This is the longer version of what will also appear in reduced form as a newspaper op-ed.
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 embrace another ideology (e.g., libertarian) or have a de facto lack
of ideology (e.g., some forms of "moderate"). But why aren't there
all that many "real" conservatives and liberals? I can think of four
don't have coherent, general, working definitions of conservative or liberal,
so many people are embracing something that is convenient but unclear. For
example, what is a conservative? (While we're at it: What is a progressive—and how does that differ from a Democrat
or liberal? See
also: here on Kiriazis, and here for my forthcoming article
on Thomas Leonard's book in Markets and Morality.)
people avidly embrace one of these labels, when they are only interested in a
subset of issues with respect to that label—e.g., social conservatives or
liberals who value certain civil liberties. (As I have written elsewhere, 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—resulting in a non-existent political
philosophy, incoherent policy prescriptions, little policy imagination, and
here, little connection between self-chosen labels and reality.
people are (far) more interested in political parties and political power than
public policy. Such partisans are not concerned with a coherent ideology or
effective policy all that much—and become enablers to political malfeasance,
especially by those they support.
presidential campaign of 2016 illustrates all of this confusion nicely. Neither
major-party candidate for president in 2016 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 also had to ignore profound
character flaws—and could, at most, claim certain narrow definitions of
conservatism for their candidate. And yet, each was popular enough to win a
major political party nomination.
not in Kansas anymore?
With Listen, Liberal (LL), Thomas Frank steps into this
"labeling" fray with passionate complaints about Democrats—from the
perspective of an ideologically-consistent liberal. Frank has written about
politics and policy for a long time, especially as they relate to economics.
His most famous book goes after "conservative" politicians and voters
through the example of Kansas, arguing (among other things) that GOP voters often
vote against their economic interests.
two key problems with his thesis in What's the Matter with Kansas. First, the same voter critique can be leveled against
Democrats when one looks at Democrats' governance of various
cities. (As he makes
clear in LL, the Democrats at the national level can't be considered much
better. So it looks like Kansan voters were, ironically, a decade ahead of
him!) And his thesis is fatally flawed since its policy scope is so limited;
there's (much) more to life than economics and finance. (Similarly, LL has
little on social or military policy.)
President Obama's administration wrapped up its first year, Frank became
increasingly upset with the President's missed opportunity, hypocrisy,
cowardice, reliance on rhetoric and flowery talk, etc. For example, these two pieces in Harpers are indicative (of his reasonable
anger) and provocative (for those with ears to hear).
Frank wades into these waters to chastise those on the Left who claim to
be liberal, but support illiberal politicians and their policies. The
difficulty of reading this book is that his policy recommendations are a mess—and
often, illiberal by any reasonable definition. Frank also focuses on economic
policy, with little to say about social or military policy, so it's blinkered
in this way too. But still, the book is worth an otherwise-quick-and-easy read
to get a sense of what a real liberal might think about the Democrat
If you want a quick sense of Frank's approach in the context of a recent
political campaign, think Bernie Sanders. After losing the Democrats'
nomination to Hillary Clinton in a semi-rigged outcome—and before selling out
by endorsing the anti-thesis of his campaign—Sanders focused on big banks,
cronyism and elites, a "rigged system", income inequality, etc. (In a
way, Sanders was the Left's version of Trump—in substance and, to some extent,
in style. But Clinton's machine was too powerful for him to win—and Trump
benefited from a huge GOP field that fractured support and allowed him to
describes his motivation for the book in the first paragraph: "excessive
hope" about Obama led to disillusionment, anger, and his book (1).
Throughout, he pounds Democrats in general—and singles out particular Democrats—on
his way to saying that Democrats have sold hope as a false bill of goods. He
says it's time for them—and their supporters—to own up, take responsibility,
Apologists and Blame-Evaders
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
administration's first two years. "This is a book about the failure of the
Democrat Party—about how they failed when the conditions for success were
perfect." (6) "Having put so much faith in his transformative
potential, his followers need to come to terms with how nontransformative he
has been." (154)
Obama is a good idea if your goal is "to rescue the reputation of a hero
who turned out to have clay feet." (154) But if we're concerned with
policy and outcomes, it "would behoove us to admit the obvious forthrightly:
that Obama could have done many things differently, that the Republicans aren't
superhuman, and that the presidency is in fact a powerful office." (155)
Unfortunately, blame-shifting is often easier than looking in the mirror.
not enough to shake some sense into partisans, Frank pursues another angle in
chapter 9—listing a handful of the cities and states that have failed under
dominating blue governance: Rhode Island, Chicago, New York State, Delaware,
and especially Boston. One might be able to casually and carelessly imagine
that national Democrats should escape blame. But his local/state roster of
failure—again, from any reasonable set of liberal or conservative
standards—is beyond debate.
notes, all of this is particularly galling because the Democrats claim to be
the champions of the working poor and the middle class (8). But by any set of
possible standards for being a "champion"—as widely disparate as mine
and Frank's—this is obviously a lark.
Cause and Effect
what's the deal? Frank points to the Democrats appealing to
"professionals" and relying on political elites for policy. Neither
of these is surprising, given the arc of the party over the last 40 years
(e.g., away from labor unions)—and going further back, to the various
principles and paradoxes of Progressivism. (I cover this in detail in my
forthcoming JMM article on Thomas Leonard's book.) Frank singles out
desegregation by busing and the Vietnam War as two key and illustrative
examples (22). Really, Frank is making a standard critique out of Austrian
economics—that the "knowledge problem" will bedevil even the
"smartest" efforts to do public policy well.
chapter 8, Frank summarizes the problem as elites and professionals who are
enamored with needlessly complex solutions (that don't work well). But he also
mixes in a good bit of Public Choice economics with references to the mixed
motives of agents in political markets. He cites "forgotten left-wing
historians" (most notably, Gabriel Kolko) who observed "that the
regulatory state began not with public-minded statesmen cracking the whip and
taming big biz, but just the opposite—with business leaders deliberately
inviting federal regulation as a way to build barriers to entry and give their
cartels the protection of the law." (161-162)
argues that national Democrat leadership dramatically reduced its interest in
working people over the last 40 years (30). It's common for political parties
to take various interest groups for granted. One thinks of African-Americans
and social conservatives as today's most prominent examples. But even in those
cases, Democrats will throw a race-based policy bone to African-Americans and
it's understood that the GOP can't do much with social issues.
case of the working poor and middle class, the gap is greater—and unnecessary. There
are many feasible reforms that mostly lack political courage and policy
imagination. But "many Democratic leaders see voters as people who have
nowhere else to go." (121) Apparently, the thought is: why bother with the
messy work of producing better policy? 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 (120). Chapter 2 describes the Democrats'
move away from "the party of FDR's New Deal coalition with its heavy
reliance upon organized labor." With Labor fading—and already largely in
the bag anyway—"Democrats had to become...the party of well-educated
provides historical details I had not heard previously: the 1971 "Powell
memo" (48), a 1971 "manifesto" by a prominent Democrat
strategist (48), and Lanny Davis' 1974 book (125). Frank also argues that 1960s
labor unions "seemed like white-dominated organizations that were far
closer to the comfortable and the powerful than they were to the
discontented." (50) Crony capitalism among politically-powerful,
upper-middle class workers in labor market cartels is hardly a recipe for
caring about the average or the marginal in society.
in politics and elections bear out this shift in emphasis. Democrats now do
quite well in terms of big money and especially with white-collar
professionals. Speaking of the West Coast and the evolving post-1960s culture,
Frank writes, "wherever you once found alternative and even adversarial
culture, today you find people of merit and money and status. And, of course,
you also find Democrats." (127)
observations here: First, all of this was occurring at the same time as the political realignment on abortion. In the 1970s, both parties were
well-represented in both camps. But by the 1980s, we had the largely GOP pro-lifers
vs. pro-choice libertarians and pro-abortion Democrats. (Most Democrats
shouldn't be called "pro-choice", since abortion seems to be the only
prominent issue where they champion choice.)
argues that the prosperity of the Clinton years—and thus, his supposed success—acted
to cement the deal for Democrats: "Prosperity meant that Clinton would not
be judged on these grounds [helping working families]. Prosperity was the
ultimate political trump card." Ironically, the lack of prosperity over
the last decade led to a different Trump card raising its head in 2016.
Ripping Obama and the Clintons
the most impressive things about Frank's book is his no-holds-barred
description of key Democrat leaders. As in the rest of the book, one is left
choosing between Liberal and Democrat—or trying to argue (futilely?) with
Frank. He is as frustrated as I am, but from a different angle: Why are there
so few liberals? Frank hopes to increase that number, even though it would lead
to pain for the Democrat Party and its sycophantic partisans.
spends two full chapters poking at President Obama (chapters 1 and 7). Aside
from what I summarized earlier, Frank talks a bit about Obama's eloquence
(153), but this was a particular frustration in Frank's Harpers essays.
much more venom for the Clintons. In chapters 3 and 4, he rips Bill, pointing
to his crime and welfare reforms (92), deregulation (100), and bailouts (101).
As Art Laffer has noted, Clinton was a relatively good president from a
free-market perspective—better than Bush I, and especially, Nixon and Bush II.
Clinton benefited from Reagan's Cold War victory and the reduced military
spending that followed. (A funny thing I'll revisit below: old Keynesians can't
square this with the strong economy of the 1990s!) And Reagan/Volcker had
already dealt with the pain of fighting high inflation in 1981-1982. But still,
Clinton was a pretty good president on economics from my perspective—and thus,
a lousy president from Frank's perspective.
Hillary too (chapter 11). He describes her political success as
"meritocracy" and "resume as achievement" (224).
Interestingly, he spends most of his energy here on non-economic issues.
He rips her foriegn policy (229) and her "Internet Freedom" ideas
(229-230). He argues that she stepped down from Secretary of State before mass
surveillance policy problems could be laid at her doorstep (231-232). And then
he blows her up on women's rights (233-236), without even mentioning her
enabling Bill's sexual predation! Frank even criticizes “microfinance” (?!),
before using it to crush her one more time: It "is a perfect expression of
Clintonism, bringing together wealthy financial interests with rhetoric that
sounds outrageously idealistic." (236)
wraps up the book with a scathing mini-chapter / conclusion on Martha's
Vineyard—both as a utopian, vacation reality and as a metaphor for the
corruption and self-serving nature of the Democrat Party. Martha's Vineyard is
privileged, private, secure, and rich. Frank asks his readers whether they're
for Martha's Vineyard, the "meritocrats", and the
"plutocrats"—or for the working folks? Ouch! Frank is not at all
optimistic that the Democrat Party can be reformed. He closes by saying that he
hopes that, at least, its self-righteousness veneer can be stripped away (256).
I need to
close by noting that many of his takes on economics and policy should induce
winces, groans, or laughter. First, Frank lays out some of the popular
silliness on wage stagnation (2) and income inequality. (Check out my journal article on the latter.) Second, he often
opposes voluntary, mutually-beneficial trade—domestic (see: Walmart  and
Uber [209-214]) and especially international. Third, he complains about elites
and notes that FDR started the trend, but then imagines that the New Deal was a
good deal (38-39). Unfortunately, the data do not support that claim! Fourth,
he gives us some screwball Old-Keynesianism. He notes Clinton's reduced deficit
spending, but "for unrelated reasons, the economy proceeded to boom"
(99). Right: "unrelated reasons", such as, your argument is
"unrelated" to reality! The failure of the New Deal is laid at the
feet of not enough deficit spending (145, 169). And he wanted Obama to pursue
deficits in excess of $1 trillion (145). I guess Obama doubling the debt to $20
trillion was not good enough for Frank!
say that I didn't warn you: Frank's book is glorious and helpful in some ways,
but difficult to stomach in other ways. But as Haidt points out in A Righteous Mind, it's important that we work on
empathy in political matters. And while the Left often pretends to be tolerant,
all of us should work on practicing it. This requires greater understanding,
broad reading, open dialogue, and practice at extending grace. As such, I do
want to offer Frank's book as a way to get a look inside the mind of a real
liberal. Oh, if there were only a lot more of them.