Take it from Larry Summers, once one of President Obama’s leading economic advisers: "One of the challenges in our society is that the truth is kind of an equalizer,” Summers said in a candid moment in 2009. "One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated.”
The elite professional class, in the 1950s one of the Republican party’s most reliable constituencies, became the very heart of the Democrats by the 1990s. The party of labor morphed into the party of lawyers. This didn’t happen by accident...
Many such voters are now backing Donald Trump, who is sketching out the problem with America in exactly the terms they agree with: Jobs are either going to Mexico, or going to Mexicans. Unchecked illegal immigration on the one hand and free trade on the other hand are driving down the wages of working-class Americans, or costing them their jobs outright.
This isn’t racism: angry Americans told they were losing their jobs at a doomed air-conditioner factory in Indiana wouldn’t have applauded if told production was moving to Canada instead of Mexico. Either way, they’re losing their jobs.
In Frank’s analysis, around 1972 the Democrats started to suspect their lunch-bucket workers were warmongering dinosaurs doomed by their reliance on dying Rust Belt industries. The party placed its future in the hands of groovy technocrats in non-union fields and wrote off the workers, who soon defected to the Republican party even though Republicans didn’t and don’t apologize for being the party of capital.
Blaming Republican Intransigence (TM) for liberalism’s failures, particularly in the Obama era, is a common excuse that Frank isn’t having. He points to areas such as Rhode Island and Chicago where Republicans are virtually extinct and finds that Democrats behave exactly the same way: They make mild clucking noises about inequality while taking donations and policy ideas from financiers (both R.I. and the City of Big Shoulders are run by former Wall Streeters) and outlining an economic future of enhanced "innovation” designed to tilt the economy even further in the direction of elite knowledge-economy workers and away from those without college degrees.
Innovation, Frank says, is often just code for new methods (from Uber to credit default swaps) to evade necessary protective regulations. Many such innovations pump up profits for rich entrepreneurs and shareholders by unloading employees with benefits in favor of part-timers and freelancers with no benefits. Democrats take big donations from such firms, laud them in speeches, and tell everyone else to get out of the way of the "disruption.”
The Colorado Democrat Gary Hart, one of the many elected to Congress in 1974 as a reaction to Watergate, called his standard stump speech "The End of the New Deal” and President Jimmy Carter’s adviser Alfred Kahn wrote, "I’d love the Teamsters to be worse off. I’d love the automobile workers to be worse off. . . . I want to eliminate a situation in which certain protected workers in industries insulated from competition can increase their wages much more rapidly than the average.”
Such changes made the champagne flow for the urban professionals even as the workers were left parched. In a 1993 episode that Frank identifies as a turning point, the Clinton administration did nothing to help striking workers at two big plants in Decatur, Ill. On the scene, a worker turned to Frank and said this was labor’s last stand: "If we don’t do it, then the middle class as we know it in this country will die. There will be two classes, and it will be the very, very poor and the very, very rich.”
As Larry Summers would say: That’s just the way things are supposed to be.