Thomas Frank: Rendezvous with Oblivion

Rendezvous With Oblivion
By THOMAS FRANK
Published: September 1, 2006

Over the last month I have tried to describe conservative power in Washington, but with a small change of emphasis I could just as well have been describing the failure of liberalism: the center-left’s inability to comprehend the current political situation or to draw upon what is most vital in its own history.

What we have watched unfold for a few decades, I have argued, is a broad reversion to 19th-century political form, with free-market economics understood as the state of nature, plutocracy as the default social condition, and, enthroned as the nation’s necessary vice, an institutionalized corruption surpassing anything we have seen for 80 years. All that is missing is a return to the gold standard and a war to Christianize the Philippines.

Historically, liberalism was a fighting response to precisely these conditions. Look through the foundational texts of American liberalism and you can find everything you need to derail the conservative juggernaut. But don’t expect liberal leaders in Washington to use those things. They are New Democrats’ now, enlightened and entrepreneurial and barely able to get out of bed in the morning, let alone muster the strength to deliver some Rooseveltian stemwinder against ‘economic royalists.’

Mounting a campaign against plutocracy makes as much sense to the typical Washington liberal as would circulating a petition against gravity. What our modernized liberal leaders offer – that is, when they’re not gushing about the glory of it all at Davos – is not confrontation but a kind of therapy for those flattened by the free-market hurricane: they counsel us to accept the inevitability of the situation and to try to understand how we might retrain or re-educate ourselves so we will fit in better next time.

This last point was a priority for the Clinton administration. But in ‘The Disposable American,’ a disturbing history of job security, Louis Uchitelle points out that the New Democrats’ emphasis on retraining (as opposed to broader solutions that Old Democrats used to favor) is merely a kinder version of the 19th-century view of unemployment, in which economic dislocation always boils down to the fitness of the unemployed person himself.

Or take the ‘inevitability’ of recent economic changes, a word that the centrist liberals of the Washington school like to pair with ‘globalization.’ We are told to regard the ‘ree-trade’ deals that have hammered the working class almost as acts of nature. As the economist Dean Baker points out, however, we could just as easily have crafted ‘free-trade’ agreements that protected manufacturing while exposing professions like law, journalism and even medicine to ruinous foreign competition, losing nothing in quality but saving consumers far more than Nafta did.

When you view the world from the satisfied environs of Washington – a place where lawyers outnumber machinists 27 to 1 and where five suburban counties rank among the seven wealthiest in the nation – the fantasies of postindustrial liberalism make perfect sense. The reign of the ‘knowledge workers’ seems noble.

Seen from almost anywhere else, however, these are lousy times. The latest data confirms that as the productivity of workers has increased, the ones reaping the benefits are stockholders. Census data tells us that the only reason family income is keeping up with inflation is that more family members are working.

Everything I have written about in this space points to the same conclusion: Democratic leaders must learn to talk about class issues again. But they won’t on their own. So pressure must come from traditional liberal constituencies and the grass roots, like the much-vilified bloggers. Liberalism also needs strong, well-funded institutions fighting the rhetorical battle. Laying out policy objectives is all well and good, but the reason the right has prevailed is its army of journalists and public intellectuals. Moving the economic debate to the right are dozens if not hundreds of well-funded Washington think tanks, lobbying outfits and news media outlets. Pushing the other way are perhaps 10.

The more comfortable option for Democrats is to maintain their present course, gaming out each election with political science and a little triangulation magic, their relevance slowly ebbing as memories of the middle-class republic fade.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 4 Comments

Wow, Frank IS good! More factual, although not as fractious, as that other Frank (Rich) on NYT Select. More thanks for rebroadcasting him.

He confirms what I felt about the Democratic Party — an opposite side of the same coin to the Republicans. (And they were the tails, with the GOP being the head.) I didn’t see much hope for change if the Dems did retake control, which is unlikely with crooked voting machines. They’ve bought into the same paradigm that motivates the Repugs, only watered-down.

Sadly, that feckless nature pervades many “left” parties in the English-speaking world. Labor in Australia is as flummoxed as the Dems. Although Labour in the UK is in power, how are they much different to Republican Lite (with national healthcare)?

What America (and the world) needs is some old-fashioned arse-kicking liberal populists like the LaFollette progressives that used to win elections in the Midwest around the turn of the 20th Century. “Sons of the soil” and all that. But Americans won’t get up off their arses and kick those of the plutocrats until things get REALLY bad. Like no petrol in the pumps and no food at the grocers’ bad. When that happens, they’re just as likely to go off with some fascist tangent as a progressive one, though.

August 31, 2006 @ 10:39 pm | Comment

Each time I read a piece by Thomas Frank, my estimation of him rises a notch.

Keep it comin’, Richard! :-)

September 1, 2006 @ 11:46 am | Comment

I agree, Frank is one of the few voices that cuts through the crap.

His point about the “inevitability” so many liberal politicians and institutions claim is too true. It’s as though, after two decades of Reaganist propaganda, they’ve given up and agreed that government is pointless, that we all should just “lay back and enjoy it,” and accept a world split between those who take, and those who accept crumbs or get nothing…

September 1, 2006 @ 1:56 pm | Comment

While I agree with his message to the Dems., I think he’s forgetting about Dean and the influx of Progressives getting involved. This is exactly what Dean is trying to do.
Guess who’s one of Dean’s biggest opponants to making these needed changes to the DFL…..the entrenched Dems now in Wash, they’d like to keep their status quo. If it is this group Frank is refering to, I agree wholeheartedly.
Now, if we can get an honest election this Nov., we’ll be seeing alot of changes.

Bush and the G.O.P. – consistently getting it wrong since Jan. of 2000.

September 1, 2006 @ 9:27 pm | Comment

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