New book, ‘Listen Liberal,’ looks at Democratic party schism

The raucous primary season brought simmering tensions and disaffection within the GOP to a boiling point. But equally severe divisions also surfaced in the Democratic party, centered around Sen. Bernie Sanders’ upstart populist campaign. Historian Thomas Frank explores the causes and consequences of this schism in his new book “Listen, Liberal,” and joins Judy Woodruff to share what he’s learned.

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    Finally tonight, a look at some of the backstory to this year's raucous political season.

    Just as it brought to the surface tensions and disaffection within the Republican Party, so too have divisions in the Democratic Party revealed themselves.

    Author and historian Thomas Frank explores all this in his latest book, "Listen, Liberal."

    I sat down with Frank recently in our studio.

    Thomas Frank, welcome to the program.

    THOMAS FRANK, Author, "Listen, Liberal": Good to be here, Judy.


    And we should say the subtitle is "What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?"

    You were talking about the Democrats, but just before we talk about what you think is wrong with the Democratic Party now, when was the last time you thought the Democratic Party was doing what it was supposed to do?


    Well, there's a — look, there's still a lot of good Democrats out there, the Democrats that get the — like, the seal of approval from me, you know, that get five stars. There's plenty of Democrats that I approve of.

    And I will say that I enthusiastically voted for President Obama back in 2008. So — but, on the other hand, I think that the party has really abandoned its dedication to working-class Americans, beginning in the 1970s, and has progressively abandoned it more and more and more, that sort of traditional Democratic mission.


    I mean, you're hard. In your book, you're pretty hard on President Obama in not fulfilling what you argue was the promise of his presidency. You're hard on both of the Clintons, both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.

    But you also make the striking point that the inequality that we have in this country is something that they think is a good thing?


    Well, it's something that — I wouldn't say that. Barack Obama called it the — what did he call it? The great — the overriding challenge of our time.

    But, yes, he has a way of putting it, and when he speaks about it in this very eloquent manner, he makes it clear that this is something he deplores, something that, you know, he finds shocking.

    However, the Democratic Party, the sort of leadership faction of the Democratic Party, isn't really at their core bothered by inequality. They think that, to a certain degree, it reflects the way things ought to be. This is because the Democratic Party isn't — the leadership of the Democratic Party is not who we think they are.

    It's a different group of people serving a different agenda than what we — than their brand identity tells us they are.


    And you describe them as pretty much the opposite of the working class, the blue-collar workers in this country.


    Yes. Yes. That's not who they're interested in anymore.

    Once upon a time, say, Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson or somebody like that, yes, absolutely, that's what the Democratic Party was about. They were about the middle class of this country. Today, they are about the professional, managerial, highly educated, white-collar, affluent, suburban class. That's who they identify with.

    That's who they — they have sort of developed this enormous literature talking about how this class of people is of the pinnacle of history. This is also the class they are all — themselves, that they themselves are drawn from.

    They talk about these people all the time. And they see that, you know, this group of winners is, you know, the ultimate, the sort of number one Democratic constituency, they think that that class of people deserves to be where they are, that this is — that their status is something that they have earned.


    It's a pretty harsh criticism.

    And you're basically saying that the leadership of the Democratic Party, Silicon Valley, the academics, the folks on Wall Street who are Democrats, really don't care about the working class.


    Yes, that's exactly right. That's exactly right.

    The more shocking thing is that the Democrats basically are a party that identifies itself with Wall Street and that identifies itself with Silicon Valley and that identifies itself with big pharma, with these industries that they're forever talking about and saluting because they're so creative, they're so innovative.

    This is where these sort of knowledge-based industries, where — the kind of professionals that Democrats see themselves as representing, this is where those kind of people are found. And so they look at Wall Street and they don't see this kind of colossal villain or, you know, the way, say, someone like Franklin Roosevelt would have understood Wall Street.

    Instead, they see classmates. They see their peers. You know, they have a really difficult time bringing this industry to heel or making sure that the rule of law applies to this industry.


    And you end the book, Thomas Frank, on a pretty pessimistic note, because you say until Democrat — the leaders in the Democratic Party understand the role they have played in bringing things to this place, things aren't going to get better.


    Yes, that's exactly right, because it's clear that the Republican Party — it's clear from my point of view, I should say, that the Republican Party, with its dedication to markets and its philosophy of entrepreneurs, is not really interested in inequality.

    But what's shocking is when you realize that the Democrats themselves aren't really interested in it either, that the kind of liberalism that you see in the Democratic Party is a liberalism of the rich, that it's the liberalism of the top 10 percent of the income distribution, of a kind of — of a tiny swathe of Americans who have actually done very well in the era of inequality. And that's shocking once you realize that.


    What are the implications of this for this year's election?


    Well, we have a contest now that is basically down to Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton, and between those two.

    On the matter of inequality, one of them is really bad and one of them is a lot less bad. And that's where we're left. You know, it's the sort of same situation that we have been in for so many years. No, I don't think there is an easy way out this year. And I think that the public is going to get — these problems are going to get worse. Inequality is going to get worse.

    The situation of working people is going to get worse. And you're going to see more public frustration and more public anger and more Bernie Sanders down the road and more — unfortunately, I'm sorry to say, more Donald Trumps as well.


    It's a provocative book, "Listen, Liberal: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?"

    Thomas Frank, thank you very much.


    Well, thank you for having me.

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