Thomas Frank on How the Feckless Democrats Trashed the American Middle Class

Thomas Frank on How the Feckless Democrats Trashed the American Middle Class 1

I’m not sure what to make of this Thomas Frank talk, which he gave to “activists” all over America. I assume the audience you see briefly in the opening is representative: old enough to believe in the New Deal, and by their attire, not members of the PMC.

Frank gives a pointed history of how the Democrats abandoned the working class and went all in for “smart”: if you hadn’t at least gone to college, you weren’t deserving. He has some wonderfully acute asides, like on the Democrats’ love for wildly complicated programs.

Yet he’s bereft of solutions. He bemoans the tendency of the flyover working class to vote Republican, seeing Republicans as con artists. Yet he effectively admits the Democrats are hardly better, while trying not to do so (see his painful defense of Biden). He seems not to comprehend the desire for punishment, particularly when the Democrats sneer that the lower orders should be grateful for the crumbs they receive.

Frank wants a movement to pressure or perhaps even take over the Democrats, one that demands a decent standard of living for ordinary Americans. Yet his only model is the Populists, which took nearly a generation of grass roots organizing to gain momentum. An oddly, he fails to mention Bernie Sanders, whose 2016 campaign had a strong economic message, while his 2020 push watered that message down to focus more on inclusivity…perhaps due to the influence of the “professionals” whose help he was told was necessary to win?

Look at how this campaign video only makes a glancing reference to the economic elite (“Everybody outside of that 1% has been denied”):

You will notice Frank’s moral fervor. As argued by sometime Naked Capitalism writer Richard Kline, in a 2011 post, Progressively Losing, the righteousness of progressives produces neither the policy orientation nor the muscle to effect economic change:

The first key point is that the tradition of progressive dissent is integrally a religious one. The goal isn’t usually power but ‘truth;’ that those in the right stand up for what is right, and those in the wrong repent. The City on the Hill and all that, but that is the intrinsic value. This is a tradition of ideas, many of them good, many of them implemented—by others, a point to which I’ll return. Coming forward to a recent and then present American context, consider these policies, all of which still hold for most who would define themselves as progressive:

Universal, secular education
End to child labor
Universal suffrage
Female legal equality
Consumer protections
Civil rights

Consider as well notable progressives who have held executive or even power positions in national governance. I struggle to name one. Progressives largely worked in voluntary organizations and reform societies outside of the notoriously corrupt political parties of America. (It is interesting and relevant to note that as a society we recapitulate that endemic historical venality once again c. 2011.)

A most relevant point is that these are value-driven policies. Notably absent are economic policies. I wouldn’t say that progressives are disinterested in economic well-being, but employment and money are never what has driven them. A right-living society, self-improvement, and justice: these are progressive goals. Recall again that many of them were already bourgeois; that most of historical notice had significant education; that their organizational backbone was women of such background. These conditions apply as much now as ever. Some progressives, many of them women, were radicalized by their experience of social work among the abused poor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Consider Beatrice Potter Webb or Upton Sinclair. Some progressives will fight if backed into a corner; many won’t even then, as there is a strong value placed on pacifism in this socio-community. Think John Woolman and Dorothy Day….

The origins of Anglo-American radicalism are far less tidy to summarize… ‘Poor or oppressed communities’: these are the fuel for radicalism, and one finds them far more in Continental Europe than in England. Serfdom was far more advanced there than it ever was in Medieval Britain or Scandinavia (for complex local reasons)….

Howsoever, it is difficult to argue for a radical activist community in the US before extensive non-Anglo immigration. Radicalism certainly hasn’t been limited to industrial or even urban contexts, but then neither has immigration. American mining drew heavily upon experience European mining communities, many of whom who brought radical ideas with them, for instance…

The key point is that the tradition of radical activism is integrally an economic one, and secondarily one of social justice. It was pursued by those both poor and ‘out castes,’ who often had communal solidarity as their only asset. It was resisted by force, and thus pursued by those inured to force who understood that power was necessary to victory, and that defeat entailed destitution, imprisonment, and being cut down by live fire from those acting under color of authority with impunity. This was a tradition of demands, many of them quite pragmatic. Few were wholly implemented, but the struggle to gain them forced the door open for narrower reforms, often implemented by the powers that be to de-fuse as much as diffuse radical agitation. Consider these policies, all of which still hold for most who would define themselves as radical:

Call off the cops (and thugs)
Eight hour day and work place safety
Right to organize
Anti-discrimination in housing and hiring
Unemployment dole
Public pensions
Public educational scholarships
Tax the rich
Anti-trust and anti-corporate

While few radicals have made it into public executive positions either, they are numerous in politics, especially at the local level where communal ties can predominate. Radicals have always worked in organized groups—‘societies,’ unions, and parties—which have been a multiplier for their demands.

Critically, these are grievance-driven policies. One could say that the goal of radicals is to force an end to exploitation…Notably absent are ‘moral uplift’…

Reviewing the summary above, it will be evident that the supply of aggrieved militants has thinned out. One could say, uncharitably, they their residual objective has been a piece of the pie, and to be left alone to eat it in dignity. “Share the wealth,” is the substance of their message…

What radicals do best is bunch up and shove, that is organize and agitate. Those now don’t bunch, and have little inclination to shove as opposed to fit in. But for blatant discrimination, present immigrants would be a reliable, conservative voter base not inclined to pursue economic grievances through activism. Without that muscle, labor has no strength. What labor has are mortgages, debt, and a lot to lose, not a matrix congruent with agitation.

From the perspective here, progressive and radical vectors and their policies overlap directly only in a few areas…they have been more powerful in combination than either would be alone. If radicals might have achieved some of their goals without progressive support, though, the reverse is not true. Progressive advocacy particularly lacks any traction at present absent effective radical agitation to make the progressives seem like ‘the reasonable ones.’

Kline did offer a prescription:

Progressives have successfully stamped Big Capital as ‘anti-us’ historically, and they need to return to this. Those active for social reform have to forget about the electoral cycle. They have to forget about what the lunatic Right is doing as much as possible and concentrate on what they themselves are in process of accomplishing. They need a compact reform agenda (yes, bullet points and not more than ten of them). They need a defined activist strategy, no matter how large the difficulties or time horizon appear. They need to build genuinely activist organizations with specific plans to achieve a core set of goals. And they have to reclaim militancy as a word, and deed, of pride. If they do those things, they will make real progress, and moreover they will be ready when the moment comes for breakthrough amongst the wider society.

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