Saturday, May 28, 2016

I wish I hadn’t read Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal

I wish I hadn’t read Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal (an indictment of the Democratic party for abandoning its working class base) when I was trying to reconcile myself to Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee.

When this race began, I assumed that Clinton would be the nominee and although there is much in her background (her vote for the Iraq war, her generally hawkish policy positions, her cozy relationship with Wall Street) that concerns me, I more or less convinced myself that she was the best we could do. And after all, she would be our first woman president—and that counted for a lot with me. I would have preferred Elizabeth Warren, but that is clearly not going to happen in 2016.

When Bernie Sanders first declared his candidacy, I thought he would be gone after New Hampshire. I sure hadn’t expected that he would run such a strong campaign and that so many young people would be ready for his message. For a brief period, I thought perhaps another world is possible. That didn’t last long. Hillary has all but clinched the nomination and now I once again am trying to make my peace with Hillary as the presumptive nominee. But my briefly held hope that Bernie could win has made it harder to reconcile myself to Hillary.

Frank’s book didn’t help. First, it reminded me of all I disliked about Bill Clinton: his crime bill that contributed to the tragedy of mass incarceration; his welfare reform bill, which has resulted in extreme poverty: his financial deregulation that contribute to the economic meltdown of 2008: and NAFTA which contributed to de-industrialization and loss of jobs. Granted, these were Bill Clinton’s policies, but Hillary is on record as supporting them. And yes she has moved away from her enthusiastic support for “free trade” and both Clintons have acknowledged that much in the 1994 crime bill was a “mistake.”

Of course, it wasn’t just the Clintons who supported the crime bill. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ must-read article in the Atlantic “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” demonstrates the extent to which the crime bill was supported by liberal Democrats, including some of my heroes such as Ann Richardson and Mario Cuomo. From Coates’ article:

In Texas, the Democratic governor, Ann Richards, had come to power in 1991 advocating rehabilitation, but she ended up following the national trend, curtailing the latitude of judges and the parole board in favor of fixed sentencing, which gave power to prosecutors. In 1993, Texas rejected a bid to infuse its schools with $750 million—but approved $1 billion to build more prisons. By the end of her term, Richards had presided over “one of the biggest public works projects in Texas history,” according to Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire. In New York, another liberal governor, Mario Cuomo, found himself facing an exploding prison population. After voters rejected funding for more prisons, Cuomo pulled the money from the Urban Development Corporation, an agency that was supposed to build public housing for the poor. It did—in prison. Under the avowedly liberal Cuomo, New York added more prison beds than under all his predecessors combined.

Given the Democratic Party’s complicity with mass incarceration, it’s probably not all that surprising that so many young people are ready for a Democratic Socialist—and that includes young people of color. According to the New York Times, a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Clinton and Sanders splitting the nonwhite vote in California. If Bernie Sanders manages to turn all this into a genuinely progressive movement within the Democratic party (my preference) or a progressive movement independent of the Democratic Party, a candidate with Sanders’ platform just might win 2020 or 2024.

To return to Listen Liberal: Frank’s analysis of the current state of the Democratic Party is compelling, but his conclusions are disappointing:

The Democrats have no interest in reforming themselves in a more egalitarian way. There is little the rest of us can do, given the current legal arrangements of this country, to build a vital third party movement or to revive organized labor, the one social movement that is committed by its nature to pushing back against the inequality trend.

Frank thinks all that can be done at this point is to expose the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party--the extent to which the policies supported by Democratic leaders have worked against the interests of the working people they supposedly represent. Frank probably wrote Listen Liberal before the Sanders’ insurgency and that might explain his tepid conclusion. But something is happening out there…

1 comment:

  1. I think we should actually feel somewhat encouraged. What Frank has written about is sad history, but history. The next chapter could be quite a bit better. Bernie may not win the nomination but he's spurred a tremendous amount of activism within the Democratic Party that I think could, over time, transform it. At least the possibility is out there, and I think we have to encourage it by taking an attitude of revolutionary optimism.