Election 2004

What's the Matter with Democrats?

Author Thomas Frank tells us why the Democratic Party lost the 2004 elections and how it needs to rebuild - and address the needs of American working families.
It's hard find anyone on the left who hasn't heard of Tom Frank's latest book, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Its brilliant analysis of the political impact of the culture wars made it a must-read from almost the moment it came out in June. That the book was published in an election year made it all the more timely – and, as it turns out, prophetic. On Nov. 3, many progressives were left shaking our heads and asking ourselves, "What's the matter with America?"

The outcome of the 2004 elections offered most visible and spectacular confirmation of 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, guns, and, of course, gays.

So what now? The intractable reality of the culture wars seems all the more daunting thanks to the Democratic Party leadership, which shows no sign of breaking the decades-long habit of responding to defeat with abject 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 the Senate Minority leader – to hold on to a sliver of power.

That's exactly the wrong strategy to beat the Republicans, says Tom Frank. 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.

Frank spoke to AlterNet from his office in Chicago.

So why did the Democrats lose to Bush?

In my opinion, they consistently underestimated the phenomenon I wrote about in the book ["What's the Matter with Kansas?"], which is the culture wars.

I don’t think the strategy to deal with these things is to capitulate. You have to look at what goes on in the culture wars, understand what the subtext of it is, and figure out a way of short-circuiting it. The Democrats don’t even bother, they don’t think about it at all, and it’s constantly surprised them.

Take, for example, the Swift Boat incident, remember those guys? Totally blindsided the Democrats. Now, how is 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. That they would even go to the extreme, outrageous lengths to do so.

The gay marriage thing – totally blindsided them. The two candidates didn’t even talk about it. It was a below-the-radar effort, and yet the Republicans did talk 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. Essentially, it was being the non-Bush candidate, not riling up the base with the old populist rhetoric.

That’s why they lost. First of all, they did not come up with a way of beating the "culture war "appeal. Second of all, 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.

Give me an example of how you would short-circuit something like that.

What you have to understand first is what motivates the culture wars – in each of these issues, and the broader cultural civil war that has gone since the late 60’s. 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 and it is there in every single one of these issues. It’s just below the surface – usually not even below the surface. It’s right there.

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.

And that is reflected in how you pick candidates, right? One of the things that struck me is that while both Kerry and Bush were from Yale, at least the Republicans made an effort to remake Bush in this fake …

Oh, right! Republicans seriously have populism on the brain. They think about it all the time. Bush is a perfect bearer of this kind of fake Republican populism. With Kerry, the Democrats weren’t even thinking about it.

What’s funny is that 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 [Bush] 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.

Bush, my god! The guy would go to these huge rallies in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Tens of thousands of blue-collar people would be there, and you 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. And until they figure out how to do it, they’re going to lose and lose and lose.

But do you think, a Democratic message focused on economic populism is sufficient to short-circuit that kind of thinking?

That’s all they've got – unless they’re going to totally change who they are and give up on being a left wing party. They can’t do that (laughs).

Here's why I worry about it. In a recent interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, you related this anecdote about a friend of yours back in Kansas. She 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.”

Oh yeah, that was a letter I got.

Well? How do you begin to start challenging that kind of loathing with an economic message?

Someone like that is too far-gone. Those people live in a world where this kind of angry populist conservatism is the stuff of everyday life. When they turn on their radio, it’s their entertainment. They turn on their TV, there it is. That’s what they talk about down at the café – the damn liberals, ya know?

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. It’s changed in that instead of it being bosses, it's liberals, this affected, over-educated ruling class. Well, how did this happen? One of reasons why is that Republicans have dedicated huge amounts of resources to building this stereotype.

Now, I’m not saying those individuals can be brought back. They probably can’t, but some people can. It doesn’t take too much to shift the balance of power in an election. We have to work on interrupting that narrative, on pointing out why it’s false and shattering it.

It's not enough to just go out there and say you’re wrong. 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 rather it be legal and accessible, but nobody thinks it’s a happy or good experience, or something 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 tell him that he’s wrong. You can, but that’s not going to help you win. You've got to give them a whole different way of looking at the world that makes sense.

I think it can be done – it’s easy to do. The problem is the Democrats, as we know them now, are not interested in doing it.

So what do we do with the Democratic Party? Do we abandon it? Do we remake it? Do we take it over?

We have to take it over. There’s no choice because of the way the system is set up in this country. There are a few states where you could do third party activities, like New York state where third party activities are very successful. But in other states, after the populist outbreak in the 1890s, they passed laws against it. It’s not illegal to have a third party [in the states], but it’s effectively impossible.

Now, if you can change the law – and these are state laws – third party efforts are a very good idea. But short of that, you have to work within the Democratic party.

Going beyond the party, what should we be thinking about in terms of building a new progressive movement? What are the strengths we have right now and what do we really need to rethink? What issues are key?

The big mistake over the last twenty to thirty years has been the movement of the Democrats to the right on the economic issues. This has been very counterproductive. I’m not saying everything Clinton did was wrong or that we have to embrace some silly agenda from the 1970’s. I’m not sure precisely what we have to do, but I can tell you that things like NAFTA were a terrible mistake.

So that’s key: you have to be able to speak to, as the advocate, for working people. You have to be able to do it convincingly or else you won't even get to square one.

Two, 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 has 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 shouldn’t be this exotic thing, but a part of everyday life. That totally changes things.

The Republicans understand this – that it’s a war about social movements. If you read a guy like Grover Norquist, it's clear that they’re going to do everything they can to beat the labor movement because, ultimately, that movement is their enemy. 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 this is the game our team has been losing for decades, and one of the reasons is because of money, obviously. The one thing the Republicans have – and always had even when they couldn’t win any elections – is a lot of money. So they’re able to [fund institutions] like that.

They play the game very strategically, but our team does not. But there are plenty of people with money that came to the Democrats' side this time. They have to be persuaded to subsidize these operations.

So, those are three things they need to do.

There’s been a lot of talk of how we don’t know what we stand for. We have a problem articulating our values because we don’t know what they are …

I think with everybody agrees that this is one of the Democrats’ central problems. This has always struck me as very odd because I know exactly what they’re about: number one, equality; number two, security.

I don’t mean 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.

How do we go about communicating our message – when we talk about equality or security – when we’re talking to middle America? We have to have a story, and we don’t seem to have one.

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.

I didn’t like Bill Clinton very much, but in 1992 that was the message of the campaign he ran, and it was successful. This is what made the Democrats the majority party in the first place. The problem is that the Republicans have been able to steal this.

As in the idea of standing up for the little guy.

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 – we have to constantly come back to that. Everything else fits, if you do that, at least in my opinion.

We also now live in the post-9/11 era and terrorism was an important factor in the election. How has that shifted the political terrain that liberals have to contend with?

After 9/11 happened – I didn’t write about this in the book – 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 fitted [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. They just fit it into their existing way of looking at the world. The story just writes itself.

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 their heads with.

I knew the Republicans were going to capture that issue for themselves 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.

Give me an example of how it could have gone the other way.

National tragedies bring people together and they give you a fertile ground for the kind of economic security message that I was referring to earlier. If you think about WWII – that is when the welfare state really started being shaped in people’s minds. Roosevelt put together a board that was going to think about plans for the post war world – not what are we going to do with Germany and Japan, but what are we going to do here at home. And they settled on – I don’t have it here in front of me – the idea of a second bill of rights, an economic bill of rights.

It’s not well known anymore and 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 like that kind of solidarity that they felt after 9/11, these kinds of ideas come naturally to mind.

Well, 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.

Right, which is why he told us to go shopping (laughs). So here we are with Bush, and the GOP controls Congress, and …

They’re going to get their agenda. They’re finally going to get it.

Yes. So what the average progressive – an ordinary citizen – supposed to do?

My colleagues at The Baffler used to have this one word answer: 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.

One of the things that struck me while I was writing this book was this right-wing organizer I was talking to in Wichita. He was motivated by the abortion issue, and just was constantly fighting for his issue. He was telling me about all the things he’s done over the years to turn that city on its head. It went from being a place where Democrats had often won to being this hardcore conservative town. And that was because of the lengths to which he and his friends went – going door to door, signing people up.

That used to be something that Democrats did, not Republicans. Republicans were the rich people—they were the ones that talked with money. The Democrats were the ones signing up voters at the factory gates. So we have to be doing the same thing.

So what can we do in terms of the conservative backlash. We can’t given in to it …

Yes, but we also 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 just 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, but they’re culturally very different. Environmentalists tend to be upper-middle class, while labor always tends to be working class. 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.

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?

Will they go too far and turn the public against them? 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 vs. Wade, it will make them extremely unpopular. But we have to be standing by. We have to be ready to kick their ass. And, I’m ready. Hey, I’m ready to go. Wind me up and turn me loose. (laughs) But the Democrats have to be ready too.
Lakshmi Chaudhry is senior editor of AlterNet.