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What’s the Matter with Thomas Frank?

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Thomas Frank evidently has a new book out that explores the same ground as his What’s the Matter with Kansas book that made his name. I’ve always found Frank’s vision of America incredibly simplistic, to the point of being ridiculous. But I’ve never bothered exploring the question in any deep form. Luckily, Erik Baker wrote a long review of the new book in N+1 that is truly the definitive takedown of Frank. Just a couple of excerpts in a truly read the whole thing essay.

Because Frank narrates the New Deal as a matter of attitude and mood, it is unsurprising that he narrates the dissolution of the social system created by the New Deal—what historians call the “New Deal order” of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—in similar terms. In Frank’s anti-elitist vision of the 20th century, it is still the elites who drive history. According to this account, something strange happened during the postwar decades: liberal intellectuals began to evince sympathy for the anti-Populist rhetoric of late-19th-century reactionaries. “Populism” lost its capital-P and became a catch-all synonym for anti-intellectualism and resentment as embodied by Joseph McCarthy. By the 1970s, the Democratic Party establishment had tricked itself into redefining elitism as progressivism.

In reality, the mid-century United States was unstable and wracked by contradiction throughout the New Deal Order; liberal elitism was hardly key to its dissolution. Beginning in the 1960s, several broad non-elite constituencies began to push against the limits of the consensus—particularly workers of color, whose fortunes had been deliberately sacrificed to make the New Deal function. Californian farmworkers, excluded from the Wagner Act, unionized and won contractual protections under the leadership of César Chavez and Dolores Huerta, despite the opposition of growers and some establishment unions. Black manufacturing workers, relegated to the “meanest and dirtiest jobs” even in union plants, revolted in radical rank-and-file organizations like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Activists in the Black Freedom Movement also confronted the militarism that fueled the midcentury economy. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for an end to the Vietnam War so that its budget could be redistributed to fund welfare programs and public-sector employment. Through one lens, these struggles might be regarded as attempts to secure inclusion within the New Deal order while leaving its political economy unexamined. But it was precisely because full inclusion in the New Deal order was structurally impossible that that these movements pointed beyond themselves toward more radical horizons—a trajectory that both their most revolutionary allies and their most fearful conservative opponents understood clearly.

Vietnam was the flashpoint that catalyzed King’s transition from an uneasy ally to an outspoken critic of Lyndon Johnson—and his move to explicitly reject capitalism in favor of socialism. If his initial critique of the war aimed to perfect the New Deal order, the Johnson Administration’s obduracy exposed the system’s broken foundations for all to see. King’s opposition to Vietnam, however, is entirely absent from Frank’s lengthy discussion of him in The People, No. In general, Frank treats the anti-war movement with dripping contempt. In his telling, ending the war was a preoccupation of the white student elite, who justified their disregard of ordinary people “because those poor folks often turned out to think America needed to fight communism in Vietnam.” (Whether the Vietnamese victims of the American defense economy count as ordinary working people for Frank remains unclear.)

But Frank’s elision of left-wing labor militancy during the same period is an even more revealing analytical failure. His neglect of the split between the labor establishment and rank-and-file radicals allows him to set up a misleading opposition between relatable, culturally conservative hard-hats and elitist white-collar eggheads. But stretching back to FDR, the political-economic framework of the New Deal order relied on union leaders to modulate wage demands to constrain inflation and safeguard corporate profits. Workers had been expected to sacrifice for the overall stability of American capitalism, and the beginning of the 1970s—marked by inflation (due to federal Vietnam expenditures) and a squeeze in corporate profits (due to imports from Germany and Japan)—was exactly the kind of conjuncture in which things were supposed to play out the same way. This time, though, labor leaders proved largely powerless to contain the demands of the insurgent, often Black-led rank-and-file movements, who began engaging in wildcat strikes in unprecedented numbers.

But because Frank is so certain that mood and attitude drive political change, he seems to believe that the biggest obstacle to working-class politics in the 21st century is a conspiracy of silence around class among elite liberals. He bemoans the absence of “social class” from those In this house, we believe . . . lawn signs. He recounts a parable about a progressive teenager “in an affluent part of Washington, DC” who is the only student in her political discussion group who cares about labor instead of “racism . . . sexism, and LGBTQ issues.” Even when talking about class, elite discourse is for Frank the motor force of history. If only suburban lawn signs talked more about class and less about racism and sexism, all of our problems would be solved.

The problem with this account is not only its callousness towards the political aspirations of anti-racist and feminist movements but its incoherent understanding of class itself. If classes are not given premade but are composed and decomposed in historical processes of struggle and relationship, then the most substantial obstacle to a revitalized working-class politics is not an excessive fixation on the hierarchies that segment workers politically and spatially and pit their interests against one another. What has to be addressed are the hierarchies themselves—and a dearth of institutions within which to build material relationships of solidarity across dividing lines. Liberal identity politics is hardly the most promising avenue to undo those hierarchies. But repeatedly exclaiming in frustration that “the people” would be poised to triumph if only they could put away their differences isn’t much better.

Perhaps it would be fairer to take such exclamations, as the phrase goes, seriously but not literally. The most sympathetic reading would understand Frank and others not to be insisting that populist victory is only ever a day away but simply that the possibility is there, that hope remains alive despite the seemingly dire straits the left finds itself in. Of course the movement isn’t fully assembled—but it can be built.

I do not want to encourage hopelessness. But in addition to the dangers of nostalgic conservatism, such gestures also risk overemphasizing the affective nature of the obstacles facing the left today, as if a morale deficit rather than decades of working-class decomposition is chiefly to blame for the left’s challenges. As with all exhortations to seriousness rather than literalness, there is also the danger that not everyone will get the memo. Maybe “we” don’t really believe that a general strike is only waiting for a Medicare For All floor vote to erupt, but just a few months ago Jimmy Dore, his fans, and his high-profile followers—many supposedly among the most in-the-know in the movement today—certainly seemed to.

The idea that the Democratic Party simply needs to get back in touch with ordinary people does have other uses besides inspiring hope on the left. Since 2016, Frank and his admirers—Matt Stoller, Matt Taibbi, Chris Arnade, and many others—have ridden a wave of guilt and confusion among educated liberals to a jackpot of book sales, think-tank sinecures, Patreon and Substack subscriptions, TV appearances, and Twitter followers. These neo-populist media figures help their audience feel connected to the worldview and aspirations of “working people” while espousing a political program that poses little real threat to the existing American class structure. It’s Hillbilly Elegy for social democrats. Who doesn’t want to hear that the political views they already hold make them gritty truth-tellers, in touch with realities that others in their social milieu refuse to acknowledge? The patina of authenticity is a lucrative product. The Democratic Party may not be able to remake the American working class from above. But its internal soul-searching can still make a few people a lot of money.

This is good stuff. The basic problem with Frank is that he’s simply wrong about his fundamental premise: that there’s this underlying left populism dying to come out if only Democrats would message by his own precise personal preferences. To read this back into American history is beyond ridiculous. It requires so much half-truths, squinting at facts one could perhaps interpret in a certain way, and forgetting about inconvenient realities to be absurd as a serious way of thinking. There’s a reason that Frank holds almost no real respect or influence among historians in ways that many other journalists or popular writers really do. It just doesn’t work. The Stollers and Sirotas though, they love this because like for Frank, it’s easier to imagine an American populace as you wish it was and then blame Democrats for everything than it is to deal with the reality of the American populace as it actually is.

In short, Thomas Frank is just another writer whose vision of the world is Politics Without Politics. From Edward Bellamy to David Broder, this fallacy has long plagued a lot of American political writing. The fundamental premise connecting these many disparate writers from a variety of political perspectives is that if only THIS ONE THING happened, everything would be OK, but there’s some force getting in the way of it happening. It’s extremely simplistic. And that simplicity is part of its appeal for those who want to be involved in politics without compromising any positions in the face of reality. The downside is that it makes the political analysis somewhere between worthless and actually damaging by obfuscating the real issues and giving people cover to self-righteously avoid active politics in which they would be forced to move on shallow anti-Democratic Party talking points. And sadly, this actually makes Frank the ultimate populist stereotype because he himself is looking for a simplistic answer. He should know better.

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