By John Siman
Thomas Frank’s new collection of essays: Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society (Metropolitan Books 2018) and Listen, Liberal; or,Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (ibid. 2016)
To hang out with Thomas Frank for a couple of hours is to be reminded that, going back to 1607, say, or to 1620, for a period of about three hundred and fifty years, the most archetypal of American characters was, arguably, the hard-working, earnest, self-controlled, dependable white Protestant guy, last presented without irony a generation or two — or three — ago in the television personas of men like Ward Cleaver and Mister Rogers.
Thomas Frank, who grew up in Kansas and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, who at age 53 has the vibe of a happy eager college nerd, not only glows with authentic Midwestern Nice (and sometimes his face turns red when he laughs, which is often), he actually lives in suburbia, just outside of D.C., in Bethesda, where, he told me, he takes pleasure in mowing the lawn and doing some auto repair and fixing dinner for his wife and two children. (Until I met him, I had always assumed it was impossible for a serious intellectual to live in suburbia and stay sane, but Thomas Frank has proven me quite wrong on this.)
Frank is sincerely worried about the possibility of offending friends and acquaintances by the topics he chooses to write about. He told me that he was a Boy Scout back in Kansas, but didn’t make Eagle. He told me that he was perhaps a little too harsh on Hillary Clinton in his brilliantly perspicacious “Liberal Gilt [sic]” chapter at the end of Listen, Liberal. His piercing insight into and fascination with the moral rot and the hypocrisy that lies in the American soul brings, well, Nathaniel Hawthorne to mind, yet he refuses to say anything (and I tried so hard to bait him!) mean about anyone, no matter how culpable he or she is in the ongoing dissolving and crumblingand sinking— all his metaphors — of our society. And with such metaphors Frank describes the “one essential story” he is telling in Rendezvous with Oblivion: “This is what a society looks like when the glue that holds it together starts to dissolve. This is the way ordinary citizens react when they learn that the structure beneath them is crumbling. And this is the thrill that pulses through the veins of the well-to-do when they discover that there is no longer any limit on their power to accumulate” (Thomas Frankin NYC on book tour ).
And I believe that Frank’s self-restraint, his refusal to indulge in bitter satire even as he parses our every national lie, makes him unique as social critic. “You will notice,” he writes in the introduction to Rendezvous with Oblivion, “that I describe [these disasters] with a certain amount of levity. I do that because that’s the only way to confront the issues of our time without sinking into debilitating gloom” (p. 8). And so rather than succumbing to an existential nausea, Frank descends into the abyss with a dependable flashlight and a ca. 1956 sitcom-dad chuckle.
“Let us linger over the perversity,” he writes in “Why Millions of Ordinary Americans Support Donald Trump,” one of the seventeen component essays in Rendezvous with Oblivion: “Let us linger over the perversity. Left parties the world over were founded to advance the fortunes of working people. But our left party in America — one of our two monopoly parties — chose long ago to turn its back on these people’s concerns, making itself instead into the tribune of the enlightened professional class, a ‘creative class’ that makes innovative things like derivative securities and smartphone apps” (p. 178).
And it is his analysis of this “Creative Class” — he usually refers to it as the “Liberal Class” and sometimes as the “Meritocratic Class” in Listen, Liberal (while Barbara Ehrenreich uses the term “Professional Managerial Class,”and Matthew Stewart recently published an article entitled “The 9.9 Percent Is the New American Aristocracy” in the Atlantic) — that makes it clear that Frank’s work is a continuation of the profound sociological critique that goes back to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) and, more recently, to Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites (1994).
Unlike Veblen and Lasch, however, Frank is able to deliver the harshest news without any hauteur or irascibility, but rather with a deftness and tranquillity of mind, for he is both in and of the Creative Class; he abides among those afflicted by the epidemic which he diagnoses: “Today we live in a world of predatory bankers, predatory educators, even predatory health care providers, all of them out for themselves…. Liberalism itself has changed to accommodate its new constituents’ technocratic views. Today, liberalism is the philosophy not of the sons of toil but of the ‘knowledge economy’ and, specifically, of the knowledge economy’s winners: the Silicon Valley chieftains, the big university systems, and the Wall Street titans who gave so much to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign…. They are a ‘learning class’ that truly gets the power of education. They are a ‘creative class’ that naturally rebels against fakeness and conformity. They are an ‘innovation class’ that just can’t stop coming up with awesome new stuff” (Listen, Liberal, pp. 27-29).
And the real bad news is not that this Creative Class, this Expert Class, this Meritocratic Class, this Professional Class — this LiberalClass, with all its techno-ecstasy and virtue-questing and unleashing of innovation — is so deeply narcissistic and hypocritical, but rather that it is so self-interestedly parasitical and predatory.
The class that now runs the so-called Party of the People is impoverishing the people; the genius value-creators at Amazon and Google and Uber are Robber Barons, although, one must grant, hipper, cooler, and oh so much more innovative than their historical predecessors. “In reality,” Frank writes in Listen, Liberal,
….there is little new about this stuff except the software, the convenience, and the spying. Each of the innovations I have mentioned merely updates or digitizes some business strategy that Americans learned long ago to be wary of. Amazon updates the practices of Wal-Mart, for example, while Google has dusted off corporate behavior from the days of the Robber Barons. What Uber does has been compared to the every-man-for-himself hiring procedures of the pre-union shipping docks…. Together, as Robert Reich has written, all these developments are ‘the logical culmination of a process that began thirty years ago when corporations began turning over full-time jobs to temporary workers, independent contractors, free-lancers, and consultants.’ This is atavism, not innovation…. And if we keep going in this direction, it will one day reduce all of us to day laborers, standing around like the guys outside the local hardware store, hoping for work. (p. 215).
And who gets this message? The YouTube patriot/comedian Jimmy Dore, Chicago-born, ex-Catholic, son of a cop, does for one. “If you read this book,” Dore said while interviewingFrank back in January of 2017, “it’ll make you a radical” (Frank Interview Part 4 ).
But to what extent, on the other hand, is Frank being actively excluded from our elite media outlets? He’s certainly not on TV or radio or in print as much as he used to be. So is he a prophet without honor in his own country? Frank, of course, is too self-restrained to speculate about the motives of these Creative Class decision-makers and influencers. “But it is ironic and worth mentioning,” he told me, “that most of my writing for the last few years has been in a British publication, The Guardian and (in translation) in Le Monde Diplomatique. The way to put it, I think, is to describe me as an ex-pundit.”
Frank was, nevertheless, happy to tell me in vivid detail about how his most fundamental observation about America, viz. that the Party of the People has become hostile to the people, was for years effectively discredited in the Creative Class media — among the bien-pensants, that is — and about what he learned from their denialism.
JS: Going all the way back to your 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?— I just looked at Larry Bartels’s attack on it, “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?” — and I saw that his first objection to your book was, Well, Thomas Frank says the working class is alienated from the Democrats, but I have the math to show that that’s false. How out of touch does that sound now?
TCF: [laughs merrily] I know.
JS: I remember at the time that was considered a serious objection to your thesis.
TCF: Yeah. Well, he was a professor at Princeton. And he had numbers. So it looked real. And I actually wrote a response to that in which I pointed out that there were other statistical ways of looking at it, and he had chosen the one that makes his point.
JS: Well, what did Mark Twain say?
TCF: Mark Twain?
JS: There are lies, damned lies —
TCF: [laughs merrily] — and statistics! Yeah. Well, anyhow, Bartels’s take became the common sense of the highly educated — there needs to be a term for these people by the way, in France they’re called the bien-pensants— the “right-thinking,” the people who read The Atlantic, The New York Timesop-ed page, The Washington Postop-ed page, and who all agree with each other on everything — there’s this tight little circle of unanimity. And they all agreed that Bartels was right about that, and that was a costly mistake. For example, Paul Krugman, a guy whom I admire in a lot of ways, he referenced this four or five times. He agreed with it. No, the Democrats are not losing the white working class outside the South — they were not going over to the Republicans. The suggestion was that there is nothing to worry about.Yes. And there were people saying this right up to the 2016 election. But it was a mistake.
JS: I remember being perplexed at the time. I had thought you had written this brilliant book, and you weren’t being taken seriously — because somebody at Princeton had run some software — as if that had proven you wrong.
TCF: Yeah, that’s correct…. That was a very widespread take on it. And Bartels was incorrect, and I am right, and [laughs merrily] that’s that.
JS: So do you think Russiagate is a way of saying, Oh no no no no, Hillary didn’t really lose?
TCF: Well, she did win the popular vote — but there’s a whole set of pathologies out there right now that all stem from Hillary Denialism. And I don’t want to say that Russiagate is one of them, because we don’t know the answer to that yet.
JS: Um, ok.
TCF: Well, there are all kinds of questionable reactions to 2016 out there, and what they all have in common is the faith that Democrats did nothing wrong. For example, this same circle of the bien-pensantshave decided that the only acceptable explanation for Trump’s victory is the racism of his supporters. Racism can be the only explanation for the behavior of Trump voters. But that just seems odd to me because, while it’s true of course that there’s lots of racism in this country, and while Trump is clearly a bigot and clearly won the bigot vote, racism is just one of several factors that went into what happened in 2016. Those who focus on this as the only possible answer are implying that all Trump voters are irredeemable, lost forever.
And it comes back to the same point that was made by all those people who denied what was happening with the white working class, which is: The Democratic Party needs to do nothing differently. All the post-election arguments come back to this same point. So a couple years ago they were saying about the white working class — we don’t have to worry about them — they’re not leaving the Democratic Party, they’re totally loyal, especially in the northern states, or whatever the hell it was. And now they say, well, Those people are racists, and therefore they’re lost to us forever. What is the common theme of these two arguments? It’s always that there’s nothing the Democratic Party needs to do differently. First, you haven’t lost them; now you have lost them and they’re irretrievable: Either way — you see what I’m getting at? — you don’t have to do anything differently to win them.
JS: Yes, I do.
TCF: The argument in What’s the Matter with Kansas? was that this is a long-term process, the movement of the white working class away from the Democratic Party. This has been going on for a long time. It begins in the ‘60s, and the response of the Democrats by and large has been to mock those people, deride those people, and to move away from organized labor, to move away from class issues — working class issues — and so their response has been to make this situation worse, and it gets worse, and it gets worse, and it gets worse, and it gets worse! And there’s really no excuse for them not seeing it. But they say, believe, rationalize, you know, come up with anything that gets then off the hook for this, that allows them to ignore this change. Anything. They will say or believe whatever it takes.
TCF: By the way, these are the smartest people! These are tenured professors at Ivy League institutions, these are people with Nobel Prizes, people with foundation grants, people with, you know, chairs at prestigious universities, people who work at our most prestigious media outlets — that’s who’s wrong about all this stuff.
JS: [quoting the title of David Halberstam’s 1972 book, an excerpt from which Frank uses as an epigraph for Listen, Liberal] The best and the brightest!
TCF: [laughing merrily] Exactly. Isn’t it fascinating?
JS: But this gets to the irony of the thing. [locates highlighted passage in book] I’m going to ask you one of the questions you ask in Rendezvous with Oblivion: “Why are worshippers of competence so often incompetent?” (p. 165). That’s a huge question.
TCF:That’s one of the big mysteries. Look. Take a step back. I had met Barack Obama. He was a professor at the University of Chicago, and I’d been a student there. And he was super smart. Anyhow, I met him and was really impressed by him. All the liberals in Hyde Park — that’s the neighborhood we lived in — loved him, and I was one of them, and I loved him too. And I was so happy when he got elected.
Anyhow, I knew one thing he would do for sure, and that is he would end the reign of cronyism and incompetence that marked the Bush administration and before them the Reagan administration. These were administrations that actively promoted incompetent people. And I knew Obama wouldn’t do that, and I knew Obama would bring in the smartest people, and he’d get the best economists. Remember, when he got elected we were in the pit of the crisis — we were at this terrible moment — and here comes exactly the right man to solve the problem. He did exactly what I just described: He brought in [pause] Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, considered the greatest economist of his generation — and, you know, go down the list: He had Nobel Prize winners, he had people who’d won genius grants, he had The Best and the Brightest. And they didn’t really deal with the problem. They let the Wall Street perpetrators off the hook — in a catastrophic way, I would argue. They come up with a health care system that was half-baked. Anyhow, the question becomes — after watching the great disappointments of the Obama years — the question becomes: Why did government-by-expert fail?
JS: So how did this happen? Why?
TCF: The answer is understanding experts not as individual geniuses but as members of a class. This is the great missing link in all of our talk about expertise. Experts aren’t just experts: They are members of a class. And they act like a class. They have loyalty to one another; they have a disdain for others, people who aren’t like them, who they perceive as being lower than them, and there’s this whole hierarchy of status that they are at the pinnacle of.
And once you understand this, then everything falls into place! So why did they let the Wall Street bankers off the hook? Because these people were them. These people are their peers. Why did they refuse to do what obviously needed to be done with the health care system? Because they didn’t want to do that to their friends in Big Pharma. Why didn’t Obama get tough with Google and Facebook? They obviously have this kind of scary monopoly power that we haven’t seen in a long time. Instead, he brought them into the White House, he identified with them. Again, it’s the same thing. Once you understand this, you say: Wait a minute — so the Democratic Party is a vehicle of this particular social class! It all makes sense. And all of a sudden all of these screw-ups make sense. And, you know, all of their rhetoric makes sense. And the way they treat working class people makes sense. And they way they treat so many other demographic groups makes sense — all of the old-time elements of the Democratic Party: unions, minorities, et cetera. They all get to ride in back. It’s the professionals — you know, the professional class — that sits up front and has its hands on the steering wheel.
* * *
It is, given Frank’s persona, not surprising that he is able to conclude Listen, Liberal with a certain hopefulness, and so let me end by quoting some of his final words:
What I saw in Kansas eleven years ago is now everywhere…. It is time to face the obvious: that the direction the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure for both the nation and for their own partisan health…. The Democrats posture as the ‘party of the people’ even as they dedicate themselves ever more resolutely to serving and glorifying the professional class. Worse: they combine self-righteousness and class privilege in a way that Americans find stomach-turning…. The Democrats have no interest in reforming themselves in a more egalitarian way…. What we can do is strip away the Democrats’ precious sense of their own moral probity — to make liberals live without the comforting knowledge that righteousness is always on their side…. Once that smooth, seamless sense of liberal virtue has been cracked, anything becomes possible. (pp. 256-257).