Thursday, July 28, 2016

Thomas Frank's "simple liberal mind" (or: What's the matter with Pennsylvania?)

If the so-called "progressive" left that rallied around and then abandoned Bernie Sanders has a mantra, it is this: the Democratic Party is ideologically bankrupt.

In a nutshell (just a little bigger than a mantra), the accusation is that the Democratic party has gone "neoliberal" and left the working man behind by encouraging free trade, globalization, and meritocratic advancement through education. Along comes Donald Trump to snap up the straggling working man with empty, substance-free "promises."

The argument is an application to the Democrats of Thomas Frank's "what's the matter with Kansas" critique. (Here he is applying it himself.) What frustrated Frank about Kansas Republicans was their penchant to vote "right to life" instead of economic self-interest.

To Frank and his progressive confreres "economic self-interest" can be defined as the needs of a 55-year-old laid-off white male factory worker in Pennsylvania (or Kansas, maybe). Those are the voters that Trump's idiosyncratic, non-Republican sales pitch is snapping up. Frank credits Trump with appealing to them by single-handedly "dynamiting" the bipartisan regime of globalization and trade agreements.

So, let me see here: the voters who according to Frank were not voting in their economic self-interest in Kansas are now, in Pennsylvania, voting in their economic self-interest? Is it not possible that Trump is attracting people for other reasons? Racial fear? Islamophobia? THE WALL?

In fact, economic self-interest turns out to be more complex than Frank, with his self-avowed "simple liberal mind," will admit. The laid-off factory worker might talk about PTT, but my bet is that he will more likely talk about immigration. If he is a "Reagan Democrat" (probable), he will also have caught the virulent, anti-government-at-all-levels Tea Party bug: Throw out the bums; the system is rigged. Knee-jerk, amorphously politicized emotional responses to economic stress might be producing that inner, economic self-interest voice that whispers, "Hey, let's blow up the system. It can't be worse than the one we have, right?" Donald Trump is the perfect candidate for these people.

But Frank's simple liberal mind can't tease these things out. With either side, apparently.

If it could, it'd be possible to see how there might be a lot of Democrats out there voting for Hillary because their economic best interests include elements that seem not to penetrate the simple liberal mind.

That white male factory worker? Well, he's male. But what about females? Could it be that there's an economic issue unrelated to globalization or outsourcing that interests them? You don't say: equal pay for equal work! See, it turns out that economic disparity cuts a lot of ways in the USA, and the gender cut may be the unkindest one of all to a certain, um, "class" of voter to whom--I can't imagine why--Hillary appeals.

That white male factory worker? Being white, he probably turns a blind eye to economic issues having to do with race. But what about the African-Americans supporting Clinton? What kind of economic issues might interest them? How about a place at the !@#$%%^&* table? Clinton is certainly far from ideal, but she has a history at least of working with the black community, as do the Democrats. The last time the GOP did anything for black voters was, what, 1872?

I've already said that the white male factory worker probably feels economically threatened by immigrants and is therefore unlikely to favor immigrant-friendly policies. OK, because the disaffected white male in Pennsylvania feels this way, does the simple liberal mind jettison the economic self-interest of Hispanics and Latinos? Apparently, yes, because its very simplicity is unable to handle complex issues like immigration, especially when they combine economics and justice.

Simple liberal mind: welcome to the complex political world of the 21st century. "Economic self-interest" is no longer just a construct of the middle-aged white male factory worker.

Who, by the way, would be much better off with someone who at least nods in the direction of unionization rather than someone who shakes his head furiously and adamantly, "Unions? No! Never!"

And what about health care? Is health care not an economic self-interest issue? What under- or unemployed person under the age of 65 was not positively affected by Obamacare? Unfortunately, however, Tea Party disease produces well-known symptoms that cause some people not to recognize their own economic self-interest.

So, political diagnosis being what it is, at least we know what's the matter with Pennsylvania.

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