Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People by Thomas Frank
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
True confession. I dog-eared pages as I read through this book.
*dodges the stones and rotten tomatoes *
I know. I know! But I have an excuse. I had only two bookmarks with me as I read, one for my current place and one marking the endnotes; neither did I have any little Post-it notes or sticky flags, nor any other method to mark all the passages that stood out. So I turned down the page corners instead.
Thomas Frank’s premise is that the progressive movement, or what he terms “The Liberal Class”, has forgotten its roots in the labor movement; has set aside its concerns for the poor and the working class; and has become obsessed with meritocracy rather than equality. Frank wonders what it means “…when the dominant constituency of the left party in a two-party system is a high-status group rather than the traditional working class? …[It] means soaring inequality. When the left party in a system severs its bond to working people…issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns.”
Let’s define two terms. Meritocracy is the belief that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively based on ability and talent. Followers of this belief system proclaim those who work hard and take advantage of all educational opportunities will, by virtue of their talent, rise to the top; ALL of society’s problems can be solved if only everyone had access to higher education.
The high-status group Frank mentions above are members of that meritocracy [as a class name, rather than a belief system]. They are those who have risen to the top and taken power, based on what they believe is their ability and talent. Even though “liberal elite” is often used as pejorative term, it’s a valid description of the mostly-Ivy League-educated individuals who front the progressive movement. They are what Frank calls “the well-graduated”, mostly Caucasian, mostly from privileged backgrounds, and mostly wealthy in their own right. Exceptions abound, of course: the Clintons were not wealthy as young people; and President Obama is neither Caucasian nor from a privileged background; but they are by definition meritocrats, having been smart enough and lucky enough to take advantage of the educational opportunities that launched them into heightened circles of prestige.
Speaking of Clinton, Frank rips apart the 8-year presidency of William J., and doesn’t express much hope for the better for the prospective term of Hillary R. (The only thing that saves her from outright excoriation is the spectre of a Trump Presidency, something even more disastrous than Clinton II.) In Frank’s view, the Clinton Administration, with its 1996 welfare reform legislation, completed the dismantling of the social safety net that had begun with the Reagan Administration. Having worked on the front lines of a social service agency since 1995, I can testify that Frank is right. Fewer people may be on public assistance, but more people are in poverty.
It seems like I always have my own rant about inequality and the abandonment of the poor to impart whenever I read one of Mr. Frank’s books. I’ll spare you the rest of it; and the rest of the passages I marked. What I will say is access to higher education has never been the answer to income inequality. A college degree does not guarantee success. (Case in point: My own spouse has a master’s in business administration; he’s the smartest man I know; and he manages a retail store because he can’t get hired in his chosen field. I never finished college myself, but I was in the right place at the right time to be hired by my employer, and now I make three times his salary.) What will help those at the bottom of the social ladder isn’t just education, it’s opportunity and infrastructure investment and plain old good hard cash.
Go read this, especially if you are of a liberal bent. You’ll be enraged and outraged; you’ll be enlightened; you’ll despair; and then you’ll get back on your feet, filled with determination to vote, to write your Congressional representatives and the editor of your local newspaper, to make noise, and to take care of the “least of these”, because ultimately, that’s our responsibility as human beings.
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