"Can liberals please work out how to win back the working class?"
The Guardian (Friday, July 27, 2018)
I’m taking a pause from journalism – while I’m gone, can someone please tell the Democrats that they need to stop betraying the movements that support them.
The other day I noticed, with something of a shock, that Brett Kavanaugh, the supreme court nominee, is almost exactly the same age as me. I have always scoffed at those of my generation who cynically hitched their star to the conservative movement but now, as I take my leave from this space, it occurs to me that maybe they played the game right after all.
I started out in journalism in the orange-fingered sunset of the Reagan era. The rise of the right, I felt back then, was the most consequential development of my lifetime, and understanding it was where I came to focus my energies.
What came to fascinate me was the paradox of the thing. Republicans had successfully inverted their historical brand-image as the party of the highborn, remaking themselves as plain-talking pals of the forgotten people who had so spurned them during the Great Depression. Republicanism’s payload, however, was the same as it had been in 1932. And just look at what conservatism proceeded to do to those average people once they welcomed it into their lives.
But understanding the perversity of rightwing populism only brought me to another mystery: the continuing failure of liberals to defeat this thing, even as its freakishness and destructiveness became apparent to everyone. My brain twirls to think that rightwing populism is still running strong in 2018 – that it’s even worse now than it was in 1988 – that the invective and the journalism and the TV shows and all the mournful books about the decline of the middle class have amounted, basically, to nothing.
We had the perfect opportunity to reverse course in 2008, after a deregulatory catastrophe sent the billionaires shrieking for handouts and ruined middle America as collateral damage. That was the perfect moment for liberals to reclaim their Rooseveltian heritage by governing forcefully on behalf of ordinary people, by warring against over-powerful corporations, by demonstrating the power of the state to build a just and humane society. But they didn’t do it [emphasis added].
I know the excuses: those Republicans were so clever, they wouldn’t vote for Obama’s proposals, etc. But from the long-term perspective, what really mattered was the absence of Democratic will. Instead of doing what the moment required, Democrats chose to help the banks get back on their feet and to stand by as inequality soared; they scolded their base for wanting too much and they extended their hand instead to Silicon Valley and big pharma. The task of capturing public anger was one they rearded with distaste; they left that to Tea Party demagogues and to Donald Trump.
We are going to pay for that failure for a long time. The GOP should have been ruined by the financial crisis; instead the culture wars are raging all over again, with dog whistles and fights over the flag and the persecution mania of the populist right blaring from the TV screen. We’re right back where we started. The crisis went completely to waste.
For all their cunning, Republicans are a known quantity. Their motives are simple: they will do anything, say anything, profess faith in anything to get tax cuts, deregulation and a little help keeping workers in line. Nothing else is sacred to them. Rules, norms, traditions, deficits, the Bible, the constitution, whatever. They don’t care, and in this they have proven utterly predictable [emphasis added].
Wisconsin, of all places, is a battleground state. In the hands of a real politician, Trumpism could romp even farther.
The Democrats, however, remain a mystery. We watch them hesitate at crucial moments, betray the movements that support them, and even try to suppress the leaders and ideas that generate any kind of populist electricity. Not only do they seem uninterested in doing their duty toward the middle class, but sometimes we suspect they don’t even want to win.
(This is more than just a suspicion, by the way. As none other than Tony Blair has said, “I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”)
Still, as we are reminded at every turn, this flawed organization is the only weapon we have against the party of Trump. And as the president’s blunders take a turn for the monumental and public alarm grows, the imperative of delivering a Democratic wave this fall grows ever more urgent.
Make no mistake: it has got to happen. Democrats simply have to take one of the houses of Congress this fall and commence holding Trump accountable. Failure at this baseline mission is unthinkable; it will mean the Democratic party has no reason for being, even on its own compromised terms.
What concerns me as I begin my leave, though, is the larger picture. Trump may be an oaf, but the vicious strain of rightwing populism he introduced is not going away. Trumpism is the future for the Republican party – it delivered Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Iowa too. Wisconsin, of all places, is now a battleground state. In the hands of a real politician, Trumpism has the potential to romp even farther.
Beating the right cannot simply be a matter of waiting for a dolt in the Oval Office to screw things up. There has to be a plan for actively challenging and reversing it, for turning around the fraction of working class voters who have been abandoning the Democratic party for decades. The time is up for happy fantasies of office-park centrism and professional-class competence [emphasis added].
As for me, I am off to write a few books. I’ll be back in this space in a few years and we will see how things have gone.
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Thomas Frank is an American political analyst and historian. His books include What’s the Matter With Kansas?. His latest is Listen, Liberal: or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?