Identity Politics and Neoliberalism
Think about how hard fraud would actually be. You'd have to find a dead guy still on the rolls , or a person who had moved out of state, convince someone to commit a felony for a single vote, and then send them in with a fake ID or the ability to accurately forge a signature. In fact an analysis by the conservative Heritage Foundation of more than 3 billion votes cast in US elections dating back to World War Two found just 10 instances of in dash person voter fraud . That is not a typo. They found 10 that's .000000003%.” A presidential Commission created by president Trump and headed by Kris Kobach, the former Kansas Secretary of State who has pressed for strict voter ID laws, spent a year digging for recent examples of in- person voter fraud and came up dry, nothing but a few secondhand rumors."
I (mgw) DID NOT VOTE FOR TRUMP. I AM a white straight male- HOWEVER---
What is being demonstrated by the far left today (2020) is a level of sanctimony that defies all reason. The left has taken the you’re either with us or against us approach, and God help you if you’re against them. If you don’t smile and nod while they scream in your face, you’re a racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, transphobic bigot and you deserve nothing more than to be torn down and destroyed.
The far left is nothing but pure judgment.
And if you happen to be a white, cis, straight male, which is Trump’s base, best of luck to you! Not only are you guilty for your own sins, but you’re also guilty for the sins of your forebears, including slavery and colonialism. So, as Harris puts it, “tear down those statues and bend the fucking knee.”
Crazy begets crazy
What I think we’re watching today is crazy on one side driving crazy on the other. Each side is continually upping the ante of crazy and that’s driving the polarization we’re seeing today. It’s a vicious cycle, but how do we end it?
I recently listened to an interview with Bill Doherty who is the co-founder of an organization called Braver Angels. Braver Angels offers workshops that bring democratic- and conservative-leaning participants together to learn about each other’s political perspectives. Critically, the workshops are structured in a way that allows people to humanize the other side. According to Doherty, he’s seen people walk into these sessions as enemies and leave as best friends.
How does he do it? He gets people to listen to each other. Doherty believes that much of the anger we see in politics comes from people having their perspectives misrepresented by the other side. So, he creates a safe space for people to talk openly and share their stories, and what happens is that everyone gains a better understanding of each other.
Through this process, the participants are able to break down stereotypes and discover that they share common values. So, even when they still disagree — Doherty calls this accurate disagreement — participants leave the sessions with the knowledge that they have more in common with the other side than they ever thought possible. Everyone is more optimistic about the future, as a result.
I think we need more accurate disagreement in our lives. We need to stop writing people off by calling them stupid, racist, homophobic, leftist, communist, right winger, white supremacist because those answers are too easy, too simplistic. People are more complicated and less evil than we give them credit for.
I have always thought of myself as a social capitalist. Umair (below) opens me to ideas and situations that seem to beg deeper scrutiny.
"Tony Blair gave a speech recently in which he made a simple point: identity politics broke the left. Whatever else he was wrong about, he’s dead right about this. It’s a theme I’ve been hammering away at, so let me distill some of my points into a little essay.
I think that we’re seeing the rise of the zombie left. It staggers around. It attacks everything in sight, slavering and screaming. It forms herds, which go in circles, forever starving for a kind of narcissistic self-satiation. And the end result of all this is that accomplishes…less than nothing. It’s easy to see.
I call that zombie left the alt-left, too. Like the alt-right, it took over, through hostility, aggression, rage, bullying, and intimidation, and made extremist stances on fringe issues the be-all and end-all. It’s made of people who’ll fight you aggressively and viciously over things like gender free bathrooms or pronouns for rich Westerners…but don’t know the simple fact that four billion people in the world live without decent sanitation and two billion without decent food….and don’t care, either.
So let me begin with a simple observation — one personal, and one factual.
It’s absolutely weird and bizarre to those of us from genuinely collapsed societies, who’ve lived through things like genocide, torture, war, violence in all its gruesome and horrific forms, social breakdown in all its terror and panic…that the left is obsessed with juvenile comic-book sexual politics fit for an 18 year old student politician, a narcissistic Instagram wielding teenager, or both. My pronouns or your life! I care more about how intersectional Captain America and the Kardashians are than how many people in the world don’t have enough food, water, money, or medicine! Wait…what the?
Go ahead, ask your friends. Ask someone from Iraq or the Congo or Pakistan if they think that identity politics matter more than, say, world peace, ending violence and hunger and poverty, giving every child on planet earth and education. They will look at you like you are crazy. Those who have lived through the horrors of fascism and authoritarianism will tell you that such a left has lost its mind, soul, heart, and way. And they are right. Because identity politics are exactly the things that ripped their societies apart. Because there are greater and truer things a left must stand for, if it is to exist at all. They know this truth intimately. I’ll come to all that.
It’s easy to see empirically that identity politics broke the left. It’s exactly in the two societies in which the left became obsessed with identity politics that it’s suffered stunning and terrible defeats. Jeremy Corbyn lost the most crucial election of a lifetime by a landslide, and the Dems have been unable to fight American authoritarianism in any real or significant way. Meanwhile, in places where the left hasn’t been totally consumed by issues of identity — like much of Europe — it has managed to hold its own. That’s no mean feat in a time of worldwide economic stagnation, which predicts hard-right swings everywhere. The trend, the relationship — identity politics breaks the left — is self-evident for those with eyes to see. But how many have eyes to see?
Do you remember what the aspirations of the thing called the left once used to be? How vast and towering they once were? Blair said something important in his speech. He spoke of minds like Keynes, Beveridge, Attlee, Bevan — and the need to remember their lessons. You see, these minds are the closest thing we have in our broken mess of history, at least as Anglos, to great ones. Their lessons should be learned by every single one of us — because these minds did things as beautiful as they were revolutionary.
Keynes understood poverty causes fascism, and depression is caused by underinvestment. As a result, ending poverty and war, forever, across the world, became aspirations of the left. Yes, really.
Beveridge and Attlee laid down the idea of a modern society, with expansive public goods for all. As a result, expanding a social contract to forever be richer became an aspiration of the left — there was to be no more want for basics in society, ever again: that was the first priority of ALL politics.
Then of course there was Marx, who was the grandfather of all these thinkers, speaking of a world without exploitation and violence.
How often do you hear such aspirations today? Ever? If I speak about them, say on Twitter, here’s what happens — from self-described “leftists.” I get cynically laughed at. I get taunted and mocked for being “unrealistic.” Or I get angrily told off for being PC enough. I get told that the things that really matter are gender free bathrooms and pronouns and whatnot — usually in a threatening and aggressive way.
Let’s do a little quiz. I’d bet you can name plenty of modern theorists of gender or sexuality or intersectionality and so on. How many of the minds above — and their lessons — did you know? A single one? A left like that isn’t a left at all. I call it an “alt-left.” Why is it that you can probably recite abstruse theories and jargon to me about fashionable gender and sexuality this-and-that — but not know the minds responsible for massively transforming our history, societies, modernizing them, who sparked decades of progress, a revolution in civilization? How come you don’t even really know that story? What on earth? Don’t you think there’s something wrong with all that? I do.
You don’t know them because the left has forgotten its history. That is the first way identity politics broke the left: it stole its memory. So today there’s a generation or two of self-described “leftists” who can speak the latest fashionable jargon around gender and sexuality, and chide you for not doing it — how “asexual” differs from “aromantic” — but can’t tell me what Keynes’s fundamental point was. And that is because nobody, really, teaches this history anymore. The history of the left, according to the self-described “radical” professors who teach it now, begins in the 1980s, with gender and sexuality — not, say, in the 1850s, with Marx, or in the 1950s, with Keynes. What on earth? If you are the one erasing your very own history…what can you win? Who can you fight?
Now, reciting jargon about gender and sexuality, and worse, being hostile to people who don’t, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t make anyone a leftist — it just makes them, all too often, to put it plainly, a narcissist. Why? Because the people consumed with this stuff about gender and so forth — or intersectionality and so on — are usually the ones also affected by it. That’s OK — but it’s just sticking up for your own tribe. Not anything beyond that. Keynes, Or Marx, by contrast, was concerned with the world, in the largest possible way — not just themselves. Do you see the difference? It’s about putting yourself, and your own tribe, first — versus everyone, the world, your society, the planet, and so on.
There’s a link there. The narcissist needs to think he’s the only one who’s pain and suffering matters. History, therefore, doesn’t exist. Ever tried to be nice to a narcissist? Doesn’t matter — they don’t remember. The left ended up the same way: narcissism made it forget. It literally doesn’t remember the first thing about itself anymore. And in that way, it became a zombie.
That brings me to my second way that identity politics broke the left: they shattered its mind. If I ask the average self-described leftist in our societies today: “What do you think the outer limit of human suffering is?”, they’ll probably tell me things like being “misgendered”, or having to use the wrong bathroom, or being called the wrong pronoun. They’ll tell me how terrible all that is, and how we need to stop it, and so forth. They won’t point to, for example, the war orphan whose seen his family die, the survivor of mass rape, or the whole clan that perished in a genocide. What the?
No one — and I mean no one — with vaguely adult priorities should or will agree that the one being called the wrong pronoun suffers more than the war orphan or the mass rape survivor. Nor should they. Sure, you might say so — but anyone who’s a grown up will simply roll their eyes and walk away. That is exactly what happened to much of the left. It alienated the rest of us, who don’t really believe in these increasingly outlandish and childish theories — nor the hostility and aggression with which they’re forced on us.
Let me put that more formally. Identity politics made it impossible for the left to have a functioning theory of human suffering. When you tell me that a gender pronoun deserves more attention than a genocide…I can only pity you. What it tells me above all is about your narcissism and ignorance. Have you ever met a woman who’s had acid thrown in her face because she was “dishonourable”? Who’s tried to kill herself because her family disowned her, and her society rejected her, and there’s nothing left for her? I have. To equate that agony, that torment, that complete murder of a human soul…with gender pronouns…that, my friends, isn’t just shameful and humiliating — it’s foolish. It’s an intellectual mistake.
Because without a functioning, grown-up theory of human suffering, the left has nowhere to go. What can it fight for? And yet because it’s told, over and over, by an aggressive fringe that gender pronouns and sexual tickboxes are indeed the limit of human suffering…what can it care about those kids in camps? About the billion or so who still live in slavery? About a world where half a planet still lives without decent sanitation and food and water? What the? Perhaps you see my point. A theory of human suffering grounds the left in global aspirations, visions, agendas, pursuits. But it doesn’t have any of those today — because the only kind of suffering it sees anymore are narcissistic, juvenile, identitarian ones. My pronoun hurts more than your genocide! Wait — what the?
That brings me to my next point. Why doesn’t the left have a theory of human suffering that works remotely at an adult level of reality anymore? Because identity politics created sectarian internecine warfare: every tribe is out for itself. There’s one tribe, saying it’s suffering is the greatest. There’s another, crying, no, it has suffered the most. There’s yet another, shouting that it’s been through even more. None of them, though, are victims of starvation, war crimes, or true poverty. When all of these…not-very-oppressed tribes…are competing to be…the most oppressed — what can they unify around? What is there to form a sociopolitical coalition for? How can any coalition form at all?
Let me put that more formally, too. Identity politics broke the left’s body — it cost it universalism. When all that matters is my group, my clan, my tribe, and it’s suffering — then nothing can be accomplished for all of us. But then the left has nothing left to achieve, really. Remember how Attlee and Beveridge laid down the foundations of a modern society — a fact you probably didn’t know? They couldn’t have done it if they were obsessed with which group or tribe has suffered most. Their aim was simpler, nobler, and wiser — to create societies in which everyone has basics. Healthcare, education, retirement, income, and so on. In which public goods are enjoyed universally.
The left has notably failed to expand universal public goods precisely because identity politics make it impossible to do so. There’s no reason to even try much for universals really — and so the left has simply given up in many ways. Yes, really. Bernie wants to “expand” Medicare — not create an American National Health Service that directly employs millions of doctors and nurses. There’s a world of difference. Do you see how the left gave up on universal public goods? Why did that happen?
That brings me to the next way identity politics broke the left. They destroyed its soul. Let me put that more formally. Identity politics cost the left humanism. Around the time that Beveridge and Attlee were laying down the foundations of a modern society, after Keynes had discussed why to do so economically, there was another great breakthrough on the left. This one, in Europe. Thinkers like Camus and Sartre and de Beauvoir crafted a whole new philosophy, that was to come to be known as humanism. The idea was simple: as human beings we all deserve dignity, respect, inherent worth, because we are all in profound and terrible pain, just by being alive. The pain of being mortal, helpless, fragile — it consumes us. Therefore, we must support each other as much as we can.
That single idea shaped all — all — of European social democracy, so powerful and beautiful was it. It’s so powerful that in France, still, there’s the idea of “laicite” —loosely, you’re a human being first, then French, then whatever ethnicity you might happen to be. Exactly the opposite from America, where I’d be called an Indian-American or whatnot.
Now think about identity politics. To it, we’re human beings last — if at all. First, we’re the sum of our tribal affiliations, which center on bodily pleasure. To identity politics, I’m a “cis straight disabled brown male bodied person assigned male at birth.” What the? Where does my humanity enter that picture? Me? The answer is: nowhere. That’s just a description of what a certain kind of person thinks of one part of me — my body, my sexuality, my appetites — but it has little to do with who I actually am. It doesn’t say how empathic, kind, generous, wise, brave — or cruel, nasty, stupid, and mean — I might be. It’s just tickboxes about pleasure.
When we describe one another that way — as the sum of our bodily appetites — what happens? We dehumanize each other. We’ve done the right’s work for it. Because we fail to see one another as human beings at all, precisely since our humanity comes last. I stop caring about your capacities for empathy, grace, beauty, love, because I can’t see them to begin with. You are just an object to me. Probably, because you are “cis” and this-bodied or that, you are not like me. All we see is the surface, the visible elements of us that are easy to categorize and sort. We become superficial. Obsessed with such labels. We sort ourselves into little tribes around them. We become attached to them. And that is why we attack, viciously, people who say there might be something more worthwhile, truer, or deeper to being on this thing called “the left” than our own narrow pleasure — we end up infantilized, attached to our own egoistic self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction, terrified of what might happen if we can’t have them, just like babies throwing tantrums.
Hence, the endless raging Twitter mobs of the left, attacking…their very own side. What happens, on the left, when even a tiny bit of all that’s pointed out? Well, the identitarian fringe tends to sic its attack mobs on you. In other words, the left attacks itself. I might support public healthcare and education and childcare and the whole nine yards of modern social democracy — but dare to disagree about gender pronouns, and bang! You’re the enemy. What the? You can’t build a political movement like that. You cannot accomplish anything meaningful by attacking your very own side over the purity of extremist beliefs about my infantile narcissism versus yours. My pronoun hurts more than a genocide! Believe me! Or else…you’re the worst person in the world! Perhaps you see what I mean by infantilization and tantrums.
That’s not to say gender pronouns and whatnot are wrong or bad. They’re good and it’s progress. But it’s not nearly equivalent to calling for the billion people who still starve to have food. None of this stuff — sexual politics, gender politics, how intersectional this or that is — has much if anything at all do with being on “the left.” Being on “the left” is about issues that affect the whole world, and always have, not just you: hunger, thirst, exploitation, violence, cruelty, dehumanization, enslavement. Your gender pronoun or your misunderstood sexual identity is an example, that might be true, but it’s a very, very small one, in perspective —remember my example of women who suffer acid attacks? — and it doesn’t give you the right to become obsessed to the point of self-absorption with it, and treat the whole world’s pain like it never mattered as a result, being hostile and aggressive and demeaning to anyone who dares to “disagree” with what’s effectively just your narcissism. That is what I mean by zombie leftism.
Identity politics are, seen correctly, the province of the right. That’s because they’re the foundational belief of the right. I’m just my tribal affiliation. I’m just my place within the tribe. It’s every tribe against every other tribe. We have nothing in common. I’ve suffered more than you, therefore you are my persecutor and oppressor. This is the stuff that textbook, classic conservatism is made of.
I’m sure you remember, like most of us, that one guy in college for whom nothing was ever “left enough”, and so everyone would get harangued and hectored and demeaned. That’s the alt-left, in a nutshell. The ironic truth, though, is that alt-leftism has no place — none whatsoever — on the left, because it’s a form of extreme conservatism…which is why, unsurprisingly, it broke the left as a political coalition of any strength. I’m sorry to say, but many have learned politics backwards. To be on the left is to be for universals — like healthcare and education for every child on planet earth, not to mention your society. For humanity — which means not just “all of us”, but “all that we are.” For progress and civilization as a planet, not just pronouns for you.
Many won’t like my lecture. They’ll react to it with anger, rage, hostility, and above all, fear. If you take away my label, what am I? If I’m not just my tribe of people with special names, what am I? If I’m not extra special and deserving of everyone’s attention, forever, because my pain counts the most, what am I? You are just you. You have never needed to be anything more. You are better than all this, my friend. And the world needs you to be that you, too. The question is whether you know that or not."
Author Thomas Frank predicted the modern culture war, and he was right about Donald Trump, but don’t expect political leaders to pay attention to his new book about populism
|Matt Taibbi||Aug 2|
The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism
Thomas Frank is one of America’s more skillful writers, an expert practitioner of a genre one might call historical journalism – ironic, because no recent media figure has been more negatively affected by historical change. Frank became a star during a time of intense curiosity about the reasons behind our worsening culture war, and now publishes a terrific book, The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, at a time when people are mostly done thinking about what divides us, gearing up to fight instead.
Frank published What’s the Matter with Kansas? in 2004, at the height of the George W. Bush presidency. The Iraq War was already looking like a disaster, but the Democratic Party was helpless to take advantage, a fact the opinion-shaping class on the coasts found puzzling. Blue-staters felt sure they’d conquered the electoral failure problem in the nineties, when a combination of Bill Clinton’s Arkansas twang, policy pandering (a middle-class tax cut!) and a heavy dose of unsubtle race politics (e.g. ending welfare “as we know it”) appeared to cut the heart out of the Republican “Southern strategy.”
Yet Clinton’s chosen successor Al Gore flopped, the party’s latest Kennedy wannabe, John Kerry, did worse, and by the mid-2000s, Bushian conservatism was culturally ascendant, despite obvious failures. Every gathering of self-described liberals back then devolved into the same sad-faced anthropological speculation about Republicans: “Why do they vote against their own interests?”
Frank, a Midwesterner and one of the last exemplars of a media tradition that saw staying in touch with the thinking of the general population as a virtue, was not puzzled. What’s the Matter with Kansas? was framed as an effort to answer that liberal cocktail-party conundrum – “How could anyone who’s ever worked for someone vote Republican?” was the version Frank described hearing – and the answer, at least on the surface, was appealing to coastal intellectuals.
Frank explained the Republican voter had thrown support to the Republicans’ pro-corporate economic message in exchange for solidarity on cultural issues, as part of what he called the “Great Backlash”:
While earlier forms of conservatism emphasized fiscal sobriety, the backlash mobilizes voters with explosive social issues—summoning public outrage over everything from busing to un-Christian art—which it then marries to pro-business economic policies.
What’s the Matter with Kansas? was about more than that, but for the chattering classes, this thesis was enough. What they heard was that the electorally self-harming white Republican voter from poor regions like the High Plains was motivated not by reason, but by racial animus and Christian superstition.
For a certain kind of blue-state media consumer, and especially for Democratic Party politicians, this was a huge relief, the political version of Sean’s hug-it-out message to Will Hunting:
A reader looking back at that book will note Frank also predicted political disasters that would later befall Democrats, and outlined the thesis of his current book The People, No, which will probably suffer financially for being pretty much the opposite of “All this shit, it’s not your fault.”
The Kansas title alone spoke to one of Frank’s central observations: while red state voters might frame objections in terms of issues like abortion or busing, in a broader sense the Republican voter is recoiling from urban liberal condescension.
That Democrats needed Thomas Frank to tell them what conservatives fifteen miles outside the cities were thinking was damning in itself. Even worse was the basically unbroken string of insults emanating from pop culture (including from magazines like Rolling Stone: I (Matt Taibbi) was very guilty of this) describing life between the cities as a prole horror peopled by obese, Bible-thumping dolts who couldn’t navigate a Thai menu and polished gun lockers instead of reading.
Republicans may have controlled government at the time, but when they turned on TV sets or looked up at movie screens, their voters felt accused of something just for living in little towns, raising kids, and visiting church on Sundays. What’s the matter, they were asking, with that?
As Frank and basically anyone who’d been to an antiwar meeting knew, actual liberals in the Bush era were “an assortment of complainers – for the most part impoverished complainers – who wield about as much influence over American politics as the cashier at Home Depot.” In those circles, the union member was still revered, and the villain in small towns was a GM or Cargill executive, whose assaults on factory workers and family farmers of all races were central to the story of America’s decline.
Still, by the Bush years something had gone terribly wrong, in liberalism’s effort to reach small-town America:
Liberalism may not be the monstrous, all-powerful conspiracy that conservatives make it out to be, but its failings are clear nonetheless. Somewhere in the last four decades liberalism ceased to be relevant to huge portions of its traditional constituency, and we can say that liberalism lost places like Shawnee and Wichita with as much accuracy as we can point out that conservatism won them over.
Frank ripped the political strategy of Clinton Democrats, who removed economic issues from their platform as they commenced accepting gobs of Wall Street money in a post-Mondale effort to compete with Republicans on fundraising. Gambling that working-class voters would keep voting blue because “Democrats will always be marginally better on economic issues,” New Democrats stopped targeting blue-collar voters and switched rhetorical emphasis to “affluent, white collar professionals who are liberal on social issues.”
The move seemed smart. This was the go-go eighties, we were all Material Girls (for whom the boy with the cold hard cash was always Mr. Right), and as Frank put it, “What politician in this success-loving country really wants to be the voice of poor people?”
While Clinton Democrats were perfecting a new image of urban cool, opponents were honing a new approach:
Republicans, meanwhile, were industriously fabricating their own class-based language of the right, and while they made their populist appeal to blue-collar voters, Democrats were giving those same voters—their traditional base—the big brush-off…
The news media and Hollywood shifted accordingly. Working-class voices disappeared from the press and earnest movies like Norma Rae and The China Syndrome gave way to a new brand of upper-class messaging that reveled in imperious sneering and weird culture-war provocations:
In an America where the chief sources of one’s ideas about life’s possibilities are TV and the movies, it’s not hard to be convinced that we inhabit a liberal-dominated world: feminist cartoons for ten-year-olds are followed by commercials for nonconformist deodorants; entire families of movies are organized around some transcendent dick joke…
In Frank’s home state of Kansas, voters reacted by moving right as the triumvirate of news media, pop culture, and Democratic politics spoke to them less and less. “The state,” he wrote, “watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year.”
Perceiving correctly that there would be no natural brake on this phenomenon, since the executive set was able to pay itself more and more as the country grew more divided, Frank wondered, “Why shouldn’t our culture just get worse and worse, if making it worse will only cause the people who worsen it to grow wealthier and wealthier?”
We have the answer to that now, don’t we?
When I was first sent out to cover the Donald Trump campaign years later, I assumed the editorial concept would be simple: mockery. New York’s infamous “short-fingered vulgarian” had taken over national headlines in the summer of 2015 with a foul-mouthed stream-of-consciousness rap, organized around an impossible Pharaonic wall project and scare tales about rape-happy Mexicans – the Diceman doing Pat Buchanan. If this was taking over the Republican Party, there wasn’t much to report. The enterprise was doomed, and journalism’s only mission was to make sure the silliest bits were captured before being buried under the sands of history.
Twenty minutes into my first Trump campaign event, I knew this was wrong, and was seized by a sinking feeling that really hasn’t left since. Trump in person sounded like he’d been convinced to run for president after reading What’s the Matter with Kansas? His stump act seemed tailored to take advantage of the gigantic market opportunity Democrats had created, and which Frank described. He ranted about immigrants, women, the disabled, and other groups, sure, but also about NAFTA, NATO, the TPP, big Pharma, military contracting, and a long list of other issues.
In 2016, it was clear only a few people in the lefty media world understood what Trump was up to, and why he was a real threat to win. Michael Moore was one, and Frank was another. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both were Midwesterners. Frank released his next book, Listen, Liberal, in May of 2016, just as Trump was seizing the nomination. It began with the following observation:
In the summer of 2014, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average hitting all-time highs, a poll showed that nearly three-quarters of the American public thought the economy was still in recession—because for them, it was.
He noted that workers’ share of GDP hit the lowest levels in American history in 2011 and stayed there, as inequities stemming from the Obama “recovery” became a “quasi-permanent development.”
Most of the press lived in a different America, though, and saw Frank’s warning as annoying, repetitive whining. Cocky reviewers at places like the New York Times bemoaned the book’s “pessimistic note” and berated him for seeing the “uneven recovery” of the Obama years as “a tragedy rather than a triumph.” Listen to what? Hadn’t he read the latest polls? Didn’t he know the rout was on?
(It should be noted that new Times reviews of books this week by Robert Reich and Zephyr Teachout, under the familiar headline, “Why the Working Class Votes Against Its Economic Interests,” are similarly snooty in telling both to “temper their anti-corporate zeal” in this election year. Very little learning takes place at these institutions).
After Trump’s election in November 2016, the first instinct of everyone wandering amid the smoldering wreckage of Democratic Party politics should have been to look in all directions for anyone with an explanation for what the hell just happened.
Of course the opposite took place. Frank seemed to be put into deep-freeze after Listen, Liberal, largely I think because he was telling a truth no one wanted to hear about the difference between the way the New York Times saw America, and how, say, Iowans or Nebraskans saw it. Trump meanwhile constructed his argument for the presidency atop that difference, and is still doing it today.
Also: the word, “populism,” became a synonym for plague or menace. Post-Trump and post-Brexit, pundits tended to use the term in tandem with other epithets, e.g. the “populist threat.” For Frank, a liberal intellectual whose breathless admiration for the actual Populist movement of the 1890s had been a running theme across two decades, this must have stung.
He responded by plunging into a history of Populism that probably began as quaint nostalgia but quickly turned into something else: a portrait of anti-Populism. The People, No documents the furious elite propaganda response to bottom-up political movements that has recurred in uncannily similar fashion at key moments across nearly a century and a half of American history, and is firing with particular venom today.
The Populists were a third-party movement that popped into view in the late 1800s in response to the excesses of monopoly capitalism. It centered around regulation of railroads, currency reform, federal loans to farmers, and other issues. In a development that particularly frightened the very wealthy at the time, it sought and secured alliances with Black farmers. Proving the concept of breaking the political and economic monopoly of New York elites with sheer voter energy was almost more important than the individual issues.
A sort-of populist, William Jennings Bryan, became the Democratic nominee in 1896, only to be slaughtered by a mediocrity named William McKinley. The Republican was backed by mountains of corporate money and the dirty-pool genius of his campaign “generalissimo,” Mark Hanna (whose media-dominating, cash-gobbling wizardry in suppressing voter preference ironically made him the hero of Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove). Mountains of propaganda depicted populists as diseased demons, unshaven slayers of American virtue:
In many popular histories, including Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, the Populists are depicted as failures, crushed by almighty capital after selling out to make alliances with Democrats. But many of their ideas were implemented after the 1929 crash. Frank writes in detail how the same corporate messengers scrambled to defame Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 with an 1896-style anti-Populist attack.
F.D.R. himself was a genteel aristocrat, but battered as a Russian agent – one Chicago Tribune cartoon showed his hands covered with the “red jam of Moscow” – and his followers were described as a mob of “sentimentalists and demagogues” who wanted to “take away from the thrifty what the thrifty or their ancestors have accumulated.” His followers were “people of low mentality” who backed policies that were the “laughingstock of the leading monetary authorities of the world.” This campaign, which should sound familiar, failed over and over, as F.D.R. retained broad support and populism even became culturally dominant in the thirties and early forties, through the films of people like Orson Welles and Frank Capra.
It wasn’t until after World War II that the more effective version of anti-Populist messaging was developed, as Frank writes:
Now anti-populism was taken up by a new elite, a liberal elite that was led by a handful of thinkers at prestigious universities … In short, the highly educated learned to deplore working-class movements for their bigotry, their refusal of modernity, and their borderline madness.
The new conception of populism, as popularized by historians like Richard Hofstadter, pitted the common run of voters against a growing class of elite-educated managerial professionals, philosopher-kings who set correct policy for the ignorant masses.
The model of enlightened government for this new “technocratic” class of “consensus thinkers” was John Kennedy’s “Camelot” cabinet of Experts in Shirtsleeves, with Robert McNamara’s corporatized Pentagon their Shining Bureaucracy on a Hill. This vision of ideal democracy has dominated mainstream press discourse for almost seventy years.
Since the establishment of this template, Frank notes, “virtually everyone who writes on the subject agrees that populism is ‘anti-pluralist,’ by which they mean that it is racist or sexist or discriminatory in some way… Populism’s hatred for ‘the elite,’ meanwhile, is thought to be merely a fig leaf for this ugly intolerance.”
Trump and Bernie Sanders both got hit with every cliché described in Frank’s book. Both were depicted as xenophobic, bigoted, emotion-laden, resistant to modernity, susceptible to foreign influence, and captured by “unrealistic” ideas they lacked the expertise to implement.
At the conclusion of The People, No, Frank sums up the book’s obvious subtext, seeming almost to apologize for its implications:
My point here is not to suggest that Trump is a “very stable genius,” as he likes to say, or that he led a genuine populist insurgency; in my opinion, he isn’t and he didn’t. What I mean to show is that the message of anti-populism is the same as ever: the lower orders, it insists, are driven by irrationality, bigotry, authoritarianism, and hate; democracy is a problem because it gives such people a voice. The difference today is that enlightened liberals are the ones mouthing this age-old anti-populist catechism.
The People, No is more an endorsement of 1896-style populism as a political solution to our current dilemma than it is a diatribe against an arrogant political elite. The book reads this way in part because Frank is a cheery personality whose polemical style tends to accentuate the positive. In my hands this material would lead to a darker place faster — it’s infuriating, especially in what it says about the last four years of “consensus” propaganda, in particular the most recent iteration.
The book’s concept also reflects the Sovietish reality of post-Trump media, which is now dotted with so many perilous taboos that it sometimes seems there’s no way to get audiences to see certain truths except indirectly, or via metaphor. The average blue-state media consumer by 2020 has ingested so much propaganda about Trump (and Sanders, for that matter) that he or she will be almost immune to the damning narratives in this book. Protesting, “But Trump is a racist,” they won’t see the real point – that these furious propaganda campaigns that have been repeated almost word for word dating back to the 1890s are aimed at voters, not politicians.
In the eighties and nineties, TV producers and newspaper editors established the ironclad rule of never showing audiences pictures of urban poverty, unless it was being chased by cops. In the 2010s the press began to cartoonize the “white working class” in a distantly similar way.
This began before Trump. As Bernie Sanders told Rolling Stone after the 2016 election, when the small-town American saw himself or herself on TV, it was always “a caricature. Some idiot. Or maybe some criminal, some white working-class guy who has just stabbed three people.” These caricatures drove a lot of voters toward Trump, especially when he began telling enormous crowds that the lying media was full of liars who lied about everything.
After 2016 it became axiomatic that the Trump voter, or the Leave voter, was – without exception now – a crazed, racist monster. As detailed here multiple times, ruminations on Republican voter behaviors became not merely uninteresting to pundits after November 2016, but actively taboo. By 2020, the official answer to What’s the Matter with Kansas? was Kansas is a White Supremacist Project and Can Go Fuck Itself.
Frank in 2004 wrote about how confused Midwestern voters were, watching TV images of the beautiful people of the time. Movie stars and hedge-funders donned ribbons in support of animals or the “underprivileged,” while spending huge sums on pictures of Jesus covered in ants or on crucifix-shaped popsicles that supposedly were comments on “fanaticism and violence.” This, while factory towns were basically being moved en masse to China.
Imagine the reaction in these places now, to editorials in the New York Times instructing white liberals to cut off their relatives (by text, incidentally) until they donate to "Black Lives Matter", or a CNN tweet instructing “individuals with a cervix” to start getting cancer screens at age 25, or to widespread denunciations of Mount Rushmore as a “monument of two slaveholders” when visited by Trump, after those same outlets praised its “majesty” just four years earlier.
These stories are as incomprehensible to Middle America as the pictures of MAGA fanatics going maskless and dying of Covid-19 to own the libs are to blue-state audiences. Yet both groups are bombarded with images of their opposite extremes, with predictable results: we all hate each other.
It’s no accident that the consensus press pumping out these messages spent the last four years denouncing Sanders – whose campaign was a polite promise to restore New Deal values for everyone, Republicans included – as far too radical for America.
Once Sanders was out of the way, those same news outlets embraced a significantly more radical ideology, one that swore a lot, described everyone to the right of Ibram Kendi as a white supremacist, and told small business owners they should put up with their stores being smashed for the cause of progress.
The history outlined in The People, No predicts this. America’s financial and political establishment has always been most terrified of an inclusive underclass movement. So it evangelizes a bizarre transgressive politics that tells white conservatives to fuck themselves and embraces a leftist sub-theology that preaches class as a racist canard. Same old game, same old goal: keep people divided. The only cost to the “consensus thinkers” who will likely re-take the White House under Joe Biden is, they will have to join Nike and Bank of America in flying a “Black Lives Matter” banner above a conference room or two as they re-take their seats at the controls of the S.S. Neoliberalism.
Frank was never a David Broder type, preaching airy centrism and celebrating phony “bipartisanship.” Instead his books, which filled a vacuum created by the disappearance/expulsion of working-class writers like Mike Royko (Mike White’s former business partner’s uncle) or Studs Terkel, said conservative Middle America was worth understanding, and there was overlap between its concerns and those of the frustrated, oft-impoverished complainers who were the Democrats’ base.
Frank insisted there was both a danger in ignoring those shared concerns, and a huge potential benefit in addressing them. Fifteen years ago, that was an acceptable topic for elite discussion. In the Trump era it’s heresy, and even an eloquently-argued warning like The People, No will likely be denounced, as too much like paying attention to deplorables.
Note: Katie Halper and I have interviewed Thomas Frank for Useful Idiots, an episode that will be released Friday, August 7
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