Have the Democrats evolved?

Listen, Liberal:

or: Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?

After the spectacle of Hillary Clinton’s ascent to the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination this year, it is hard to believe that the Democrats once branded themselves as the party of the people. From the insouciance with which she and her supporters greeted news about her obscene Wall Street speaking fees, to her run as the candidate of hope against Bernie Sanders’ litany of reforms, Clinton has been (aside from mouthing the word intersectionality on Twitter) more brazen than any Democratic candidate in a century in displaying her attachment to the rich. Even in their advertising, the Democrats have largely abandoned their claims to work on behalf of those the market leaves behind.

Thomas Frank’s new book, Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?, charts this transformation with narrative verve and focused anger. Frank is a longtime observer of the American political scene, editing the magazine The Baffler in the 1990s when it was one of the few organs poking into the rotten foundations of Bill Clinton’s economic wonderland. More recently, his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America was a key text in debates over politics in George W. Bush’s America, asking how Democrats had failed utterly to mobilize poor Americans who were losing out in the country of Enron and Hurricane Katrina.

Listen, Liberal is more focused than much of Frank’s earlier work, concentrating entirely on the evolution and current physiognomy of the Democratic Party. His central contention is that the Democrats have, for decades now, oriented themselves entirely on the educated middle classes. Whether hailed under the names “new generation,” “innovators,” or “creative class,” this group has received more or less constant flattery from the Democrats for about four decades now. Their exploits are the nation’s hope, and the value of an institution, from a startup to a charity to a presidential cabinet, can be judged by how many Ivy League degrees are assembled in it.

Frank traces this orientation back to the early 1970s. After Hubert Humphrey, running in support of “staying the course” in Vietnam, lost to Richard Nixon in 1968, the Democrats embarked on a bit of soul-searching. The 1968 Democratic National Convention had been the scene of massive conflict, as tens of thousands of protesters gathered to oppose the party’s continued backing of the slaughter in Southeast Asia. This strife found its way onto the convention floor itself. Confronted with scenes of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s police force cracking skulls, even Democratic delegates evinced discomfort, with Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff memorably denouncing “Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.”

In the wake of this disaster, the party convened a commission to reform the rules by which candidates won nomination. The commission, called the Fraser-McGovern commission after its chairs, instituted rules requiring affirmative action in delegate selection, and prohibited the simple selection of delegates by state party notables. Partially as a result of these reforms, antiwar candidate George McGovern won the nomination in 1972, although he eventually suffered a crushing defeat at Nixon’s hands.

For Frank, both the Fraser-McGovern commission and McGovern’s candidacy represent a turning point in Democratic Party history, when idealistic reformers set the stage for the party’s abandonment of the working class. This abandonment is charted in a book released in 1971 by Democratic strategist Frederick Dutton, Changing Sources of Power. Dutton argued that the American economy was changing, and that the leading social group was soon to be educated young people fed up with the various constraints of American society. Dutton’s argument represented a strange kind of merger between hippie anti-establishment ideology and simple flattery of the upwardly mobile, but for Frank, the merger fit the moment perfectly. Even as the insurgents within the Democratic Party fought against policies like the war in Vietnam, their understanding of the battle as one between the virtuous enlightened (themselves) and those still stuck in the old ways (everyone from union workers to the generals prosecuting the war) made it very difficult for labor’s concerns to be heard in the party. Similarly, the new rules that allowed more women and people of color to participate in the nominating process specified no such guaranteed representation for unions. In an irony of history, what looked like a victory for the New Left actually laid the groundwork for the party’s move to the right.

From this 1971 course change, Frank charts the ever-tightening Democratic embrace of the rich. Much of the book focuses on Bill Clinton’s presidency, held up as the success story for “New Democratic” politics. As Frank demonstrates, by any objective measure, the Clinton years were a time of triumph for conservatism. While Clinton’s first cabinet was hailed for its diversity, containing more women and people of color than any previous cabinet, it also contained more millionaires than even that of George H. W. Bush, a president who was little more than wealth personified. From NAFTA to welfare reform to mass incarceration, Clinton’s policies exhibited this same bias. While the economic expansion of the late nineties led to a brief period of rising real wages, policies like banking deregulation helped set the stage for another massive expansion of inequality during the Bush years, eventually culminating in the crisis of 2008.

Frank is at his best in cataloging and denouncing the Democrats’ utter betrayal of people who work for a living. While Democrats are occasionally, in post-Occupy America, willing to talk about economic inequality, he notes that they seldom venture beyond that kind of bloodless language into what the phenomenon really means: “Inequality is about the way speculators and even criminals get a helping hand from Uncle Sam while the Vietnam vet down the street from you loses his home. Inequality is the reason some people find such significance in the ceiling height of an entrance foyer or the hop content of a beer while others will never believe in anything ever again.” 

Frank combines this outrage with a wry sense of humor. As any observer of American politics knows, the truth is funnier and more absurd than any fiction could be. Frank does not disappoint on this front, from describing a summit on microlending hosted by Hillary Clinton in the late 1990s, when the president of Citibank solemnly intoned, “Everyone in this room is a banker, because everyone here is banking on self-employment to help alleviate poverty around the world.” At the end of the summit, the bankers and humanitarians joined hands to sing “We Shall Overcome”.

Passages like these are the book’s high point, and even readers who have followed the party’s twists and turns over the years will find new examples of venality here. But in the book’s conclusion, Frank takes this kind of work a bit too far, announcing it as essentially the only feasible political project of the moment. With third parties off the table given the American electoral system and little prospect for a rejuvenated labor movement, the most that can be done is to “strip away the Democrats’ precious sense of their own probity—to make liberals live without the comforting sense that righteousness is always on their side.” While few readers of this journal would object to expropriating this, and much more, from rich liberals, it’s more performance art than politics.

Indeed, in a country that has seen a social explosion in the last few years over police brutality, Frank’s despair over any political alternative is less convincing than it once was. The prospects for building such an alternative depend on understanding exactly what it will be confronting, and it is here that Listen, Liberal falls down the hardest. For while Frank’s story of Democratic decline is narratively tight, and bound with exquisite irony, it simply fails to capture the main dynamics of party evolution since the late sixties. Two dynamics in particular are wholly missing: first, the labor movement’s own sorry record in the party, and second (and most crucially), the role of business within the party.

Reading Frank, one is struck by the nostalgia he evinces for the Democratic Party of the past, when union leaders were important voices in the party, and policy was formulated with an eye towards improving the lot of Middle America. This nostalgia, however, conceals actual history, erecting in its place a pleasing fantasy. While organized labor did hold more power in the party before the 1970s, its downfall had more to do with its own actions than any master plan by McGovernites.

Put simply, from the mid-1960s onwards, the labor movement officialdom, personified and led by AFL-CIO head George Meany, had adopted for itself the primary role of defending the Democratic Party leadership against any and all criticism. As dissent against the Johnson administration’s war in Vietnam intensified, the labor leadership ran interference for the president, attempting to disorganize and disperse any criticism of him from the left. When civil rights activists from Mississippi contested the segregated Mississippi delegation’s credentials at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, it was United Auto Workers head Walter Reuther who was deployed to convince the insurgents to accept a rotten compromise to avoid embarrassing Johnson. By the end of the 1960s, with a massive radicalization sweeping American society which had developed struggling against a Democratic president, the political course of the labor leadership had led to it facing firmly against the main forces of American radicalism.

The labor officialdom’s conservatism did not stop within the Democratic Party; it penetrated down to shop floors across the country as well. When employers, confronted with downward creeping profit rates in the late 1960s, began an offensive against workers, the leadership of the unions did little in response. Instead, workers took it upon themselves to launch a wildcat strike movement that involved hundreds of thousands. Union officials in these years spent more time trying to convince strikers to go back to work (or, when that failed, taking over their locals) than facing off against the bosses at the negotiating table. Meany himself perfectly encapsulated the stance of the union officialdom in these years, replying when asked about organizing the unorganized, “Why should we worry about organizing groups of people who do not want to be organized? . . . I used to worry about the membership, about the size of the membership. But quite a few years ago, I just stopped worrying about it, because to me it doesn’t make any difference.”1

Labor’s conservatism was nowhere more visible than around race. When A. Philip Randolph, who was hardly a radical by this point, challenged Meany around various AFL-CIO unions’ opposition to desegregating, Meany snarled in response, “Who the hell appointed you as guardian of all the Negroes in America?”2 Despite the deep racism of unions like the building trades, which were effectively white job trusts, Meany refused to take federation action on integrating the union movement. Even Walter Reuther’s UAW, which was considered by many the leading light of labor liberalism, buckled down in the face of challenge from Black autoworkers. When the revolutionary DRUM movement erupted in Detroit, challenging both management and the union’s racism, the UAW was no friendlier to it than Meany was to Randolph.

The conservatism of the labor bureaucracy, and its dogged commitment to defending the Democratic Party leadership no matter how corrupt or reactionary, was the main factor leading so many counterculture radicals to identify it as an opponent of liberation. However, even with this context, Frank’s story of the Fraser-McGovern commission’s dethroning of labor in the party is still misleading, not least because substantial portions of the labor movement supported the reforms. The UAW, which left the AFL-CIO in 1968 over conflicts between Reuther and Meany, testified in support of the reforms and lent its substantial administrative resources to seeing them passed. So did the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and the International Association of Machinists (IAM). The leaderships of these unions, despite their shared conservatism with most of the AFL-CIO, saw that an alliance with the Democratic Party dissidents, and with the movements emerging from the New Left more generally, was the route forward. Moreover, these unions had often lost out in the behind-the-scenes horse-trading through which Meany and his allies exerted influence in the pre-reform party. 

The reform commission was not a battle between middle-class idealists and labor, but a fight within labor over how it would exercise influence within the party. Knowing Meany’s history and method of operating, it is difficult to say that his defeat here was also a defeat for the Left or the working class more broadly.

Moreover, it is difficult to see how Fraser-McGovern could have been the source of the party’s move to the right, when after 1972 the Democrats promptly got to work attempting to undo everything associated with McGovernism. Already in 1972, the AFL-CIO leadership helped found the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), which announced as its chief aims the containment of Communism and the rollback of McGovernism. Many of the leading lights of neoconservatism cut their teeth in this project. The CDM and its backers played a major role in the 1976 Winograd Commission, which shortened the primary season and raised the vote threshold for delegates as a way of blocking insurgent candidates, and the 1981 Hunt Commission, which created the super-delegate system. Both of these reforms were strongly backed by the AFL-CIO. It is hard, in other words, to sustain the narrative that labor lost its seat at the table in 1971 and has been in the wilderness ever since. To the contrary, the labor movement leadership has played a key role in remaking the party’s architecture to make it less hospitable to the Left.

In place of Frank’s portrait of an early 1970s fall from grace, much more attention needs to be paid to the party’s relationship to business. For a book about how the Democrats became a party of the rich, Listen, Liberal is strangely silent on who was funding the Democrats and why. Ultimately, however, this is the key question for understanding politics in a money-driven political system like ours. Missing entirely from Frank’s book is any discussion of how business organized and turned to the right throughout the 1970s. Facing pressure from international competitors, and economic crisis, and sensing that the labor movement had grown complacent, business launched an offensive that culminated in the Volcker Shock of 1979, when Jimmy Carter’s chair of Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, purposely sent the country into a recession to curb wage growth and increase unemployment. Since then, the Democrats have leaned on various sectors of business, like real estate, that benefit from higher government expenditures, or like the tech industry, which is similarly dependent on state largess. 

Listen, Liberal reveals how sometimes even the most critical and perspicacious observers of American politics maintain at best a surface-level understanding of the transformation of politics in the neoliberal era. The bitterness of Frank’s polemic, however, is grounds for hope; like the millions of people who voted for Bernie Sanders out of disgust with the political establishment, Frank’s writings are an index of the discontent rumbling through the Democrats’ base. For these tremors to really shake the system, however, it will be necessary for opponents of “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party” to have a deeper understanding of the forces that have wrenched the party to the right over the last few decades. 

  1. Quoted in Kim Moody, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism (New York: Verso, 1988), 125.
  2. Quoted in Gilbert Jones, Freedom’s Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle Against Racism in America, 1909–1969 (New York: Routledge, 2005), 283.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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