Author and historian Thomas Frank on the history of populism and anti-populism in America, and how Democrats can reclaim it from the GOP.
Joe Biden won the popular vote by more than five million votes, but still squeaked out a relatively narrow victory Electoral College. And he did it against one of the least popular candidates in history, in the midst of a pandemic, while his party was losing seats in congress.
Whether Democrats will come to see this as a glorious victory for the Third Way or as a belated wake-up call will determine what they do for the next four years. That even amid a steady drumbeat of “appealing to the white working class is inherently racist,” Biden’s support among minorities was less than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016 should be a big red flag.
From his first book, What’s The Matter With Kansas (2004) through Listen, Liberal (2016) to this year’s The People, No, author and historian Thomas Frank has been documenting the way the Democratic party has been increasingly shedding its New Deal, working-class coalition roots to become the party of the educated professional class: a largely non-ideological coalition of effective managers who evangelize the meritocracy. This seemed like a brilliant strategy if judged only by election victories for Bill Clinton(*) and Barack Obama(**), but, as Frank points out, it was the Democratic party’s rightward lean in the 90s that “coincided with a period of ever more conservative governance” and set the stage for Trumpism in the first place. (*Who won in 1992 with just 43% of the popular vote, thanks to Ross Perot) (**Who campaigned as a transformative progressive, at least in the beginning).
As Frank recently wrote in The Guardian, “It turns out that when the party of the left abandons its populist traditions for high-minded white-collar rectitude, the road is cleared for a particularly poisonous species of rightwing demagoguery. It is no coincidence that, as Democrats pursued their professional-class ‘third way,’ Republicans became ever bolder in their preposterous claim to be a ‘workers’ party’ representing the aspirations of ordinary people.”
In The People, NO: A Brief History Of Anti-Populism, Frank attempts to explain a few interconnected stories: the history of the populist movement in the United States, the elitist (and usually racist) language used to denigrate it, and the way racist demagogues eventually co-opted some of the original populists’ language. Finally, he connects it to the environment of today, in which Donald Trump, in unconsciously parroting the co-opted, “anti-elitist” talking points of demagogues past, has inadvertently convinced a significant swath of the media and the political class that populism is racism. When in fact it has a strong tradition of anti-racism and trans-racial solidarity.
I spoke to Frank this week about whether — with another centrist, third-way Democratic president on the way — the party can still reclaim some of its old coalition and harness some of the forces of “populism” for good, not to mention nostalgia and even religion.
What is your take on the election? Will Democrats see any impetus for improving their messaging or is this just going to be four years of arguing about whether this was or was not a massive victory?
Wow. That’s a good question. Messaging is a chronic problem for the Democrats, but it’s also a way of acknowledging that they did a bad job with messaging, which they will often do. It is a way of brushing off the deeper problem of the Democratic party, which is that they’ve abandoned their base and their identity. That’s a much bigger problem that has consequences for society. It’s like we’re running a 30-year experiment here in America in what happens to a middle-class society when the party of the left decides it doesn’t want to be a party of the left anymore, which is what they decided back in the Clinton days. That has been as consequential for the big change in our society as has the radicalization of the Republicans. The two go hand-in-hand. As Republicans push further to the right, the Democrats concede more, and sort of reimagine themselves and emerge as another party of the market, of the elite. So, there’s two parties of the elite in this country. It’s a curious situation.
In terms of the Democrats’ shift to the center, that was kind of the Clinton third-way thing, and then we sort of interpreted that as this winning strategy, but didn’t Clinton only win in the first place because Ross Perot screwed up that entire election?
Yeah, that’s right, and then screwed up the election in ’96 too. When I was writing Listen, Liberal, a lot of it is a sort of study of the Clinton years. I decided to do that part of the book by reading the pro-Clinton literature, the books that regard him as a great president, and there’s a lot of them. They admire him, they’ll tell you why they admire him, and you go down the list and it’s these five things: bank deregulation, NAFTA, the great crime crackdown, welfare reform. Every single one of them has ended in disaster. All of them were Republican agenda items that Bill Clinton got done. Continue reading