Few terms in modern political discourse have been overused –– and mangled –– the way populism has. How did a word that initially meant mass multiracial working class organization come to be associated with right-wing demagoguery? In his latest book, The People, No, historian Thomas Frank sets out to answer just this. The Port City Socialist spoke to Mr. Frank about his new book, the history of populism, and left-liberal anti-populism.
PCS: My first question here, the reason why I want to talk to you specifically like right now is because I recently started rereading What’s the Matter with Kansas, and I noticed that, even though you are describing, obviously, the ‘90s and early 2000s sort of pseudo proto populist turn in the Republican Party, a lot of what you were describing seems really prescient. The way you described Newt Gingrich, for example, as kind of a bully who talks about Democrats as the enemy of the people — obviously Trump comes to mind. You talk about this narrative that the voters come up with that even when their party’s in power, they can’t do anything, and that’s very QAnon.
Thomas Frank: There’s a kind of genius to that. You know, both sides do it now, but yeah, that was something that they invented. But there is a genius to imagining yourself as powerless, and then you know even your leaders can never get anything done. I mean, look at Trump — he didn’t do anything! All these things that he promised to do, he didn’t do any of them, and it’s going to be surprisingly easy for them to brush that off, you know.
PCS: It’s always the deep state stopping them.
TF: The deep state — this is another example of something sort of different, which is also from What’s the Matter with Kansas, which is the right as a pseudo left. The deep state, I had friends that used to talk about that — and they were on the left! This was people talking about the CIA and stuff, you know. Now this is an idea that has migrated to the right, and it’s really freaky. There’s so many examples of that.
PCS: Exactly yeah and that’s really strange, and so I wanted to ask you, you know. In your view — and you’ve obviously touched on this quite a bit — where does Trump fit in in the lineage of the Republican Party? A lot of people talk about him as though he is, you know, an anomaly. Hillary Clinton had said on the campaign trail, “I don’t mind good Republicans, but I mind Trump. He’s a bad Republican.”
TF: You know, if you’d asked me that a little while ago, I had a really pat answer which is he represents continuity, not change. No, it’s not a break from Republican tradition. His slogan, make America great again, he takes from Ronald Reagan. His suspicion of the press, his paranoia, that’s all from Nixon you know. He’s channeling Nixon, he’s channeling Reagan. He does that all the time. A lot of his other issues are taken from Pat Buchanan. The only way in which he really diverged from Republican tradition was his hostility to trade agreements, but again he got that from Pat Buchanan. That’s not something that he made up himself. But you know Reagan, his hero, was responsible for NAFTA. Oh, and the other thing is that he bad mouth George Bush for the Iraq War, and this is regarded as a sin. That’s a crime for the Republicans that he did that. That is unacceptable. So if you’d asked me that a couple of years ago, a year ago, I would have said the continuity between Trump and his predecessors was pretty straightforward. I mean the whole idea of this right wing kind of fake populism, Trump didn’t invent that. That’s Nixon, that’s George Wallace, that’s Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Spiro Agnew, for example. All these guys did that, and Trump just represents a new stage in that now. Then he also did the same thing that I described in What’s the Matter with Kansas: he gets elected and what does he do? He gets tax cuts for the rich and he deregulates polluters, you know. It’s the same crap as always. It’s the same bait and switch that they always do now.
There is something that is changing, though, so there is continuity, but there is a change going on. I don’t know if it’s attributable to Trump or if it’s attributable to something larger but that traditional Republican voters are abandoning the Republican party. That is definitely happening. So I say that Trump represents continuity, and I just told you why I think that, but I also think that the landscape is changing really dramatically. I mean, you said you just looked at What’s the Matter with Kansas, so I described in there in great detail that the name of the neighborhood I grew up in is Mission Hills, which is in Johnson County, which is a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. Johnson County is by far the richest county in Kansas. It’s like a wealthy suburban county that you’d find anywhere in America, only when compared to everywhere else in Kansas it’s head and shoulders richer. The neighborhood that I grew up in was extremely rich and not my family, as you know, from the book. My family is not particularly rich, but nevertheless that’s where I happened to grow up, so I knew those kids. I knew the children, I knew the grown-ups. They were who I played with, who I went to school with. When I was a kid as you read in the book, these were the most republican people in the world. These were deeply Republican people. They loved Bob Dole, they loved Dwight D. Eisenhower. That’s that’s who they were. That was central to how they understood themselves, and they were the ruling class of the state, these kids, they owned the place. Well, I just went back there in November to see the election — I always go back to Kansas at election time because I always like to see what happens, sort of keep my hand in. Johnson County went for Biden. They went for a Democrat. And I looked it up. That’s the first time they’ve gone for a Democrat since 1916, Woodrow Wilson. Over 100 years. Kansas, the state, went for Roosevelt, went for Johnson, has gone Democratic a number of times, but Johnson County never.
But now everything’s flipped so the ruling class of the state has, by and large, gone over to the Democratic Party, and this is happening everywhere, by the way. It took slightly longer in Kansas than elsewhere, and the rest of the state is still very Republican. I looked at the precinct data for my neighborhood — my dad still lives there — and Biden won every single precinct in Mission Hills, every single one. So something is happening. These people that I thought of as the most Republican people in the world, and who arguably were, have flipped and it’s not because their social position has changed. They’re doing extremely well. Johnson County is extremely prosperous. The rest of Kansas is in a terrible situation but Johnson County is doing really, really well. And they’re Democrats now. This is happening everywhere. Orange County, California, which is where the John Birch Society came from, where Reagan came from, where Nixon came from — Democrats. They flipped in ‘16. They went for Hillary. You look at the fundraising, and both Hillary and Biden outraised Trump.
PCS: By a lot, right?
TF: Hillary, Hillary especially outraised him, by two to one. Biden, it wasn’t wasn’t quite — Trump was the incumbent, so Trump had a certain advantage but Biden still outraised him, and if you look at the industries that matter in America — Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Wall Street, you know, et cetera — they all went with Biden. The only industries, I think, where Trump was clearly in the lead were like Big Oil, casinos — and that, casinos, it was all because of Sheldon Adelson, one guy, and he’s dead now, so I don’t know what that means for the future. There’s a handful of industries like agriculture, I think, big ag monopolies where Trump did better than Biden, but by and large, the controlling heights, the commanding heights of the economy, are all on the side of the Democratic Party now, so you know we’re in new territory here.
PCS: It was so striking to me because I remember so clearly everyone talking about Trump like what he was doing was this new thing, but here you laid it out so clearly, so perfectly.
TF: In 2004! But it took me years to write that book. I was really writing about the ‘90s.
PCS: I guess my follow up to that is, to the extent that Trump does represent a meaningful break, we’re seeing people like Josh Hawley and Matt Gaetz — assuming he’s not going to go to prison — and even like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio too, these like real silver spoon type guys now adopting this faux populist stance.
TF: Everybody’s going to do that, yep. Well, they already were doing it. You know, Mitt Romney was sort of the last gasp of that kind of country club, Johnson County Republican style. And even then everybody accused him of being this monster!
PCS: The 47% comment?
TF: The 47% remark, yeah. Romney clearly could not switch on the populist vibe, and in fact Obama, who also had trouble switching on the populist vibe, he was able to bust the populist two by four over Romney’s head! Do you remember — you probably don’t remember — there’s a TV commercial that Obama was running about Romney. I mean Romney was wide open for this, the CEO of Bain Capital, and Obama had this genius commercial where they interviewed a bunch of factory workers from Ohio and told this story about how Bain Capital bought the company. One day, they ordered him to build a scaffold out in front of the building, and he and his friends built the scaffold, and then the boss got up on the scaffold and fired all of them! And it was just so memorable. That image was so good, you know! It’s so disturbing. Yeah, Obama was able to easily wail on that guy but they’ve been doing crap forever. George Bush did it, you know. It’s not new.
The worst example was his dad George Bush, Sr., who is like in some ways the preppiest man in America. Like this blue blood, who had run to actually run the CIA, you know. He was the son of a U.S. Senator, you know. Like his ancestors came over on the Mayflower, you know! And in 1988 I still remember this, because it made me so mad — in 1988 the Democrats nominate this sort of classic technocratic, passionless guy Michael Dukakis. Bush busts the populist moves on him. Bush is advised by this kind of monster called Lee Atwater. He had Bush touring flag factories because they made an issue out of flag burning. It’s just made up. It’s nonsense. And they’d be scaring people with this kind of racist thing about prisoners, about Willie Horton. He would ride around the country in a bus with these like West Country and Western singers. It made me so angry. And it worked! That was the part of it that just was so galling. It worked, this nonsense, this fake populism — and it has never been more obviously fake than it was with that guy.
PCS: And now both those guys are liberal heroes.
TF: You know, it’s changing. Everything is changing like I said. Liberals themselves are changing. I could be completely wrong about this, but I think we’re in the middle of a sort of tectonic shift that we don’t really understand. And that’s sort of the last chapter of The People, No, because anti-populism has traditionally been this hostility to mass movements of working class people, and the suspicion of working class people has traditionally been a mental habit or an attitude of the right. Going back to the 1890s and looking at the 1930s that’s something you associate with aristocrats, bankers, you know, bosses, people that own newspapers. The owners of America, that’s who anti populism was.
Today that is liberals. I mean going from the specific, like these political scientists that denounce populism all the time, these are people who are identify with the Democratic Party, by and large and to the more general thinking of you know, the sort of Twitter culture and culture of left media, stuff like that is extremely anti-populist right. That’s the biggest shift, the one that is most shocking to me, I think. Sometimes I think I’m the only one shocked by this. Everybody else is just like, “Yeah, so what? That’s the way it is, Frank.”
PCS: You mentioned in What’s the Matter with Kansas that Republican voters’ concerns are always shrugged off as just the concerns of angry white men, and that’s something we see today, even with figures on the left. That’s what a lot of liberals even said about Bernie Sanders and his supporters.
TF: Yeah, but I think I said it slightly differently. I had a term at the time — it was “angry, bitter self-made men.” That was my term, the bitter self-made men, these guys that I grew up amongst. These are small business owners. They had done relatively well. You know, they were well off, but they were incredibly bitter about everything. You talk to them in conversation, and their bitterness was bottomless. And later when I started hanging around with the Tea Party movement — you know to write about them, not because I was in the Tea Party — it was the same guys, all of these small business owners. And the people who stormed the capital on January 6, this is the same bunch of people. Or, I should say, the same sort of demographic profile. What’s fascinating to me, is their bitterness –– which I still to this day think of as a specifically small business mentality, small business way of looking at the world — has been communicated and bought into by huge numbers of working class people. They vote for these Republican candidates and they bought into this whole way of looking at the world.
PCS: I was also reading The People, No recently and something that really stuck out to me was when you quote Obama and he’s talking about Trump representing this crude populism that promises a past that that can’t be restored, and what I thought was incredible was that you follow that up with “That’s not populism — that’s just conservatism.”
TF: Yeah, that’s the story of the book. Where does this idea come from that that’s what populism is? It’s totally mysterious. By the way, just so you know, it’s very interesting about Obama. So the paperback of this is going to come out in about six months and I’ve updated the passage about Obama. Obama’s roots are from Kansas. His mom came from Wichita. On other occasions, he has shown a correct understanding of what populism was; he actually knows what it was, right, and has referred to himself as a populist. And then, something happened and, like the whole intellectual consensus of this country shifted around and decided that, “No, this word refers to people like Trump,” and Obama just adopted it overnight. It’s really weird and that’s the kind of mystery of the book.
Where does that other definition come from? Let’s trace the history of the word and how it’s used. And it comes from Richard Hofstadter, this historian in the 1950s, who just — for reasons that we don’t really understand I think — hated populism. He didn’t have any personal experience of it, of course — he was, you know, from a younger generation, much younger. His heyday was the ‘50s but he hated it, and I suspect his hatred came because he was reacting to the proceeding generation of historians who admired populism and who always talked about it as the birth of the American left et cetera, and it was like Charles Beard, some of these other guys. And this always happens in history, and in every other discipline as well, that one generation reacts against the generation before it and tries to correct their misperceptions. This always happens and so he wanted to go up against the sacred cow of the previous generation, and that was obviously populism. He just spent his entire career attacking populism constantly. Now he turned out to be wrong about it. His attacks on it, a lot of this psycho history and stuff like that, upon investigation later turned out to be misguided. It’s one of the most discredited theses in American history, his take on populism, but the funny thing is that it doesn’t matter. Historians, they played him like a drum, and they’re still doing it. They just beat the crap out of Hofstadter and his interpretation of populism. But it doesn’t make any difference. His interpretation of populism is what Obama is referring to, what all these political scientists are referring to. It doesn’t matter to them that it was refuted. What do you say about that? That’s just so weird that a refuted idea, a bankrupt idea, is the foundation for this whole school of thought. That is fascinating and once I figured that out I’m like, “I’ve got to write this book. This is just too weird.”
PCS: That’s exactly what I was wondering. It might seem facile, but what’s the point of someone like Obama who knows what populism is referring to Trump as a populist when he could just say, “He’s a conservative”?
TF: He’s a demagogue, yeah. One of the things that I researched for this book — I don’t think I included it — was when historians knew what populism was, there was a time when they only used the word “populism” to mean this third party movement from the 1890s. What did those historians call these southern racist politicians? Because they existed. What did they call them? And I looked it up. They called them demagogues: Dixie demagogues. The idea was that there was a special tradition, called the Southern Demagogue, and there was a whole book about them written in 1939 and he actually has a bunch of chapters or sections about populism, because populism was a threat to the demagogues, so the demagogues had to come up with ways to destroy or neutralize populism. The Wilmington race riot, that’s the classic example, but they disenfranchised people. That’s what they did. That was their response to populism. That’s how the demagogues beat it down. So what happened is the demagogues hated populism. But now we’ve decided that the demagogues were populists! It’s just so annoying that we can’t distinguish between these two things. One of them is genuine well meaning working class movement. This idea of blacks and whites, black and white farmers specifically, getting together, which was a common thread in the South, after the Civil War, up until about the year 1900, this happened again and again and again, the most famous example being populism. Now, the demagogues, their whole purpose in life was to short circuit this and get these people angry at each other and get them fighting with one another and they succeeded.
PCS: And I guess that’s sort of your whole book, that we still see this.
TF: Oh, my God, yes, it’s still going on. It’s still going on. Yeah, well, you’re there. You’re in Wilmington, North Carolina. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to someone from Wilmington before.
PCS: Surprisingly, no one seems to ever think about Wilmington.
TF: Yeah, do they ever talk about this incredible incident that happened there?
PCS: Not until very recently. The university just did a showing of — I think it’s called Wilmington on Fire — a documentary about it. It’s really only been the past year or so that this has come up, which I assume is only because of the Black Lives Matter protests.
TF: I myself didn’t hear about it, and I’ve studied populism all my life, until the year 2013 when I was in a museum in Raleigh and saw an exhibit about it. It blew my mind. I immediately knew what they were talking about, you know, when they said fusionist government, but I’d never heard of it before and I immediately started researching it. I got really interested in it. Absolutely fascinating subject, by the way, just so you know, since my book came out, I have tried — all of these journalists who are so interested in reexamining America’s racist history — I’ve tried to get them interested in this, and in this sort of populist angle to it and no luck. I can’t do it.
PCS: I mean, that’s sort of a metacosm of exactly what you’re talking about in The People, No right there.
TF: Because it’s hard for people to understand what they were doing back then. It’s so the other aspect of my story that I think is really timely and relevant, the story of disenfranchisement. Right now I don’t want to say it’s a well known story because it’s not. It’s not well researched, but people have been writing about it ever since it happened in the 1890s. But for whatever reason it’s not something that people are comfortable talking about, and so what you’ll often see, and I’ve been seeing this lately, Joe Biden says that disenfranchisement is something that happened under Jim Crow and, well, that’s true, but there’s actually a really interesting story as to why it happened — and why it happened at that particular time in the 1890s. It didn’t just happen right after the Civil War, no. It took a while and, well, in some states it happened right after, but in other states, it only happened when there was a threat that black farmers and white farmers were going to get together and start electing their own people into the office and they actually did it. That’s when the ruling elite of the South just came down on them like a ton of bricks. It was a way of suppressing populism in a bunch of these states. North Carolina is the classic example, but in other states as well, Georgia, Louisiana.
PCS: And you touch on that too, what happened when they formed these multiracial coalitions. You talk about Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr., in there.
TF: My heroes! Bayard Rustin, this is a guy I had not read before. I mean, I knew who he was. He was famous! He planned the March on Washington. But I had not read his essays before I wrote this book and they again blew my mind. What a great guy! This is a guy that’s getting everything right, every point, yeah.
PCS: You say you haven’t read him, but I mean, it’s not like he’s someone we learned about. He seems to get glossed over.
TF: Right now he’s largely he’s remembered because he was Martin Luther King’s right hand man. He’s helping, you know, planning the March on Washington. But no, we don’t remember his essays. They are not widely read, and the fact that he was so closely identified with the labor movement, that’s something that’s difficult for a lot of people to take nowadays, because they identify the labor movement with the bad guys. Unfairly, I think. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but a lot of people mentally do that.
PCS: Yeah, personally that’s been a very worrying strand of recent discourse for me. If we can shift gears a little bit, there’s been a lot of Biden discourse as well. When he was first elected, people were saying he might be the new FDR, things like that.
TF: And they’re still saying that!
PCS: Exactly, exactly, so I’m curious. You probably would be one of the people best equipped to actually analyze that. I don’t mean to — it’s a big question, but how do you feel like that’s been borne out so far? Does he seem to be leaning in a more populist direction in your estimation of things?
TF: Well, it’s way too early to tell. They’re saying that because he’s done something shocking that nobody thought he would do. Biden was one of the sort of — I don’t know if he was a member of the Democratic Leadership Council, but he was closely associated with them. This is a conservative Democrat from way back. His career was all about reversing the New Deal. That’s what the Democratic Leadership Council was. That was the idea, and by my standards he’s one of the worst members of the Democratic Party. This is a guy that was principal author of the Crime Bill of ‘94, which is a monstrous, monstrous piece of legislation, more or less the principal author of the Bankruptcy Bill, when Bush was President. You know, these are terrible terrible deeds and there’s a lot more there. You know, you go down the list he’s wrong on everything! He’s in favor of the Iraq War, you know, and he did that eulogy for Strom Thurmond. This guy got everything wrong! And so now he’s President and everybody assumes that he’s going to be basically continuing the Obama legacy and, if anything, be a little bit to the right of Obama. Well, his first act right out the gate is the opposite of that. He has a stimulus package that is like three times the size of the one that Obama got done and is much more generous in the right places, and along the way reverses Bill Clinton’s welfare reform! So there’s that and it is shocking. It’s shocking to a lot of people here in Washington, DC, who thought they knew what Biden was all about and they’re surprised by this.
But that said, this is a temporary measure. It’ll all be gone in a year. Biden has not shown any desire to do meaningful stuff in a permanent sense, like the raising the minimum wage. You have to remember that the minimum wage hasn’t been raised since George W. Bush was President. So he let that one go he let that one slip through his fingers. I think that’s a terrible mistake, but he did it. You know, we have yet to see. But people here in DC have to have something to talk about, so. That’s the model now, but you remember, they said the same thing about Obama. Obama had something different than Biden. He was extremely eloquent in a way that Biden will never be. Obama could explain things and Obama understood things and Obama, well, Obama was smart inn a way that Biden… you know.
And then the other thing was that Obama had a mandate. Obama had the world behind him; he had not just the country, but the world. He had both Houses of Congress, had an overwhelming majority in the Senate, and he had won the popular vote in a massive way, none of which Biden did. So Obama had everything going for him. You remember Time Magazine put him on the cover. They took a photo of FDR and put Obama’s face over it. There was even a guy who wrote a book called The New New Deal — I’ve got it — yeah basically saying that Obama’s stimulus package is a new WPA! And it’s just like… no. It wasn’t even close, you know! Biden is startling people. I mean, Maureen Dowd wrote a funny column about this the other day. The Obama people used to laugh at Biden, because he was so old fashioned. You know, he was the conservative guy in the administration and now look! The shoe’s on the other foot this time. Long story short, though, we don’t know.
PCS: I mean, I think that’s probably the fairest answer possible.
TF: It would be nice wouldn’t it? And Biden is old enough to remember Roosevelt! Joe Biden was born in 1942, yeah, so he was born during the third administration of Franklin Roosevelt.
PCS: I’m glad you brought up Roosevelt because you obviously dedicate a decent portion of The People, No to discussing Roosevelt. Your characterization of him is funny because you write that he is not someone who really had any kind of coherent ideology or beliefs, and he was just doing what he had to do, and so I was just curious your thoughts on the way that Roosevelt’s always invoked as this sort of — I mean he’s probably the most popular President, got elected four times, he established a completely new order to which everyone had to react afterwards.
TF: Well, we’re still living in his world. I know elderly people who managed to lose everything. I thank God everyday for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Social Security system, you know. That was such a brilliant move, and I am so glad that that exists.
PCS: So it was interesting to me that he’s always sort of invoked as if he’s almost deified, but then anytime that someone sort of gestures in that direction rhetorically, or in terms of actual legislation they’re slandered. This is again a pretty pat observation, but that contradictions really interesting to me.
TF: Things that Roosevelt himself said, they’re hard for people to take now. The things he said about bankers, you can’t say those things if you want to run, if you want to raise money from those guys. I just finished writing a review of a kind of work of popular history where the author both loves Franklin Roosevelt and constantly denounces populism. Well, how do you square that circle? The way you square that circle is by never actually inquiring into what Roosevelt said, what he talked about, and what he did. You know if you just never looked into that and you just pretend that he was this great leader and cheered everybody up and beat the Nazis, then you can ignore all the things that he said and did. And people are willing to do that. They are happy to do that. He is kind of the secular saint — if you’re a Democrat anyways — the secular saint of our political order so we know we have to honor him and revere him but we don’t remember why.
PCS: People were really afraid for a while of a genuinely populist Republican Party that was economically more populist while still retaining that social conservatism. Do you think that’s a viable party? Do you think that’s something that is worth fearing, worth considering at all?
TF: So Trump made gestures in that direction, but he never did anything. Although I take that back — during the pandemic they basically just turned on the money hose. In doing that, they gave permission for the Democrats to also do it. Biden’s giant stimulus package and the whole thing about the $2,000 checks, that’s all made possible by Trump during the pandemic just saying, you know, turn it on and let it let it rip. But then again Trump, other than that, his leadership was so incredibly poor that you know that the public couldn’t stand it. But, look, the Republicans, they know that that is everybody knows that that’s a winning that’s a winning hand in American politics, and there’s nobody occupying that space — I mean, maybe a guy like Bernie Sanders, although he’s not really culturally very conservative, but he is old fashioned you know which for some people amounts to the same thing.
Republicans can’t do economic liberalism; that’s the problem. They don’t know how. Right now here in Washington they’re casting about looking for some way to do that. One of the things that they’ve discovered is antitrust and again you can’t both worship Ronald Reagan and say, “Oh yeah, we need to bring back antitrust,” because this is what one of the things that Reagan did. He deregulated the banks, and he stopped enforcing antitrust, so if you’re going to call yourself a Republican and you’re going to say that you’re following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, you can’t be a liberal on economic issues. It’s impossible — well, anything is possible. People will say anything and do anything, so it’s not impossible. It’s just extremely difficult and these people don’t know how to be liberals. You’ve got a perfect test case right now, this Union being formed at Amazon. Why aren’t they down there walking the picket line? You know seriously, why aren’t they? That would be great for them. You know win-win, right? Except no, they hate unions. They want to be the party of working people, but they hate unions. They can’t do it. They might want to do it in their heart of hearts, but they don’t know how.
PCS: You mentioned it’s a winning formula, the rhetorical populism, regardless of whether or not you back it up with material gains, but so few people on the nominal left in the Democratic Party are willing to do that. Do you think that that’s just a fear of scaring their donors, even if there’s nothing behind it?
TF: In part, but it’s also who they are. This is the story of Listen, Liberal, my last book, which is about the transition of the Democratic Party, and that it’s they are a classic class-based party. Most Democrats that I know are very frustrated with the Democratic Party. They hate them. They’re like, “You know I vote for them and they never give me anything and we support them and election day we drive people to the polls, and then they give us the brush off and they don’t do anything for us!” It’s very frustrating.
But if you ask somebody in the professional white collar elite, they’re like, “Oh yeah, this is the best party ever! This is a party that delivers, a party that does what it says it’s going to do. This is a great political party!” And the story of the last 40 years is how the Democrats became this party of the professional elite, the highly educated, that kind of thing. And, in fact, one of the things I discovered is that you can totally understand who the Democrats are, what they’re going to do and what they’re going to say just by reading sociological studies of the professional managerial class, which is what I did in Listen, Liberal. One of the things that these books all point out is that professionals, you know, doctors, lawyers, architects, whatever, bankers can be very liberal on cultural issues, but they hate unions. They just hate unions, and they hate any issues having to do with working class empowerment because that’s central to these professions that they are higher status people. You gain status by doing well in school, by achieving your professional credentials, you know, being a member of the professional association. The idea of a union is the opposite: it’s that everybody gets paid well, even if they didn’t finish high school. You join the Union and you’re in and everybody’s in. Everybody’s in and everybody gets Social Security and everybody gets Medicare, you know and professionals don’t like that. They like meritocracy. They like competition. They like the people with the best credentials having the highest incomes.
PCS: So the Democrats are the true believers and the Republicans are the cynics.
TF: Well, Republicans have their own version of that. It’s slowly disappearing, but that’s the sort of Ayn Rand version where instead of rising to the top through education, you rise to the top through by working hard and being CEO or founding your own company or entrepreneurship. So they have that; both both sides have their own worship of meritocracy. It’s just the Democratic one is so much stronger now because of who the elit of America is. I mean, the people who run the corporations now are MBAs and you know people with advanced degrees. The people who run Wall Street are people with math degrees, you know, advanced degrees. The whole picture of the American class system is changing.
PCS: If there’s anything else you think readers need to know that we didn’t touch on, feel free.
TF: You got 99% of it there. The only thing I would bring up is this. The idea that I’m proudest of is this idea of anti-populism and that it has shifted from right to left in our lifetimes in a really remarkable way. This suspicion of mass democracy and of working class political activism, which was always a trope of the right, has become a trope of the left and that’s really, really mysterious, dangerous, and harmful.