Thomas Frank on Clinton & Democratic Establishment: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

June 22, 2016


Thomas Frank

author of the new book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? He’s also a founding editor of The Baffler.

In a major economic address in Ohio on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton warned the election of Donald Trump would be disastrous for the U.S. economy and result in what she dubbed a "Trump recession." "He’s written a lot of books about business. They all seem to end at Chapter 11. Go figure," Clinton said. But Hillary Clinton’s economic policies are still facing criticism from her own party. Last week in an address to supporters, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told supporters he planned to go to the Democratic convention next month in Philadelphia to push the party in a more progressive direction. We speak to Thomas Frank, author of the new book, "Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?"


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In a major economic address in Ohio on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton warned that the election of Donald Trump would be disastrous for the U.S. economy and result in what she dubbed a "Trump recession."

HILLARY CLINTON: I think Donald Trump has said he’s qualified to be president because of his business record. A few days ago, he said—and I quote—"I’m going to do for the country what I did for my business." So, let’s take a look at what he did for his business. He’s written a lot of books about business. They all seem to end at Chapter 11. Go figure. And over the years, he intentionally ran up huge amounts of debt on his companies, and then he defaulted. He bankrupted his companies—not once, not twice, but four times. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. Shareholders were wiped out. Contractors, many of them small businesses, took heavy losses. Many went bust. But Donald Trump, he came out fine.

AMY GOODMAN: Describing Donald Trump as the "king of debt," Hillary Clinton warned a Trump presidency would cause a "economic catastrophe." Trump is scheduled to give a major speech today criticizing Clinton’s policies. But on Tuesday, Trump responded by posting his short video on Instagram.

DONALD TRUMP: Hillary Clinton is only right about one thing: I understand debt and how to handle it. I’ve made a fortune with debt. But debt for this country is a disaster. And Obama has piled it on, and she’s been there watching.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: While Hillary Clinton is attacking Donald Trump over his economic policies, there’s also a simmering debate within the Democratic Party over the party’s own platform. Last week in an address to supporters, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told—said he planned to go to the Democratic convention next month in Philadelphia to push the party in a more progressive direction.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I also look forward to working with Secretary Clinton to transform the Democratic Party, so that it becomes a party of working people and young people, and not just wealthy campaign contributors, a party that has the guts to take on Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, the fossil fuel industry and the other powerful special interests that dominate so much of our political and economic life.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the presidential race, we’re joined by author and social critic Thomas Frank, author of many books, including What’s the Matter with Kansas? His newest book is called Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Thomas Frank. You write that, well, it’s—the problem with establishment Democrats is not that they have been bribed by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and others, but that long ago they determined to supplant the GOP as the party of Wall Street. Explain.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Well, it’s not so much that they decided to—first they decided that they—that they didn’t want to be the party of the working class any longer. They didn’t want to really be the party of the middle class. And this goes back to the 1970s, if not—if not before. But by the 199—you know, wait, so the group that they decided they would represent was the affluent, white-collar professionals, beginning in the 1970s. And by the 1990s, that had really come into full flower with the Bill Clinton administration, and they became—you know, they actively courted Wall Street. And all through the last decade, you know, the years of the Bush administration, you had Democratic theorist after Democratic theorist talking about how there was this sort of natural alliance between the Democrats and Wall Street. Wall Street was supposed to be this place where the—you know, the professional class was doing these fantastic things, plucking wealth out of thin air. This was the creative class, you know, in full bloom—right?—doing these wonderful things, so creative. And, you know, everybody could see that this was a naturally Democratic industry. And the Clintons and Barack Obama all had a hand in this transformation of the party.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Thomas Frank, what about this relationship between the Democratic Party and the working class or organized labor? Because you could argue that the Democratic elite was pro-labor as long as there was an alternative out there in the world—the socialist bloc or the communist bloc—

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that provided an alternative vision for workers. Once you had the collapse of communism and socialism in other parts of the world, the Democratic elite no longer felt they needed to necessarily appeal to organized labor.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, or to lots of different groups, by the way. That’s the sort of the—I guess you would call that, you know, the very—the grand, sweeping view of history. But, in fact, the Democratic abandonment of the working class really does begin in the Vietnam era, and a lot of it happened for reasons that are very understandable and even admirable. You know, the Democratic Party wanted to sort of reconstitute itself in the early 1970s and move away from organized labor and remove organized labor from its structural position in the Democratic Party because of all the fights over the Vietnam War. You remember that a lot of organized labor was—had really supported President Johnson in those days, and the Democratic Party wanted to change itself. And, you know, to make a very long and winding story short, they made their decision to shift their allegiance to the professional-managerial class, and it turned out to be really good for them from a financial point of view, because we’re talking about very affluent people here. So everything sort of has worked out for them—for the Democrats, that is. It’s been great for them. For organized labor and for working people, it’s been a catastrophe. I mean, this is the reason that inequality is—or one of the biggest reasons that inequality is totally out of control in this country, is you don’t have a party in this country that really cares about working people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about, well, who you talk a lot about in the book, Listen, Liberal, and that is Bill Clinton.


AMY GOODMAN: The issues he took on, like NAFTA and others, that were really considered Republican issues—not taking them on to challenge them, but to endorse them.

THOMAS FRANK: Well, NAFTA was—NAFTA was negotiated by Republicans, by—remember, George Bush Sr. negotiated NAFTA. But it took a Democrat to get it passed, because Congress—you remember back, Amy, back in those days, Congress was always controlled by Democrats, I mean, going back to the Great Depression. But yeah, Clinton had five major achievements as president. And when I say these are his major achievements, that’s according to his fans, according to his admirers. And all five of them were Republican or conservative initiatives. In addition to NAFTA, you had the crime bill in ’94; you had welfare reform; you had deregulation, you know, across the board, of banks, also of telecoms; and you had the balanced budget. These are the five sort of great things that when people say, you know, Bill Clinton is this wonderful president, those are the things that they look back on. Every single one of them ended in disaster. And every single one of them—well, arguably, with the exception of the balanced budget, but every single one of them was a Republican, a conservative initiative. And he got them done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Specifically in terms of the crime bill, when you started researching your book, there wasn’t a whole lot of attention on the legacy of the Clintons’ efforts in crimes. But obviously, with the Black Lives Matter movement and the challenges to the candidates now, there has been a lot more. Talk about the—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that particular legacy.

THOMAS FRANK: Well, so, you know, I was around when—obviously, when Clinton was president, and I remember when the '94 crime bill was passed. And it made me so angry. You know, it did things like federal death penalties went from three crimes to 60, or something like that, you know, and building prisons all over the country, and, you know, all of these sort of mandatory minimums. You know, this was a terrible, terrible thing. And I remember when it happened, and it infuriated me. And I was trying to capture that in my writing, when I was writing Listen, Liberal. And I remember talking to an expert on this, you know, and books take a while to write, you understand. I was talking to an expert about this, and we were talking about all the particulars of the ’94 crime bill. And she said to me, you know, "This is great that you're writing this, but don’t think you’re going to change anybody’s mind about this sort of thing. It’s just—it’s futile to try to reason with the public about the, you know, mass incarceration." And then, a few months later, Black Lives Matter happened. And lo and behold, the country—the entire opinion climate of this country has completely changed. It’s a wonderful thing.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this discussion, hear what Charles Koch has to say about who he’s going to support in this 2016 presidential election. We’re talking to Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re speaking with Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? The book looks at a growing debate within the Democratic Party over the party’s economic policies. Earlier this spring, Republican mega-donor Charles Koch has said he would—could support Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over a Republican nominee in November. In an interview with ABC News in April, Koch said he would only support Republican candidates Donald Trump or Ted Cruz if they change certain proposals, including Cruz’s vow to carpet-bomb ISIS and Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Koch spoke to journalist Jonathan Karl.

JONATHAN KARL: Am I hearing you correctly? You think Bill Clinton was a better president than George W. Bush?

CHARLES KOCH: Well, in some ways. In other ways, I mean, he wasn’t an exemplar.


CHARLES KOCH: But—but as far as the growth of government, the increase in spending on restrictive regulations, it was two-and-a-half times under Bush that it was under Clinton.

JONATHAN KARL: So is it possible another Clinton could be better than another Republican—

CHARLES KOCH: It’s possible.

JONATHAN KARL: —the next time around?

CHARLES KOCH: It’s possible.

JONATHAN KARL: You couldn’t see yourself supporting Hillary Clinton, could you?

CHARLES KOCH: Well, her—we would have to believe her actions would be quite different than her rhetoric. Let me put it that way.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was billionaire Charles Koch talking to ABC News in April. Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, also a founding editor of The Baffler, your response to that interview?

THOMAS FRANK: That’s wonderful. I mean, it’s so ironic. You know, I love irony. But, you see, this is a man that the Democratic Party has spent millions and millions of dollars, you know, assailing and berating and mocking. And, you know, the Koch brothers is on the tip of everyone’s tongue as what’s the matter with America these days. And now it looks like, hey, he thought Bill Clinton was pretty OK. He a Democratic president was just fine. Yeah, well, he sort of made my point there. A fellow Kansan. That’s wonderful.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what the Bernie Sanders presidency—candidacy has meant.


AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of Bernie Sanders for a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: Bernie Sanders, who has not, you know, yet conceded. Let’s go to a clip of Bernie Sanders. It was a Democratic presidential debate last year, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sparring over their plans to address abuses on Wall Street.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Let us be clear that the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street, where fraud is a business model, helped to destroy this economy and the lives of millions of people. Check the record. In the 1990s—and all due respect—in the 1990s, when I had the Republican leadership and Wall Street spending billions of dollars in lobbying, when the Clinton administration, when Alan Greenspan said, "What a great idea it would be to allow these huge banks to merge," Bernie Sanders fought them and helped lead the opposition to deregulation.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton. Thomas Frank, what this has meant, the kind of issues you’ve been talking about this book certainly ones that came to the fore this year, and how you feel they’re going to affect what happens next after the convention?

THOMAS FRANK: Well, look, Bernie Sanders was completely right. One of the—several things leaped out in what he—in the clip that you just played. When he said that the business model of Wall Street is fraud, well, to a certain degree he’s exactly right. And one of the things that we are going to remember about the Obama administration was its complete failure to prosecute Wall Street executives for a whole long list of apparently fraudulent behavior. And this is—this is one of the sort of abiding mysteries of our time: Why do they do this? I mean, even George W. Bush, remember, got tough with the guys from Enron, who were his pals, his campaign donors—right?—his best friends. And those guys are still in prison. But Barack Obama couldn’t go after Wall Street, you know? Why not? And it’s one of the questions that I really tried to answer in Listen, Liberal.

And the answer that I finally came up with is that it’s not just all the—you know, all the campaign donations; it’s a sort of class solidarity between the kind of people that fill Democratic administrations these days, you know, the cream of the professional-managerial class, the people at the very apex of our country’s meritocracy system, our status system, and the people on Wall Street. I mean, it’s not a coincidence that there’s this—in the early years of the administration, anyway, there’s this incredible, you know, revolving door action between the administration and Wall Street. Today, the revolving door is all between the administration and Silicon Valley, but back then it was as though there was no difference between—they were just both two different nodes, you know, of the American meritocracy, one in Washington and the other in New York City.

But, you know, Bernie Sanders, to get back to him, when you think about the way that the Democratic insiders and the sort of liberal establishment of this country reacted to him, it was almost like an allergic reaction. What he was saying was just so utterly unacceptable to them. And when you think about it, what he’s saying is very deep in the Democratic tradition. It’s not radical. It’s not strange. It’s straight out of the New Deal. I mean, he sounds like—he sounds like, you know, a New Dealer. He sounds very familiar to me. The things that he was proposing are right out of, you know, the Democratic platform when Roosevelt was president, when Harry Truman was president, that sort of thing. And I think, for our modern-day Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders represents this past that they think they have put behind them, that they don’t think they should need to deal with anymore. I mean, there’s something about their reaction to him that was just so strange. It’s like—you know, like he’s the bad conscience, the guilty conscience, that they want to put behind them, you know. They never want to have to hear that stuff again.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Thomas Frank, to get to Donald Trump, as well, and his appeal, obviously he has focused a lot of his attention on these trade deals, on NAFTA and the Pacific trade partnership. What about the appeal of Trump to working-class voters? Is that real or not, from what you can tell?

THOMAS FRANK: Well, it’s real, but it’s—I mean, it’s shrinking fast. I mean, this guy is—this guy is a gold-plated buffoon, you know? What we have to—what we have to consider here with Donald Trump is we have to understand that what’s happening with Donald Trump, this is not—you know, there’s all sorts of different ways of describing it, but what we’re really seeing here is a reaction to—I mean, you know, to inequality. This is what it looks like when vast parts of America are—you know, when the economy has basically dried up and blown away. You know, this is what deindustrialization—at the end of the day, this is what it looks like, when, you know, Democrats go around celebrating this wonderful new information economy that we’re in. And by the way, they’re doing it today on The New York Times op-ed page; they do it all the time. They celebrate that. And the other side of the coin is that, you know, the middle class is shrinking. Wages never go anywhere. You know, the percentage of the gross national product that is—that goes to labor these days is the lowest it has ever been since World War II. You know, look, for a lot of people, the promise of American life is over. It’s gone.

And this is only going to get worse under a Hillary Clinton presidency. And, well, it would get much, much worse under a Donald Trump presidency. But what I’m getting at here is that this phenomenon, inequality, is going to get worse. All the problems that we’re looking at today, our economic problems, are going to—are going to get worse. And four years from now, you’re going to have another Trump. And, you know, the good side of that coin is that you’ll also have another Bernie Sanders. You know, so this can all end—it can have a happy ending. You know, you could have a president in the Bernie Sanders mold somewhere down the road. But there’s also really, you know, a frightening side to this: You could have someone like Trump somewhere down the road. And that—you know, that should terrify us. But that is the direction we’re going.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us. The book is Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? It’s written by Thomas Frank. He is also the founding editor of The Baffler.

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