After the Fumble

After the Fumble

Having dominated the Democratic Party for years, the meritocrats now find themselves in a state of crisis.


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.”

Listen, Liberal is actually two books in one: a political history of the Clintons and the professional class they sought to represent, and a cultural history of the ideology that the Democrats have used to justify their abandonment of class politics. This is the ideology of meritocracy, a “progressive” view of social hierarchy in which talent and ability are the natural arbiters of who should rule in a society. Meritocracy, Franks argues, is the ideology that allowed Democrats to self-consciously claim the mantle of social justice and egalitarianism while subverting both. In this framework, one’s race, creed, color, gender, or sexual orientation shouldn’t matter when it comes to achieving success in America; what does matter is having the talent and ability to graduate from a place like Harvard Law. But at the same time, meritocracy demands inequality—not everyone, after all, can go to Harvard Law or become a doctor or a high-tech executive. In fetishizing meritocracy, therefore, the Democratic Party has embraced an ideology based on inequality.

Frank contrasts this ideology with the GOP’s more traditional plutocratic one. In the United States, as elsewhere, having a lot of money gives you power. But this “hierarchy of money,” as he puts it, is rivaled by another: a “hierarchy of merit, learning, and status.” The lawyers, doctors, and academics who compose “the liberal class” (to use the journalist Chris Hedges’s term) have erected their own edifice of power—one that has also come to ignore the interests of working-class people and reproduced structures of extreme racism, particularly in the prison system.

According to Frank, this meritocratic ideal marks a stark break from the origins of the Democratic Party, which was founded as the “party of the people,” in open rebellion against the political and banking elites. But starting in the early 20th century, progressive politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties began to turn to this emerging class of educated elites to help run the country from the top down.

The writer and editor Herbert Croly, who inspired Theodore Roosevelt and helped found the New Republic, as well as left-wing intellectuals like Thorstein Veblen, were instrumental in building an ideology for this progressive aristocracy. Veblen called for an overthrow of the country’s price system, but one led by a monopolistic “Soviet of engineers” rather than the industrial proletariat. If this sounds a bit like the philosophy behind Google, that’s because in many ways it is. Meritocracy offered itself as a fairer alternative to the rapaciousness and inequality of laissez-faire capitalism, but it didn’t just tolerate inequality; it demanded it. “Professionals are,” Frank notes, “life’s officer corps,” and one cannot issue orders without status—in this case, the status conferred by the professional class’s monopoly over education. By the 1970s, he argues, this ideology had become a way of life for Democrats; and today, the professional managerial class has become the party’s lifeblood.

Frank sees the rise of the gospel of meritocracy as a political development and cites a 1971 memo by the super-­lobbyist Fred Dutton, “Changing Sources of Power” (later published as a book), as the origin of its insertion into the modern Democratic Party. With his memo, Dutton sought to extirpate working-class politics from the Democrats and to replace it with the interests of an ascending generation of middle-class voters. The future electoral coalition for the Democrats, he argued, would be an alliance of college graduates, newly liberated women, and empowered black voters. It would oppose a class-based New Deal politics of material things and be poised to look toward a politics of “the psyche” or even “the soul.”

George McGovern attempted to win a presidential election with this coalition, and was smashed in 1972. But the turn against working-class politics nonetheless continued in the years that followed. Jimmy Carter was the first technocratic Democrat to fight the working class. His inflation czar, Alfred Kahn, gleefully talked of destroying the Teamsters, and his Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volck­er, imposed an austerity regime. Abandoned by their former party, the working class moved to the right, looking for a new home in the GOP as Democrats came to disavow the New Deal. This was, as Frank puts it, at least in part a “realignment of choice.”

Some surprising actors appear in this shift of the party’s consensus. Robert Reich, today considered a left-of-center pundit, spent much of his career peddling many of these meritocratic premises and working out the justifications for why this new upper class deserved its increased share of the national wealth. In The Work of Nations, Reich called them the “fortunate fifth” and noted that they were engaged in a secession from the larger American community. But this was seen as a cause for celebration: “Never before in history has opulence on such a scale been gained by people who have earned it, and done so legally,” Reich wrote. He even wondered to The New York Times “whether the traditional union is necessary for the new workplace.”

Reich’s friend Bill Clinton played an even more crucial role in the rise of the meritocrats. Clinton brought all of the party’s factions together with the hope of formulating a new Democratic coalition. He “led the idealistic Sixties generation and he warred with the teachers’ union,” Frank writes; “he smoked dope and he never got high; he savored Fleetwood Mac and he got tough with welfare mothers.” Early in his first term, Clinton was making these meritocratic arguments to blue-collar workers (“what you earn depends on what you can learn”); he believed that education, rather than solidarity, was the key to a better life. In short, if you had problems, such as a foreclosure or a medical bankruptcy, the best way to solve them was to go to school.

The policies that followed from this ideology, Frank argues, were gruesome. NAFTA helped to destroy labor. He also signed a bill preserving the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for those convicted of using crack versus powder cocaine. (Crack and cocaine are chemically similar, but 88 percent of the people arrested for using crack were black.) By signing the 1994 crime bill, Clinton helped the US prison system become “the greatest gulag in the world.” Clinton engaged in a savage attack on welfare that climaxed with the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The Clinton era also saw the sweeping deregulation of many industries, including the telecom, banking, and energy sectors, and Frank details how Clinton worked with the Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security— a deal that was prevented only by the Monica Lewinsky impeachment scandal. Clinton also boasted in his 1996 State of the Union address that his tenure marked the end of the era of big government; and his biographer Martin Walker has gone so far as to say that Clinton finally broke the consensus supporting Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. This could never have been achieved by Republicans; it could only be done by the traditional guardian of these policies: the Democratic Party.

Frank argues that Obama continued this reign of the meritocrats, staffing his administration with “satisfied, conventionally minded people” who were happy to find allies on Wall Street. Experienced in financial engineering, investment bankers were, after all, now part of the hierarchy of knowledge as well as that of capital, and the common interests between the two, Frank writes, explains Obama’s support for bailouts, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Silicon Valley monopolies.

This brings him to Hillary Clinton, a person who was always portrayed by the party as brilliant and accomplished, practical yet idealistic. This portrait, he argues, is a grift. In 1997, for instance, Clinton led a chorus of bankers in singing “We Shall Overcome” to celebrate microlending—a type of financial scam that has had often-devastating consequences for borrowers in the Third World. And a Clinton Foundation event in 2015 found Clinton, Melinda Gates, NGO leaders, a Silicon Valley CEO, and a large number of women from the developing world, celebrating each other’s achievements (at one point, Chelsea Clinton introduced an “inspiring” chocolatier from Trinidad)—all of which leads Frank to conclude that Clinton’s specialty is trafficking in fake virtue to make the wealthy feel better.

In the end, Frank argues, the Democrats need to recognize that their ideology is the problem. By invoking the rhetoric of meritocracy, partnering with financial elites, dismantling much of the welfare state, and ignoring the interests of working-class Americans, they have created a nation that is far more deeply unequal (and also, ironically, one in which it’s harder for them to win elections). “The course of the party and the course of the country can both be changed,” Frank writes, “but only after we understand that the problem is us.”

Steve Fraser’s The Limousine Liberal gives us another gloss on the Democrats’ transition from a majority to minority party. But Fraser shifts the optics: Instead of focusing on the Democrats themselves, he chronicles the history of an image that reactionaries have used for years to go after “elites”: that of the “limousine liberal,” the self-satisfied establishment do-gooder whose condescension creates an “aggrieved sense” among the public. Limousine liberalism as a metaphor, Fraser argues, is the historical glue that binds the 1930s hostility to the New Deal with the anger at “the countercultural and racial reformations of the 1960s.”

Fraser anchors his narrative around John Lindsay, the liberal Republican mayor of New York in the 1960s and early ’70s, and Mario Procaccino, the working-class Democrat who ran against him and coined the term “limousine liberal.” Lindsay, he argues, cared for the elites of New York and the city’s minority communities, but not its white middle and working class. Or as an ironworker told a journalist at the time, “What the hell does Lindsay care about me?… None of these politicians give a good goddamn.” This sentiment became the political kindling for Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, the “Reagan revolution,” and, of course, Donald Trump.

But while Fraser zooms in on the moment of the term’s first use, he also has larger ambitions: a history of such epithets going back to the creation of America’s administrative state and the makings of managerial capitalism. The backlash against liberal elites, Fraser writes, started almost as soon as they emerged on the scene, with populists like William Jennings Bryan picking up on this threat to small-town democracy and workers’ rights.

But while Bryan represented agrarian radicalism, the anti-elite reaction more often came from the right. Henry Ford, for example, was an angry right-wing populist much taken with promoting anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. Ford had a producerist, anti-finance philosophy and, Fraser argues, was the first to conceive of using the idea of a ruling class as a form of cultural subversion. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan picked up the baton, using similar rhetoric about the libertine urban society of the post–World War I Prohibition-era cities (“Jewish jazz”), bathed as they were in speculative excess.

The Limousine Liberal runs through the history of key figures in 20th-century right-wing populism. Fraser discusses the American Liberty League of the 1930s, which was essentially the vehicle for big business’s opposition to the New Deal. According to Roosevelt’s Wall Street foes, “‘that man in the White House’ was ‘morally weak,’ a ‘dupe,’ a ‘cripple,’ a ‘liar,’ a tool of ‘niggers and Jews,’ a megalomaniac dreaming of dictatorship.” Huey Long, Francis Townsend, and William Lemke all fought Roosevelt on populist grounds as well, but often by invoking the image of a coddled elite condescending to do good for the people—and getting it wrong.

As the New Deal was institutionalized, the “limousine liberal” establishment cemented itself into the formal centers of power. New Deal supporters like Averell Harriman, Vincent Astor, Nelson Rocke­feller, and Winthrop Aldrich—all 1 percenters of their era—became the wise men presiding over the administrative state. This elite liberalism crested in the 1950s, when the leader of the conservative Republicans, Robert Taft, mused on how far this vision had penetrated both parties: “[I]f we get Eisenhower we will practically have a Republican New Deal Administration with just as much spending and socialism as under Truman.”

As far back as the founding of the New Deal, leftists were already aware of many of the problems created by an increasingly bureaucratic political system ruled by a small cadre of experts and elites. Dwight Macdonald and C. Wright Mills worried about this emerging “power elite” in the 1940s and ’50s, and many New Left activists pointed to the bureaucratization of American politics in the 1960s. But the most vociferous reactions came from right-wing figures like J. Edgar Hoover, the antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly, and the segregationist George Wallace, who opposed elite liberalism for cultural and ideological reasons, or from bankers and industrialists, who worried that the new state-centered liberal programs threatened their economic interests.

This antiliberal backlash was paired with policies on desegregation and busing, which fell “disproportionately on the poor of both races.” “Hard hats in the Northeast, rednecks in the South, and prospering entrepreneurs in the western Sunbelt…all detested the liberal elite running the country,” Fraser writes. They put their backing behind Goldwater in 1964 and, far more successfully, behind Reagan in 1980. The failure of the ruling class to maintain living standards sealed the right’s ascendancy.

“However counterintuitive the spectacle might seem,” Fraser notes, “during the closing decades of the twentieth century the Republicans made a persuasive case that they had become the party of the people.” He closes his book with a discussion of the new billionaire class, and how men like Trump have exploited this anti-elitist rebelliousness to underwrite their own political dominance. In effect, anti-elitism on the right has almost always been a way of empowering other elites.

Although The Limousine Liberal provides a useful index of populist and right-wing movements, its arguments, unfortunately, are historically muddled. The book frames Franklin Roosevelt as a figure who, had he appeared later, would have been subjected to the charge of limousine liberalism. Yet the anti-elitist aspects in that line of attack had already emerged, as Fraser notes, decades before FDR’s presidency. This points to the larger problem with his book: It fails to make the key point about when the charge of limousine liberalism works—which is to say, when liberals are being hypocritical about their policies. Roosevelt was immune to such attacks because he actually delivered for the working class. But when the charge was leveled against Democrats in the 1970s who were smugly calling (as Alfred Kahn did) for the elimination of labor rights, it did work. Recognizing the differences between the two is critical, especially as the Democratic Party begins, in the coming years, to court those people it has lost to the Republican Party. If the Democrats want to win back white working-class voters, they need to take on big business—and not to argue, as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has done, that big business is the great protector of multiculturalism and liberal ideals.

With that said, what’s surprising about both books is how well they’ve held up after this historic election. Many others written before the fall haven’t fared nearly as well, given that they were anchored in the self-satisfied ideological framework of Obama liberalism. The best example is Jonathan Chait’s Audacity, on the legacy of Obama’s presidency, which was written under the assumption that Clinton would win, and that Obama’s signature programs would prove enormously beneficial and consequential. For Chait, it was simply unthinkable that the American people would reject what Democrats had accomplished and turn to a charlatan like Trump. And yet reject it they did, which left Chait furiously rewriting parts of the book to paper over the Democrats’ deep political and ideological failure. He and many liberals are still struggling to figure out what went wrong—when for others, Frank and Fraser included, it’s been clear for years, with Trump as the price we’ll be paying for more than 25 years of failed Democratic policy-making. The politics embraced by the Clintons was part of a cultural revolution among liberals—one that replaced a New Deal–era understanding of economic and political democracy with an ideology that justified the pillaging of working-class Americans by a new group of political and economic elites.

It has become clear that Trump’s bristling campaign rhetoric against the establishment resonates powerfully with the victims of recent Democratic policies. It also appeals, as Fraser notes, to white nationalists and the oligarchs who have always embraced such rhetoric to peddle populism’s evil twin, autocracy. But the way to defeat these maneuvers isn’t simply by opposing antiestablishment rhetoric. There are different models for opposing Trump over the next four years, and how that opposition is framed—by collaboration or condescension—will determine whether the Democrats return to their roots as a party of the people, or remain a party of the professional elite.

Perhaps the most potent way to understand how this plays out is to study the befuddlement of liberals at Trump’s approach to political economy. Former Clinton Treasury secretary Larry Summers, the epitome of Fraser’s limousine liberalism and Frank’s knowledge hierarchy, has staked out his opposition to Trump’s remarks regarding corporate power. After Trump said that pharmaceutical companies had too many lobbyists and were engaged in price-gouging, Summers argued that his rhetoric was a threat to the rule of law—and after Trump saved some jobs that United Technologies had planned to move to Mexico, Summers asserted that Trump was a threat to capitalism itself. Similarly, Senator Cory Booker testified against Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, one morning in January and then voted against capping pharmaceutical prices (which Trump called for) that evening. Surely this is opposition—but is it opposition from the party of the people?

Debates within the Democratic Party about the best ways to oppose Trump and his destructive policies matter. But the Democrats must also undo the profound damage of the cultural revolution that Clinton wrought and that Obama continued. If this ideological battle isn’t won, then it’s possible that Trump won’t be the last—or, one worries, even the worst—demagogue to come to power in America. Nor, one suspects, in the ensuing years will these be the last books to make that point.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece stated that Bill Clinton signed the bill that instituted the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for those convicted of using crack versus powder cocaine. This fact came from the book under review, Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal, but it is incorrect. While Clinton did sign a bill to preserve the sentencing disparity, it was originally instituted as part of the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986, signed by Ronald Reagan. The piece has been updated to correct the error.

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