This is the shorter version of what will likely appear in Indiana Policy Review. (For more of me about Robert Frank, go to the bottom of this post.)
grown fond of saying that the world would be a much better place if we had many
more real conservatives and liberals. For example, imagine how much
public life would improve if we had many more people who were as tolerant and
compassionate as a lot of "liberals" claim to be.
people are “moderate” or embrace another ideology like “libertarian”. But why
aren't there all that many "real" conservatives and liberals? A few
reasons come to mind.
don't have good working definitions of conservative or liberal. So, many people
are embracing a label that is convenient but unclear. For example, what is a
people avidly embrace one of these labels, when they are only interested in a
handful of issues that could be related to that label—e.g., social
conservatives or liberals who value certain civil liberties. This results in
different types of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.
“Public Choice” economics, we know that most people (reasonably) spend little
time thinking about political economy. This results in a dog’s breakfast of political
philosophy and policy prescriptions—and little connection between self-chosen
labels and reality.
presidential campaign illustrates all of this confusion nicely. Neither
major-party candidate could have emerged from a process dominated by real
liberals or conservatives. Avid supporters of Clinton were forced to turn in
their liberal badges, given her character flaws and policy preferences. Avid
supporters of Trump had to ignore profound character flaws and could only see
him as certain narrow forms of “conservative”. And yet, each was popular enough
to win a major political party nomination.
In Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank steps into this "labeling" fray with
passionate complaints about Democrats—from the perspective of an
ideologically-consistent liberal (similar to Bernie Sanders). Frank chastises
those who claim to be liberal, but support politicians who are far from liberal.
President Obama and especially the Clintons, saying that Democrats have falsely
sold hope to the working poor and the middle class. This is particularly
galling because the Democrats claim to be the champions of the working poor and
the middle class. Frank says that Democrats need to take responsibility and
shuts down the most common excuse for the Democrats' failure—that Obama and the
Democrats did the best they could. As Frank notes, the Democrats had control of
the political machinery and something of an electoral mandate for the first two
years. He also points to a number of states and cities where Democrats have
been in control—and have been miserable failures. Unfortunately, blame-shifting
is often easier than looking in the mirror.
argues that national Democrat leadership has dramatically reduced its interest
in working people for the last 40 years. "Many Democratic leaders see
voters as people who have nowhere else to go." Of course, the recent
presidential election—even with a rough GOP candidate—illustrated that these
voters are quite capable of voting with their feet!
traces this evolution to events in the 1970s and then sees it culminating with
the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. He describes the Democrats' move away
from "the party of FDR's New Deal coalition with its heavy reliance upon
organized labor." With Organized Labor fading—and already largely in the
bag anyway—"Democrats had to become...the party of well-educated
professionals." Outcomes in politics and elections bear out this shift in
emphasis. Democrats now do quite well in terms of big money and especially with
difficulty of reading this book is that Frank’s policy recommendations are a
mess. He mostly focuses on economic policy, with little to say about social or
military policy, so the book is limited in this way too. But still, Listen, Liberal is worth a read as a way
to get a look inside the mind of a real liberal. Oh, if there were only a lot
more of them.
Interested in my other blog posts on Thomas Frank? Check out: TF's critique of the ACA; applying TF's analysis on "Kansas" to Dems and urban politics; how TF's work led the Dems into a cul-de-sac in the 2000s, a critique of one of his book reviews.