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Saturday, March 18, 2017 10:02 pm

A party on the ropes

You can almost hear the keyboards clicking as historians and political scientists rush to finish books on the Election of 2016. But the best explanation of the collapse of the Democratic Party and the victory of Donald Trump was published last March.

That the Democrats lost their connection to working men and women is common wisdom today. But Thomas Franks’ "Listen, Liberal" offered a scathing indictment of the "party of the people" a year ago. The book argued that in their rush to cater to the elite and seek consensus, Democratic leaders have embraced policies that have sped the decline of American workers. It warned that Democrats were foolish to take it as gospel that changing demographics and Republican social philosophy would be enough to keep their party in the White House.

"Every two years," Frank wrote, "they simply assume that being non-Republican is sufficient to rally the voters of the nation to their standard. This cannot go on."

And, of course, it didn’t. Now Frank’s deconstruction of the Democrats’ failures seems uncannily prescient. The Kindle edition of "Listen, Liberal" has added a post-election chapter called "Afterword," in which Frank manages to avoid using the phrase "told ya so."

"All I can say is that I started with a good question: What happened to the Democratic Party?" Frank said in an interview between speaking engagements in Sweden last week.

"It’s been a long process, beginning in the 1970s but really picking up speed under Bill Clinton in the 1990s," he said. "They have gradually abandoned working people as their No. 1 constituency and instead they think of themselves as the party of the affluent, white-collar professional class.

"Small towns, family farmers – Democrats haven’t had anything to say to these people for a long time," Frank said.

"What’s happened to the Democratic Party is a disaster across the board. They’ve lost the presidency, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, state legislatures all over America – I’ve never seen anything like it. This is a party that just a few years ago was telling themselves and telling the world that they were going to win every presidential election from then on. The hubris of it is so shocking."

Relying on the conventional wisdom of a highly educated but out-of-touch elite, Frank contends, the Democrats have placed their faith in technocrats and entrepreneurs and forgotten the basic needs of average Americans. Presidents Clinton and Barack Obama missed some golden opportunities to help workers, he said. Sometimes, says Frank, who will speak this weekend in Fort Wayne, Democratic leaders have gone out of their way to make things worse.

Exhibit A in Frank’s case is the North American Free Trade Agreement – "the guilty conscience of the Democratic Party." Frank cites a 2010 study that said NAFTA caused hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers to lose their jobs. He says NAFTA and other trade agreements may have contributed to more recent exoduses, such as United Technologies’ decision to move jobs from UTEC in Huntington and Carrier in Indianapolis to Monterrey, Mexico.

"I’ve been talking about trade deals and how bad they are for many years. And you can’t make a dent in the sort of comfortable, liberal mentality talking about that stuff," Frank said. "They just deny it. They will not listen to you ...They all say, ‘we went to college and we all understand that trade deals are good for everyone, and we learned that on Day One of Economics in college.’ There can be no downs on trade bills."

But then, "here comes Trump, talking about it. I don’t think Trump really understands this issue. But if you ask me, that is the issue that beat Hillary Clinton – the trade deals."

Under Clinton, Frank wrote in "Listen, Liberal," Democrats also helped dismantle the social safety net and increase prison populations with draconian sentences for crack cocaine and inflexible "three-strikes" sentences. Obama passed up opportunities to stand up for average Americans, too, Frank wrote, letting Wall Street off with a scolding after the Great Recession, delivering only a half-solution on health care by catering to the interests of insurance companies, and failing to address the issue of widening income inequality.

Frank is no Democrat-bashing Republican; he acknowledges he’s "usually thought to be pretty far to the left." In his 2004 book, "What’s the matter with Kansas?", Frank applied the same kind of critical analysis he’s used on Democrats to the question of how Republican conservatism came to dominate his home state.

His thesis was that Republicans persuaded voters to ignore their own economic interests by appealing to them on issues such as abortion. Once in power, Frank argued, the GOP proceeded to concentrate on dismantling the social safety net and other actions that hurt low-income Kansans.

"People became more and more obsessed with the abortion issue," Frank said. "As family farmers in particular got hurt so badly in Kansas, they became more and more obsessed with culture wars."

Frank doesn’t condemn voters for their beliefs. "That’s a very common position, for people to be very liberal on economic issues and to be very conservative on cultural ones," he said. "But it’s clear to me that these people are being in some ways used. These are very sincere people – in some ways, very admirable. This is something that you probably wouldn’t hear from many people on the left, but the anti-abortion forces in Kansas really turned that state upside down. They worked hard to do it, and they pulled it off. And that was impressive.

"But we can also see that the main consequence of their work on that issue is the governorship of Sam Brownback ... And what is Sam Brownback about? He’s about cutting taxes, and defunding public services in Kansas.

"I don’t have the silver-bullet moral argument that is going to persuade them that in fact they need to follow their economic concerns rather than their moral concerns," Frank said. "That’s obviously up to the individual.

"But I would say to them that if you look at what has happened, the man who’s now sitting in the White House is not a friend of family values. The way these things play out, they have to be very careful.

"They can’t just sign up for a right-wing movement that … seems like it’s going to be in favor of their values and in fact winds up injuring them economically," Frank said. "People have to understand they’re making that trade."

In the years since "What’s the Matter with Kansas?" was written, Frank said, other Midwestern states, including Indiana, have gone down the same path.

"That’s what it gets you," he said. "You sign up for the culture wars, and what you wind up with are these state governments that really care about cutting taxes and doing various favors for wealthy interests."

(While he believes Mike Pence employed social-issue exploitation to advance his agenda as Indiana governor, Frank sees Pence as a positive "stabilizing influence" in the Trump administration.)

Frank, who describes himself as naturally cynical, still believes Democrats can find relevance in both state-level and national politics.

"The thing is that the Democratic Party has to change," he said. "We can talk all we want about how bad Donald Trump is. You open up the New York Times and the Washington Post every day and every editorial is denouncing Trump and calling him names and cursing him up and down. But that’s not going to do a damn thing. What’s going to fix it is when the Democratic Party figures out how to beat him.

"Right now, they have no intention of figuring that out. They think he’s going to self-destruct, and all they have to do is wait for that to happen, and just step in and pick up the pieces. But that’s not good enough. This is a long-term, historical development, and they have to figure out how to put it in reverse."

The key, Frank said, is for Democrats to abandon elitism and focus again on their traditional, working-class constituencies.

"They need to adopt a way of speaking and a way of campaigning that speaks to these people again," he said. "It’s not hard to figure out how to do these things, and how to run a society where average people and average workers can prosper. It’s not unthinkable. It can be done."

Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for the Journal Gazette.