[Marxism] Can We Have a ‘Party of the People’?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 28 06:22:51 MDT 2016


NYRB, OCTOBER 13, 2016 ISSUE
Can We Have a ‘Party of the People’?
Nicholas Lemann

Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century
by Daniel Oppenheimer
Simon and Schuster, 403 pp., $28.00

The Limousine Liberal: How an Incendiary Image United the Right and 
Fractured America
by Steve Fraser
Basic Books, 291 pp., $27.50

Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
by Thomas Frank
Metropolitan, 305 pp., $27.00
Thomas Frank

As a reviewer of political books, I get a lot of them unbidden in the 
mail. I remember vividly, one day in 2003, opening a package from a 
publisher, finding Arianna Huffington’s anticorporate screed Pigs at the 
Trough, and thinking: finally, after all these years, somebody has moved 
from right to left! Through the 1990s, Huffington had been a fairly 
dutiful Republican—at one point, even a Republican political wife. She 
enthusiastically supported the impeachment of Bill Clinton. As late as 
2000 she was presenting herself as a kind of militant, 
pox-on-both-your-houses centrist. But now, as usual, her timing was 
impeccable. Soon she had founded The Huffington Post, which has amassed 
an online audience on the left that exceeds that of almost all the 
mainstream news organizations.1 (And it may be a harbinger of something 
else, I’m not sure what, that Huffington has just announced she will be 
leaving Huffington Post to run a “corporate and consumer well-being 
platform” called Thrive Global.)

For most of the three decades preceding Huffington’s conversion, moving 
from left to right, or at least from left to less left, was far more 
common than the other way around. Ex-Communists used to ask, “What was 
your Kronstadt?,” referring to the 1921 uprising against the Bolsheviks 
that presented one of the first occasions to become disillusioned with 
them, to be followed by many others. American domestic liberalism 
provided people looking for Kronstadts with a long series of 
opportunities, beginning in the mid-1960s. These included, for example: 
the Black Power movement, for those who thought Martin Luther King Jr.’s 
“I Have a Dream” speech fully and exclusively represented the thinking 
of black America; and the crushing defeat of George McGovern’s 
presidential campaign in 1972, for those who planned to run for office 
(like Bill and Hillary Clinton). Also, after the fall of the Soviet 
Union and the rise of Silicon Valley at home, many liberals began to 
think of capitalism in a far more broadly positive way than had been 
typical in American liberalism. That wasn’t as dramatic a change as 
moving from right to left, but because it involved many more people, it 
had a large effect on the location of the political consensus.

Elected officials are still wary about calling themselves “liberal,” but 
this year the momentum seems to be strongly in the direction that 
Huffington sensed was coming. The big surprise of the Democratic primary 
season was how well Bernie Sanders did, and Hillary Clinton has moved a 
couple of notches to the left in response, for example in turning 
against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and in proposing a very generous 
new federal program to reduce tuition at public universities. But “left” 
is not a neat category. Donald Trump and Sanders share a number of 
positions and rhetorical gestures, including opposition to free trade 
agreements and harsh criticism of Wall Street. (Indeed, Trump’s 
nomination seems to be a Kronstadt for many conservatives.) In his 
acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, Trump predicted that 
Sanders’s supporters will vote for him. Sounding a lot like Sanders, he 
said, “Big business, elite media, and major donors are lining up behind 
the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged 
system in place.”

This year’s Republican platform calls for the reinstatement of the 
Glass-Steagall Act, which is the 1933 law that separated commercial and 
investment banking—signed by Franklin Roosevelt, repealed by Bill 
Clinton in 1999. This was an often-repeated Sanders position, but 
Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic platform, don’t agree. The platform 
merely calls for Glass-Steagall to be “updated and modernized.”

Countries with parliamentary systems can have social-democratic parties, 
nationalist parties, green parties, ethnic parties, business parties, 
regional parties, religious parties, feminist parties, agricultural 
parties, and so on, which can fall into and out of coalitions with one 
another. The United States has a peculiarly durable two-party system 
that makes this process invisible because it takes place behind a 
deceptive façade that presents to the world one party for liberals and 
one for conservatives. Figuring out where American politics is moving 
ideologically requires establishing better definitions than thinking 
merely in the most broad and obvious terms that the two parties offer us.

Daniel Oppenheimer’s Exit Right is a collection of six profiles of men 
who moved from left to right—before, during, and after the period when 
it seemed as if everybody were moving from left to right. They are an 
odd assortment. Three of Oppenheimer’s subjects—Whittaker Chambers, 
James Burnham, and David Horowitz—were “on the left” in a truly 
life-encompassing way. Chambers and Burnham were Communists, as were 
Horowitz’s parents. Of the other three, one, Christopher Hitchens, would 
at times have called himself a Marxist (but unlike the others, after 
conversion he never became a real movement conservative); Ronald Reagan 
was for some years a standard-issue New Deal Democrat, like most 
Americans of his generation and background; Norman Podhoretz published 
some left-wing writers in the early years of his editorship of 
Commentary, but even before his well-known switch to conservatism in the 
late-1960s he had written attacks on the Beats, Hannah Arendt, and James 
Baldwin, which wouldn’t have been the program of typical leftists, or 
even liberals, of the day.

Oppenheimer’s sensibility is more literary than political—he’s mainly 
interested in his characters’ ideological evolution as revealing 
something about them personally, not about their times. In the opening 
pages of Exit Right he writes: “It is easy to disparage other people’s 
politics by psychologizing, historicizing, biologizing, or sociologizing 
them. The harder and more important truth to admit is that everyone’s 
politics are resonating on all of these frequencies.” But that standard, 
to which Oppenheimer scrupulously adheres in his six profiles, tends to 
keep the focus on his subjects’ inner lives rather than on the outside 
world. Although Oppenheimer hints that he is a liberal, he tries hard to 
leave his own views out of the book; still, Exit Right implicitly 
depends, in many instances, on the idea that becoming conservative is 
something to be explained on personal grounds, not as a reasoned 
response to events, and his stories emphasize family tragedies, 
betrayals, mentorships gone awry, and spiritual crises.

Here, for example, is the way Oppenheimer describes Leon Trotsky’s 
appeal to James Burnham: “He told a story—a brilliant, beautiful, absurd 
story—that bound together the heroic past and beleaguered present into 
the only kind of narrative structure that his ego could bear to carry.” 
Oppenheimer is a diligent researcher, and he also describes the external 
causes of his subjects’ disillusionment. Burnham, who later became the 
chief ideologue of the early National Review, was drawn to Trotsky 
rather than Stalin, and, after some agonizing, joined the tiny American 
Workers Party, rather than the Communist Party USA, in the early 1930s. 
Burnham wound up arguing with, and then breaking with, Trotsky himself. 
Events like the Nazi–Soviet nonaggression pact and the subsequent Soviet 
invasion of Poland from the east led him to quit the Workers Party in 
1940. Chambers joined the Communist Party, but his disillusionment began 
even earlier than Burnham’s, with Stalin’s trials and executions of his 
prominent rivals in the mid-1930s. He left the Party in 1938.

Each of Exit Right’s profiles ends at the moment of the subject’s 
disillusion and conversion. This, too, serves to keep the focus on the 
personal; it shuts the door on the possibility of examining the 
particular variety of conservatism, the vision of a good society, that 
each man wound up professing. Oppenheimer’s subjects all wrote their own 
political autobiographies, and, while drawing on them, he seems 
especially, or even principally, interested in them as writers. At the 
end of the book he asserts that the best political writing is done “by 
someone who is in tension” between impulses—who is “writing from within 
the tension.”

That definition puts political writing based on certainty on a lower 
plane, even if certainty about crucial political realities, like 
Stalinism and anti-Stalinism, would seem necessary. Most of the 
conservative writings of David Horowitz, who was disillusioned 
principally by the murder of a friend by the Black Panthers in 1974, are 
crudely ideological and not very interesting, but the best-known 
conservative books by Chambers and Burnham, Witness (1952) and The 
Managerial Revolution (1941), have stood up better than what they wrote 
during their left-wing days.

Explaining why American politics became more conservative during the 
last quarter of the twentieth century isn’t the task Oppenheimer set for 
himself, but it is exactly what Steve Fraser, in The Limousine Liberal, 
and Thomas Frank, in Listen, Liberal, have set out to do. Both of them 
write from the left, and both argue that the shift to the right since 
the last part of the twentieth century was anything but a natural, 
spontaneous response—by voters, intellectuals, politicians, or anybody 
else—to what was happening in the world. Instead, it was a change 
engineered by adept professionals within the major political parties.

At first glance Fraser’s and Frank’s books appear to be quite different. 
Fraser’s focuses on how the conservative stereotype of its title was 
used to persuade Democratic voters to switch parties, and Frank’s is an 
angry denunciation of moderate, market-oriented Democrats like Bill 
Clinton for tearing the party asunder from its historic roots.

But the books have a great deal in common. Both Fraser and Frank are 
economic liberals who see the New Deal, and its labor-centered 
coalition, as the natural state of the Democratic Party. If the 
Republicans today are not simply the party of the top half of the income 
distribution and the Democrats the party of the bottom half, that, for 
them, is odd and disturbing, since the fundamental purpose of the 
Democrats is to represent the economic interests of the least-well-off 
Americans. This corruption of the Democrats’ mission happened for 
reasons of social class and culture. Though he doesn’t use the specific 
phrase, Frank is no less interested than Fraser in limousine 
liberals—they’re the people he thinks have ruined the Democratic Party.

Fraser’s book covers the entire span of the twentieth century, and 
Frank’s is mainly about the period from the 1990s onward, so they also 
go together sequentially. Although Fraser says the first person to use 
the term “limousine liberal” was Mario Procaccino, the Democratic 
machine’s candidate who used the label against John Lindsay in the 1969 
New York City mayor’s race, a better name for his subject would be 
“right-wing populism” (his term), and that goes back a long way. 
Fraser’s account encompasses such figures as Father Charles Coughlin, 
Joe McCarthy, Phyllis Schlafly, and George Wallace—all people who built 
a substantial following of white working-class conservatives by playing 
to resentment of elite, affluent liberals. “What has given the metaphor 
of the limousine liberal its stamina,” Fraser writes,

has been its ability to collect together a disparate array of 
discontents, anxieties, and sentiments aroused by the advent of modern 
corporate and finance capitalism, cosmopolitan living, consumer culture, 
and the growth of a supervisory state that helps keep the whole 
mechanism running.

It becomes clear after the opening passages that Fraser actually does 
not consider the limousine liberal to be a mythological figure—instead, 
the idea is “part myth, part social reality.” Limousine liberals are 
well educated, confident, and more closely attuned to issues like racial 
justice, environmentalism, feminism, human rights abroad, and cultural 
tolerance than to the economic welfare of laboring people in the United 
States. Procaccino was not entirely wrong about his opponent, Fraser admits:

	Lindsay’s liberalism accepted organized labor as a fact of modern life, 
but treated it with none of the sympathy it exhibited for the 
marginalized poor. Nor did it feel at home having to share power; it 
preferred to bestow it with all the sense of dependency and gratitude 
such a gift implicitly entailed.

Right-wing populism, Fraser observes, has been intermittently left-wing 
on economic issues. Father Coughlin used to rail against Wall Street’s 
cozy relationship with the Federal Reserve. Then, during the long 
decades of the cold war, as Fraser points out, “hostile talk about 
capitalism…was virtually verboten,” so there was a long interlude when 
“social” issues of race, religion, and sexual mores came to the fore 
within right-wing populism. When the Tea Party emerged in the aftermath 
of the 2008 financial crisis, one of the elements in its stew of 
resentments, along with race and immigration, was discontent with the 
Federal Reserve’s having rescued the “too big to fail” banks. The Tea 
Party wound up being so focused on dislike of the first black president, 
and so generously funded by the Koch brothers and other rich donors, 
that its economic-populist strain was easy to miss. But now the Trump 
campaign, with its claims that trade agreements hurt American workers, 
has shown that a mix of economic nationalism and nativism is once again 
possible on the right.

Fraser argues that it’s misleading to think of business as being 
uniformly on one side or the other of the war between right-wing 
populists and limousine liberals. What he calls “family capitalism,” run 
by dynastic owner-operators, tends to be right-wing (think of Koch 
Industries); corporate capitalism, with its credentialed and salaried 
managers, is more liberal (think of Apple Inc.). Businesses in the 
Sunbelt tend to be to the right of businesses in the Northeast and Midwest.

In this complicated picture, the allegiance of working-class voters is 
up for grabs in a way that would once have been inconceivable, and it’s 
also not clear which of the two parties is their logical home today, 
especially if you understand such voters as being motivated by cultural 
as well as economic calculations. Thus far, they seem to be very roughly 
divided by race (whites Republican, minorities Democratic), by sex 
(heterosexual men Republican, women and LGBT people Democratic), and by 
employment sector (heavy industry Republican, services Democratic).

To Thomas Frank, all of these realignments were harmful, because by 
taking the primary focus of politics away from the issues of 
working-class income and employment they resulted in increases in 
inequality that were not only large but also entirely unnecessary. It 
is, he writes, a

Democratic failure, straight up and nothing else…. The current leaders 
of the Democratic Party know their form of liberalism is somehow related 
to the good fortune of the top 10 percent. Inequality, in other words, 
is a reflection of who they are. It goes to the very heart of their 
self-understanding.

Frank’s collective villain is highly educated “professionals,” who 
“undertook a mass migration from the Republican to the Democratic Party” 
beginning in the 1950s:

	In addition to doctors, lawyers, the clergy, architects, and 
engineers—the core professional groups—the category includes economists, 
experts in international development, political scientists, managers, 
financial planners, computer programmers, aerospace designers, and even 
people who write books like this one.

These people, by his account, think of themselves as meritocratic and 
virtuous—indeed, superior—and as having transcended any fundamental 
opposition between capital and labor that may once have existed. (They 
aren’t so different from the elite-liberal collective antiheroes of such 
previous books as The Managerial Revolution, Michael Young’s The Rise of 
the Meritocracy, and Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites.)

Professionals, according to Frank, tend to regard other participants in 
politics as self-interested. They consider that “their views are based 
on reasoned analysis and universal values.” For him they make up “‘a 
second hierarchy’—second to the hierarchy of money, that is—‘based on 
credentialed expertise.’” Chief among their views, Frank writes, is the 
profoundly anti-working-class idea that a good society should honor 
“individual excellence” and mistrust solidarity. They tend to argue that 
the kinds of market-oriented policies Frank hates, like free trade and 
other forms of deregulation, are in tune with inevitable and 
irresistible modernizing forces, to which resistance is prejudiced and 
futile. The result has been “something truly unfortunate: the erasure of 
economic egalitarianism from American politics.” And as (or, more 
accurately, because) this has happened, the professionals have prospered.

Many liberal writers have called attention to a memo that Lewis Powell 
Jr., on the eve of his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1971, wrote to 
the president of the US Chamber of Commerce, proposing a long-term 
strategy of conservative and Republican institution-building to 
counteract the dominance of liberalism. The enactment of the ideas in 
the Powell memo is one frequent explanation for the rise of conservatism.

Frank puts considerable blame instead on a manifesto written in the same 
year by a prominent Washington Democrat, Fred Dutton, titled Changing 
Sources of Power. It called on the Democratic Party to reorient itself 
from blue-collar to white-collar workers, from the high school–educated 
to the college-educated, and from the middle-aged to the young. 
Implicitly this meant downgrading the importance of economic issues in 
the Democratic pitch to voters. After Dutton’s manifesto came wave after 
wave of “New Democrats” like Gary Hart, whose stump speech, Frank 
reminds us, was called “The End of the New Deal,” and who “made his name 
denouncing old-fashioned, working-class politics in favor of a more 
tech-friendly vision.”

By far the worst of these, to Frank, was Bill Clinton: “What he did as 
President”—NAFTA, welfare reform, poking at the inviolability of Social 
Security, and so on—“was beyond the reach of even the most diabolical 
Republican.” (Barack Obama, to Frank, is merely disappointing, not 
malign. And the prospect of Hillary Clinton’s winning the presidential 
election recently elicited this comment from Frank, in The Guardian: 
“‘Jobs’ don’t really matter now in this election, nor does the debacle 
of ‘globalization,’ nor does anything else, really. Thanks to this 
imbecile Trump, all such issues have been momentarily swept off the 
table while Americans come together around Clinton, the wife of the man 
who envisaged the Davos dream in the first place.”)

Frank writes in a tone of angry sarcasm, and he knows his primary 
targets well enough that his collective portrayal of them has a real 
sting. Here is part of an extended aria on the professionals’ invocation 
of “innovation” as the solution to every problem in society, for example:

Innovation was the driving force behind [the] new era, sometimes 
personified by Wall Street, on other occasions by Silicon Valley. The 
place where the magic happened was “the ideopolis”: the postindustrial 
city, where highly credentialed professionals advised clients, taught 
college students, wrote software, cracked mortgage-backed securities—and 
were served in turn by an army of retail greeters and latte foamers who 
were proud to share their betters’ values.

What Frank finds most maddening about the professionals is their 
unwillingness to believe that a core purpose of politics is to 
redistribute money and power, or to understand that social and economic 
structures are human-made, not natural. “Government could easily have 
prevented or at least mitigated every single one of the developments I 
have described,” he writes; and a little later, “in a democracy we can 
set the economic table however we choose.”

The professionals he writes about prefer to imagine themselves as 
inhabiting a world in which everybody, not just them, wins, and the 
unifying cause is not to reduce economic equality but “to defeat the 
Republicans, that unthinkable brutish Other” whose voters don’t believe 
in gay marriage or gun control or legal abortion or the threat of 
climate change.

Would it have been possible to maintain the Democratic Party in an 
essentially New Deal configuration, eighty years after the New Deal? 
Frank writes on the assumption that the answer is a resounding yes, so 
much so that he doesn’t take it on himself to explain in detail how that 
would look today. In any event he’s right, and Fraser is too, that both 
parties have changed substantially in composition and ideology since the 
great days of Franklin Roosevelt. (Neither of them makes much of what 
may be the biggest change, which came after the Democrats forced civil 
rights on the South; this led the white electorate there to switch from 
overwhelmingly Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican.)

One way to understand the professional, or limousine, liberals is to see 
them as comparable to the old, and vanished, liberal wing of the 
Republican Party, now reborn as a visible and influential wing of the 
Democratic Party. If John Lindsay was indeed the original limousine 
liberal, it’s worth remembering that he switched from Republican to 
Democratic in 1971, just as much of the rest of the country was moving 
in the opposite direction. The wealthy Upper East Side district he 
represented in Congress before he was mayor is now Democratic, like many 
former liberal Republican redoubts in and near the big cities. This is 
likely to be the first presidential election since such things have been 
measured in which the Democratic candidate wins a majority of the votes 
of college-educated whites.

Winning this group over has helped the Democrats financially and 
electorally, but in politics any mass defection has a strong effect on 
both the party the defectors left and on the party they joined. Gaining 
southern and evangelical voters (two overlapping categories) helped the 
Republicans win elections; but those Republican gains entailed adopting 
policies on issues like abortion and guns that drove many of the party’s 
educated liberals into the arms of the Democrats—who then moved right on 
economic issues by way of accommodating them. According to the website 
OpenSecrets.org, the five organizations whose employees contributed the 
most to the Obama campaign in 2012 were the University of California, 
Microsoft, Google, the US government, and Harvard. Those are exactly 
where one would find the people Fraser and Frank are talking about. None 
of their institutions is a hotbed of blue-collar unionist sentiments.2 
It is worth noting that since 1983 union membership has fallen from 20.1 
percent of the workforce to 11.1 percent.

The phenomenon of a liberal political party that does not make economic 
justice its overriding concern, and that includes well-off professionals 
in its core constituency, is not simply an aberration of contemporary 
American politics. It has existed in the American past—think of the 
Liberal Republicans who nominated Horace Greeley for president in 1872, 
or Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party in 1912—and now exists 
elsewhere in the world, for example in the Congress Party in India or 
the Kadima Party in Israel.

People participate in politics for all sorts of reasons. A collection of 
essays called The Future We Want, edited by the founder of the socialist 
magazine Jacobin and an editor at The Nation, is resolutely uninterested 
in ideas that will seem “reasonable.”3 In its pages, various writers 
propose entirely eliminating financial markets, police forces, state 
governments, the current political parties, and intellectual property 
laws. Nonetheless the contributors spend a good deal of energy trying to 
persuade people on the left that gay issues, black issues, feminist 
issues, and so on are all really about capitalism, because the 
oppression of gays, blacks, and women serves corporate interests. That’s 
a sign that even many committed radicals don’t see the world as Fraser 
and Frank see it. The US may be moving back to the left politically in 
the twenty-first century, at least in presidential politics, but that 
doesn’t necessarily mean a left that seeks to put economic equality in 
the place of honor.

But Fraser and Frank were prescient: publishing in a presidential 
election year, but writing before it was clear how the parties’ primary 
campaigns would go, they still help explain why voters in both parties 
(and also abroad) have powerfully forced the economic dissatisfaction of 
working people to center stage, in ways that the people running the 
parties hadn’t expected. A dominant complaint has been against the trend 
of a small minority at the top being the overwhelming beneficiaries of 
economic growth. Recognition of the power of the “one percent” seems to 
be a global electoral Kronstadt.

One should be careful, though, about concluding that, starting now, the 
Democratic Party will begin the process of reorienting itself in what 
Fraser and Frank would consider the proper direction. Even if Donald 
Trump loses badly, it’s conceivable that his brand of economic 
policy—which is suspicious of the power of the market—could over the 
years become the core of a successful Republican Party’s appeal, in the 
same way that the ideas behind Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 helped 
lead to Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, especially if some future 
Republican figures out how to decouple Trumpism from its disdainful 
rhetoric about race that is guaranteed to keep minority voters loyal to 
the Democrats. And the Democrats could remain politically successful 
while gradually ceding their identity as (to quote Frank’s subtitle) 
“the party of the people” to the Republicans. They might do so by making 
the interests of the vast white-collar suburban middle class their 
overriding concern, with lessening attention to poorly paid workers, 
notwithstanding the urgings of Bernie Sanders.

The American political parties, because they are so big, are necessarily 
mésalliances—unlikely matches whose fundamental illogic almost always 
causes strains, which periodically become life-threatening crises for 
the parties. The New Deal coalition was a mésalliance of workers and 
segregationists. The Republican Reagan coalition was a mésalliance of 
business and white evangelicals, and this sort of alliance combined to 
oppose Obama. The idea of a Democratic Party that is truly consistent 
and unified around the fight against inequality—Frank’s ideal—is too 
much to hope for, and it may not even be a good idea. Better to have the 
Democrats’ prosperous leadership struggling to hold together an unruly 
coalition of labor, minorities, and social movements than to trust that 
any group leading a unified party won’t turn into just the kind of 
self-regarding, self-dealing insiders that Frank so much dislikes.

1
An even earlier switcher than Huffington was Kevin Phillips—circa 1990. 
But he was so early that it didn’t seem like the beginning of a trend. ↩
2
One notch above the professional class there has also been a pronounced 
switch in party loyalties, at least for this presidential campaign. The 
Wall Street Journal reports that so far in 2016, people who work at 
hedge funds have given nearly $50 million to Hillary Clintion, and less 
than $20,000 to Donald Trump. ↩
3
The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century, edited by Sarah 
Leonard and Bhaskar Sunkara (Metropolitan, 2016). ↩



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