What’s the Matter With Thomas Frank?

ZNet, February 28, 2015. It’s an odd and perhaps usefully ego-deflating sensation to feel invisible, in my case to write books and essays and give speeches and talks that can seem like they never existed, as if they were never penned, typed, or spoken. That’s how the celebrated liberal author, Harpers’ Magazine essayist, Salon writer, and political commentator Thomas Frank has been helping some of us on the intellectual Left feel this year.

“A Bit of Blunt Class Analysis”

Consider Frank’s recent, widely read Salon essay properly mocking the standard center-left defense of US President Barack Obama. According to a standard liberal apology, Obama has always and sincerely wanted to do genuinely progressive and left-leaning things to roll back the exaggerated power of the wealthy corporate and financial Few and to defend the nation’s poor and working class majority and the common good.  Alas, the excuse runs, our great wannabe people’s president has been powerless to act on these noble ambitions because of the combined reactionary and checkmating influences of the Republican Party, big political money, a gerrymandered Congress, the deadening handing of American federalism, and racism.

Without completely discounting these real barriers to decent policy on the part of a hypothetically progressive White House, Frank’s Salon piece offers a historically astute correction to this liberal lament. “When historians seek to explain the failures of the Obama years” Frank muses, “they will likely focus on a glaringly obvious, and indeed still more hard-headed explanation that the apologists for Obama’s enfeeblement now overlook: that perhaps Obama didn’t act forcefully to press a populist economic agenda because he didn’t want to. That maybe he didn’t do certain of the things his liberal supporters wanted him to do because he didn’t believe in them.”

Why, Frank asks, did the Obama administration not only “leave Wall Street standing after Wall Street plunged the nation into a slump without parallel in most people’s lives” but even “allow…Wall Street to grow more concentrated and more powerful than ever”? Why did a president elected on a promise of progressive change repudiate his own clear “power to react to the financial crisis in a more aggressive and appropriate way”? Why did he choose Wall Street insider “Tim Geithner to run the bailouts” and appoint the corporate lawyer “Eric Holder to (not) prosecute the bankers” and Wall Street ally “Ben Bernanke to serve another term at the Fed?” As Frank points out, it would have been both good policy (“the  economy would have recovered more quickly and the danger of a future crisis brought on by concentrated financial power would have been reduced”) and good politics – “massively popular” with the nation’s mostly white working class majority (something that would “have deflated the rampant false consciousness of the Tea Party movement and prevented the Republican reconquista of the House in 2010”) – if  Obama had wielded his “bully pulpit” to take a populist and progressive stand.

Frank’s thesis is that the financial crisis worked out the way it did – with Wall Street unpunished, richer, and more powerful than ever – “in large part because Obama and his team wanted it to work out that way.” At the same time, Frank proposes “a bit of blunt class analysis” suggesting that that big money exercises huge influence (imagine!) over Democrats as well as Republicans (imagine!) and that the Democratic Party has been “transform[ed] in recent decades into a dutiful servant of the professional class” with an “amazing trust in the good intentions and right opinions of their fellow professionals from banking, law, economics and journalism” and by a “generally dismissive attitude toward the views of working people.” (Thomas Frank, “It’s Not Just FOX News,” Salon, January 11, 2015)

Invisible Left Warnings

Gee…who knew? Starting in the summer of 2004 (right after Obama’s rock star speech at the Democratic National Convention) and continuing through the 2008 presidential election and beyond, I took to the pages of numerous Left journals and Web sites (ZNet, Z Magazine, Black Agenda Report, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, and more) to warn my fellow US progressives and leftists the world over about Obama’s fake-progressive, reactionary, neoliberal, imperial, and objectively white-supremacist essence.  The Obama who “didn’t do certain of the things his liberal supporters wanted him to do because he didn’t believe in them” (Frank) is the very Obama (with whom I was quite familiar from my years working as a social policy and Civil Rights researcher and advocate in Illinois and Chicago from the late 1990s through 2005) about whom I raised insistent alarms from the birth of the national Obama phenomenon (in August of 2004) on.

I wrote a book that pulled these warnings together. My volume Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm Publishers, June 2008) situated Obama (my pick as the next US President once John Kerry was defeated by George W. Bush in November 2004) within what I called the “corporate-dominated and militaristic U.S. elections system and political culture.  The book even warned of the coming fake-populist right-wing Tea Party Republican phenomenon likely to emerge in the wake of a President Obama’s coming service to the Lords of Capital.

I was even set to go on television on December 8, 2008 to put these warnings on the progressive airwaves after Obama’s election and prior to his inauguration. Sadly, however, my scheduled appearance on Democracy Now! was cancelled as I walked out of the New York City Port Authority at seven in the morning to catch a cab to the show’s studios in lower Manhattan.

I didn’t just write and speak about Obama’s subservience to the financial elite.  I also documented at length his deep and related commitments to US global-military Empire and the unchallenged persistence of neoliberal “color-blind” racism. And I didn’t write about Obama outside the broader context of the Democratic Party and its subservience to capital, empire, and institutional racism. Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics was careful to situate the next president within “the blunt class analysis” that Frank recommends.  I prefaced my discussion of Obama’s likely Wall Street-friendly trajectory with an historical account of the Democratic Party’s dollar-drenched descent into neoliberal corporatism since the 1970s.  Similar treatments of the Democratic Party’s less-than progressive history opened my chapters on Obama’s racial and foreign policy history. The book included some nice quotations from Frank’s celebrated volume What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) on the Democratic Party’s corporate-neoliberal abandonment of its onetime working class base.

I was hardly alone on the Left in questioning Obama’s progressive bona fides in the years leading up to his election. In March of 2010, Noam Chomsky told a German television interviewer that he was “one of the few people who isn’t disappointed [by Obama’s conservativism and imperialism] because I had no [progressive] expectations” (of Obama) – this because he looked at candidate Obama’s Website and saw little there beyond “a normal centrist Democrat roughly Clinton-style.” Obama “never pretended to be anything else,” Chomsky added (incorrectly- see below),

In reality, a considerable number of Left thinkers and activists tried to caution progressives and serious liberals off “the Obama Kool Aid” from 2005 through the 2008 election. Those voices included John Pilger, Adolph Reed, Jr, Glen Ford, Bruce Dixon, Michael Hureaux, Doug Henwood, Margaret Kimberly, Juan Santos, Greg Guma, Marc Lamont Hill, Pam Martens, Alexander Cockburn, Jeffrey St. Clair, Kim Peterson, David Peterson, Chris Hedges, Lance Selfa, Joshua Frank, Jeremy Scahill, John MacArthur, Ken Silverstein, and numerous others in such journals as Black Agenda Report, Z Magazine, ZNet, Dissident Voice, Harper’s, Left Business Observer, The Progressive, Truthdig, AlterNet and Socialist Worker.

My aforementioned book was perhaps the most ambitious and comprehensive effort before the 2008 election to demystify the Obama phenomenon and to warn about the Obama re-branding project from a Left perspective. Along with Lance Selfa’s study The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008), Sheldon Wolin’s chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, 2008), and John R. MacArthur’s You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America (New York: Melville, House, 2008), it can reasonably be said to have predicted the Obama presidency’s dismal betrayal of the Obama campaign’s liberal and progressive base.  It did so through a simple insistence on rigorously situating Obama in the world of what Pilger calls “power as it is, not as many of us wish it to be.”

The sixth chapter of my next book – The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) – was titled “We Were Warned.” It listed no less than twenty key ways in which reasonably attentive citizens were given advance warning of the corporatist, military-imperialist, and white-pleasing trajectory of an Obama White House.

Liberal and Centrist Warnings About the “Deeply Conservative” Obama

My guess is that Thomas Frank never paid any attention to the “hard left” outlets mentioned three paragraphs above. During a talk I heard him give last February at the University of Iowa, Frank appeared completely unaware of the existence of anything that might merit respectful consideration to the left of the Democratic Party in the US in recent years. Talking about the terrible consequences of Obama’s decision to serve and protect the nation’s top banksters in 2009 and 2010, Frank riffed ruefully on how the mantle of American populism has fallen entirely and perversely to the Koch Brother-funded market-fundamentalist Tea Party right. The Wisconsin and Occupy rebellions of 2011, the Fight for Fifteen, the Kshame Sawant election in Seattle, the Chicago Teachers strike of 2012, and the Black Lives Matter movement and other progressive struggles received democracy no mention whatsoever. Frank clearly does not spend a lot of time consulting seriously Left media.

But it wasn’t just “radical” Leftists who suggested that Obama wasn’t anything like the left-leaning progressive that Hope-besotted liberal Obamaphiles imagined. In mid-December of 2007, the legendary corporation-battling progressive Ralph Nader endorsed “fighting John” Edwards over Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary race on MSNBC. When MSNBC’s Chris Mathews observed that Nader had “excluded Obama from the progressive coalition,” Nader responded that “he’s excluded himself by the statements he’s made, unfortunately” – statements “which are extremely conciliatory to concentrated power and big business…The people of Iowa and New Hampshire,” Nader added, “have to ask themselves: who is going to fight for you.”

On the same day Nader spoke with Mathews, the leading liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted that “there are large differences among the [Democratic] candidates in their beliefs about what it will take to turn a progressive agenda into reality…Anyone,” Krugman added, referring to Obama, “who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.”

Krugman’s rhetoric mirrored that of his presidential candidate Edwards, who repeatedly mocked Obama’s message of conciliation with big business and the G.O.P. as “singing Kumbaya.” Edwards called Obama’s repeatedly stated desire to work with big corporations, Wall Street, and the Republicans “a total fantasy.” Obama, Edwards said repeatedly, was selling the conservative illusion of progressive change without confrontation. “When you sit down at a big table to ‘negotiate’ with the Republicans and the big corporations,” Edwards said across Iowa and New Hampshire, “it doesn’t get you anywhere. They just eat everything at the table.”

Nader, Edwards, and Krugman’s take on the “corporate Democrat” Obama (Edwards’ recurrent description of the next president in Iowa) in late 2007 were consistent with a deeply researched, in-depth portrait of Obama published in the centrist New Yorker in early May of the same year. In an extensive, carefully constructed account, The New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar depicted Obama as anything but a left-leaning progressive. “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFaruhar reported, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean….It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.” Echoing MacFarquhar’s judgment, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza noted in July of 2008 that Obama’s career had been “marked at every stage” by “an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.” MacFarquhar’s and Lizza’s portraits were consistent with what Cass Sunstein, Obama’s conservative colleague at the University of Chicago Law School, identified (favorably) as Obama’s “minimalist” approach to law and politics” – a preference for “modest adjustments in institutions in search of his ‘visionary’ goals.”

Candidate Obama himself gave numerous warnings, some quite explicit, to the effect that he was not the liberal champion and peoples’ candidate many of his supporters imagined him to be. Some of his statements seem more than a little haunting in retrospect. In a late 2007 debate in Des Moines, Edwards repeated his oft-stated line that only an “epic fight” with the rich and powerful could deliver livable wages, clean government, and meaningful healthcare reform. Obama responded with what Left author Mike Davis called “typical eloquent evasion.”  “We don’t need more heat,” Obama said: “we need more light.”

Numerous leftists at the time (myself included) were happy to tell anyone willing to listen who a President’s Obama’s bringers of “light” would be: people like Tim Geithner, Lawrence Summers, and Eric Holder.

“I Love Obama”

All of which raises an interesting issue: where was Thomas Frank on the supposed Great Liberal Hope Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008? Here are some fascinating exchanges between PBS’s Bill Moyers and Frank on January 23rd, 2009, three days after Obama’s first presidential Inauguration:

BILL MOYERS: Tom, you even wrote a column the other day with the headline that said, in The Wall Street Journal, “Obama should act like he won.” Is he doing that?
THOMAS FRANK: You know, it’s a funny thing because he — I love Obama. I voted for him many times. He was my state senator back in Chicago. I’ve, you know, followed this guy’s career for ages. I think he’s the greatest thing in the world. I don’t understand why a man that just won a sweeping victory over the other party — you know, won a landslide in the electoral college and the other party, you know, is crawling off with its tail between its legs, you know, horribly discredited, everything they believe in ruins….And he goes to that party and says, you know — he wanted a majority of the Republican votes in the Senate for his stimulus package as well as, of course, the Democrats. And I read that, I was, like, well, why? You just gave them a whooping that they’re not going to forget in a long time, you know? You are in charge.
Let them, you know, why go to them? Let them come to you. And I think — you know what I think is going to happen is that he’s going to discover very quickly what Bill Clinton discovered but then Bill Clinton never — you know, that these guys are implacable, you know? That they are not going to come around, that they don’t have his best interests at heart. And they don’t even have the nation’s best interests at heart. I’m sorry. I’m very partisan.
…BILL MOYERS: So what do you see in Obama that you think will justify your voting for him over and over again? No, that’s a serious-
THOMAS FRANK: Now you’re putting me on the spot here, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: No, no. You’re a historian. You can’t see right quite yet.
THOMAS FRANK: Yes. That’s true. That’s true. And I will admit that one of the reasons that I was so pleased to vote for Obama in the primaries was that I thought that it would bring a new crowd to Washington, that it would be the end of this sort of centrist nonsense. Okay, call me gullible. But-
BILL MOYERS: All right, gullible.
THOMAS FRANK: -it would be, you know, but it would-
BILL MOYERS: Thomas Gullible Frank.
THOMAS FRANK: Yeah. You know, that you would not have a return — just a return of the Clinton Administration. That’s what I was looking for. And he seemed to be offering that. You know, new people, new blood. Unfortunately, you know, he gets in there and he’s brought in a lot of the Clinton — I’m not happy about this.
At the same time, I still have — I have a great deal of faith in the man. He — look, I’ve met him in person. I have never met a politician as intelligent, as rhetorically gifted. He’s brilliant.

Bad Faith, Bad Forgetfulness, or Something in-Between

Thomas Frank is a hard guy not to like. He’s an affable and engaging speaker (especially when he leaves his script) and writer: funny, learned, highly intelligent, and not particularly arrogant.  I’ve been fond of Frank’s witty and erudite prose since the mid-1990s, when he edited the brilliant left-liberal cultural-political journal The Baffler and he published a dazzling history of the post-World War II US advertising industry (The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism). Nobody’s better than Frank at making clever fun of the right wing and the fake-populist and pseudo-humanitarian pretenses of the business class.

Still, I think Frank spoke with more than a hint of bad faith and/or excessive self-forgetfulness during his aforementioned University of Iowa talk. During the Q and A session after that talk last February, I observed that progressives and liberals and Iowa and elsewhere had been amply warned about Obama’s “deeply conservative” proclivities leading up to the 2008 elections and that the corrections to liberal Obama fantasies had come not just from “out there” radicals leftists like me but also from centrist and liberal commentators and political actors like MacFarquhar, Lizza, Krugman, Edwards, and – last but not least – Obama himself.  Frank responded by saying that Obama had “campaigned on a progressive platform” and that what he really supported was “the Obama movement” – the large number of people who sparked to fight for progressive change by the “inspiring” candidate.

Frank is right about the deceptive campaigning. Contrary to Chomsky’s comment quoted above, candidate Obama did often pretend to be something more than just a “normal centrist Democrat, roughly Clinton-style” – especially during the primary campaign.   I saw the future president engage in precisely that deceit (driven in part by Edwards’ strident rhetorical populism) over and over again in Iowa in 2007. Consistent with that recurrent observation, the Bill Moyers transcript quoted above contains an interesting comment from the progressive journalist David Sirota in which Sirota recalls that candidate Obama called him up to say “You know, I want you to know I am a real progressive….if you look at my record I’m a real progressive.”

Still, talk of a progressive Obama sociopolitical “movement” should not be taken very seriously. The Obama phenomenon was a sophisticated top-down marketing and branding creation geared around a strictly limited and narrow electoral purpose.  The “movement” was about inducing people to enter and depart from voting booths.  It was not mobilizing grassroots masses to pressure government for populist action beneath and beyond quadrennial big money-big media-major-party candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” (Chomsky’s term) like something out of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. It was a brilliant, elite-crafted exercise in what the formerly left Christopher Hitchens described as “the essence of American politics…the manipulation of populism by elitism” – one that richly deserved its 2008 award from Advertising Age for “Marketer of the Year”

At the same time, Thomas Frank, by his own admission to Bill Moyers three days after Obama’s initial inauguration, “love[d] Obama” and thought Obama “was the greatest things in the world” after “follow[ing] his career for ages” and “vot[ing] for him many times.” That’s embracing the man, not just “the movement.”

Little to Love

From what it’s worth, I’m from Chicago (I lived and went to elementary school in “Obama’s neighborhood[s]” Hyde Park and Kenwood during the 1960s) and also formerly had Obama as my state senator (from 2001 through 2004). I even had to deal with Obama directly in my capacity as the research director of a fairly conservative Black civil rights and social service agency on Chicago’s South Side between 2000 and 2005. I always found him insufferably corporatist, elitist, and imperial, hardly a man remotely of the progressive left. The Obama I observed was richly consistent with the Black and Left political scientist Adolph Reed’s ominous description of Obama in The Village Voice at the onset of Obama’s political career in January of 1996:

“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway. So far the black activist response hasn’t been up to the challenge. We have to do better.”

There was never much if anything for a true progressive to “love” about Barack Obama.

What’s the Matter With “Left Media”?

All of which makes me wonder what was the matter not just with Frank but also and perhaps more importantly with “left” media and politics culture. “Left media” could put a liberal intellectual who was foolishly and gullibly in “love” with Obama on Moyers at the birth of the new Clinton-neoliberal Democratic presidency, but it couldn’t follow through with the booking on Democracy Now! of an actually Left intellectual (this writer) who had the comprehensively worked-up real story on that presidency prior to its onset. I hate to sound like a “Truther” (I am no such thing), but there really is a “gatekeeper” problem in what passes for Left media in the US.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm Publishers, 2014).

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By | 2015-03-03T12:15:56+00:00 March 3rd, 2015|Articles|