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Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
By Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Like many others, I was shocked and saddened to witness the election of Donald Trump as President last month; and given that the way he won was by tens of millions of people voting for him who had directly voted for Obama in just the last election, I thought it was high time I finally learned a little more about why the American electorate chose to do this in the first place (besides the typical pre-election blowoff that "they're all a bunch of racist Nazis"), and so over the next few months I'll be reading a series of books recommended to me by others that supposedly help explain this. This was the first book of the list to become available at my local library, written by the former founder of Chicago '90s liberal intellectual magazine The Baffler; and it turned out to be half eye-opening, although unfortunately the other half turned out to be eye-rolling, leaving a mixed bag when it comes to whether to recommend it or not.
The eye-opening part, and definitely the part most worth your time, is Frank's detailed history of the Democratic Leadership Council, the organization that ultimately put Bill Clinton in the White House but that I and my fellow Generation Xers largely didn't even know existed when we voted for him in 1992. Started in the early 1970s by a group of young idealistic hippie politicians, all of whom had attended college and all of whom received deferments from Vietnam, the group certainly started with noble intentions; tired of the old Democratic Party power base of the rural working class, the very people who supported the war and who continued to drag naked racism well into the '70s, the DLC spent twenty years systematically pushing such people out of the power structure of the party, believing instead that the "New Democrats" (as they called themselves) should be a party of meritocracy, educational excellence, technological innovation and embrace of big business, culminating in the '90s when they got their former leader Clinton elected as President.
This is where we get the "neoliberalist" economics that are so rapidly becoming such a villain in the wake of Trump's election win; inspired by the collapse in the '70s of Roosevelt's Keynesian "New Deal" economics into runaway government bureaucracy and hyperinflation, right in the same years the DLC was being formed, neoliberalism instead believes in radical deregulation of markets, the forced end of organized labor, and a "benevolent dictatorship" of elite Ivy-educated technocrats to rule over all the uneducated, mouthbreathing masses (which, to remind you, was originally inspired by a very valid complaint, that these mouthbreathing masses were the people who pushed racism and the Vietnam War way farther into history than either should've existed). And this just happens to be the same things the Republicans believe in too, or at least the Republican Party post-1980 as largely defined by Ronald Reagan; so, as Frank smartly explains, if it sometimes seems here in the 21st century that both parties seem to be made up of the same banker billionaires enacting the same exact blue-collar-punishing policies, that's because they are, a triumph of neoliberalism that was so all-encompassing by the '90s that no one even questioned its existence anymore, which is why I and my Generation X cohorts grew up not understanding that there was even an alternative.
All of this is really intelligent stuff, and it's worth reading this book to see how the DLC has pulled the wool over all of our eyes for so long, painting themselves as the "protector of the people" when in fact they have actually been actively hostile to anyone who doesn't have a college degree and doesn't live in a big city, a huge reason that so many self-made white-collar suburbanites turned against the party here in 2016 when it became clear that yet another neoliberal billionaire Ivy-educated technocrat was to be their official nominee. Unfortunately, though, Frank has a lot more to say about the Democrats than this, and that's where he starts getting into eye-rolling rant territory; entire chapters devoted to what a fuckup Obama was, entire chapters devoted to how anyone who's ever been an employee of a tech startup is a sellout monster, entire chapters on how anyone who's ever recommended that a poor person try to get into college is a dead-eyed sociopath who hates the working class, with special amounts of piss and vinegar directed at such individuals as Richard Florida (inventor of the term "creative class"), who Frank attacks in such a vindictive and personal way that he seems less like a political opponent and more like a jilted ex-lover.
I have a friend here in Chicago who actually went to college with Frank, and she had an illuminating story to tell me about him; how every time he would attend a party that happened to have the TV on (like an election party or a movie-watching party), he would spend the whole night ranting and raving about each and every single commercial that would air, pointing to the others in the room incredulously and yelling, "Why aren't you people getting outraged about this? Why am I the only person getting outraged about this?" That's exactly what Listen, Liberal comes off as, like a guy who's outraged at basically everything in the world and doesn't have the discipline to focus his arguments in on the things most worth getting mad about, a guy who takes eight years of Obama accomplishments and dismisses them in a single half-sentence (paraphrased, "Sure, he reformed healthcare, got gay marriage legalized, kept the country from going bankrupt during the economic crisis, and managed to get the largest stimulus package in American history passed, but..."), because he's too busy screaming about how every software developer in America is inherently evil, because they took a job away from a noble farmer.
To be honest, that's exactly what The Baffler was like when it was being published too, which is why it was never more than a special-interest publication for philosophy majors and hipster radicals; and while Listen, Liberal is recommended for sure, if for nothing else than to get a revealing primer on neoliberalism and why it's the cause of all our current problems, that recommendation unfortunately is a limited one today, a book you need to take with a large grain of salt in order to enjoy it at its fullest.
Out of 10: 7.9