Thursday, December 8, 2016

Real Liberals and Conservatives: an op-ed on Thomas Frank's "Listen, Liberal"

This is the shorter version of what will likely appear in Indiana Policy Review. (For more of me about Thomas Frank, go to the bottom of this post.)

I've 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. 

Many 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.

First, we 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 conservative?

Second, many 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.

Third, from “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. 

The recent 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.

Frank criticizes 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 repent. 

Frank 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.

Frank 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!

Frank 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 white-collar professionals.

The 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.


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