By Bill Black, the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One and an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Jointly published at New Economic Perspectives
I am writing this article late on election night in my office at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, about a mile from the home in which Tom Frank grew up just over the state line in Kansas. Beginning with his famous book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, first published in 2004, Tom Frank has been warning the Democratic Party of the increasing cost it was paying by abandoning and even attacking the working class, particularly the white working class. Some political scientists tried to savage his work, pointing to Bill Clinton’s electoral success and arguing that the disaffected members of the working class were also less likely to vote. Frank returned to the theme just in time for this election with a new book – Listen, Liberal – that documents in damning, lively narrative the New Democrats’ war on the New Deal, their disdain for organized labor, and their antipathy for what they viewed as retrograde white working class attitudes.
Frank kept showing the enormous price the working class were paying as a result of the economic policies of the Republicans and the New Democrats, and the indifference to their plight by the leaders of the New Democrats. Senator Bernie Sanders consciously took up the cause of reducing surging inequality and became a hero to a broad coalition of voters, many of them fiercely opposed to the New Democrats’ embrace of Wall Street cash, policies, and arrogance. Sanders set records for small donor fundraising and generated enormous enthusiasm. Sanders knew he would face the opposition of the New Democrats, but he also found that progressive congressional Democrats would rarely support him publicly in the contest for the Party’s nomination and even union leaders sided overwhelmingly with Secretary Hillary Clinton, the New Democrats’ strongly preferred candidate.
Hillary did not simply fail to reach out to the working class voters that the New Democrats had turned their backs on for decades, she infamously attacked them as “deplorables.” This was exactly the group of potential voters that was enraged because it believed, correctly as Tom Frank keeps showing us, that the New Democrats looked down on them and adopted policies that rigged the system against the working class. Hillary’s insult confirmed their most powerful bases for their rage against her. Her insult was an early Christmas present to Trump. Her attempt to walk the insult back was doomed.
Hillary Clinton handled things so miserably that she allowed a plutocrat whose career is based on rigging the system against the working class to become the hero of the working class. That is world-class incompetence. Had she followed Tom Frank’s advice she would today be the President-elect. The real cost, however, of her failure will be enormous damage to our democracy, the safety of the world, and the damage that President Trump will do to the working class as he systematically betrays their interests.
The first test of whether the Wall Street-wing of the Democratic Party has learned any of the lessons Tom Frank tried to teach them is whether President Obama will continue with his threat to try to have the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) approved by the lame duck session of Congress. Obama, who was elected on the promise that he would stop TPP, should listen to Senators Sanders and Warren and honor his promise to the voters to stop TPP. He must begin the process of the Democrats winning back the support of the working class.
The leaders of the democratic-wing of the Democratic Party need to move forward assertively to retake control of their Party. The current head of the DNC has been exposed as part of the effort to prevent Senator Sanders from winning the nomination. She should resign tomorrow. The Clintons should cease acting as Party leaders.
A period of enormous corruption and elite fraud is coming soon as the Trump administration brings its signature characteristic – crony capitalism – to bear to control all three branches of government. Trump promises to deregulate Wall Street, appoint top supervisors chosen for their unwillingness to supervise, and appoint judges who will allow CEOs to loot with impunity. Trump promises to outdo even the savage anti-media and anti-whistleblower policies of the Obama administration. The House and Senate committee chairs will intensify their blatantly partisan use of investigations while refusing to conduct real oversight hearings revealing the elite fraud and corruption.
The progressive Senate Democrats will have to be innovative and stalwart in these circumstances to find ways to blow the whistle repeatedly on the mounting corruption. Their challenge will be to lead despite having no real institutional power. Democrats should start by doing what they should have done in 2004 – take Tom Frank’s warnings deadly seriously.