I first came across Thomas Frank in the early noughties when I picked up a book with the barbed title Commodify Your Dissent. It turned out to be a collection of scathing articles from something called The Baffler Magazine, edited by Frank and Matt Weiland, exposing the ways the 1980s and 1990s had seen ‘business think’ infiltrate all aspects of cultural, artistic and ‘rebel youth’ production and consumption in the United States. No longer, they argued, were the enemies of all progressives the boring men in suits of the 1950s and 1960s. Now the ones with the power probably rode into the office on a skateboard and came up with advertising campaigns for perfume which told you to ‘Break the rules. Stand apart. Keep your head. Go with your heart’.
Then in 2004 Frank came out with What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, a furious and witty attempt to explain why so many Americans in his home state had decided to vote against their own economic and political interests and support the Republican Party.
Frank’s writing has always sounded like a wake-up call to me, and in 2016 it became a screeching alarm bell.
In Listen, Liberal he turns his blistering ire on the Democratic Party, arguing that the financial crisis of 2007, and the subsequent Wall Street bailouts, were a defining historical and political moment that lead directly to the election of Barack Obama. But Obama fluffed it. When it was in his power to do something of benefit to the nation and to address inequality – while at the same time increasing his popularity – he didn’t even try.
Why? Frank’s explanation is that the Democratic Party is a party of ‘smart people with no daring’. They are clever people who did well in school and moved into lucrative professional careers, typically in finance and/or law. They are therefore instinctive believers in the meritocracy (if you’re worth it, you’ll get it. If you’re not, tough – you should have tried harder at school), and while they have enormous respect for one another, they have little sympathy for anyone less fortunate. They have no interest in issues of economic equality (the minimum wage, workers’ rights), but are very keen on authenticity and personal fulfillment. ‘That life doesn’t shower its blessings on people who can’t make the grade isn’t a shock or an injustice [to them]; it’s the way things ought to be,’ (p33) because meritocracy doesn’t work against inequality, it legitimates it.
According to Frank, this also explains the Democrats’ obsessive pining for consensus over confrontation: they want a great coming-together of the nation’s educated; they want bridges, not divisions; they are convinced the banker and the liberal can be friends (because they are all clever, fellow professionals and experts). And Bill Clinton and Obama filled their administrations with these people, including those who had amassed fortunes while at investment banks and hedge funds. (p165)
For Frank, one of the hallmarks of ‘professional-class liberalism’ is righteousness. It is always in search of ‘some subject of overwhelming, noncontroversial goodness’ (p228) through which it can put across its self-interested class program. In the 1990s it was children. For Hillary Clinton it became women and girls. Frank rails: ‘This is NOT politics.’ It is an imitation of politics. It bestows the warm glow of moral superiority while iniquitous trade deals, bank de-regulation, and the mass incarceration of black men continue untouched. And in a cheeky footnote he adds: ‘For what it’s worth, two of the most feminist countries in history, at least formally, were our archenemies, the Soviet Union and communist Cuba.’ (p233)
Of course Frank’s focus on the Democrats has attracted criticism. Surely the real enemy is Trump and his racist, misogynist, homophobic pals in the Republican Party? So, for an unflinching focus on Trump I present John K. Wilson’s Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire. In a series of stomach-churning chapters (Trump the Narcissist, Lying Trump, Bankrupt Trump, Tyrant Trump, Paranoid Trump, Racist Trump, Sexist Trump, Careless Trump), Wilson confirms all my very worst fears about the personality of the man who is now the U.S. President.
However, one of the interesting subtexts to the book is its demonstration of just how effectively the right in the US have worked to make what they call ‘political correctness’ a label of shame and the sign of having no sense of humour. It’s a truly scary example of the successful wielding of an ideological weapon, because political incorrectness is now seen as the rebellious position, even though it only benefits those with power (i.e. rich white men like Trump). And it’s worked a treat: no-one in the U.S. wants to be ‘accused’ of being politically correct.
Wilson also quotes research suggesting that a voter’s gender, education, age, ideology, party identification, income, and race didn’t have any predictive value in whether they were Trump supporters, but their authoritarian worldview did. ‘Authoritarians value conformity and order, and when they feel threatened, they turn to aggressive leaders and policies.’(p240)
Helen Pendry works in the bookshop and lives in Machynlleth.