Saturday, August 27, 2016

Listen Liberal: Thomas Frank Tries to School the Democratic Party

Thomas Frank has long been an insightful commentator on political matters.  His latest effort takes to task Democratic leadership for directing the Party away from what Frank believes is its true mission: serving the needs of the middle and working classes.  He presents his case in Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

In his introduction he details the growth in inequality in recent decades and points out that whether Republicans or Democrats were in charge mattered not as the health of the middle class declined.  He then states his intention to prove the following statements about the Democratic Party.

“This is not because they are incompetent or because sinister Republicans keep thwarting the righteous liberal will.  It is Democratic failure, straight up and nothing else.  The agent of change isn’t interested in the job at hand.  Inequality just doesn’t spark their imagination.  It is the point at which their famous compassion peters out.”

“What I am suggesting is that their inability to address the social question is not accidental.  The current leaders of the Democratic Party know their form of liberalism is somehow related to the good fortune of the top 10 percent.  Inequality, in other words, is a reflection of who they are.  It goes to the heart of their self-understanding.”

Those are rather serious charges for a liberal to hurl at the liberal political party.  Let us proceed with his arguments before deciding if Frank might be correct.

Frank describes Democrats as “the party that was once such a militant defender of workers and the middle class.”  The “once” referred to was the good old days of Roosevelt as contrasted with the bad new days of Clinton (Bill) and Obama.

After the Roosevelt and Truman years and the prosperity that followed, the Democrats might have declared victory and rested on their laurels, but they knew that the world and the people in it were changing and they would have to change with them.  As the Democrats deliberated over the years, they incorporated a premise that Frank found unjustified and inconsistent with their principles.

“What remained constant throughout these decades of wandering was a certain knowledge of what Democrats were not.  On this, everyone agreed: Democrats could no longer be the party of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, with its heavy reliance upon organized labor and its tendency to see issues through the lens of social class.  Through the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties, and into the Aughts, as different Democratic reform movement came and went, this was the universal thesis: The New Deal coalition was done for.”

By the 1970s it was clear that the Labor Movement was not going to produce an organized worker class.  And if there was such a thing as a worker class it was divided among itself as the southern laborers refused to unionize and insisted on reelecting anti-union legislators.  If the South was not on board then the northern unions were always at threat of having work moved south.  In addition, the working class seemed ominously attracted to the 1968 campaign of George Wallace.

“Democratic leaders decided to reorient the party after 1968 not because this was necessary for survival but because they distrusted their main constituency and had started to lust after a new and more sophisticated one.”

While the nation never quite generated a “worker class,” Frank believes it did create a “professional class,” based on “merit, learning, and status.”

“….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.”

“ We lampoon the Republican hierarchy of money with the phrase ‘the one percent’; if we want to recognize 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.”

Frank seems to use the term “professional” to refer to those who are highly educated or highly trained in a particular field and have attained recognition as being expert in that area.  One might think that it would be a good thing for politicians to surround themselves with such people in order to obtain expert advice in formulating policies.  Frank disagrees. 

Recognized professionals are assumed to have advanced to their high status because they earned it and thus are worthy of their place.  Unfortunately, it is easy to turn this around and imply that those who have not achieved the status of “professional” are in some way unworthy.  Since the path to professionalism is via education, then one can conclude that the answer to inequality is to provide poor people better education.

“The professional class is defined by its educational attainment, and every time they tell the country that what it needs is more schooling, they are saying: Inequality is not a failure of the system; it is a failure of you.”

The concept of merit by which the highly educated justify their lofty positions puts them at odds with what Frank views as the Democrats traditional constituency.

“….professionals do not hold that other Democratic constituency, organized labor, in particularly high regard.  This attitude is documented in study after study of professional-class life.  One reason for this is because unions signify lowliness, not status.  But another is because solidarity, the core value of unions, stands in stark contradiction to the doctrine of individual excellence that every profession embodies.  The idea that someone should command good pay for doing a job that doesn’t require specialized training seems to professionals to be an obvious fallacy.”

While one might assume that surrounding oneself with “the best and the brightest” is a great strategy, Frank warns that professionalism carries with it the burden of conformity and a certain deficit of imagination.

“….professional ideology brings with it certain predictable, recurring weaknesses.  The first of these pitfalls of professionalism is that people with the highest status aren’t necessarily creative or original thinkers….professionals do not question authority; their job is to apply it.  This is the very nature of their work and the object of their training….professionals are ‘obedient thinkers’ who ‘implement their employers’ attitudes’ and carefully internalize the reigning doctrine of their discipline, whatever it happens to be.”

“In addition, the professions are structured to shield insiders from accountability.  This is what defines the category: professionals do not have to listen.  They are the only occupational group, as the sociologist Eliot Freidson put it many years ago, with ‘the recognized right to declare…”outside” evaluation illegitimate and intolerable’.”

“Every academic discipline with which I have some experience is similar: international relations, political science, cultural studies, even American history.  None of them are as outrageous as economics, it is true, but each of them is dominated by some convention or ideology.  Those who succeed in a professional discipline are those who best absorb and apply its master narrative.”

It gets even worse.  Frank ascribes to professionalism the cause of the worst crimes Democratic leaders have committed over the years: the quest for bipartisan solutions.

“One final consequence of the ideology of professionalism is the liberal class’s obsessive pining for consensus.”

“This obsession, so peculiar and yet so typical of our times, arises from professionals’ well-known disgust for partisanship and their faith in what they take to be apolitical solutions.”

Much of Frank’s book is devoted to how this embrace of the professional class and its faults by Democratic leadership rendered the Clinton and Obama presidencies ineffective, if not actively harmful.  Clinton was surrounded by the conventional wisdom of his entourage telling him he had to move to the center and become less liberal, thus fostering harmful legislation.  Obama wasted much of his presidency trying to negotiate bipartisan deals.  He should have broken up the banks and jailed all the financial criminals.  And so on.

Finally Frank arrives at this conclusion.

“The Democrats posture as the ‘party of the people’ even as they dedicate themselves ever more resolutely to serving and glorifying the professional class.  Worse: they combine self-righteousness and class privilege in a way that Americans find stomach-turning.  And every two years, they simply assume that being non-Republican is sufficient to rally voters of the nation to their standard.  This cannot go on.”

“The course of the party and the course of the nation can both be changed, but only after we understand that the problem is us.”

Frank often conflates the terms “worker class” and “middle class.”  If one walked the streets in the US asking people if they belonged to the worker class it is likely that very few would apply that label to themselves.  If one asked the same people if they belonged to the middle class almost all are likely to claim membership. A bit more precision is called for if the present, past, and future of the Democratic Party are to be evaluated.

Steve Fraser provides a comprehensive history of what passed as a worker class in the US and how it evolved in The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power.  If there ever was a worker class in this nation it would be associated with the unionization battles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  If one needed to conjure up a worker class at the moment it might be appropriate to associate that label with the collection of unionized workers of the current era.

Frank brings up the fact that there are European countries where union membership is national in scope, and where unions and management have settled into stable and well-defined roles.  The system works.  He seems to assume that if it can work in Germany it can work in the US.

Fraser’s narrative produces a much more complex situation in our country than in European nations.  The goal of worker unity here always seemed to be threatened by the demon pair of immigration and race.  Consider his description of the workers striking against United States Steel early in the twentieth century.

“Tragically, the labor question merged directly into the country’s racial dilemma.  The steel strike failed to humanize the industry in part because these impoverished and degraded workers didn’t constitute a united proletarian army after all, the fears of their foes notwithstanding.  They were instead ‘micks,’ ‘guineas,’ ‘Hunkies,’ ‘Polacks,’ and ‘niggers,’ whose mutual distrust and even hatred corroded their solidarity.  The once despised Irish, now lodged at the top of the workplace hierarchy, thought of themselves as ‘white’; the Slavs and the Italians couldn’t be sure just what they were as they faced the contempt of their Irish foremen and gang leaders.  But at least they knew they weren’t ‘darkies.’  Even while the strikers were displaying extraordinary courage in facing off against United States Steel and the vast infrastructure of power it could bring to its defense, the strike became a theater of primordial tribalism, proving how impossible it was to separate the labor question from the race question.  And African Americans could have no doubt they were the mudsills of the steelworker community, only allowed in at all to subvert the organizing efforts of their fellow workers as spies, as scabs, as people so intimidated and desperate they could be cynically manipulated.”

This “theater of primordial tribalism” managed to hold itself together for a few decades and the legality of unionization was established.  But this “worker class” continued to be unstable and racial strife coupled with Cold War ideology soon led to its inevitable decline.

The corporate world was always searching for opportunities to attack the New Deal and anyone promoting “foreign” ideas.  The apparent success of the Russian Revolution and the power of the Soviet Union spread fear throughout the nation that could be put to use.

“Even during World War II, but with immeasurably greater force right afterward, every element of the labor-liberal outlook—from racial equality to universal health insurance, from union power to public housing, from government regulation to economic planning, from welfare to women’s rights, from academic freedom to free expression in the arts—was subjected to a withering assault.  They were stigmatized as disguised forms of communism, indubitably ‘Un-American’.”

Labor leaders knew that their hard-fought gains would be at risk unless they managed to unionize the South.  If they failed, the South would become a haven for companies trying to escape the wage demands of unions.

“Its achievements in unionizing millions were historic.  But to continue them was vital: either grow or lose ground.  Cracking the ‘solid South,’ infamous for hostility to unions, and home (as the whole Sun Belt would eventually become) to firms running away from the threat of unionized labor, was strategically critical.  The labor movement tried.  But the attempt was doomed.  The region’s racial divisions were difficult enough to surmount.  A one-party political system run by landlords, the labor lords of the textile industry, the mercantile elite, and captive Protestant churches also stood in the way.  The anti-Communist persuasion that conflated unionizing with communism stopped the CIO’s Operation Dixie in its tracks.”

Succumbing to the pressures of the time along with its own internal weaknesses, the labor movement retreated to a mode in which protecting existing gains became the focus rather than extending their goals to a universal “working class.”

“Labor no longer appeared on the stage of public life battling for universal welfare, championing the cause of all working people; it seemed increasingly concerned with its conspicuously better-off membership, which was also conspicuously white and male.  The roots of today’s scapegoating of unions by business, policy makers, and even ordinary but less protected working people go back to that.”

In the era about which Frank writes, the union/worker class was sufficiently diminished, and even unpopular enough, that its support could not form the philosophical basis for a healthy Democratic Party.  The Democrats were correct in treating unions as a component of a broader constituency.

Frank likes to compare the expediency of the Clinton/Obama years with the “purity” of Roosevelt and the New Deal era.  However, it should be recalled that in order to pass New Deal legislation, Roosevelt acquiesced to the demands of his southern Democrats and effectively allowed all African Americans to be excluded from the benefits of social security legislation.  That was a political accommodation that was, in retrospect, as odious as any actions taken by Clinton and Obama that, in retrospect, have infuriated Frank.

Frank’s construction of a professional class and his description of its shortcomings are quite startling.  He seems to equate professionalism with the academic elite, find shortcomings in our university departments, then apply those faults to everyone.  Clearly, a professional class would also have to include legions of lawyers, physicians, business executives, financial managers, and educators—a diverse bunch indeed.

University elites would then constitute a small sliver of this class, but likely the most influential in government circles.  Are his criticisms of academic leaders valid?  Perhaps his most relevant criticism is that academic departments breed conformity of beliefs.  His best example arises in the field of economics where a given school might foster a particular ideology and only allow in faculty members whose beliefs conform to that ideology.  That is not the same thing as saying that candidates will change their belief system in order to conform and thus perhaps be hired.  There are other universities where different schools of thought dominate and departments look for a different class of candidate.  Competition is maintained within the discipline of economics even if individual departments might not encourage it internally.  This type of effect is common in many fields of study.  The really good schools will generally not allow themselves to fall into this conformity trap.

Frank suggests that university elites are somehow trained be obedient to their masters, the government leaders who hire them for their expertise.  To repeat Frank:

“….professional ideology brings with it certain predictable, recurring weaknesses.  The first of these pitfalls of professionalism is that people with the highest status aren’t necessarily creative or original thinkers….professionals do not question authority; their job is to apply it.  This is the very nature of their work and the object of their training….professionals are ‘obedient thinkers’ who ‘implement their employers’ attitudes’ and carefully internalize the reigning doctrine of their discipline, whatever it happens to be.”

It is not clear what Frank’s experience is in dealing with academic superstars, but most people would probably use adjectives like “arrogant,” “pompous,” “stubborn,” ‘intolerable,” rather than “obedient thinker” in describing them.  The idea that our universities turn out intellectual wimps is so foreign to experience that Frank risks invalidating everything he claims by promoting such ideas.

Where does the Democratic Party find itself today?  It has a coalition that includes African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans.  It is the party of choice for young people, the college educated, union members, and many classifications of women.  They have dealt themselves a strong hand.  Who are the Democrats contending against?  Their opponents are mostly poorly-educated whites stoked by racial resentments—a form of white nationalism.  Many of the Republican voters are exactly the people who Frank claims the Democrats betrayed: members of his working/middle class.

You can’t help people who refuse to be helped.


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