Thomas Frank has a piece in the latest New York Review of Books called "what's the matter with the liberals?" I've enjoyed Frank's work for years, going back to The Baffler. He's a wonderful writer, and he does excellent research into the rightwing and how they bait with culture and switch to economics. My problem with Frank, however, is that he tends to blame the Democrats' for the Republicans' successes without looking at context. Furthermore, his understandable fascination with the rhetoric and mendacity of the conservatives and Republicans monopolizes his attention, and he gives too little attention to structural, historical and contextual issues behind campaigns. He's supremely talented at description, but until he applies those descriptive talents more equally, his failure to more fully engage contemporary liberalism and the present-day Democratic party will keep him from developing the cogent and balanced analysis of the interplay between conservatives and liberals that I hope he writes soon.
His latest piece is definitely worth a read. He does a nice job of laying out the broad strokes behind the Republicans' strategy of hiding savage class-warfare economics beneath a hard-edged cultural populism raged against "liberal elites." The reader well-informed on the reactionary populist politics of the last 40 years won't find much new in his analysis, but he provides a clear and succinct summary of recent rightwing populism, with several examples from the last presidential election.
My problem is that he doesn't seem anywhere near as interested in analyzing the "left" or liberals or the Democrats as much as blaming them for hapless acquiescence and impotence in the face of a much more determined and disciplined foe, as when he claims that a "newcomer to American politics, after observing this strategy in action in 2004, would have been justified in believing that the Democrats were the party in power, so complacent did they seem and so unwilling were they to criticize the actual occupant of the White House."
One might argue that the charge is accurate, even though he offers no evidence to support the claim (in contrast to the excellent examples he gives of backlash rhetoric and tactics). It's also not necessary for Frank to become an expert on liberals or the Democratic party (although it would help). And as I said, his NYR article is very good at describing right-wing populism. However, his goal is broader:
The 2004 presidential campaign provides a near-perfect demonstration of the persistent power of backlash—as well as another disheartening example of liberalism's continuing inability to confront it in an effective manner.
I would love to see Frank apply his prodigious gifts to analyzing the interplay between the "class-based backlash against the perceived arrogance of liberalism" and actual liberalism. (Attention Amy Sullivan, Matt Bai and the rest of the "Democrats are elitists, let the proles eat values" crowd--Frank calls it "the perceived arrogance of liberalism.) But to analyze the dynamic between backlash and liberalism, Frank has to understand and describe liberalism, show how it "works" with at least some of the insight he's applied to his study of the right, and he's got to address structural issues, like realignment, financial advantage, historical trends, demography, etc. He's done a wonderful job of defining and describing the rightwing populist backlash, and in this piece he talks about, among Republicans, George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Sam Brownback, Donald Rumsfeld and Arlen
Specter. Among conservative activists, propagandists, etc., he mentions Michael Novak, John O'Neill, Gary Bauer, James Dobson, Norman
Podhoretz, Michael Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Pat Buchanan, Sean Hannity, Michael
Medved, Paul Weyrich, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and Noel Sheppard. He mentions Zellout's defection to the Republicans. But only one active public figure is mentioned on the "liberal" side: John Forbes Kerry. In no way is John Kerry's performance in the last presidential campaign a sufficient basis on which to pass broad conclusions about the ability of "liberalism" to stand against class-based reactionary backlash.
It's also a problem to talk about "liberals" and "liberalism" and only talk about the 2004 presidential race; outside of Kerry's 1972 campaign, Frank never mentions Congressional races, governors' races, or legislative and downballot races. It's also a strain to characterize John Kerry's failure to beat George Bush as an example of "liberalism's continuing inability to confront" the rightwing backlash. Why isn't the inability to confront the rightwing backlash John Kerry's, especially since, as a Massachusetts Brahmin with an Olympian demeanor whose most difficult race was against the even bluer blooded William Weld, Kerry hadn't faced such reactionary populism in over 30 years? Kerry was custom-made for an attack of reactionary populism. No matter who Democrats nominated, he was going to be attacked, but had the nominee been Edwards, Clark or Gephardt, the reactionary populism would not have been as easy a sell for the Republican propogandists and hatchet men.
The 2004 election was less a referendum on reactionary populism vs. liberalism than it was a referendum on George Bush and John Kerry. For a sitting president not presiding over a horrendous economy (like Hoover and Carter), Bush was remarkably weak. But in many ways, Kerry was even weaker, mostly due to his geography, his less-than-engaging style, his many years in the Senate which opened him up to attacks on "flip-flopping," which he exacerbated with boneheaded comments like "I voted for the $87 million before I voted against it.". Despite Bush's disastrous policy performance, Rove and his team effectively used the powers of incumbency, and succeeded in beating Kerry in a tightly contested tactical campaign. Thomas Frank has vividly described what the Republicans did to help George W. Bush by knocking down John Kerry so they could sneak by Kerry on the margin of 118,000 votes in Ohio. Hopefully he's soon apply his tremendous gifts to analyzing liberals and Democrats so he can provide a comparative analysis of American politics that doesn't simply describe the actions of our opponents, but discovers effective strategies and tactics for liberals and Democrats in the future.