Interview with Tom Frank
I was struck by what seemed to be a large number of logical contradictions. See what you think:
Tom Frank's book, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" is a brilliant analysis of the political impact of the culture wars. On Nov. 3 many progressives were left shaking our heads and asking ourselves, "What's the matter with America?"
The 2004 elections confirmed Frank's analysis of backlash politics. In
red states across the nation, working class Americans put their social values ahead of their economic well-being and voted for George Bush. It wasn't the economy, stupid! It was god [lower case in original], guns, and, of course, gays.
So what now? The reality of the culture wars is daunting because
the Democratic Party leadership, which shows no sign of breaking the decades-long habit of responding to defeat with abject submission. [Guess I missed all that previous 'submission.'] Having already moved to the right on economic issues, the party seems ready to don the mask of social conservatism--as in the appointment of an anti-abortion Harry Reid as Senate Minority leader--to hold on to a sliver of power.
Tom Frank says that's the wrong strategy to beat the Republicans. The solution is not Bible-thumping but economic populism. Liberals need to respond to the faux populism of the GOP--which pits "real" working class Americans against over-educated, snotty liberals--with the real deal. Frank argues it's time for the Democratic Party to
return to its roots, to rediscover its lost soul. To become once again the champion of the working class.
Q: So why did the Democrats lose?
TF: In my opinion, they consistently underestimated the phenomenon I wrote about in the book--the culture wars. You have to look at what goes on in the culture wars and figure out a way to short-circuit it.
For example, the Swift Boat vets totally blindsided the Democrats. How was that possible? For me, it was obvious that was going to happen--not that it would happen in that exact way, but that the Republicans would try to make an issue out of the Vietnam stuff. [Yes, it's called "examining a candidate's record on important issues." Like Dems did with Bush and the Texas Air National Guard. So apparently Dems feel it's a legitimate thing to do, yes?]
That they would even go to the extreme, outrageous lengths to do so. [Unlike the Dems *forging memos* and broadcasting them on the national news--free. Truth can sometimes be outrageous if it cuts against your man's image, yes?]
The gay marriage thing totally blindsided them. The two candidates didn’t talk about it, but the Republicans talked about it at their
convention, behind the scenes. That they were going to win by getting out the base with culture war appeals.
The Democrats, in response, went to their usual centrist strategy: play it right down the middle, be a very safe candidate, safe for business, safe for moderates to vote for. Not riling up the base with the old populist rhetoric.
That’s why they lost. First, they did not come up with a way of beating the "culture war" appeal. Second, they didn’t rally their base. They could have done both of those things with the same strategy: being more populist in the economic sense.
Q: How you would short-circuit something like that?
TF: First you have to understand what motivates the culture wars. At the bottom of it all is this way of thinking and talking about social class. Instead of it being blue collar against white collar, or workers against the Fortune 500, it is average Americans--or "authentic" Americans--versus an affected liberal elite. They use this language of class all the time, in every one of these issues. It’s just below the surface--usually not even below the surface.
This class issue was not a problem for Democrats fifty years ago.
Calling Democrats an elite group back then would have been laughable. The idea of liberals being elite was ridiculous because liberals were autoworkers in Detroit, sharecroppers in Alabama. And that’s who they still are, to some degree. But they have to rediscover that identity.
The Democrats have to reach out to those groups again. So you deal with that kind of upside down class vision of the culture wars is by confronting it with the real deal--with real economic populism.
Q: Both Kerry and Bush were from Yale, but the Republicans made an effort to remake Bush in this fake--
TF: Right! Bush is a perfect bearer of this kind of fake Republican populism. With Kerry, the Democrats weren’t even thinking about it.
You have the two candidates from close to identical social backgrounds, even members of the same secret fraternity at Yale, okay? And one of them [*] comes off as this man of the people.
The other comes off as this distant aristocrat, with his yacht, his mansion, his heiress wife, and his affected taste. And he can speak French. [At the * above, the editor felt it necessary to insert "[Bush]", apparently out of concern that many Democrats might otherwise feel the "man of the people" phrase was referring to Kerry! Funny stuff.]
Bush, my god! The guy would go to these huge rallies in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania. Tens of thousands of blue-collar people would be there, and you'd always hear the same thing: he’s
one of us, he’s one of us. Well he’s not. He may seem like he is, but he isn’t. It’s an illusion.
Democrats have to shatter that illusion. They have to take that away from the Republicans.
Q: But do you think a Democratic message focused on economic populism is sufficient to short-circuit that kind of thinking?
TF: That’s all they've got, unless they totally change who they are and give up on being a left-wing party.
Q: In a recent interview you mentioned a friend of yours in Kansas who told you how her father and her brother sit around the dinner table and say things like: "We're going to have to kill the liberals." How do you begin to challenge that kind of loathing with an economic message?
TF: People like that are too far-gone. They live in a world where this kind of angry, populist conservatism is the stuff of everyday life. It's on their radio, it’s their entertainment. They turn on their TV, there it is. It’s what they talk about down at the café--'the damn liberals.'
In some ways it’s very similar to what you read in novels from the 30’s --the way working-class people would talk about bosses. But now
instead of bosses, it's liberals, this affected, over-educated ruling class. How did this happen? One reason is that Republicans have devoted huge resources to building this stereotype. We have to work on interrupting that narrative, showing why it’s false and shattering it.
I was on a right-wing radio show yesterday and the caller was saying, "I could never vote for a party that was pro-abortion." I said, "That’s ridiculous. The Democrats are not exactly pro-abortion. They want it to be legal and accessible, but nobody thinks it’s a happy or good experience, or anything like that."
But do you think that changed his mind? Hell no! He has this very powerful right and wrong way of looking at the world. You can’t counter it by pointing out the reality of the situation and telling him he’s wrong. You've got to give them a whole different way of looking at the world that makes sense.
I think it can be done--easily. The problem is the Democrats, as we know them now, aren't interested in doing it.
Q: What should we be thinking about in building a new progressive movement? What are the key issues?
TF: The Democrats' big mistake over the last twenty to thirty years has been their movement to the right on economic issues. I’m not saying everything Clinton did was wrong but I think things like NAFTA were a terrible mistake.
So that’s key: you have to be able to speak to working people--and do it convincingly. Second, you have to rebuild your grassroots movement. If you don’t have a labor movement you don’t have a left, period. The Democrats have allowed the labor movement to wither. There are a lot of reforms that could have passed in the Clinton years,
when they had both houses of Congress and the presidency. They had about two years like that and they did nothing.
You have to make it easy and attractive for people to join unions. It should be a part of everyday life. The Republicans understand this-- that it’s a war about social movements, and the labor movement is their enemy [because] it's what props up the Democratic Party.
They’re also going to go after the various millionaires that support the Democrats.
You have to build institutions in D.C. and around the country: think tanks, cultural institutions--and not highbrow stuff either. But
Democrats have been losing this game for decades, partly because of money, obviously. The one thing the Republicans have always had is a lot of money. So they’re able to [fund institutions] like that. But there are plenty of people with money that supported the Democrats this time. They have to be persuaded to subsidize these operations.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk of how we don’t know what we stand for-- that we have a hard time articulating our values because we don’t know what they are--
TF: I think everybody agrees that this is a big problem. This has always struck me as odd because *I* know exactly what our values are about: number one, equality; number two, security. Not national security but economic security: security from booms and busts,
security from the business cycle, security in old age, looking out for the weak.
As for equality, if you look back to the founding of this party and Andrew Jackson, this is what it’s all about: equal rights for all, special privileges for none. That is fundamentally who the Democrats are.
Q: How should we communicate our message--equality or security--to middle America? We have to have a story, but we don’t seem to have one.
TF: The Democrats used to have a very obvious story--framing reality and talking about it in a way that was very powerful. That was the worker-ist worldview, the populist worldview. Remember Gore talked about it a little in his campaign--"the people vs. the powerful?" That
is potent stuff and it rings true for people. They know what you’re talking about. The problem is that the Republicans have been
able to steal this.
Q: As in the idea of standing up for the little guy.
TF: Yes. So we have to constantly put things in a class framework. The Republicans are the party of big business, they're the party of Wall Street, and we have to constantly come back to that.
Q: Terrorism was an important factor in the election. How has that shifted the political terrain that liberals have to contend with?
TF: After 9/11 I said to myself, this is going to be the biggest backlash issue of all time. And that’s what happened. The Republicans have just rolled [the 9/11 attack] into their existing narrative.
There are right-wing books now on winning the war against
terrorists and liberals--equating the two in the sense that liberals are somehow soft on terrorism. Liberals are either, in some way, complicit with terrorism, or don’t want to fight against terrorism with sufficient vigor. The Republicans just fit it into their existing way of looking at the world.
So it’s *not* that 9/11 changed things dramatically, but that it created this extremely powerful new issue that the Republicans then could to beat liberals over the head with.
I knew the Republicans were going to capture that issue as soon as this happened. And even though there were a million reasons why we
should have been able to keep that from happening, of course, we didn’t.
Q: Give me an example of how it could have gone the other way.
TF: National tragedies bring people together and they provide fertile
ground for the kind of *economic security* message I was referring to earlier. The welfare state really started being shaped in people’s minds during WW2. Roosevelt had the idea of a second bill of rights, an economic bill of rights. Most of it never got passed, but the point is that this was considered a mandate of the war. We were never going to go back to the old insecure system. When people feel the kind of solidarity they felt after 9/11, these kinds of ideas come naturally to mind.
But they didn’t this time (laughs). Instead it was all about privatizing Social Security. We are going exactly the opposite way. Bush is going to hand that sucker over to Wall Street.
Q: So here we are with Bush, and the GOP controls Congress, and--
TF: They’re going to get their agenda. They’re finally going to get it.
Q: Yes. So what's the average progressive--an ordinary citizen-- supposed to do?
TF: Organize, organize. This is what's wrong with Democrats. We’re not out there in the streets in middle America. We’re in the media; we’re in academia. We have to recover our roots.
Democrats used to go door to door signing people up. Republicans didn't. Republicans were the rich people--they were the ones who
talked with money. The Democrats were the ones signing up voters at the factory gates. We have to do that again.
Q: What can we do in terms of the conservative backlash? We can’t given in to it.
TF: We have to attack it. We have look for where the Republican coalition is weak. The Republican party is made up of two large groups. One is the business class--that’s who the Republican party is and has always been. On the other hand, there are the "values" voters who have been *roped in* in recent decades. You have to point out to these two groups where their interests conflict. You have to keep hitting that message.
They do it to us all the time. For example, environmentalists and labor groups. Most of their interests are the same [say what??], but they’re culturally very different. Environmentalists tend to be
upper-middle class, while labor tends to be working class. [Gee, ya think?] Republicans are constantly trying to stir up battles between them, as with the spotted owl business. And it works. We have to do it right back to them.
Q: In terms of opportunity for that kind of strategy, is there a danger
that the Bush administration will move so far to the right-- thanks to the evangelicals--as to provoke a backlash of their own?
TF: Only if we are ready with a message that’s ready to make that happen.
The classic narrative is that the Democrats went too far in the 1960s. I’m not willing to admit that, because obviously the Weathermen were not the Democrats. But however you want to look at it, the Republicans were there with a message that rang true for a lot of people. And we’re still living with that today--now it’s really come into its own.
So of course they’re overreaching. They’re frightening people. And if they get their way on Roe v. Wade it'll make them extremely unpopular. But we have to be standing by. We have to be ready to kick their ass.