Meet the Party of Upper-Middle-Class Liberals

Steven Sherman May 19, 2016

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
By Thomas Frank
Metropolitan Books, 2016

Listen, Liberal, by historian Thomas Frank, makes a major contribution by bringing into focus the base for the neoliberal turn of Bill Clinton and Obama, upper-middle-class professionals. The focus on this group is a far cry from Occupy’s denunciations of “the 1%” or Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric about the “millionaires and billionaires.” Frank’s sociology is richer than that, but the book has one serious weakness, which muddies its understanding of the future.

Frank describes the ideology of professionalism, the belief that credentials demonstrate worth. Liberal professionalism also involves a strong sense of trend-following and often celebrates needless complexity. It is an ideology of expertise over democracy. Frank considers professionals to be “the liberal class.” 

Professionals began to take over the Democratic Party when college-educated liberals succeeded in getting George McGovern nominated in 1972. Dismissive of the concerns of unionized blue-collar workers, who they saw as pro-war, sexist morons, many looked forward to the end of the New Deal. McGovern lost in a landslide, but the unions never returned to the central place they held in the Democratic coalition between the 1930s and the late ’60s. Industrial workers were no longer important; what mattered was to give free rein to those who used their minds and demonstrated their value through their degrees.

From McGovern to Dukakis, the Democrats struggled to put together a majority coalition in presidential elections, with each loss followed by cries that the Democrats needed to move further to the right. Finally, Bill Clinton ended the losing streak. Although Clinton had some economic populist elements in his speeches, he soon learned that the bond markets would not tolerate this. Frustration with the situation turned into an embrace of its logic. Clinton was the Democrat who learned to love Wall Street, which, with its needlessly complex products, was naturally appealing to meritocratic professionals. And so Clinton largely contented himself with enacting more of the neoliberal agenda — NAFTA, welfare reform, deregulation of Wall Street and the crime bill, which accelerated mass incarceration. Liberals did not seem to mind much. Frank witnessed one eruption of union-backed rebellion in 1994, in Decatur, Ill., when three factories struck at once. But this rebellion failed without much notice. 

Obama won the White House amid a profound financial crisis. Yet his instinct was to defend Wall Street, rather than try to tame it. His administration, staffed with the best and brightest from the elite schools, is excoriated by Frank, particularly for failing to attack the banks using anti-trust powers. By 2012, Wall Street nevertheless drifted back toward the Republicans. But the Dems had found new enthusiasts amongst the capitalist class, the wizards of Silicon Valley who pour the old wine of monopolists into new bottles of high-tech rhetoric 

And finally, there is Hillary Clinton. At a Clinton–sponsored conference Frank attends, a variety of women are heard from, but only to affirm the need for women in leadership roles and to celebrate the liberating power of social media. As a conclusion, he suggests it is impossible to either reform the Democrats or revive organized labor. All we can do is strip away the Democrats’ belief in their own righteousness, after which, apparently, “anything becomes possible.”

There is much to admire in this book. Frank is unrelenting in his critique of this meritocracy, which seems oblivious to its manifest failures, such as the way deregulating Wall Street led to financial collapse. But something is missing. 

Opposition from the Streets

After the Decatur uprising, Frank ignores virtually all opposition to the neoliberal Dems from the left. Unmentioned or barely noted struggles include the 1997 UPS strike; the Battle of Seattle; the Nader campaign; the anti-Iraq War movement; the Howard Dean candidacy; immigrant rights protests; the Wisconsin uprising; Occupy Wall Street; the Chicago teachers strike’ the elections of Elizabeth Warren, Kshama Sawant and Bill de Blasio; Fight for $15, and Black Lives Matter. These struggles have been coming much faster and fiercer since OWS broke the dam in 2011, culminating in Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president (apparently under way as Frank was completing Listen, Liberal), which will claim over 10 million votes. 

There is a class divide within the professional class. The professionals who provide the backbone for neoliberalism are upper-middle-class, such as doctors, lawyers and corporate middle managers. They make enough money to be pleased with the current direction of the country. But this group constitutes only a minority of college-educated professionals. There is a larger group, including teachers, nurses, and social workers. This group might be described as “aspiring professionals,” as it is not unrealistic to believe that one might ascend into the upper-middle class. Or they might be described as the “college-educated working class,” to emphasize that they are often the targets of cuts and speed-ups and are sometimes even unable to make a living wage or find secure employment (for example, adjunct professors). 

“Aspiring professionals” captures the dominant consciousness of this group throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Few identified with the unions that were being crushed. When Bill Clinton won, aspiring professionals were relieved to see one of their own reclaim the White House. But things have changed over the last 15 years. Rising health-care costs, increasing college tuition and lousy job markets have robbed many of these professionals of a sense that they can achieve a middle-class livelihood. This has created the grounds for solidarity with a broader working class. This is the context for Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders campaign, as well as the considerable sympathy for Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter. Hillary Clinton has little to offer the “college-educated working class,” even if many will pull the lever for her in November to fend off the Republicans. She may breathe a sigh of relief if she is victorious, but she resembles the cartoon coyote who does not notice the ground has disappeared beneath his feet as he runs off a cliff. At that point, he goes into freefall.

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