The problem in a nutshell…


A local progressive activist and friend pointed me to an amazing section from Thomas Frank’s recent book Pity the Billionaire. It’s a succinct description of Democratic ideological malaise, laid out in no-holds-barred prose for which Thomas Frank is so justifiably famous, and it tells the tale of what has happened to much of the institutional “left” as well as anything I’ve seen:

Terminal niceness…

The problem is larger than Obama; it is a consequence of grander changes in the party’s most-favored group of constituents. No one has described the new breed of Democrat better than … Barack Obama. “Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means – law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists,” reminisced the future president in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope:

As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate. … They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by the movements of global capital.

“I know that as a consequence of my fundraising I became more like the wealthy donors I met,” Obama confesses a few paragraphs later. So he has. And so has his party. Today’s Democrats have their eyes on people who believe, per Obama’s description, “in the free market” almost as piously as do Tea Partiers.

Class language, on the other hand, feels strange to the new Dems; off limits. Instead, the party’s guiding geniuses like to think of their organization as the vanguard of enlightened professionalism and the shrine of purest globaloney.

As a result of their retreat from populism, Democrats have spent the last several decades systematically extinguishing opportunities to broaden the base of their support.

They did little, for example, as their former best friends in organized labor were scythed down by organized money. This was no ordinary misstep, by the way. Labor is one of the last institutional bearers of an ideology capable of countering the market-populist faith; had its voice been strong in 2009, things might have played out very differently. Instead, Obama and Company pretty much sat on their hands as the percentage of unionized workers in the private sector sank lower than at any point in the 20th century. The fatuity of it all, one would think, has surely become obvious to Democrats: They have permitted nothing less than the decimation of their own grassroots social movement; the silencing of their own ideology. Thanks to this strategy, large parts of America are liberal deserts, places where an economic narrative that might counterbalance the billionaire-pitying wisdom of El Rushbo is never heard and might as well not exist.

The effects of a wrenching recession, on the other hand, aren’t likely to touch the new, well-to-do Democrats directly. They know bad things are happening, yes; they express concern and promise to help the suffering, of course; but the urgency of the recession is not something they feel personally. It is not a challenge to their fundamental values. It is, rather, an occasion for charity.

Oh, but a country where everyone listens to specialists and gets along – that’s a utopia these new Dems regard with prayerful reverence. They dream of bipartisanship and states that-are-neither-red-nor-blue and some reasonably-arrived-at consensus future where the culture wars cease and everyone improves their SAT scores forevermore under the smiling, beneficent sun of free trade and the knowledge industries.

Rule by Ivy League technocrats wouldn’t be so bad, actually, if the technocrats weren’t so easily blinded by the circumstances of their own wealth. And if they weren’t so often just dead wrong regardless of their level of corruption.

It’s bad enough that when I look to hire people at a professional level or when I seek assistance and volunteerism on a political level, I automatically distrust anyone from an Ivy League school or with a Ph.D. I’ll take the B.A. or M.A. from a state school instead, as those folks tend to be less paralyzed by self-doubt, less apt to share views with Thomas Friedman and David Broder, and more inclined toward common sense.