On Reality Asserts Itself, Thomas Frank, author of ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’ and ‘Listen, Liberal,’ tells host Paul Jay that Bill Clinton tried to drive the left from the party; now Clinton Democrats blame the left for Hillary’s defeat. This episode was produced on September 12, 2017.
Paul Jay: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay, and this is The Real News Network. Thomas Frank in his book, ‘Listen, Liberal,’ wrote, “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 high-born. 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.” Now joining us in the studio is Thomas Frank. Thanks for joining us again, Thomas.
Thomas Frank: Thank you very much for having me, Paul.
Paul Jay: So one more time. Thomas is a political analyst, a historian, he writes for the Guardian. His most recent books include ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’ And the most recent ‘Listen, Liberal.’ Thanks for joining us.
Thomas Frank: Sure thing Paul.
Paul Jay: So over the course of these discussions, and if you hadn’t watched the earlier segments, I suggest you do because it kind of sets all this up. We talked about the Democratic Party. It’s a class party, or classes party, perhaps. I mean you do have working class representation there. The unions for better or worse do represent sections of the workers, although certainly a real minority of the workers now are.
Thomas Frank: Yeah.
Paul Jay: And certainly the urban workers mostly vote Democrat. But this meritocracy you talk in the book, the sort of higher end of the professional class, and much of whom manage the political system on behalf a section of the billionaires and so on. But that’s what the party is. In my view, I don’t think the party has really been, even including Roosevelt, all that much other than in terms of class composition. But the balance of forces were very different.
Thomas Frank: Yes.
Paul Jay: The unions had more clout. There was a mass movement. Frankly, whatever the Soviet Union actually was, there actually was an alternative system, at least in people’s minds. There’s a lot of things going on in the world that made this dynamic between the professional class, the elites, and the system different back then as now. But it is what it is now, which is a Clinton-esque party now. Even the most minor fights by the Sander’s camp, and at a time when Bernie Sanders is by far the most popular politician in the country by 70% approval ratings or something, he can’t even get his guy elected chair of the DNC, they can’t get the chair of the Democratic Party, and apparently when they were having the election for chair of the DNC, Obama is working the phones to get Perez elected, and fighting to keep corporate Democrats in power.
Thomas Frank: That’s right. You got to remember one thing about the centrist faction of the Democratic Party, which is they absolutely hate the left. Hate them. It’s not like, “Well, we’ll compromise with these people and because we’re both in the same party and we sink or swim together.” No, they hate these guys.
Paul Jay: And do they hate these guys because it’s in their interest they hate these guys? And/or because they think they’re naïve? They’re making demands that are not possible.
Thomas Frank: There’s a lot of contempt. That’s exactly right. There’s-
Paul Jay: They’re not the realists.
Thomas Frank: Exactly. There’s a certain amount of contempt when they are moved to talk about the people on the left. I mean Rahm Emanuel brought him up three times. Rahm Emanuel is a perfect example of the, but there’s many examples. Remember the Democratic Leadership Council, which Bill Clinton came out of, was set up deliberately to sort of diminish the power of the left wing of the Democratic Party, and they succeeded. If you go back and look at the things that they, in their hay-day, say about the left wing of the Democratic Party, which was just utterly filled with contempt. It’s not that we need to compromise these people, it’s like these people need to go away.
Paul Jay: Well let me make their argument because I’m speculating this is how they feel about it, that the right wing of the American elites are essentially fascist, they’ve been able to win over with cultural wars, sections of the working class, and they are barbarians at the gate.
Thomas Frank: Oh they’re here. They’re in the gate.
Paul Jay: I’m talking Obama here. They’ve kind of … They’re through the gate now, but they have been in many state legislatures and congress. But at any rate, barbarians at the gate. Give me the metaphor. And you can’t fight them with your naïve approach like Bernie Sanders that you’re going to have healthcare for all. You need us because we actually understand that America is essentially conservative, likes this kind of military strength, and likes cops and all that. If you don’t have us playing that card, you’re going to be dealing with the real fascists.
Thomas Frank: Yeah. Unfortunately for them, America also has a radical tradition. It’s deep in the American grain. Our hatred of aristocracy, our hatred for hierarchy, our deep, deep faith in the common people. At least where I come from, the part of America that I come from, that is who we are as a people. The Democratic Party needs to understand that. The other thing that the Democratic Party … By the way, you touched on so many interesting points when you bring this up because you have to remember one thing about the Clinton faction, and these are the people who just lost the election now, okay? They got to do everything their way, they didn’t even put Bernie on the ticket, and they lost. They did everything their way and they lost. This is the victory faction in the Democratic Party. This is the faction of the Democratic Party that rose to power saying, “Oh, look at Carter, look at McGovern, look at Walter Mondale. These losers. Liberals, oh my god liberals are so bad, liberals can’t win a damn thing.” You need to put the professionals in charge. You need to put the people that understand politics that are willing to, what was Clinton’s term? Triangulate. To cut deals with the right wing, to even enact Republican legislation. That’s how you win. So for them, the entire purpose of this faction of the Democratic Party is victory. That’s what Clinton was all about. Remember all the compromises that … And they weren’t compromises. All the things that got done as President, which were all Republican measures, the whole point of those was to get Clinton re-elected.
Paul Jay: And the main anti-Sanders argument was, “I can win and he can’t.”
Thomas Frank: Well, they lost.
Paul Jay: Yeah.
Thomas Frank: They lost, and they cheated in order to lose. They cheated Sanders in order to lose.
Paul Jay: Oh, they only lost because of Putin. They would’ve won otherwise.
Thomas Frank: Yeah. That is, we need to keep that in mind going forward because that’s what Democratic Centrism, that’s their trump card. “We win elections.” They don’t win. The Democrats are in a state of … By the way, the centrist faction has controlled the party for a long time now, they are in a state of wipe out across this country that I have ever seen in my lifetime. Going back to the 1920’s, and this is the work of the victory faction in the Democratic Party. Clearly there’s something wrong with their victory strategy.
Paul Jay: It seems to me, Sander’s campaign exploded two fundamental pillars of this faction, the victory faction, the Clinton faction. Number one, he exploded that you need billionaire money to campaign.
Thomas Frank: Yeah.
Paul Jay: I don’t think this whole political system was ever created in a way that you could raise so much money on the internet. It’s just changed the scenario.
Thomas Frank: Yes, that’s huge. But that’s also Trump. Hillary out-raised Donald Trump two to one, and Trump is a billionaire. Hillary outspent Trump two to one. I was at the Democratic Convention, where they cut all these deals with the various corporate sponsors. The appeal to corporate America and to Wall Street was overt, and especially Silicon Valley. The head of Uber at the Democratic Convention, and Big Pharma, and all of this stuff. By the way, this was the logic of Clintonism. We can’t be a national party, we can’t contest national elections unless we can raise as much as Republicans match them, dollar for dollar in fundraising. That’s what Clintonism is all about. We will sacrifice the tradition of the Democratic Party, we will sacrifice liberal issues, we’ll sacrifice progressivism itself on the altar of fundraising because we’ve got to have that money to make those TV commercials, to compete with the Republicans. Well they sure as hell did it this time. She out-raised Trump two to one and lost. She sacrificed every principal. She had the neo-cons at her convention. As I mentioned Uber, Big Pharma, Wall Street. Everybody is getting what they want out of Hillary Clinton. She still lost. This is extraordinary.
Paul Jay: What happened this last year. Then the second pillar, which I think Sanders has greatly shaken at least, is one of the cores of this meritocracy was very … What’s the word? Militant anti-Communism. Anti-Socialism. We’ll be as hawkish on that as the Republicans ever could be, and this guy comes around running as a socialist and practically beats her.
Thomas Frank: I know. It’s funny. I wrote a story for Harper’s last year about the Washington Post and its war Bernie Sanders. I read every oped and editorial they ran from January to June of 2016 that mentioned Bernie Sanders. I counted them pro and con. There were five to one against him. They really disliked this guy. Really, profoundly disliked him. This guy, and I try to understand why they disliked him so much. A big part of it was who he is, and that he would call himself a socialist and things like that. But there’s also this element where what Sanders represented to the Washington Post, and also to mainstream Democrats, was a return of the oppressed. These are grand story of Clintonism is this new generation coming up out of the 1960s and saying, “This is the end of the New Deal. The New Deal ends right now.” And there were all these stories written about this in the 70’s and 80’s. That was the narrative of Bill Clinton’s administration. He is killing off the New Deal. When I say that, I mean books and articles written by his admirers. Not by people who are criticizing like me by his fans. Bill Clinton has finally delivered us from the dead end of the New Deal. Here comes Sanders, and who’s his favorite president? It’s Franklin Roosevelt. What’s his political agenda? It looks like the Democratic Platform circa 1948. It’s basically the same thing. That’s who he is. He is a return of that Democratic tradition that this current generation, this ruling generation of professional elites, think that they have put behind them forever. It’s unconscionable to them that this political philosophy could stage a return.
Paul Jay: Because they think it’s naïve not to allow capitalism to be unleashed.
Thomas Frank: Yeah.
Paul Jay: Because it gives rise to productivity, globalization will raise all boats.
Thomas Frank: Yes.
Paul Jay: And the world will- Thomas Frank: Free trade.
Paul Jay: Go to Havana of everyone having more, except it didn’t work out that way. It’s all a big bubble. Thomas Frank: Exactly. We’re living in the greatest of all possible worlds. We’ve figured out … There’s only one way to run an economy and we know what it is. We’ve got Larry Summers here, he’ll tell you all about it. We got Tim Geithner here. Paul Jay: Until welcome to the crash of ’07 and ’08.
Thomas Frank: Yeah. Exactly. But that shook the faith of all sorts of people by the way. That’s always what’s in the background of all of these stories. That’s what makes Bernie Sanders possible, that’s what makes Barrack Obama possible, it’s also what makes Donald Trump possible to a certain degree is unfulfilled hope, if you will, from 2008. That hope curdled and turned into a kind of despair if you ask me.
Paul Jay: So it’s pretty clear that the Clinton-esque corporate Democrats do not want a Sanders-esque reform of the Democratic Party. They’re fighting actually, tooth and nail at every level of the party against Sander’s forces, and I must say Sander’s forces are winning some of these battles at local levels for party chairmanships and things like that. We’ve been doing some reporting on that. It’s quite a fight taking place. But is the Democratic Party, is this Sander’s insurgency, Sanders challenge. There’s two sides to it. Some people are arguing that it’s a real insurgency, and it will be a real challenge in 2020, and it could do one of two things. Sanders maybe could actually win and/or there will be some kind of rigging, worse than what we saw the DNC do in the previous time, and maybe Sanders walks and maybe that creates conditions for some kind of third party, and/or some people critique Sanders as keeping people within the Democratic Party full. Now is the time to give up on the Democratic Party.
Thomas Frank: Yes, well okay. The question is, third parties, and I love third parties like I mentioned now 20 times, I’m from Kansas and this is a very populist state, and actually one of the last big third-party movements in American history. Populism. Big third party movement in the sense that it swept the country, that it elected officials at all different levels. They did run presidential candidates, but that was an afterthought. It was mainly a more local, state-level thing. Populism was big there and that is the case all through the 19th century by the way. If you go back and look at American political wars in the 19th century, whenever the two main parties would get too close to each other, you would have a third party challenge. So on the issue of slavery, the Democrats and the Whigs at the time had basically agreed among themselves not to debate this issue openly. What happens is you have the Republican Party that rises up and says, “No, this is the main issue before and we have to debate it.” And the Whigs in that case crumbled. It fell apart and were replaced by the Republicans. Then you have at the end of the 19th century, the two parties refusing to debate growing inequality, industrialization, what’s happening as we become this industrial economy and it’s leaving all these people behind, and it’s destroying these other people. You’ve got enormous labor protests and farmer protests and all kinds of … This is the great age of monopoly and the two parties refused to debate it and you have a third party that rises up, populism. In this case, they were absorbed by the Democratic Party, William Jennings Bryan, and all that stuff. Here’s what’s fascinating. After populism … By the way, this is what I’m describing before I go on into what happened to populism. This is an important feature of the two party system, that when the two part- You understand in game theory, the two parties coming together and deciding to have a consensus and not to debate certain things. This is going to happen. So you need this outside competition to keep things honest. This is an important element is that you have to be able to form third parties and challenge these two guys when they do this because they’re going to do it, and they’re doing it right now. Up until this year, all of the … Say the issue of trade and globalization. The two parties with everybody in charge in Washington. Whether it’s Bill Clinton, or whether it’s Barack Obama, or whether it’s George W. Bush, or whether it’s Ronald Reagan, they all think these trade deals are great. They all agree on them.
Paul Jay: And they still all agree on most of the foreign policy positions.
Thomas Frank: By the way, this is a consensus, and you can say that this is the same on budgetary issues, about social security, there’s all sorts of issues where there’s consensus between the two parties in Washington, DC that the general public of this country does not agree with. There’s just a whole bunch of these things. A lot of foreign policy stuff where the two parties are in agreement and the public doesn’t agree at all. But they keep this consensus by agreeing with each other within Washington, DC. How do you smash that? Well in the 19th century, you had third parties. Unfortunately, after populism died down, almost every state in America passed laws forbidding the various electoral techniques that the populists used, and that the other third party-
Paul Jay: For example?
Thomas Frank: It’s called “Fusion”. It was a technique they used to use at the state level in order to win elections. So in the south, they would align with the Republican party. In the south, in the 1890’s was not very big, but there were still a lot of people that voted Republican in the south back then. In the north, in a place like Kansas, they aligned with the Democratic Party and they would cross-endorse each other’s candidates, and they would win this way. That’s illegal now. There’s no good reason for it to be illegal, it’s just the two parties, they never want that to happen again. They never want someone to be able to build a third party in this way, and that’s how third parties used to always be built back then, and you can’t do that now. That makes it as a result. It’s extremely difficult to build a third party. You can run a candidate for president like Ross Perot or Ralph Nader, something like that. But to build a real third party challenge in every state, all over the country, building local power, electing members of congress, governors, that kind of thing, that’s pretty much impossible. So what that leaves us with is …
Paul Jay: Well let me just get some of the argument, that the internet and Sanders have the ability to raise money this way, and this kind of explosion of kind of a mass movement around Sanders.
Thomas Frank: Yeah.
Paul Jay: That’s something new.
Thomas Frank: It is.
Paul Jay: And that could create the conditions for something like this. Thomas Frank: Things change, and I would love to see that happen because as I said, when you have a situation like you’ve had for the last 20 years where the two parties are in agreement on this whole range of issues and are keeping the public from expressing their will on these things, you need third parties to rise up and challenge them. By the way, this is one of the secrets of Trump’s success is that he did shatter the consensus on the trade issue. If you ask me, as I mentioned now already, that’s one of the most important factors in getting him elected.
Paul Jay: He also threatened the third party.
Thomas Frank: Did he? Yeah that’s right. He did. I forgot about that.
Paul Jay: More or less.
Thomas Frank: That’s right. By the way the Republican primaries were a lot of fun in 2016. It was kind of fun to watch. Remember how much money Jeb Bush spent trying to beat Donald Trump?
Paul Jay: I mean the problem with 2020 is it’s going to be back to the Trump scenario, except I think it could be, in a sense, be even worse. In fact, just my personal speculation, I think it’s going to be Pence in 2020, not Trump, and you’re dealing with a full blown-
Thomas Frank: It could be Cruz, or it could be …
Paul Jay: It could be, but guessing Pence in a full blown, far more efficient, not clown-like.
Thomas Frank: Yeah.
Paul Jay: And actually more dangerous.
Thomas Frank: Yes.
Paul Jay: And that’s going to be difficult when you’re trying to propose any idea of a third party because then you’re going to get back to the scenario we just saw.
Thomas Frank: By the way, this is something Democrats need to think about that I’ve been trying to bring to people’s attention so far in vain, which is that Trump is a buffoon and Trump may be done for, and Trump may get impeached, Trump may not run for re-election, or whatever. “Trumpism” is here to stay. Trump is in some ways, the worst bearer. He’s a terrible politician. His rallies, he’s a pretty good speaker, and I guess a lot of people found him inspiring. But the idea of running for president? Going down the list of ethnic groups and insulting them, each in turn? That’s idiotic. Picking a fight with Miss America, or whoever she was, boasting about how he gropes women? This is insane. He gave the Democrats so many gifts. The next Trump, the next person to carry the banner of Trumpism won’t make these mistakes. I tell you, it will be someone like Pence, who’s a professional. Or someone like Ted Cruz. Or who’s the senator from Florida who ran …
Paul Jay: Rubio.
Thomas Frank: Yeah, Marco Rubio. These are guys that know what they’re doing, and they will use Trump’s appeal, this kind of national, populist, national economic … Economic nationalism. They’ll use that appeal, but they won’t piss people off, and that’s going to be hard to stop.
Paul Jay: We interviewed a guy who voted for Trump in Dundalk, just outside of Baltimore, and he was saying … We asked him, “Why did you vote for Trump?” And he says, “Well, I know he’s a liar, I know he’s a clown. I voted for him anyway. Now what does that tell you about the whole political class?”
Thomas Frank: Exactly.
Paul Jay: All right. We’re going to continue this series of interviews with Thomas Frank. So please look out for them on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.
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Thomas Carr Frank is an American political analyst, historian, and journalist. He co-founded and edited The Baffler magazine. Frank is the author of the books What’s the Matter with Kansas? and Listen, Liberal, among others. From 2008 to 2010 he wrote “The Tilting Yard”, a column in The Wall Street Journal.