What’s The Matter With Democrats?

Thomas Frank, the author of What’s The Matter With Kansas? (and the new book, Pity the Billionaire, on the Tea Party and populism) suggests an interesting answer when talking about populist anger at inequality and decline of the middle class in the U.S.:

I’m speaking here of the liberal culture in Washington, D.C. There was no Occupy Wall Street movement [at that time] and there was only people like me on the fringes talking about it. The liberals had their leader in Barack Obama … they had their various people in Congress. But these people are completely unfamiliar with populist anger. It’s an alien thing to them. They don’t trust it, and they have trouble speaking to it. I like Barack Obama, but at the end of the day he’s a very professorial kind of guy. The liberals totally missed the opportunity, and the right was able to grab it. 


One of the problems with liberalism in this country is that it’s headquartered in Washington and its leaders are a very comfortable class of people. Washington is one of the richest cities in the country, maybe the richest. It’s not a place that feels the crisis, that feels the economic downturn. By and large, the real estate market stayed OK. The city continued to boom. The contracts continued to flow. What we’re talking about here is the failure of modern liberalism. At one time it was a movement of working-class people. The idea that liberals wouldn’t feel economic pain was ridiculous. That’s who liberals were. No more.


It is true that the Democrats completely imagine themselves as being the party of the professional class, and that is an elite. It’s not the elite, but it is an elite. The Democrats very definitely identify with academia. That’s the home of the professions, where they come from.

Frank does note, and correctly, that the Tea Party’s assertion (shared by many non-Tea Party people on the right) “that the free market is an act of rebellion against [this elite] seems pretty fanciful. I can say it stronger than that. It is absolutely preposterous.”

Democrats have essentially become a bloodless party, one in which passion is intellectually and emotionally suspect. (UPDATE: And yet, Democrats are also not a terribly intellectual party either. They haven’t jettisoned thought in quite the same way, or with the same fervor, that the GOP has, but they have generally substituted sentimentality and “professionalism” as substitutes for actual ideas.) Technocratic professionals don’t get angry, andy they expect all others to be technocratic professionals. (Barack Obama, as an African American man, would never have had a political career had he ever showed any kind of anger publicly, or been rumored to even have a temper. It would have been the kiss of death. So technocratic “competence” [sic] works well with his personality. But it also means, in the post-Bill Clinton Democratic Party, he trusts and believes bankers and other assorted “experts” far too much.) It is as if the Midwest clerisy, which is phlegmatic and reasonable to its moist and sentimental core, has come to dominate the Democratic Party and its elites.

The problem is, most people aren’t professionals. Most people don’t have careers. They work at jobs, and they do so not for personal fulfillment or to save the world, but to care for the people they love. (And can there be any better reason to do anything?) They see the core of the Democratic Party, grounded as it is in academia, for the elite it truly is. One that is not open to many people, dismissive of the way they live and work, and terribly disconnected from the realities of their lives. (And this is the reason I believe identity politics to be a distraction, because it’s a way to keep the clerisy amused with something that is more or less trivial, or at least tertiary to the real exercise of state and social power.) If Occupy Wall Street gained any traction, it has largely been because the ranks of the clerisy — where so many young liberals feel entitled to encamp — are increasingly closed and increasingly insecure. Now professionals are feeling the pinch that mere workers felt in the 1980s and 1990s when factories closed and their jobs made obsolete. THAT wasn’t supposed to happen to the do-gooder administrators of society, who were always supposed snuggle down securely in tenured positions making sure we all think good thoughts about each other (always punishing us when we don’t) and hoping those good thoughts alone will make the world a better place.

Ahh, but I’ve just let some of my resentments show.

Like Frank, I’m not sure where things go. Neither American political party is capable of dealing effectively with the world we inhabit. And I’m not sure I’d have anything good to say even if they did.