Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Thomas Frank: How the Democratic Party Became a Vehicle of Aristocracy

In the second part of a two-part interview with "Scheer Intelligence," the historian explores how anti-populism made liberals comfortable with plutocracy.
“Target Practice.” [Mr. Fish]

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More than six years ago, a study by Princeton University Prof. Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Prof. Benjamin I Page made headlines for concluding what many Americans may have already known: the United States is an oligarchy, not a democracy. While the evidence is all around us, perhaps even more clearly in a pandemic that has enriched the richest Americans while record numbers of people are left unemployed and destitute, it’s often hard to remember just how the country got to this current state. In the second part of a two-part interview for “Scheer Intelligence,” Thomas Frank, the founding editor of The Baffler and author of What’s the Matter with Kansas and, more recently, The People, No, talks to host Robert Scheer about the anti-populism that helped liberals embrace the plutocracy that is consuming American democracy daily. 

“The Democratic Party has very much become a vehicle of the aristocracy, of plutocracy,” says Frank. “One of the reasons for that is because liberalism in its modern-day incarnation not only has moved away from and forgotten about its past as a working-class movement, but [provides] a rationale for plutocracy. 

“By and large, the elite of America today is this kind of white-collar group that’s defined by where they went to school,” the historian continues, “And this group looks out at the rest of the world, and they say, ‘Not only are we richer than you, but we’re better than you. We’re more moral than you, we understand politics better than you, we know the jargon. We understand the issues.’ And this is highly toxic–that this sort of progressive tradition has now come together with and melded with extreme wealth [and] rationalizes their place in the hierarchy.” 

Frank, calling on his experiences in his home state of Kansas as well as his extensive historical research, points to the many ways that populist language and messaging was also de-radicalized, dusted off and reused by corporations and political parties to gain the trust of the working class, all the while finding new ways to disadvantage and oppress them. The historian also examines how segregation stemmed from an elite-run wave of anti-populism that Martin Luther King, Jr.  identified in his “Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March,” although it is often left out of civil rights movement narratives. 

Listen to the second part of the conversation between Frank and Scheer as the two discuss what this anti-populist scourge has meant for contemporary American politics and where that leaves progressives as Joe Biden prepares to take office. You can also listen to the first part of the interview, in which the two thinkers explore the history of American populism, here

Host:
Robert Scheer

Producer:
Joshua Scheer

Introduction:
Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:
Lucy Berbeo 

RS: No, that–let me interrupt you, by the way. Your book gives a different answer, a more profound answer, OK? Let me just–I don’t want to leave this interview without getting you to talk about that.

TF: OK.

RS: Because at first–we’re talking about class consciousness, we’re talking about how a ruling elite, a capitalist elite maintains power. And at first, the response of this capitalist elite to the populist message was to just smash it–as alien, as–

TF: Yeah.

RS: –bad, blah blah blah, OK. And they failed. They failed electorally, as you pointed out, and so forth, in certain places. And then they adopted, particularly around Roosevelt, they adopted a new strategy. Right? 

TF: Yeah.

RS: Because you pointed out–

TF: To out-populist the populists, yes. [Laughs]

RS: Yeah, but you now point out that–and actually, you established that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal was attacked viciously by the elite, including the academic elite, including the major newspapers. And that’s a very important thing, because the Democratic Party would like to say, well, we’ve always been on the side of workers, we’ve always been on the side of people of color, and of women, and so forth. But the fact is, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was–and certainly a lot of credit, I don’t think your book gives enough credit to Eleanor Roosevelt, but I think she certainly was instrumental in that–but mainly because he needed labor. He needed that organized power. And he was derided, and by, you know, professional economists and professional thinkers in the university, and the leading newspapers. My God, you quote–I worked for the L.A. Times for 20 years–

TF: Yes! [Laughs]

RS: –your quotes from the L.A. Times show it to be a despicable rag of the ruling class–

TF: Oh my God, Bob, you know, I just scratched the surface there. You know that. [Laughs] I could fill chapter after chapter with that stuff.

RS: Well, it was a deliberately anti-labor paper. And not just because they got bombed at one point, but you know. And the New York Times was just vicious–and by the way, which also supported Clinton on the deregulation of Wall Street quite vociferously. But back in the thirties–everybody forgets this bit of history; yes, this was the heyday, I think, of the Democratic Party, but not of the elite, not of the establishment, not of people of wealth. And then in your book you bring up an idea which, since I teach communications theory and everything, is very important, that I had overlooked. That when the strategy of a frontal attack on Roosevelt failed–and after all, Roosevelt won four elections–the big industry under the influence of PR, advertising and everything decided, you know, basically, let’s coopt their language. And you bring up the case of DuPont, a much-reviled company and a horrible employer and everything, but no, let’s make this as American as apple pie again, and let’s use language and manipulation coming out of the war to make it sound–you know, they coopted the whole progressive–yes–

TF: Yes, they most–[Laughs] Yes, they did. And this went on–this is, you know, another subject I’ve written about at great length, is the way these corporations then began to present themselves: as your best buddy. You know, your friend. They’re right with you there in the patriotic struggle, and the voice of the people, and they could out-populist anybody. And that’s really the tradition that someone like Donald Trump or Ronald Reagan comes out of. You know, Ronald Reagan sort of learned all his tricks at General Electric. He learned this kind of fake populism from these guys. But yeah, the corporations–

RS: Let me give you a little footnote on that, because I actually talked to Ronald Reagan. I interviewed him before he was governor of California, and I interviewed him when he was running for president, and I got to know him quite well, and spent a lot of time. And what you’re referring to, in case listeners don’t know because they don’t remember, he became a spokesperson for General Electric. But he had come out of–as he talks about in his own writing, and I talked to him about it–he did not disrespect the New Deal, and he was raised in a home where, as I say, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was revered, as I was. And Ronald Reagan–what happened was when he became the spokesperson for General Electric, they took him around to every plant. And Ronald Reagan, after all, had been head of the Screen Actors Guild, and he claimed to be on the side of labor unions. He was–his beef was not with labor unions originally. And he would talk to people. And in these GE plants, they would tell Ronald Reagan, no, we have a great health system, we have great working conditions, and we have a very strong union. It was the united electrical workers, originally a progressive union that got redbaited out of existence by McCarthyism, and then the international united electric workers took over, but they were also a pretty good union. 

And so Ronald Reagan, when he was celebrating GE, was celebrating what used to be considered an enlightened capitalist company that paid good wages for American workers. But when Ronald Reagan was president [Laughs] and you had the savings and loan scandal, by the end of his presidency, he became disenchanted with the idea that just big business would always do the right thing. And what happened with General Electric, they ended up getting into banking. GE Capital became the major source of income. They got involved very much in the housing scams, and all that. And two out of three jobs, by the time the housing crisis came along, they had shifted abroad. They were not this great American employer, company. So I don’t want to defend Reagan excessively, but the fact of the matter is, he wasn’t able to pull off the major deregulation of Wall Street. That remained for Bill Clinton–

TF: Exactly, exactly.

RS: –who united the Republicans in Congress to do what maybe Reagan fantasized. But I must say that in terms of his experience with GE, because I did quiz him quite extensively on all that, you know, he was talking about a different GE than the one that participated in the housing meltdown, and that has sent all those jobs abroad. Which by the way was so close to not only Clinton, but to the Obama administration. 

TF: Yeah. But I guess what I was getting at is this kind of pseudo-populism that these people do, and Reagan was very good at it. You know, at making people think he was their friend, he was on their side, he was all about helping them be against snobbery and against the elites. And this all comes out of the Roosevelt days, when the kind of upper-class attack on Roosevelt in 1936 so completely and utterly fails. And everybody realizes that if they’re ever going to rebuild conservatism, they’re going to have to do it in this completely different way. And so fast-forward to a few years ago, you know, Donald Trump speaking at the Republican Convention–and I heard this with my own ears and saw it with my own eyes–and he gave a shoutout to “the forgotten man.” [Laughs] I love it. It’s, like, right out of Roosevelt. I mean, they’re still doing this, they’re still stealing lines from Franklin Roosevelt. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has decided–they’ve sort of changed positions. The Democratic Party decided that it wants to be the party of making people respect science and respect authority and respect credentialed, you know, expertise. 

You know, the other thing you raised that we didn’t really, I didn’t get to is the Civil Rights Movement, which is the last sort of heroic part of the book. And there have been very few really great populist heroes since those days, since the 1960s. But Martin Luther King is actually a much more interesting guy than what is the modern-day image of him, where he’s only about getting the Civil Rights Movement going, and that sort of thing. He was actually, you know, had a lot to do with organized labor, spoke at union gatherings all the time, you know, understood what he was doing as being part of this long tradition of helping working-class people. It wasn’t a class-neutral program, what he was doing. And in fact, towards the end of his life, he and Bayard Rustin and some others came up with this plan that they called the Freedom Budget. And it was basically reviving one of Roosevelt’s old ideas of a second Bill of Rights. The idea was for a massive expansion of the New Deal, or of Johnson’s Great Society, and to make good housing available to everyone, make a good education available to everyone, and of course make health care available to everyone. They had it all figured out; it could have been done. And then unfortunately, you know, he was murdered, the Vietnam War interceded and sort of sucked all the air out of the room, and you know what happened next. And we basically never–we’ve never been able to get back to that moment.

RS: Well, let me talk about that moment just for one second, and then we’ll wrap this up, but I have one last question aside from this. But you know, the fact is, under a Democratic administration–and I’m just trying to be objective here–you know, under Lyndon Johnson, the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI engineered a scheme to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide. To destroy him. And they smeared him–under surveillance; if they’d had the modern means of surveillance they would have succeeded. But even with the primitive means of listening to conversations through hotel rooms and tapping the old-fashioned phone and everything, they set out to destroy him. And they wrote a letter, De Loach and Sullivan in the FBI, the number two and three guys under Hoover, very deliberate, calculated plan to get King to kill himself, and to alienate people from King, and concocting evidence and smearing him in the most vicious way. 

And this was all–why were they doing that? Because they claimed that King had leftists and communists around him who’d come out of the history you’re describing. And they claimed that he was not just a civil rights person, but that he was really interested in the betterment of working people. That was really the argument, that he was actually a leftist. And what they were using against him was the fact that he was doing the poor people’s campaign. And in your book you have a poignant description of the tent city that Martin Luther King wanted to set up in Washington, going far beyond the March on Washington, demanding proper working conditions, demanding economic change. And really, Martin Luther King was, in the way you define it in your book, a populist. And he understood–he anticipated the Black Lives Matter moment we’ve had in the middle of this pandemic. That in fact, you can put things down on paper about civil rights, but if you don’t have a reality in the workplace, in the living conditions, in the educational system–all the things the populists would have talked about, did talk about a hundred years before–Martin Luther King understood very well that it wasn’t going to work. And that’s why we have a Black Lives Matter movement, raising issues that you would have thought had been resolved a long time ago.

TF: Yeah, you’re exactly right. And so by the time that King was, you know, was on the national stage, it was unusual for people to call themselves populists. But I’m going to tell you one last sort of ironic story–there’s so many ironic stories in this book, but–

RS: Hey, given that you’ve been blocked out of the media elsewhere– 

TF: [Laughs] I know, I know.

RS: Why not take advantage here–

TF: Let’s do it, let’s do it. So King, one of his sort of great moments, one of his great oratorical moments is when he’s giving a speech on the steps of the Alabama Capitol building. It’s at the very end of his Selma to Montgomery march, in 1965. And it’s a great, triumphant moment; Congress has just passed the Voting Rights Act, which is the triumphant thing. Because the South, ever since populism, the South has been denying–oh, we didn’t tell that story! So they, to put populism down permanently, a lot of these Southern states disenfranchised Black people, and disenfranchised a whole lot of poor whites, to make sure that something like populism could never happen again. Anyhow, so King is standing on the steps of the Montgomery–

RS: Let me just interrupt you for a minute, because again, it’s something I learned from your book. You raise the question, where did segregation, in its sort of legal formation, come from? 

TF: Yeah. That’s what King was asking that day. That’s what his speech was about.

RS: Yeah, well, I just want to set that for people listening to this, because we just assume that somehow the South had slavery and then it had segregation. But segregation, as a structured legal system, and a refined legal system, really came in response to this threat of populism–of uniting white and Black workers in the South, who were living in conditions of misery. If you could have gotten them united, and they would have thrown the leadership of what was still, was then the Democratic Party–that would have changed the politics of the whole country.

TF: Oh my goodness, yeah. It would have been massive. If populism had succeeded? It would have been extraordinary. But so King is–

RS: So let’s set the stage. Let’s set the stage, because people don’t have that much of a sense of history. So put us–

TF: Yeah. So it’s funny, this has never been a well-known chapter of American history. And I mean, we’re in this period now where we are, you know, we are smashing icons and we’re overturning past heroes, but there’s still very little curiosity among the mass media about where this system came from. Where did Jim Crow come from? Because like you said, it didn’t just–they didn’t just do it right after the Civil War. It took a while to set this system up. Where did it come from, how did they–when did they decide to disenfranchise Black voters? How did they go about it? Et cetera, et cetera. And when you dig into it, a lot of it, it happened in a lot of places as a response to populism–as a way of making sure that a radical threat like this could never happen again. 

And Martin Luther King actually knew this history. The reason he knew it–it’s not, you know, hard to figure out–there was a famous historian of the South back in those days, his name was C. Vann Woodward, who wrote about this. You know, he wrote book after book after book about this story. C. Vann Woodward was a classic Southern liberal, and for him populism was the only bright spot in Southern history between the end of the Civil War–or I should say the end of Reconstruction, and then the present day in the 1960s, when he was writing populism. Was the only moment when there was even a glimmer of hope that Blacks and whites could get together in some kind of common action. 

And Martin Luther King knew this history pretty well. And so he’s at this triumphant moment in Montgomery, Alabama, and he’s giving this speech. And he does this amazing shoutout to the populist movement of the 1890s. And he talks about how it threatened the Bourbon Democrats of the South, and how they instituted Jim Crow as a response to populism. So, to reinforce this idea of white solidarity, so that they could go to the, you know, to the poor white farmer who had nothing–you know, who was basically starving, almost–and say to this guy, well, you know, at least you’re a white person. So you’re better than these other people. And it’s one of King’s great moments. You can watch the speech on YouTube. But he says–I don’t want to spoil it, but you should go and watch the speech, because it’s absolutely fantastic. And he says, you know, the poor white farmer, when his stomach growled and his family called out for food, “he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was,” he was still better than these other people. It’s one of his beautiful moments. 

But here’s the ironic message: so King is giving this speech in Montgomery, Alabama; this is a few days or whatever it is, a week after his friends had been beaten bloody on the bridge at Selma by the Alabama State Troopers. King’s arch-rival is a man called George Wallace, who’s the governor of Alabama, who sent those state troopers to beat up those protesters, and who is sitting on the governor’s chair at the very moment that King is giving this speech and giving this shoutout to populism. OK–that’s 1965. In 1968, King gets murdered, and George Wallace decides to run for president. And the National Press Corp is horrified by Wallace; he’s this sort of proto-Trumpian figure, he goes around the country–you know, he’s this arch-segregationist going around the country pretending that he cares about ordinary working-class people and this kind of thing. What’s the word that the Press Corp uses, that they decide they’re going to use this word to describe George Wallace? It’s “populist.” [Laughs] This is the word that they apply to George Wallace. And ever since then, we have decided, we have determined that people who mine the same vein, this kind of resentful pseudo-workerist anti-elitism, with heavy overtones of bigotry, that that’s what they are, is populists. 

It’s a fantastic irony. And it’s an irony that’s nevertheless–it’s extremely toxic; it’s been extremely poisonous for progressive, you know, mass movements of working-class people. But it’s been extremely flattering to a different demographic, to the kind of suburban liberals who, you know, with good educations who think they know better. And this is the story of anti-populism in America. Anti-populism has gone from in the 1890s being the province of the most reactionary forces in America–and I go into this in some detail, as you know, Bob. If you go on my website, TCFrank.com, I’ve got a whole lot of their political cartoons and stuff. The anti-populists, and how they despised ordinary Americans, ordinary working-class Americans. This was a right-wing phenomenon–to today, when it’s a phenomenon of the highly educated liberal elite. And that’s the–that’s the whole story of this book, and I’m so sorry to say, Bob, that is the whole story of our time in this country. 

RS: Well, on that note–but let me say, the concluding chapter of your book is a Tom Paine-like statement. And it’s one that’s going to make a lot of people–the book is The People, No, I’m sorry, Metropolitan [Books]. Please read it; it’s not a slim–I mean, it’s 300 pages or so, but it’s a fast read, it’s accessible, well documented. But it will make people uncomfortable. And what you basically talk about–it’s interesting, you know, one area I have a very serious disagreement with you about. You’re a younger person; I was quite active in the sixties. [Laughs] And I think you’re a little bit harsh on the sixties Left, and so forth, and the Port Huron statement, and people like Tom Hayden–

TF: Well, you might be right about that; I was not there.

RS: [Laughs] I know. And you’re right, though, that it was limited in all sorts of ways. But the fact of the matter is, the people who went South in the Civil Rights Movement–I personally was in the South in 1960 with some people who insisted on integrating bathrooms and so forth. You know, and I was involved. But the people who did get involved, and a lot of the people who did get involved in the Civil Rights Movement–and the connection, by the way, between the Civil Rights Movement and the antiwar movement, I happen to have been the editor of Ramparts, where Martin Luther King first read the article that moved him to speak out at All Saints Church, when he came out against the war–there was a lot more energy coming from the sixties. So I don’t want to get into that whole discussion, and there are other things I might take issue with in your book. 

But what I cannot dismiss–not just dismiss, what I have to really say, I got taken to school on this–was, I’ve been of the mind to excuse the elite. I wouldn’t say excuse them, but at least assume that they’re not in the driver’s seat of the corruption of America of the Democratic Party. In particular, I never expected the Republican Party to be a center of enlightenment. But you really nail the cop-out–that’s why I brought up the sixties; the whole sixties was about “don’t sell out,” “have some integrity.” I remember I was there watching the FSM and participating in the Free Speech Movement, when Seymour Martin Lipset was standing next to me, actually; I was chatting with him–and he said, wow, this is of great concern, this is not a good thing, and so forth. So you know, I was a graduate student and he was a big professor, but I did feel the need to take issue with him. 

But what you nail in this book in your conclusion–and let’s end by talking about it–you present the elite as not just the handmaiden to corruption, servicing it, the court jesters. But you identify the elite produced by this meritocracy as the engine that’s driving the current corruption, certainly of the Democratic Party. And that’s a serious charge. And we’ve kind of–we’re aware there’s this meritocracy elite and so forth, and we’re aware what it does. But you actually describe it as a menace to the democratic experiment. And I think that would be a good–and maybe that’s why you’re not being asked to be on all of these television and radio shows. You’re calling out the people who are on MSNBC, are on PBS and NPR and so forth, routinely. And so let’s end on that, because it’s a pretty serious question to raise.

TF: Yeah. And you know, maybe–

RS: I don’t have the book in front of me, but you could almost begin by reading the first few paragraphs, or the first two pages of your conclusion. But you can give it to us, I think you know it by heart.

TF: Liberals have become comfortable with plutocracy. And not just comfortable with it; we think it’s, we think it’s correct.

RS: It’s the saving grace!

TF: We think it’s right. Because the whole idea of meritocracy is that there is a hierarchy. There is a moral hierarchy, there is a hierarchy of learning, there is a hierarchy of goodness. And there’s this sense now that you get from liberals; it’s not, you know–remember earlier in the conversation we were talking about all of these wealthy parts of America flipping–did we talk about this? These wealthy parts of America flipping from Republican to Democratic, which happened in Orange County, happened–

RS: No, no, we could talk–it’s not too late to talk about.

TF: Well, you know it happened in Orange County and it happened in my, just this year in the county that I grew up in, Johnson County, Kansas, which is a wealthy suburb of Kansas City, and highly educated. And when I wrote What’s the Matter with Kansas, I thought of it as the most Republican place in America. And that was objectively true at the time. Well, it went for Biden this year. First time they’ve gone for a Democrat since Woodrow Wilson. That long they were Republican, and now they’ve flipped. And you see this everywhere that people are rich and highly educated together, is that they are flipping to the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has very much become a vehicle of the aristocracy, of plutocracy. And one of the things, one of the reasons for that–there’s a lot of different reasons for that. And you can look at, by the way, look at Biden’s fundraising; he dramatically outraised the billionaire Trump. He was supported by every important institution in American life, with the exception of big oil. Every single one. And one of the reasons for that is because liberalism in its modern-day incarnation not only has moved away, has forgotten about its past as a working-class movement, but has a way of rationalizing–liberalism provides a rationale for plutocracy. And it says–you know, we were talking about those yard signs earlier that mention all the liberal causes. And what it does, what liberalism does is it not only says–you know, we’re not only richer than you, we’re better than you. 

So you’ve got this ruling elite in this country that is largely defined nowadays by where they went to college and where they went to graduate school, and what they studied and how well they did in school, that is really what defines the ruling elite of this country nowadays. You still have a sort of older elite here and there who inherited their money or who were entrepreneurs or whatever. But by and large, the elite of America today is this kind of white-collar group that’s defined by where they went to school. And this group looks out at the rest of the world, and they say, you know, not only are we richer than you, but we’re better than you. We’re more moral than you, we understand politics better than you, we know the jargon. You know, we understand the issues. And this is highly toxic. That this sort of progressive tradition has now come together with and melded with extreme wealth, and even provides a rationale for a plutocracy. But that is–I’m quite serious, Bob; that’s where we are today. That is what liberalism does. That is one of the services that it provides to its constituents, is that it rationalizes their place in the hierarchy.

RS: Well, but we can–you know, it’s interesting, because Chris Hedges has written, you know, attacking what he called the liberal class, and he grew up in it; his father was a minister, but in a community where he went to some of their private schools, and Harvard Divinity School and so forth. And he has shocked people by calling attention to this as really a serious menace in this society. And there’s very little room–I’ve discovered this personally in my own household, my own circle of friends. You’re somehow trapped in this middle, between you’ve got this menace of Trump, and this straight-out defense of wealth and power–by the way, not the way he campaigned; I thought your book was really quite interesting on the faux populism of Bannon and Pat Buchanan that informed the Trump campaign at first, and allowed him to wipe the floor of the Republican Party leadership. And even to this day I believe Kansas went 15% or something for Trump. 

TF: Oh yeah, he won the state handily, it was just that one county that I was–

RS: Yeah, and so the irony here is that you have, you know, on the one hand you have Trump taking out half of the air in the room with a reinterpretation of the Republican Party, that goes DuPont and those old corporations one up, and says we’re on the side of the ordinary person who’s being screwed by trade agreements and everything else. And then you have this liberal class that Hedges has written about so effectively, that no longer stands for blue-collar workers, for working people, for ordinary people, be they schoolteachers, be whatever. You know, certainly not people working for Apple in China or anywhere. So where is the room? You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. You know, the lesser evil and the greater evil aren’t that far apart. And we’re going to have a test of that now.

TF: Yes, we are.

RS: And maybe that’s a good point–so, be kind of a guide for people to look now that Biden has won. Now they’ll say, oh, but we don’t control the Senate; you know, we have to even do more to get control. But that game has been played a long time, of lesser-evilism. The fact is, what will they do about trade? What will they do about serious policy on immigration, so you don’t pit immigrants against workers, but you have a realistic quota of how many people. Maybe a country like Mexico that has historic–or after all, as Dolores Huerta points out, her family didn’t cross the border, the border crossed her family six generations ago. So maybe we need to have a legal quota for Mexico of a hundred thousand, two hundred thousand a year, not the 25,000 that we used to have for Iceland, and for Mexico at the same time. You know, maybe serious policies addressing trade so that maybe, OK, you want to ship jobs to China, you should have to pay a living wage in China, or at least not have the U.S. cooperate with the Chinese government in cracking down on labor unions and so forth. So there are things to be done. And basically, the message of your book is they will only come from the bottom up. They will not come from the leadership.

TF: Well, we’re in a very difficult situation right now in this country. Trump has been defeated, but as you have mentioned, Trumpism remains strong. His base is still united, they’re still with him. There’s going to be another Trump in four years. This is just going to keep getting worse unless the Democratic Party finally takes steps. I don’t–you know, it’s obvious to me what has to happen. That the Democratic–if they want to stop Trumpism, they have to understand that it’s their own movement toward this meritocratic elite that made Trump possible. They have to reverse that somehow. There’s all sorts of obvious ways that they could go about reversing that, but I don’t–I strongly doubt that they will. You know, we’re in a very dangerous situation, and I’m just–you know, it’s going to be a lot of, it’s going to be real interesting the next four years, watching how this unfolds before the next Trump comes along. 

RS: So let me end with one little positive–well, not positive. But you’re the only expert I know on–well, that’s not true, I have some friends who grew up in Kansas and so forth. But when you say the Democratic Party enabled the rise of Trump, how could the Democratic Party legitimately win back–because they’re not deplorables, you know–how could they win back that population of Kansas that still voted overwhelmingly–

TF: For Trump.

RS: After all, Kansas was where populism [unclear] and others came from, progressive ideas came from. That’s the whole message of your famous writing, even now that you’re being excluded, is that you understood something about that heartland of America. And how would you win back Kansas now?

TF: Well, the first step is to actually listen to those people rather than just decide that they need to be punished. Which is overwhelmingly the attitude among the sort of liberal commentariat. You know, that these people are bad people who there’s something dark and wrong with their souls, and we should not offer them anything; that’s obviously, you know, an enormous blunder. What you have to do is– [Laughs] win some of those people back. The way you do it is, you know, you were talking about, by and large, working-class people; this is the famous white working class, and my emphasis is on the working-class side of that. 

And what’s funny is watching all these sort of liberals here in Washington, D.C. spin their wheels and say, well, what could a party of the Left offer working-class people? They can’t even imagine. You know, and it’s like, dude, look at history. Parties of the Left are supposed to be about working-class people. It’s incredibly easy to come up with things that a party of the Left would do for working-class people. For one thing, universal health care. For another thing–I mean, this one just seems like a no-brainer–make it easy for them to form labor unions again. Once you do that, it’ll start to, you know, people start to think differently, they start to bargain. It changes people’s attitudes about their whole life. I mean, I think of making school good and accessible and cheap again. You know, all of those things. You go right down the list of, you know, Martin Luther King and the Freedom Budget; you know, make sure [that] the housing is affordable. These are all no-brainers, in my opinion, that the Democratic Party could do.

Now, it’s going to be difficult; it’s going to be hard, but at least they can make a stand. A guy like Joe Biden is–at least he’s, he’s not Hillary Clinton, calling people “deplorables.” This is a guy that likes to speak to blue-collar audiences. You know, he likes to hang around in union halls and stuff like that. It’s not that hard for him to make the case to these people. But he’s got to understand the strategy of it, and the long-term direction that his party has been going in, if he wants to turn it around. And with that, Bob, I–you’ve drained me. [Laughs]

RS: Well, you’ve got to bite the hand that feeds you. And you know, he outraised Trump two to one in that home stretch by getting money from the fat cats, let’s face it, and the very people the populists warned us about. 

Well, we’ve certainly done–now, I don’t want anybody to have the idea that we got the whole book, because this guy’s a great writer, it’s well documented, and I want people, I want to encourage people to get this book. It’s, you know, it’s really–you know what, I scratch my head and think, why haven’t more of us written about this. Why were we so–maybe this was a big failing of the sixties Left, maybe you caught us there. Maybe we abandoned labor. Maybe we were elitist ourselves. You know, one of the charges of your book, maybe we were that baby boom generation, also–I’m a little older than that, but maybe they sold out, ultimately, and abandoned working people in America. 

TF: Yeah, Bill Clinton is the great political embodiment of that generation, and I don’t think we can describe his career in any other way. 

RS: Except there are a whole lot of people I run into as a journalist, all over the years, who are doing the right thing, working in schools, all over. And why are they there? Because they were touched by the sixties. So let me just throw that in there, my own little editorial comment. I want to thank you, Thomas Frank. The book is The People, No. But it really is “The People, Yes,” the old Carl Sandburg–it’s called The People, No, because it’s about the people who are attacking the whole American history of populism, which is in the best sense as American as apple pie. 

I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for putting these shows up. I want to thank Natasha Hakimi Zapata for the introduction, Lucy Berbeo for the transcription. And I want to thank, a shout-out to Jean Stein, the great American writer and force. And she would have agreed, I think, with every word that Thomas Frank says in this book and has said today, and the JWK Foundation, which is keeping her memory alive and has given us some support for these shows. And that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week. 

15 comments

  1. Things have changed since the interview was done and nit appears that the hopes expressed for Biden were misplaced. So where do we go from here? If there is progress will it come from inside the D Party or from another one? I don’t think we have to answer this question now but we should keep it in mind.

    1. Leftists had no more hope in Biden than we did in any other establishment politician, and it’s fascinating watching that lot breaking their arms to pat themselves on the back for the triumph of corporate-sponsored “moderation” over “radical” Populism. The Democrats are a means to an end, and the more they shut their eyes to what’s really happening, the better.

      1. Elizabeth Burton’s comment is “on the money”.
        This polemic over who is populist and who “owns the moniker” is troubling at best and disorienting at worst. The label “populist” cannot belong to any one demographic, it belongs by definition to the “popular class”. It is as much a matter of perception, as it is of historical fact.
        I don’t think the “populist movement” can be salvaged. It must be reinvented.
        Thomas Frank’s characterization of black voter disenfranchisement as an “anti-populist” strategy does a disservice to sincere populists.
        General cynicism about segregationist efforts to co-opt black workers is not helpful.
        The fact is, corporate elites found a convenient way to co-opt white segregationists and consolidate their white, anti-populist electorates by disenfranchising black voters, co-opting poor whites and enforcing the “separate but equal doctrine” enshrined by the Supreme Court in 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson.
        That and 50 cents will buy you a can of soda pop in most vending machines
        These facts do not change the meaning of “Populist”, they simply add context to the on-going struggle to earn the nation’s social respect.

    2. “And you see this everywhere that people are rich and highly educated together, is that they are flipping to the Democratic Party.”

      There should be a question about this: why?

      It’s pretty simple to answer. The wealthy and highly educated are afraid that the poverty taking over so much of the working class will afflict them as well. One doesn’t associate with the unwashed masses, the Trumpenproletariat, if one expects to retain The Good Life. Why, you haven’t even been formally introduced to them! To know them is to become them! Zounds!

      Such people can see that the working class has no future in the US of A, and they fear that some day that pink slip will be delivered to them. Bonding together with others of their economic class is the only option they have left, even if it means allowing Republicans like Kasich to take over the operation of the country club. Don’t want to have to share the contents of the wine cellar when there is only box wine to replace it, so allow the pirates to save us! Yo ho, me hearties!

  2. Glad to hear Eleanor Roosevelt being mentioned. I’ve believed for many years that, while Prof. Richard Wolff is correct in that it took pressure from the coalition of the 2 Socialist parties, the Communist Party and the trade unions to force FDR to install the New Deal, Eleanor was a major force behind it as well. For someone who was born into privilege as FDR was, she had some big family problems which I think garnered her a consciousness (and conscience) that is damn-near nonexistent among the elite.

    It must’ve been a pretty bad family life; she left at a young age for an English girls school which furthered her not only intellectually but consciously as well. Only reason she returned to America was FDR proposed to her, and it seems she was a very unhappy person from the moment she returned to the moment she died, which was a year before JFK was taken out. Upon returning, she traveled the country speaking and meeting with the poor and the struggling to understand what the country was actually like for the vast majority of citizens. I’m sure she brought a lot of this back to FDR, so therefore I credit her with an unofficial influence on the New Deal.
    
Sickening to read these tropes comparing Hillary Clinton to Eleanor. It would be laughable had it not been for liberals buying into this hook, like & sinker. Just shows how gullible the well-read and educated are (and I say this as someone with 2 college degrees), makes you wonder what exactly their learning, what we’re being taught. Which helps go to the point Frank was making about the suburban liberals viewing themselves as moral superior due to their wealth and education.

    I’m also glad to hear a more in-depth discussion of the Confederate South, its culture and politics. I think Frank is right, that had southern Democrats not divided southern whites and southern blacks, thereby preventing a further development of the black/white populist alliance, our country would look drastically different. In spite of the region’s paltry Electoral presence compared to the Northeast or the West Coast, and speaking as one born and raised in the south, I’ve always thought the south somehow holds the rest of the country back. Not to give the north or west a pass, but the south has always had a major influence throughout. In a previous episode of Scheer Intelligence in which Maj. Danny and Oliver Stone were guests, they dipped into the south a bit, with Maj. Danny saying that while the north won the military war in 1865, the south won the cultural war. I think that’s true.

    I’ve always felt that the south has always been largely ignored in the grander national politics (not that it deserves to be praised in any way), and this has allowed the worst aspects of historical American culture to continue almost unabated. While the south has improved drastically since those days, we’re not out of the woods by any measure. With Trump’s election, I can argue that the south regressed a bit. So when Frank said that had a legitimate populist uprising flourished in the south back in the day that this country would have looked far different, I say that’s true but it indicates a much larger point to be made: that the confederate south still to this day has a major influence in politics and in culture that has been ignored.

  3. I subscribe to a social media site for right-wingers, and this morning it was announced they are organizing “The American Populist Party”, apparently as an updated version of the Tea Party. Thanks to the corporate media and its constant conflating of any and every grassroots movement as “populist”, the term has become meaningless.

  4. Social philosophers/historians have long observed the peculiar amerikan character—passive, antagonistic, over-conformist, insecure. Liberals the most fascist. Indeed Richard Sennet observed that it was the liberals that most supported the war in Vietnam. Another Marxist, Christopher Lasch, denied that there has ever been an anti-war movement in US history. He described the protests in the 1960’s as a “fear of death movement”; when military conscription ended, so did protests, yet US genocide in SE Asia continued for 4 more years

  5. Perhaps a minor point, but there was a feeling against many labor unions (the AFL e.g.) in the late 60’s due to their support of the Vietnam war of Johnson and Nixon. The hardhats supported the war and hence antagonized much of the more well-off-liberal but antiwar left.

  6. The interview depicted in the text above is a typical Neo Progressive (as well as conservative/Trumpian) demagogic response to reality: when a fact doesn’t correspond to its ideological decrees and goals, change the fact or propose an alternative one.

    To the topic at hand, the history of populism is almost entirely the history of the rise of authoritarian, often fascistic, and always anti-democratic political trends, regardless of left or right orientation.

    As a matter of fact, two of the deadliest, most abusive regimes to ever rise in human history – communism in Russia and China and fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan – have their roots, origin, and ideological principles in populism, i.e., the claim of direct popular support as the only source of political legitimacy.

    Moreover, the attemp in the pile of demagogic propaganda bile above to rebrand populism as the sole source of democratic legitimacy is particularly cynical when one takes into account the populist rise and ruling of the despotic current US president.

    1. DK if there is a single accurate sentence in this screed. Germany had no populist tradition, under the Kaiser’s Empire moral and political authority was hierarchical. Nor was there anything really populist in Mussolini’s corporatism. The Russian Populist tradition was strong but it was taken up, along with its focus on the communitarian side of the peasantry, by the Social Revolutionary party, not by the Bolsheviks, whose reliance on the small base of industrial workers was both unRussian and un-populist.

  7. “That the Democratic–if they want to stop Trumpism, they have to understand that it’s their own movement toward this meritocratic elite that made Trump possible. They have to reverse that somehow. ”
    Like that’s going to happen. Why is Frank even talking about the Democratic Party? He’s already established that it belongw to the plutocrats – as if the Clintons, Obama, and now the rise of Biden have made plain enough. For such a perceptive guy, it’s strange that he refuses to “get it.” Evidently Scheer has – still a little of “Ramparts” running in his veins.

    Until we break the duopoly, we’ll be stuck right where we are, getting worse. Ultimately, the alternative is violence – and the Right has most of the guns. That’s why I’m still involved in electoral politics, despite getting old and tired: it’s the alternative to violence that would destroy the country and myriad lives, as we’ve seen overseas.

    The Democratic Party is the graveyard where the Left, or any genuine populism, goes to die. We can thank Thomas Frank for underlining that yet again; maybe he should hear himself.

  8. If “The Democratic Party has very much become a vehicle of the aristocracy, of plutocracy,”, what does it make of the Republican party?

    If both are vehicles of the same section of society, why does the text mention only the Democrats, and how does the author account for the polarized differences between Democratic administrations and Republican ones (e.g., Obama’s and Bush’s or Trump’s)?

    The power of presidents is not derived from their wealth but from the mandate they receive in an election. The same is true of Congress. The power of the courts is a derivative of the constitution, not the social status of judges or the size of their properties.

    In short, the reality in the US contradicts the idea of the text above.

    In reality, more than 80 millions voters ousted one of the most dangerous presidents in US history, and while this publication have no respect for the people entrusted with political power, dismissing the near 200 millions who voted in 2020 is not only outrageously arrogant, but extremely insulting as well.

  9. My perception of how the Demok party became a vehicle of aristocracy is that it always was, with dynamic schemes for camouflaging it. And I suspect it as a most relevant fact that authoritarianism has always held as its pinnacle priority to confuse/deceive its victims with such camouflage for as long as humanity had cognitive capacity, and then 10,000 years ago when organized into “civilization”, it only became much more sophisticated and leveraged. Reinventions commenced with the latest manifesting as the American empire taking the whole thing to a record extreme, and hardly a surprise. The good news is the people are learning we can manifest total positivity to a stable, sustaining degree, to finally transcend authoritarianism and all concoctions it may invent.

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