Donald Trump is hated by large swaths of the country. Yet despite this fact, he is now president, and in the process of undoing the work of Barack Obama, a man whose elegance and intelligence rival that of any American president in the last 50 years. The results of the election have left liberals and Democrats scrounging for explanations—often those that don’t require accepting their share of the blame for one of the greatest electoral upsets in American history. According to some, it was Putin’s meddling in the election. Others point to a press that has been hostile to Hillary Clinton for decades; or to the various strains of racism and sexism in America that Trump exploited; or to the Republicans’ scorched-earth strategy against Obama, obstructing his policies and political appointments; or to the Electoral College, since Clinton won the popular vote by several million.
As with any complex event, there is no single cause for Trump’s election. But what is clear is that the Democratic Party revealed much deeper weaknesses in its foundations. The collapse of the party in most states, and the weakness of the center-left globally, underscores a larger ideological problem: a crisis not only of policies but of the theories justifying them.
Two books published before the election—Steve Fraser’s The Limousine Liberal and Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal—issued prescient warnings of this crisis and offer some clues as to the ideological problem facing the Democrats. Fraser’s book examines the 20th-century right-wing populists who attacked liberalism using a frame similar to Trump’s. Frank argues that the Democratic Party has become a group of coddled elites who have embraced the ideology of meritocracy and the inequality and injustice that come with it. In Frank’s attempt to shatter the delusions of Democratic partisans concerning what their party has become, he also offers some hope for a populist organizing model that the Democrats would be wise to adopt in the future.
A historian by training and a founder of the magazine The Baffler, Frank has long skewered the cultural assumptions of the liberal professional class and its relationship with big business. At the height of the dot-com boom in 2001, he published One Market Under God, an analysis of what he called “market populism”: the use of democratic rhetoric to argue on behalf of markets and against democratic governance itself. But it was his subsequent book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, that finally caught the attention of many of his intended targets.
In What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Frank sets out to examine why middle-class Republicans vote against their own self-interest, and argues that the Republican Party has cunningly exploited explosive social issues like abortion. The book was published in 2004, at the height of the Bush presidency, and spent 18 weeks on the best-seller list; Frank followed it up with The Wrecking Crew and Pity the Billionaire, books that turned their attention away from Middle America’s voters to the Republican operators and financial elites that benefited from their votes.
While many Democrats absorbed his analysis of the conservative movement, it appears they ignored another message in Frank’s books: that the Democrats themselves had abandoned heartland voters by ridding the party of its traditional class politics. In Listen, Liberal, Frank poses this challenge directly. He begins the book with an indictment: “There are consequences to excessive hope, just as there are to other forms of intemperance.” While the Republicans are the party of the plutocrats, they succeed only because of the Democratic Party’s stark failures. These failures, Frank says to his fellow Democrats, are “ours,” and “it’s time to own up.”