Thomas Frank and the Illusion of Presidential Omnipotence

It’s not every day news events follow the contours of a new book’s prevailing conceit. That’s what’s happening with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. His populist message is that the party of the people has failed the people, and that one of those most emblematic of that failure is his rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Qualifications for the presidency, Sanders has further suggested, don’t come from being born into a ruling family, or, in Clinton’s case, from being married to a former democratically elected ruler. Qualifications come from believing in the right ideology. On April 6, he said:

“I don’t believe that [Clinton] is qualified if she is through her super PAC taking tens of millions of dollars in special-interest funds. I don’t think that you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street … I don’t think you’re qualified if you supported almost every disastrous trade agreement.”

Those are the broad outlines of Thomas Frank’s new polemical, Listen, Liberal: Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People. In it, the founder of The Baffler and author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? mounts a scathing indictment of the Clintons and their Democratic Party. He writes:

“This book has been a catalogue of the many ways the Democratic Party has failed to tackle income inequality, even though that is the leading social issue of the times, and its many failures to get tough on the financial industry, even though Wall Street was the leading culprit in the global downturn and the slump-that-never-ends. The larger message is that this is what it looks like when a lefty party loses its interest in working people, the traditional number one constituency for left parties the world over.”

Like Sanders, Frank believes the crisis was wasted. The Democrats did not break up the big banks; re-implement the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which walled off commercial accounts from banks’ investments; or nationalize banks to create public utilities. They did not, as less moderate president like FDR or LBJ would have, save us from the tyranny of economic royalists.

While the people demanded justice, the Democrats offered a technocratic band-aid. Worse, the populists said, the many provisions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act wouldn’t be felt for years.

So the Tea Party insurrection of 2010 wasn’t seen as a political setback for the Democrats so much as a failure of conviction–and that failure, Frank writes, continues to haunt the American people to this day.

“Even if the Democrats do succeed in winning the presidency in 2016 and the same old team gets to continue on into the future, it won’t save us,” Frank writes. “While there are many great Democrats and many exceptions to the trends I have described in this book, by and large the story has been a disappointing one.”

Ever since the parties realigned in 1960s-1970s, left-wing populists have pined for the day when Democrats would return to their working-class roots. Thomas Frank, the founding editor of The Baffler, is one such populist. But such pining is a misreading of history fueled by nostalgia. The Democrats remain the party of the working class. Instead of mostly white men, though, the working class now comprises mostly minorities and women.

The Democratic coalition does include progressive elites, but that inclusion is not ipso facto a betrayal of class interest, as Frank would have it, so much as a reflection of faction. Factions form uneasy coalitions to fight common foes despite harboring grave doubts about each other. The party moreover didn’t abandon working class white men. Many if not most working class white men, hammered by stagflation and disillusioned by the Democrats’ full embrace of civil rights, abandoned the party.

For Frank, the real problem appears to be that progressive elites have any place at the table with the working class. That is enough, Frank says, to have “wrecked the Democratic Party as a populist alternative.”

Populists are ambivalent about power. Those who have it are not to be trusted. Those who have it must change the world. This especially applies to Democratic presidents. Lars-Erik Nelson, the late columnist for the New York Daily News, brilliantly called this “the illusion of presidential omnipotence.” For populists like Frank and Sanders, pretty much everything that’s wrong with the country can be pinned on the chief executive, because presidents is seen to have more power than they actually have.

Nelson did not suffer magical thinking. In reviewing Dead Center: Clinton-Gore Leadership and the Perils of Moderation, by FDR scholars James MacGregor Burns and Georgia S. Sorenson, for the New York Review of Books, in 1999, Nelson wrote that President Bill Clinton is seen as “guilty … not because he is a knave or a fool, but, just as bad, because he is a centrist who shunned the radical changes and bold solutions that a more energetic and partisan leader could have achieved.”

“[Burns and Sorenson] complain that he has failed to solve urgent national problems, and they attribute this failure to his centrism, which they regard as an inherently flawed ideology, because it is incapable of effecting great transformational change.”

That sounds familiar.

In Listen, Liberal, Frank describes President-elect Barack Obama, as the financial crisis is beginning to unfold, as a “living, breathing evidence that our sclerotic system could still function, that we could rise to the challenge, that could change course. It was the perfect opportunity for transformation.” Yet, Frank says, that transformation didn’t happen.

So Obama and the Democrats failed.

But what could they have been done differently? While he excels at calling the Democrats to account, Frank falls short in offering policy recommendations, even rough sketches of policy. There are none.

Populists don’t take such questions seriously, because such questions assume that knowledge, method, and procedure are more important than believing in the righteousness of the cause. Frank is no exception.

Indeed, one wonders what would happen if Frank were put in Sanders’ place when the candidate was interviewed by the editorial board of the New York Daily News. After reiterating moments in his stump speech when he calls for the break up of big banks, Sanders was pressed for more detail. What would such banks look like after you broke them up, the editors asked.

Sanders: “I’m not running JPMorgan Chase or Citibank. … It’s something I have not studied, honestly, the legal implications of that.”

Frank and Sanders are right in one very big way–inequities of wealth, income, and power threaten our lives, livelihoods, and republican democracy. All of us need big bold ideas and the political courage to see them realized. Being right in one very big way is the primary strength of populism. Progressives do the work, but populists are the voices of conscience, the moral scolds, the screaming Jeremiahs.

But they are wrong too.

The current president has done more with more resistance in the name of progress than any president since nobody knows. Along with flawed-but-good health care reform, financial regulation, and sustainable energy policy, Obama has achieved: gender-equity laws; minimum wage rules for government contractors; a labor relations board that serves labor; and a tax rule barring corporate “inversions.” And he formally ended two wars.

Populists and progressives need each other, like it or not. Together they have over nearly eight years forged a strong foundation on which the next Democratic president can built a brighter future.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale, a journalism fellow at Wesleyan, and US News & World Report contributing writer.