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‘Listen, Liberal’: How the Democrats Deserted the Working Class

US political analyst Thomas Frank’s new book is a master class on the master class.

By Crawford Kilian 10 Aug 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

“I didn’t leave the Democratic party,” Ronald Reagan famously said in 1962. “The Democratic party left me.”

If he’d just waited a few years, he’d have felt more at home as the Democrats deserted their traditional base and moved sharply right. This book describes how it happened, and it offers lessons for Canadians as well as Americans.

The thesis of Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal is that the United States now has two parties: the Money and the Professionals. The Money is dedicated to the well-being of the one per cent; the Professionals look after the 10 per cent. Neither party cares very much at all about the bottom 90 per cent, except as a source of votes. And at the very top the two parties begin to interlace, and politics turns into billionaires’ personality conflicts.

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

In arguing his thesis, Frank gives the Democratic party in general a ferocious beating. And in particular, he condemns Democratic presidents all the way back to Jimmy Carter for deserting the party’s working-class and middle-class base. Carter, a southern governor, didn’t like unions. But he liked the idea of meritocracy — the old Horatio Alger myth of social mobility through hard work and education.

Democracy? No, meritocracy

Meritocracy is now the ideology of the Democratic party, Frank contends. It welcomes the best and brightest, of any race or ethnicity, of any gender, of any religion. All it asks is graduation from the right American universities, with post-graduate degrees from the best law and business schools.

Bill and Hillary Clinton are modern Horatio Alger heroes: a poor kid from Arkansas who becomes a Rhodes Scholar, and an ambitious middle-class girl who catches his eye in the library of Yale Law School. And unlike earlier generations of Democrats, they have no real interest in ordinary working people. Under meritocracy, if you don’t rise to power and wealth, you have only yourself to blame. And if you do rise, you’ll find you have much more in common with other powerful and wealthy meritocrats than with those no-hopers working for Walmart.

The Clintons and other meritocrats are egalitarians only in the sense that they want everyone to have an equal opportunity to rise as they have. They have little interest in the well-being of ordinary people.

Frank points out that Democrats have co-operated with Republicans in gutting American manufacturing through free trade agreements, leaving demoralized workers at the mercy of employers quite ready to move their plants to Mexico or China. In the 40 years since Jimmy Carter was elected, free trade and globalization have enriched the top 10 per cent of Americans, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican was president. For everyone else, income has stagnated or actually fallen — and welfare and bank regulation were effectively abolished under Bill Clinton.

Instead of standing up for working people, the Democrats are now the besotted fans of “innovation,” especially innovation by the billionaires of Silicon Valley and other high-tech enclaves. If that innovation means building iPhones in China, or self-driving vehicles that will put truck drivers out of work, or trapping low-income homeowners in impossible mortgages, so what?

For that matter, the innovators are running the old mainstream media out of business, but even the media moguls love them.

Welcome to Big Learning

Meritocracy values education, and those in the profession have strongly endorsed the meritocratic vision. But the point is not to educate everyone — just to identify and advance the smart ones, and ignore the rest. This has led to a grossly distorted school system in which over-tested schools are ranked and anxious parents try to get their kids into the “best” schools — preferably in the Ivy League.

This has led to an Ivy League seller’s market that Frank calls Big Learning. It makes Vancouver real estate look like a swap meet. I started at Columbia in the fall of 1958, when a year’s tuition was $1,100 — the equivalent of $9,107 in today’s dollars. Tuition was doubtless higher when Barack Obama started there as a third-year student in 1981.

But students starting at Columbia this fall are looking at $52,478 in tuition. Housing, meals and other expenses bring the total to $68,825, not counting books and personal expenses. And that’s just for the first year.

Recent Democratic (and Republican) administrations, however, have relied heavily on Ivy League graduates for service in the top ranks. They tend to jump from government to Wall Street and back again. These are the wonderfully smart, superbly educated men and women who brought you Iraq, Libya, deregulated banks, outsourced jobs and subprime mortgages. And then tried to fix the Great Recession by giving bonuses to the bankers and austerity to everyone else.

The discreet charm of the professional class

Nevertheless, Thomas Frank likes a lot of these people. After all, folks like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are indeed very smart — and very charming. Even Hillary has her moments. We don’t wish they were more like us; we wish we were more like them. And that charm has taken them to the top.

In the process, however, they’ve left the bottom behind. Voter turnout in U.S. presidential elections hasn’t been even as high as 61 per cent since 1964, when Americans turned out to defeat right-wing loon Barry Goldwater. Bill Clinton was first elected in 1992, when turnout was 55.2 per cent; he won again in 1996 with just 49 per cent. Obama won in 2008 with a 57.1 per cent turnout, and with just 54.9 per cent in 2012.

So almost half the electorate can’t be bothered to vote. And why should they, when no one running wants to defend their interests?

The silent minority were precisely the targets of both Bernie Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right. Sanders put a scare into the meritocrats, and pulled Hillary a bit to the left. But like the old unions, the Berners have nowhere else to go but to Hillary’s meritocrats, who will ignore them once in office.

Trump demolished the Republican establishment by telling the silent, quietly desperate minority what it wanted to hear, as rudely and crudely as possible. As the Money party, the Republicans since Nixon had been happy to win the white southern racist vote. But Trump has opened the gates to even more-barbaric barbarians, who look about as congenial as Attila’s Huns. Even if he’s defeated, they’re going to stay inside the gates, party crashers eager to trash the house.

Lessons for Canadians

Frank is a sharp, readable, witty writer, himself a renegade meritocrat who understands his Professional class very well. His book explains a lot to anxious Canadian observers of the current U.S. election, but it also raises questions to make them even more anxious.

After all, we’ve just emerged from a decade under our own Money party, notably not highly educated and hostile to professionals. No wonder Stephen Harper didn’t get along with Obama, except to get involved with his wars.

And what did we get instead? A gorgeous, charming Professional with a cool tattoo, a Trudeau-Obama bromance, a guy who locks up much of the vote by showing up shirtless, as when JFK was swarmed on a 1960 Santa Monica beach by adoring female voters.

With his shirt on, of course, Trudeau gives an OK to Site C and arms sales to the Saudis, and could well OK the expanded Kinder Morgan pipeline. But we sigh and forgive him.

Great hair or not, when Trudeau got elected Canadian voter turnout in 2015 was 68.3 per cent — meaning almost a third of Canadians were still too alienated to vote.

The NDP clearly moved too far to the right to attract those voters, but where else could it go? Trudeau has charmed and seduced many of the New Democrats. If it weren’t in the grip of its own Professionals, the NDP could move sharply back to the principled left that opposed putting Japanese-Canadians in internment camps in 1942, and Pierre Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act in 1972. That was also the principled left that prophetically warned of the 1 per cent in 1943.

Our own Money party, the Conservatives, have no principled right to return to, much less a serious, educated Professional class. But the New Democrats, if they survive, might have a chance to win sometime in the 2020s, when good looks and well-educated Professionals can’t stop global warming or the continuing onslaught of wars and refugees.

By then, of course, the Professionals may not even want to.  [Tyee]

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