Thomas Frank on Clinton & Democratic Establishment: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

In a major economic address in Ohio on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton warned the election of Donald Trump would be disastrous for the U.S. economy and result in what she dubbed a "Trump recession." "He’s written a lot of books about business. They all seem to end at Chapter 11. Go figure," Clinton said. But Hillary Clinton’s economic policies are still facing criticism from her own party. Last week in an address to supporters, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told supporters he planned to go to the Democratic convention next month in Philadelphia to push the party in a more progressive direction. We speak to Thomas Frank, author of the new book, "Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?"


TRANSCRIPT This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

HILLARY CLINTON: I think Donald Trump has said he’s qualified to be president because of his business record. A few days ago, he said—and I quote—"I’m going to do for the country what I did for my business." So, let’s take a look at what he did for his business. He’s written a lot of books about business. They all seem to end at Chapter 11. Go figure. And over the years, he intentionally ran up huge amounts of debt on his companies, and then he defaulted. He bankrupted his companies—not once, not twice, but four times. Hundreds of people lost their jobs. Shareholders were wiped out. Contractors, many of them small businesses, took heavy losses. Many went bust. But Donald Trump, he came out fine.

AMY GOODMAN: Describing Donald Trump as the "king of debt," Hillary Clinton warned a Trump presidency would cause a "economic catastrophe." Trump is scheduled to give a major speech today criticizing Clinton’s policies. But on Tuesday, Trump responded by posting his short video on Instagram.

DONALD TRUMP: Hillary Clinton is only right about one thing: I understand debt and how to handle it. I’ve made a fortune with debt. But debt for this country is a disaster. And Obama has piled it on, and she’s been there watching.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: While Hillary Clinton is attacking Donald Trump over his economic policies, there’s also a simmering debate within the Democratic Party over the party’s own platform. Last week in an address to supporters, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders told—said he planned to go to the Democratic convention next month in Philadelphia to push the party in a more progressive direction.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I also look forward to working with Secretary Clinton to transform the Democratic Party, so that it becomes a party of working people and young people, and not just wealthy campaign contributors, a party that has the guts to take on Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, the fossil fuel industry and the other powerful special interests that dominate so much of our political and economic life.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the presidential race, we’re joined by author and social critic Thomas Frank, author of many books, including What’s the Matter with Kansas? His newest book is called Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? Welcome to Democracy Now!, Thomas Frank. You write that, well, it’s—the problem with establishment Democrats is not that they have been bribed by Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and others, but that long ago they determined to supplant the GOP as the party of Wall Street. Explain.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Well, it’s not so much that they decided to—first they decided that they—that they didn’t want to be the party of the working class any longer. They didn’t want to really be the party of the middle class. And this goes back to the 1970s, if not—if not before. But by the 199—you know, wait, so the group that they decided they would represent was the affluent, white-collar professionals, beginning in the 1970s. And by the 1990s, that had really come into full flower with the Bill Clinton administration, and they became—you know, they actively courted Wall Street. And all through the last decade, you know, the years of the Bush administration, you had Democratic theorist after Democratic theorist talking about how there was this sort of natural alliance between the Democrats and Wall Street. Wall Street was supposed to be this place where the—you know, the professional class was doing these fantastic things, plucking wealth out of thin air. This was the creative class, you know, in full bloom—right?—doing these wonderful things, so creative. And, you know, everybody could see that this was a naturally Democratic industry. And the Clintons and Barack Obama all had a hand in this transformation of the party.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Thomas Frank, what about this relationship between the Democratic Party and the working class or organized labor? Because you could argue that the Democratic elite was pro-labor as long as there was an alternative out there in the world—the socialist bloc or the communist bloc—

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that provided an alternative vision for workers. Once you had the collapse of communism and socialism in other parts of the world, the Democratic elite no longer felt they needed to necessarily appeal to organized labor.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah, or to lots of different groups, by the way. That’s the sort of the—I guess you would call that, you know, the very—the grand, sweeping view of history. But, in fact, the Democratic abandonment of the working class really does begin in the Vietnam era, and a lot of it happened for reasons that are very understandable and even admirable. You know, the Democratic Party wanted to sort of reconstitute itself in the early 1970s and move away from organized labor and remove organized labor from its structural position in the Democratic Party because of all the fights over the Vietnam War. You remember that a lot of organized labor was—had really supported President Johnson in those days, and the Democratic Party wanted to change itself. And, you know, to make a very long and winding story short, they made their decision to shift their allegiance to the professional managerial class, and it turned out to be really good for them from a financial point of view, because we’re talking about very affluent people here. So everything sort of has worked out for them—for the Democrats, that is. It’s been great for them. For organized labor and for working people, it’s been a catastrophe. I mean, this is the reason that inequality is—or one of the biggest reasons that inequality is totally out of control in this country, is you don’t have a party in this country that really cares about working people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about, well, who you talk a lot about in the book, Listen, Liberal, and that is Bill Clinton.

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: The issues he took on, like NAFTA and others, that were really considered Republican issues—not taking them on to challenge them, but to endorse them.

THOMAS FRANK: Well, NAFTA was—NAFTA was negotiated by Republicans, by—remember, George Bush Sr. negotiated NAFTA. But it took a Democrat to get it passed, because Congress—you remember back, Amy, back in those days, Congress was always controlled by Democrats, I mean, going back to the Great Depression. But yeah, Clinton had five major achievements as president. And when I say these are his major achievements, that’s according to his fans, according to his admirers. And all five of them were Republican or conservative initiatives. In addition to NAFTA, you had the crime bill in ’94; you had welfare reform; you had deregulation, you know, across the board, of banks, also of telecoms; and you had the balanced budget. These are the five sort of great things that when people say, you know, Bill Clinton is this wonderful president, those are the things that they look back on. Every single one of them ended in disaster. And every single one of them—well, arguably, with the exception of the balanced budget, but every single one of them was a Republican, a conservative initiative. And he got them done.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Specifically in terms of the crime bill, when you started researching your book, there wasn’t a whole lot of attention on the legacy of the Clintons’ efforts in crimes. But obviously, with the Black Lives Matter movement and the challenges to the candidates now, there has been a lot more. Talk about the— 

THOMAS FRANK: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that particular legacy.

THOMAS FRANK: Well, so, you know, I was around when—obviously, when Clinton was president, and I remember when the '94 crime bill was passed. And it made me so angry. You know, it did things like federal death penalties went from three crimes to 60, or something like that, you know, and building prisons all over the country, and, you know, all of these sort of mandatory minimums. You know, this was a terrible, terrible thing. And I remember when it happened, and it infuriated me. And I was trying to capture that in my writing, when I was writing Listen, Liberal. And I remember talking to an expert on this, you know, and books take a while to write, you understand. I was talking to an expert about this, and we were talking about all the particulars of the ’94 crime bill. And she said to me, you know, "This is great that you're writing this, but don’t think you’re going to change anybody’s mind about this sort of thing. It’s just—it’s futile to try to reason with the public about the, you know, mass incarceration." And then, a few months later, Black Lives Matter happened. And lo and behold, the country—the entire opinion climate of this country has completely changed. It’s a wonderful thing. 

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