What’s the Matter With Kansas? And Maine. And New Mexico…

A conversation with Thomas Frank about the perilous state of American politics.

Thomas Frank.
Thomas Frank wrote one of this generation’s most influential (and debated) books about American politics, What’s The Matter With Kansas?

Ed Mays

Twelve years ago, Thomas Frank wrote one of this generation’s most influential (and debated) books about American politics, What’s The Matter With Kansas? In it, he argued that by not paying enough attention to the interests of the working class, the Democratic Party allowed Republicans to win over voters by exploiting social issues. His new book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, is another attack on the party for its elitism and coziness with corporate America. The party’s message to Americans is, Frank writes, “you get what you deserve, and what you deserve is defined by how you did in school.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have continued to exploit Democratic tone-deafness, however disingenuously. Earlier this year, Frank wrote a piece about Donald Trump’s appeal to voters who had been undermined by America’s trade policy. Amidst fears that Hillary Clinton could lose working-class votes to Trump, and at a time when Bernie Sanders’s progressive populism has succeeded beyond most people’s expectations, it seemed like a good time to talk to Frank. Over the phone, we discussed Trump’s rise, liberalism’s obsession with technocracy, and the prospect of voting for Clinton. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Isaac Chotiner: What sticks out to you about Obama’s presidency, which you have been very critical of, as he reaches the end of his term?

Thomas Frank: It’s funny. Whenever I see a picture of Obama, I still like him. I think he’s a very likable guy, and I was a big Obama supporter. I voted for him many times.

Don’t say “many times” or everyone is going to think voter fraud.

No, you’re going to be surprised, but I say that because I lived in his state Senate district back in Chicago, so I voted for him when he ran against Bobby Rush. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. Yes, I am, of course, disappointed with how things have worked out. I don’t really have the final explanation for why things didn’t work out the way I thought they should or hoped that they would. I think that’s going to be up to Obama himself one day writing his memoirs.

Do you blame Obama for his failure to enact the agenda you wanted, or do you think other forces kept him from achieving it, and he got as much done as he could—given the circumstances?

I think there’s truth to those things, except that last part. I don’t think he accomplished as much as anybody could have given the circumstances. Of course, he had obstacles. The Republicans did everything they could to stop them, and they’re quite effective, but, ultimately, the buck stops with Obama himself. When you wonder why he chose to react to the financial crisis and to Wall Street and the recession in the way that he did, ultimately the responsibility has to go back to him. He is the president. You could say he was badly advised. I think that’s probably true to a certain degree, but, ultimately, he is the president.

Being the president doesn’t make you dictator. Or at least until Trump wins.

I’m taking all of that into account, of course. I know that. There’s Congress, there’s the courts, I’m aware of that.

How much of your new book was sparked by your feelings about Obama and the Democratic Party in these last few years?

A lot of it. One of the contrasts between Obama and Bush that was so striking was that Bush filled his administration with hacks and cronies and they proceeded to screw everything up. Obama did the opposite, and brought in the best and the brightest, and in some really important ways, the differences with Bush were really small. That really bothered me.

In what ways do you think the differences were really small?

The one that really matters is how they dealt with Wall Street. And the bailout policies of the Bush administration were essentially just carried over. That was the episode that made me wonder what’s wrong with government by all of these brilliant people. Hoover set up a bailout agency, and it went about doing things very similar to the way the bailout agencies worked this time around. It was accused of all the same things, cronyism and this kind of thing.

Then, Roosevelt came in, and Roosevelt was highly critical of the bailout procedure when he was running for president. When he came in, he changed it around completely, and they started doing very different things. For example, putting banks out of business, firing bank management. If they didn’t like the way a bank had been managed, they would get rid of the management. They would fire these guys. It was quite amazing. They went to a city that they thought had been poorly served by its bank, and they would start a new one. This actually happened—banks that were launched by the federal government.

What we did this time around is bail these guys out. Nobody got fired. Actually, the Bush people did fire the management of AIG, but Obama did not. He did get tough with General Motors. I approved of that. I thought that bailout was played very well, the bailout of GM. The bank bailout, I thought was a real disappointment.

You wrote a piece a little while ago about data journalism and technocracy and the so-called expert consensus. You attacked people like Ezra Klein and the focus on political science in journalism. Can you explain how that critique connects with your broader thinking about the Democratic Party?

I would say that it reflects the culture of liberalism in the same way that there is a lot of scientific sounding stuff that liberals really eat up. They love it when something is explained to them by someone who appears to be a great authority figure. This is the culture of liberalism. A great example is to look at the New York Times op-ed page and how many of the contributors are academics. This is also a problem with journalism, generally.

OK, but is your problem that the people who are consulted as being experts are not actually experts, or that the idea of going to experts is itself problematic?

Both of those are true to some degree. It’s not, obviously, that experts are wrong across the board, but that it’s easy to conceal an agenda by covering it with expertise. It’s really easy. It’s easy to do it with numbers. There are all sorts of ways to do things like that.

I think the latter is true as well. The way I try to get at truth is more through cultural history. That’s what I sort of naturally gravitate back to all the time. I think when you try to understand everything with numbers it is obviously going to leave a lot of things unspoken and unanalyzed.

Right but when you’re writing a book where you’re trying to analyze why working class white people in Kansas change their voting patterns or whatever, it seems like data has to be a big part of any argument you can make.

Of course, absolutely.

What have you made of the Sanders campaign?

I voted for Sanders here in Maryland. I like Sanders. I agree with him on a lot of things, probably on most things. I think what he did was very intriguing. I also think he never had a chance. The Democratic Party machinery has been behind Hillary all along.

OK, but so have a very high percentage of nonwhite voters, which means he can’t actually win a majority.

Look, if he wanted to win, he would have had to start earlier and do things differently, and he would have to win a lot of those voters over. He didn’t do it.

You wrote a piece for the Guardian about the rise of Trump, and this was several months ago. Now, it looks like he’s going to be the nominee.

I …

Go on.

We are living in a crazy world. [Laughs.] Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee for president.

I think that a lot of the liberal or progressive commentary about Trump has fallen into one of two categories. One is trying to explain where this guy is coming from, and arguing that there are legitimate underlying currents that are explaining his success. The other group of people wants to say, “No, this guy is a deranged fascist, we must mock him and do nothing but criticize him.” You seem more in the former category.

Again, there’s a little of both here. Donald Trump is someone that I can’t stand. I dislike nearly everything about him, you know, everything, like his taste is bad, his views are ridiculous, the way he talks, everything about him. The reason I wrote that story is because I was reading all of this newspaper coverage and they were focusing on the kind of outrageous and racist remarks he was making, and I’m not trying to get him off the hook for that stuff, he deserves every bit of scorn and criticism that he’s gotten.

I was reading all of that, and thinking there’s got to be something that he’s saying that’s winning these people over. I sat down and watched a bunch of his speeches, and I was surprised. Nobody is surprised anymore, but I was surprised at the time to discover that he was obsessively concerned with the issue of trade, and the he goes back to it all the time.

It’s interesting that you made that leap though. I’m not saying you’re wrong. You could say the racist remarks are why he’s winning people over.

It could be. There are always racist candidates around.

Not like this.

I’m not saying that I know the answer to the Trump phenomenon or that I’ve got it all figured out, but there is this other part of his appeal. You look at where he’s doing really well, and they’re all of these kind of de-industrialized disaster zones, you know, and that’s very strange for a Republican to be doing well in those places.

You say it’s weird for Republicans, but wasn’t it part of your thesis in What’s the Matter With Kansas? that Republicans were starting to win over these voters more naturally?

That’s right, and Trump sort of represents another step in that phenomenon. The wheel has turned several times since then. That was all written before the recession started, before the floor got pulled out from these people. Trump is kind of the latest iteration of it.

What’s fascinating about Trump is that he talks about economic issues, and I think that’s one of the reasons that the mainstream Republican Party hates him so much. I think what drives them crazy is he is just abandoning them on free trade issues. He’s got his protectionist message. And there are several other things where there’s a whole bunch of areas where he’s completely breaking with the sort of traditional Republican free-market script.

He’s also proposing a massive, regressive tax cut.

There’s only a handful of ways. You can argue that all of them are hypocritical, too. He’s constantly talking about all of these bad trade deals, well, he takes advantage of them, as we all know. His line of clothing is made in wherever. It’s not made in the US. He’s a brazen hypocrite on all of this stuff.

I just wonder how much of the trade message would be getting through if he didn’t have the sort of racist nationalism that goes with it.

Or the sort of braggadocio style. When he talks about trade, he does it in this kind of swaggering tough guy way where he boasts about how he would threaten the CEO of a company, and this is very popular. Why does that appeal? Because, that’s so much more visceral than say, talking about it in policy terms.

We wonder about Trump’s appeal, but I wonder sometimes if it isn’t that simple. When Democrats talk about this, they always tend back towards this technocratic style that we’ve been talking about, and Trump goes for this much more visceral emotional way of describing it.

Right, I guess my concern would be that if Democrats start using that style, there will be consequences down the road, and that populism has a fundamentally illiberal character to it.

Democrats used to always talk that way. Bill Clinton, you know, go back and look at him in the early 1990s, this guy talked that way all the time. You think of Franklin Roosevelt. He didn’t talk like Bill Clinton, he was this very erudite polished man, but he was still able to put things in a way that resonated for average people. You don’t have to talk like Huey Long in order to communicate with average people.

It’s interesting that your critique of Obama is partially about his communication style, because that is the one thing he always criticizes himself for.

It’s a problem of technocracy generally. Look at something like the stimulus package, which I was really in favor of. I was saying, how are you going to present this in a way that’s really memorable so that people say, “Yes, the American Recovery Act built this bridge.” By the way, the elementary school I went to in Kansas City was built by the WPA. Everybody that went there knew it. How are they going to do something like that, make this program visible, make it really meaningful to people? They just sent the money off to the states. It was just math.

So should decisions on economic stimulus not be made on math?

Of course it should be based on math. You can’t just do it for fun. It has to be based in reality. At the same time, this is an enormous opportunity to make the basic democratic point, that this is how government can help average citizens, this is how government helps society, this is the role that government plays. That opportunity was completely missed. There’s another point that we aren’t getting to here, which is the love of complexity with these guys, which is a really striking thing.

When you look at Obama’s two big legislative achievements, Dodd/Frank and Obamacare, the thing that they have in common, that everybody will look back on and say, “these are artifacts of an era,” is the complexity of them. Nobody understands them. I don’t even think the people who wrote them really understand them.

Is that ideological, or is that just what it took to get them through Congress?

That’s the question, isn’t it? Why would they choose that? Why would they choose to go that route? I have friends who said it would have been so much easier, with Dodd/Frank, for example, you could have made it so much easier just by repealing the deregulations of the ’80s and ’90s. As it stands now, Dodd/Frank is so big, it’s something like 20,000 pages now, and it grows all the time. They aren’t done with it. They aren’t done writing all the rules. It’s not just for the love of complexity in itself, it’s to achieve something else, and—

Getting the bill through a Congress full of crazy Republicans?

There’s that, too. You could have done that much easier. If it’s just Republicans that you’re worried about, at the time, they could have taken away the filibuster, and then, boom. The filibuster is undemocratic anyway. Or, change it so that you can filibuster, but you actually have to show up and physically do it. Something like that, they could have done that, but that’s not what they did. This is something that they chose to do on their own for reasons of their own, and I thought about it, and my hypothesis is that these bills were crafted in order to achieve more than one end.

With Obamacare, they want to achieve affordable care, and they want to get a national healthcare system, but they also don’t want to hurt the insurance industry. The only way you’re going to do that is a system with a thousand moving parts, and, it’s very, very complicated. The same is true with Dodd/Frank. They’re going to regulate Wall Street, they’re going to make Wall Street safe, but at the same time, they’re not going to hurt any of these institutions.

Again, I think there’s a pragmatic aspect, too, which is they thought they needed the insurance companies to help them get the bill passed. Anyway, I gather you’re not going to vote for Hillary with a ton of enthusiasm in November.

I’m going to vote for her. If Trump is the Republican nominee, of course I’m going to vote for her. Whether it’s enthusiastic, I don’t know. She’ll be all right. She won’t be great.

She seems like the complete manifestation of everything about the Democratic Party that you hate.

Yes, well, it’s not that I hate it. This is their malady. This is what’s wrong with them. The professional class, the sort of domination by the professional class and by the technocratic world view. Yes, she is representative of that. At the same time that’s preferable to having a guy in office that thinks we should have a religious test for people who want to come into the country. That’s flatly unacceptable.