so far it's just been a lot of talk. It's been mostly good news for the fossil fuel industry, for forces of privatization, for the military industrial complex—but not necessarily for bringing back outsourced or globalized jobs.

Big surprise there. I've always argued that right-wing populism is just a way to get elected. And then in office they always do the same thing. He seems like a different Republican than George W. Bush, but so far his cabinet looked like the kind of cabinet Romney may have had—with some exceptions. So far he hasn't done much that diverges from a standard Republican path, except the Muslim ban. Other than that, they're into charter schools, they're cutting taxes, building up the military—it's all the same crap. So far he's running true to form. He's defunding the parts of the government he doesn't like. It's all stuff from the Republican playbook.  v

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