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Is Thomas Frank's pessimism about the Democrats premature?

In the Salon article The matter with Kansas now: The Tea Party, the 1 percent and delusional Democrats,  Thomas Frank writes:

It wasn’t until several years later that I began to understand what a fascinating, upside-down extravaganza it was to see the right eat its way through the good sense of the nation.

While the above quote is a good description, I think Frank is a little off the mark with this essay, as he was with “What’s the Matter With Kansas.” (His best book is “The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation.”) While the subtitle nails the solution: “Economic populism’s the answer,” in the text he leaves the impression that it cannot happen.

The Populists I admire from history, and the members of the working class I got to know in my community and my family as i was growing up, never once ceded that the elites were their “betters.” The farmers of 100 years ago weren’t the dumb hicks portrayed in Hee Haw, that portrayal was itself part of the right-wing attack. The very idea that some wet-behind-the-ears punk with an MBA could run a company better than someone who’d worked their way up the ladder would have been ridiculous to someone from before WWII. And it turned out, it was ridiculous. They didn’t reject education and ability, but they knew it required more than an alphabet behind your name. They could smell bullshit a mile away. And most knew damn well that the malefactors of great wealth were not on their side.

Now the Republican base, despite the application of a cynical Tea Party veneer by the Koch brothers, falls for clowns like Huckabee, Brownback, and Santorum, careerist imbeciles like McMorris Rodgers and a hundred like her in Congress, ideological buffoons like Paul (father or son), Ryan, and Cruz. But this has not been a spontaneous occurrence. It was carefully orchestrated with lots of money, the most sophisticated PR and psychology, and an innovative method of organizing. Joe Bageant’s book, “Deer Hunting With Jesus,” provides a good description of how this works in one rural Virginia town, a sort of “What’s the Matter With Winchester, Virginia?”

Too much of the Democratic side of the aisle (especially in its political leadership) has never understood the irony of the title, “The Best and the Brightest.” They now look at the post war years as longingly as the Right, if for different reasons, and have gone on to permanently confuse credentials with ability. The broad prosperity that sprung from bottom-up economic advances is gone now but the inequities of our culture have stubbornly hung on. We are also still burdened with the problems that sprung from throwing our Republic in the dustbin in favor of Empire and a National Security State. Burdened too with a political death wish that up until now at least, has led to discarding and excluding real leaders who tell the truth in favor of hacks that want a share of the pie the other side has been carving up so efficiently.

Frank is accurate in his description of the Democratic party’s national leaders: “These days, the big thinkers of the Democratic Party have concluded that they can safely ignore the things I described. … There is no need to resolve the dilemmas I outlined in “Kansas,” no need to win back working-class voters or solve wrenching economic problems. In fact, there is no need to lift a finger to do much of anything, since vast, impersonal demographic forces are what rescued them from the trap I identified. ”

But Frank’s pessimism about the Democratic Party is perhaps premature. Those holding those views at the top are looking increasingly like dinosaurs. The little mammals scurrying around in the underbrush are growing more bold. The same year Frank wrote “Kansas,” the futility and failure of the Kerry campaign against the most insane administration in American history launched a new progressive movement. Ten years later we are starting to see the fruits of the slow organization that has taken place. The very centerpiece of the neoliberal globalist agenda at the moment, the Trans Pacific Partnership, seems to be foundering on a Democratic rock. A majority of Democrats in the House voted against the trillion dollar corporate Farm Bill with $9 billion in cuts to Food Stamps. As far back as 2008 Obama recognized the wisdom of running on a progressive message, his problem was he thought he didn’t have to deliver on it. But now Occupy and its reverberations has put “Income Inequality” on the lips of the president. Yes there are demographic changes too. But above all there is a population that is sinking into economic despair. Their olfactory sense seems to be returning and they are wondering, “What’s that smell?” Very slowly they are waking up to the fact that the sides are still the same.

Nothing is preordained at this point. Nor will anything be easy, about the only thing we’ve been working effectively at is digging our hole deeper. Continuing the awakening will take lots more hard work organizing. But now is not the time to stop pushing, the rock is starting to roll.

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