First, we don’t have good working definitions of conservative or liberal. So, many people are embracing a label that is convenient but unclear. For example, what is a conservative?
Second, many people avidly embrace one of these labels, when they are only interested in a handful of issues that could be related to that label — e.g., social conservatives or liberals who value certain civil liberties. This results in different types of liberals, conservatives and libertarians.
Third, from “Public Choice” economics, we know that most people (reasonably) spend little time thinking about political economy. This results in a dog’s breakfast of political philosophy and policy prescriptions — and little connection between self-chosen labels and reality.
The recent presidential campaign illustrates all of this confusion nicely. Neither major-party candidate could have emerged from a process dominated by real liberals or conservatives. Avid supporters of Clinton were forced to turn in their liberal badges, given her character flaws and policy preferences. Avid supporters of Trump had to ignore profound character flaws and could only see him as certain narrow forms of “conservative.” And yet, each was popular enough to win a major political party nomination.
In “Listen, Liberal,” Thomas Frank steps into this labeling fray with passionate complaints about Democrats — from the perspective of an ideologically-consistent liberal (similar to Bernie Sanders). Frank chastises those who claim to be liberal, but support politicians who are far from liberal.
Frank criticizes Barack Obama and especially the Clintons, saying that Democrats have falsely sold hope to the working poor and the middle class. This is particularly galling because the Democrats claim to be the champions of the working poor and the middle class. Frank says that Democrats need to take responsibility and repent.
Frank shuts down the most common excuse for the Democrats’ failure — that Obama and the Democrats did the best they could. As Frank notes, the Democrats had control of the political machinery and something of an electoral mandate for the first two years. He also points to states and cities where Democrats have been in control — and have been miserable failures.
Unfortunately, blame-shifting is often easier than looking in the mirror.
Frank argues that national Democrat leadership has dramatically reduced its interest in working people for the last 40 years. “Many Democratic leaders see voters as people who have nowhere else to go.” Of course, the recent presidential election — even with a rough GOP candidate — illustrated that these voters are quite capable of voting with their feet.
Frank traces this evolution to events in the 1970s and then sees it culminating with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. He describes the Democrats’ move away from “the party of FDR’s New Deal coalition with its heavy reliance upon organized labor.” With Organized Labor fading — and already largely in the bag anyway — “Democrats had to become . . . the party of well-educated professionals.” Outcomes in politics and elections bear out this shift in emphasis. Democrats now do quite well in terms of big money and especially with white-collar professionals.
The difficulty of reading this book is that Frank’s policy recommendations are a mess. He mostly focuses on economic policy, with little to say about social or military policy, so the book is limited in this way, too. But still, “Listen, Liberal” is worth a read as a way to get a look inside the mind of a real liberal. Oh, if there were only a lot more of them.
Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast.