Thomas Frank is a historian and writer. He is also the man who tried to save the Democratic Party and our Nation from great harm. He is the great chronicler of one of the most grievous, self-inflicted wounds in modern American history. Twelve years ago, in What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Frank tried to warn the Democratic Party’s dominant elites’ that their policies and contempt for workers were pushing a large part of its base out of the Party. Many of the workers that were the Democratic Party’s traditional base were leaving the Party and failing to participate in elections, but some were supporting the far-right wing of the Republican Party. At the national level, the New Democrats’ candidates remained highly competitive, but the Republican Party was able to attain complete political domination of most states.
This year, Frank renewed his warnings in Listen, Liberal, which explains with characteristic verve, facts, and candor how the “New Democrats” made the New Deal, labor, and the working class their targets for attack and ridicule. The book explains why the New Democrats’ policies, which adopted traditional Republican policies, proved so destructive to labor and the working class.
The New Democrats cannot claim to be shocked that many members of the working class and labor eventually responded to the New Democrats’ contempt and policy betrayals and the terrible harms those policies inflicted upon the working class by increasingly refusing to support such Democratic candidates. Frank’s books show that the contempt of the New Democrats for the New Deal, labor, and the working class was and is palpable.
Today, Nate Cohn warned Democrats that “Right-Wing Populism Is Prevailing in Left-Wing Strongholds Around the World.” Cohn’s warning repeats Frank’s warnings, but ignores entirely the reasons for Frank’s warnings, the fact that he made the warnings, the New Democrats’ scorn for his warnings. Cohn vaguely references the fact that the workers have been on the losing side of a policy of rigging the financial system to favor the wealthiest and most immoral financial leaders for three decades of rule by Republicans and New Democrats, but ignores the tie between those the anti-labor policies, the rigging of the system, and the resultant losses to the working class while the wealthy grow far richer. This is deliberate, for Cohn writes from the policy perspective of the New Democrats and the Republicans on these issues. He cannot, therefore, address Frank’s analysis of the nature and horrific results of the New Democrats’ anti-worker policies and contempt.
Cohn’s article makes the broader point that the same dynamic put in place in the U.S. by the New Democrats and the Republicans has occurred in the UK with the BREXIT vote, but fails to explain that Tony Blair consciously modeled “New Labour” on the Clinton’s “New Democrats” and adopted a broad range of the Tories’ policies. New Labour’s adoption of the same contempt for labor and anti-labor policies pioneered by the Clintons produced the same horrific results for the working class in much of the UK that the New Democrats’ policies produced in the U.S. It also produced the same smoldering rage in much of the working class and resulting loss of support of the working class for the Labour Party that the New Democrat’s produced in the U.S.
Across the postindustrial world, the populist right is excelling in the old bastions of the left.
If there is a lesson for the United States in the decision by British voters to exit the European Union, it is the importance of the emerging split between the beneficiaries of multicultural globalism and the working-class ethno-nationalists who feel left behind. These issues have the potential to overcome longstanding partisan ties, even in the United States.
Focus on Cohn’s sleights of hand in that passage. The “bastions of the left” is a nasty way to describe labor. “Beneficiaries of multicultural globalism” is a grandly vague phrase. The folks that made out like bandits under the New Democrats’ and “The Wrecking Crew’s” (another Tom Frank book about George W. Bush’s administration) assault on workers and effective financial regulation were the elite bankers that rigged the system to make themselves wealthy by leading the three epidemics of accounting control fraud that drove the financial crisis and caused catastrophic losses to the working class. Elite bankers grew ever wealthier, with complete impunity from the criminal laws, through the “sure thing” of running the most destructive epidemics of financial control frauds in history.
Cohn’s euphemisms were designed to obscure all of those unpleasant facts about why so many workers have turned their back on New Democrats and New Labour because they have suffered so greatly at the hands of the New Democrats, New Labour, the Republicans, and the Tories.
The working class is also sick of being reviled by New Democrats’ and New Labour as “working class ethno-nationalists.” Indeed, Cohn’s column uses that exact phrase to disparage the working class. To be more precise, Cohn derides them as “working class ethno-nationalists who feel left behind.” Notice that in Cohn’s disingenuous tale they only “feel” “left behind.” Cohn’s thing is data, so he knows that the working class is in fact being left in the dust by the financial elites. But making that point would undercut his preferred policies.
Cohn misses the great irony in the BREXIT vote from the Labour Party’s perspective. Jeremy Corbyn is the imperiled leader of the Labour Party who may well lose that position imminently because of BREXIT. Corbyn was in an impossible position. He became Party leader based on his willingness to oppose New Labour’s betrayal of labor and the working class. He knew that New Labour’s contempt and anti-working class policies had led enormous numbers of traditional Labour voters to support BREXIT. He has long, and accurately, warned that the EU is a neo-liberal institution that typically pursues policies that harm labor and the working class. He could not honestly oppose BREXIT on the basis that the EU was a wonderful institution that did not require fundamental reform. He would have caused great harm to the Labour Party if he denounced BREXIT supporters because so many traditional Labour voters supported BREXIT.
Corbyn’s strongest supporters in his run for leadership of the Labour Party were the young. Corbyn knew that the young were the strongest demographic group opposing BREXIT. Corbyn could not support BREXIT without destroying the base of his support. Corbyn knew that if BREXIT were approved it was likely that Scotland would vote for independence. If Scotland became an independent nation it would be a major electoral advantage to the Tories in what remained of the UK by removing one of the most reliable bases of progressive voters. Corbyn also knew that the Scots were among the strongest opponents of BREXIT. If he campaigned for BREXIT he would destroy any chance that Labour had to reverse its virtual electoral destruction in Scotland at the hands of the SNP if BREXIT were rejected. Corbyn also knew that many members of his shadow cabinet were sympathetic to New Labour, ambitious to replace him as party leader, and intense opponents of BREXIT.
Politically, Corbyn had only bad options on BREXIT. Prime Minister David Cameron’s BREXIT gamble was a self-inflicted wound, but Corbyn never wanted a referendum on BREXIT. Corbyn is simply collateral damage from Cameron’s failed gamble.
Cohn’s column returns to the parallel he sees between the effect of the New Democrats and New Labour’s policies. Note that he does not use the name of either political movement and he never openly acknowledges their anti-worker policies and rhetoric even though he uses that rhetoric.
But in much the same way that immigration and nationalism proved to be more persuasive to the more secular European working class, European-style populism — now embodied by Donald Trump — could do additional damage to the Democrats in many parts of the United States.
The parallel is striking. The European center-left, like Democrats in the United States, have embraced lower taxes, free trade and immigration over the last few decades.
Note Cohn’s description of the New Democrats and New Labour’s policies in the second paragraph. Cohn erases from history the defining policies of New Democrats and New Labour – the destruction of effective financial regulation, supervision, and prosecutions and the resultant epidemics of fraud and abuse led by elite bankers caused the financial crisis and the payment protection insurance (PPI) scandal in the UK.
The New Democrats and New Labour did not embrace “free trade.” They embraced deals that gave CEOs exceptional leverage to prevent effective environmental, financial, and safety regulation and increased leverage against their workers. Those deals were drafted and negotiated largely by corporate CEOs for the benefit of corporate CEOs. The key to the deals is not “trade,” much less “free trade,” but the kangaroo, non-judicial arbiters that can bankrupt smaller nations that dare to protect their citizens and workers’ health and safety through law and regulation.
The New Democrats did not embrace “lower taxes,” they embraced greatly reduced government services and protections and an eroded safety nets. Some of them even embraced the Republicans dramatically lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans, even hedge fund billionaires. Collectively, the New Democrats and New Labour’s policies were designed to swing sharply against the working class and labor in favor of the wealthy, particularly financial elites. The policies were accompanied by rhetoric reviling labor and the working class. Those policies transformed America and the UK, harming labor and the working class while making the wealthiest far wealthier.
Cohn is correct to warn the New Democrats that they have pushed huge numbers of the working class to such despair and anger that they have lost their support. But if you want to understand why that happened you need to read Tom Frank, for you will never learn it by reading writers like Cohn.