What’s the Matter with the Left?

Thomas Frank’s factually un-rigorous assault on the Clinton and Obama administrations.

In 2004, Thomas Frank wrote an important book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, that tried to answer the question of why a state with a populist tradition (though he exaggerated it) was now producing toxic right-wing politics. Frank had a polemical edge, but mostly he sorted through the complexities of why so many working-class Americans routinely vote against their own economic interests.

Frank’s new book, Listen, Liberal, a relentless assault on wealthy Democrats and the Clinton and Obama administrations, offers no such complexity and suffers greatly for it. If you can’t trust a book—and you can’t trust this one—it becomes an active disservice to readers, in this case readers on the left. Listen, Liberal (even the title sounds like a dubious drunken exhortation) arms Bernie Sanders supporters with arguments that will boomerang because they are often grossly oversimplified and sometimes flatly untrue.

Listen, Liberal: Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank Metropolitan Books, 320 pp.

Listen, Liberal: Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?
by Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books, 320 pp.

From start to finish, I wished that Frank had at least taken account of moderate Democratic arguments on the other side, then demolished them. Instead, he bulldozes anything in his path. I don’t know why he does so, but my theory is that this is at least partly a consequence of his having done zero original reporting for the book. If he’d gone out and interviewed Clinton and Obama administration policymakers instead of cherry-picking the reporting of people like me (he cites my Obama books accurately, but without context, a half-dozen times), the resulting nuances and qualifications would have strengthened, not weakened, his overall indictment.

Frank is right that Democratic 1 percenters are often smug, complacent, oblivious, annoying, and, most important, spectacularly wrong in at least some of their policy prescriptions, particularly the loathsome 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act signed by Bill Clinton (touched on only in passing, unfortunately). He is especially tart and usefully provocative in his cultural critique of “the melding of money with the literary sensibility” in places like Martha’s Vineyard, where hedge fund managers shop in bookstores that use Charles Bukowski poems about the brutality of blue-collar life to sell their wares.

The price we’ve paid for the financialization of the American economy cannot be stressed too often. Frank quotes the Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz: “What were we saying to the country, to our young people, when we lowered capital gains taxes and raised taxes on those who earned their living by working? That it is far better to make your living by speculation than by any other means.”

But Frank assumes that because Stiglitz is right on this point and is a smart economist who shares his politics he must be right about everything. Not necessarily.

One example: to his list of particulars against Barack Obama, Frank adds his failure to put Citibank into receivership in 2009, as Stiglitz and some other liberal economists recommended. He makes it seem as if this was because Bob Rubin, who ran Citibank, had seeded his protégés throughout the Obama administration and that their collective mentality made them side with the banks over ordinary people.

Yes, there were too many people from banks and too few from labor in the administration. And yes, the Justice Department should have pushed harder for criminal prosecutions. But it’s not cricket for Frank to avoid mention altogether of the tens of billions in record fines the government extracted from banks. Worse, Frank never points out that the $700 billion in TARP bank bailouts were paid back with interest—a vindication of Obama’s approach—and that had Citi been declared insolvent and taken over by the government, per Stiglitz, it might well have caused a monster run on that discredited bank and, were the broken-up parts not sold by the government for more than the massive redemptions, cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts without much chance of recovery.

Like Obama, Franklin Roosevelt refused to take over the banks when he had the chance in 1933 and—to the chagrin of many liberals—implemented Herbert Hoover’s bank rescue plan. Frank doesn’t mention that because it would hurt his thesis that every compromise made by Democrats in the last eighty years has been an assault on the New Deal. He sees Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform bill as the greatest New Deal betrayal of all because of its work requirements. But he apparently doesn’t know—or doesn’t care—that FDR was a strong opponent of what he called “the dole” and rarely objected to compromise or even abolition of his programs. He was a pragmatist who generally had more in common with Clinton and Obama than Sanders, though FDR liked public works programs (which, as Frank notes, have unfortunately fallen out of fashion with the Democratic establishment in recent decades) and would have liked Bernie’s soak-the-rich tax policy.

Like Sanders and other liberals, Frank believes Obama erred by not breaking his sword to get a single-payer or public option for health care. Here the landmark 1935 Social Security Act is instructive. It was a thoroughly racist and ungenerous piece of legislation—FDR excluded from benefits all occupations held by African Americans (domestics, farmhands) in order to get it through the congressional committees chaired by southerners. But that’s the way you get stuff done. When Frank attacks Rahm Emanuel (and Obama by extension) for selling out to Big Pharma and the insurance industry, he reveals his lack of understanding of the messy and unsatisfying way real political change actually happens in this country.

Frank is deeply disappointed by Obama. He’s right that the president played bad poker by offering Republicans $300 billion in tax cuts at the outset of the stimulus debate, rather than using tax cuts as a bargaining chip. But charging the president with not being partisan enough is incomplete at best when Frank doesn’t even bother to mention that Obama pushed his entire program through along party lines.

Of course, the magic wand theory of government to which Frank subscribes suggests that Obama could have done that for everything. But even Democrats would not have accepted a bigger stimulus than $900 billion. Gritty politics has a way of getting in the way of idealistic polemics.

So do facts. “Another chunk [of the stimulus] was wasted on coaxing state governments to embrace charter schools and to open their education systems to consultants and entrepreneurs,” he writes about the Race to the Top program, which actually accounted for less than one-half of 1 percent of the stimulus (a tax cut–size “chunk”?). Frank is so contemptuous of elites that he attacks even the idea of professionalizing teaching (it apparently hurts those who aren’t good enough), an idea embraced even by the teachers’ unions he admires. God forbid he even mention that some charter schools help impoverished kids.

Again: Obama could have been more progressive at times. He should have fought harder for so-called “cram-down” legislation that would have let courts modify homeowner debt the way they do for businesses. He should have pivoted to a jobs agenda faster in 2010 and 2011. And he should have tried harder to save Syrian noncombatants. I could go on.

But let’s keep it real. When Frank alleges that President Clinton was getting set to gut Social Security and only came up with “Save Social Security first!” in 1998 as his rallying cry to cover for the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he should offer some evidence. He also might have mentioned that bolstering Medicare and Medicaid were two of the four main issues of Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign (the others were education and the environment, hardly crypto-conservative initiatives) and that he kept his promises on them in his second term.

Frank is right that Clinton’s desire to tack to the center had some disturbing consequences, as even the former president now admits. But his indictment of, say, the 1994 crime bill would have been more honest, and therefore persuasive, had he let the reader know that it was Republicans, not Clinton, who pushed for stiffer sentences and more prison; that Clinton’s demand for more cops and better police training ultimately helped lower violent crime rates; and that members of the Congressional Black Caucus, weighing the good and bad in the bill, voted for it by more than a two-to-one margin.

Frank makes an only-Nixon-could-go-to-China argument that “what Bill Clinton accomplished were things that no Republican could have done. . . . What he did as president was beyond the reach of even the most diabolical Republicans.” Please. We have the records of the Reagan and Bush administrations readily available to refute that, though Frank doesn’t even try beyond saying that Bush failed to privatize Social Security in 2005.

Frank spends pages trashing the whole idea of “innovation” and the “creative class”—especially in Boston, a place he despises. He rejects the idea that university research hubs contribute anything worthwhile to society. In his mind the revitalization of downtown areas is worse than useless—it’s an affront to working families, whom he suggests gain nothing from the revived art and culture we now find in central cities across the country. Talk about patronizing.

This book perfectly captures the mind-set of Sanders voters. Is it also a harbinger of their unwillingness to suck it up and vote for the wife of the main villain of the piece? Let’s hope Frank is willing to set aside his bile long enough to use his credibility on the left to face the hard realities of politics and help protect us from a cruel fate this fall.

Jonathan Alter

Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is the author of one book about Franklin D. Roosevelt and two about Barack Obama.