Democrats will have to combat misleading class stereotypes and confront economic issues directly if they hope to reverse their recent electoral defeats, writer Thomas Frank told a Master’s Tea audience on Monday.
In his hourlong talk, Frank — the author of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” and several other books on American politics — discussed a wide range of social and economic issues with about 50 students and professors in Davenport College. Frank commented on voters’ impressions of Democrats as cultural elitists, the party’s prospects of winning races in the so-called “red” states, and the need for the emergence of a class of liberal intellectuals.
Frank said he believes Democrats have struggled in more conservative states because Republicans have succeeded in portraying their opponents as condescending, arrogant, and out of touch with mainstream American values.
“What brings all these different strains together is this language of class,” he said. “They’ve been convincing people that liberals are elitists and snobs, mocking the things that liberals do and consume. If you want to go a little deeper, it’s a kind of anti-professionalism. They attack professionalism bitterly.”
Frank called this depiction misleading, citing as an example an advertisement that the anti-tax Club for Growth ran against Howard Dean in the 2004 Democratic Iowa caucuses, accusing the former Vermont governor of being a “sushi-eating,” “latte-drinking,” “Birkenstock-wearing” liberal.
“It’s a class stereotype,” he said. “This was sponsored by the Club for Growth, a group of Manhattan billionaires who, I promise you, eat a little sushi now and again and enjoy a little latte.”
Frank, who grew up in Kansas, denied that his book’s portrayal of Kansans included similarly facile characterizations. His travels around the state while doing research convinced him that such stereotypes are misleading, he said.
“I actually don’t express contempt for the rank-and-file conservative voters in Kansas,” Frank said. “The conservative reviews of the book claim that I do, but by and large I am very respectful of these people. I certainly don’t try to make these people sound crazy. In a lot of ways I really respect them.”
Democrats must push past these labels and attract voters with economic policies that sufficiently address market forces, if they expect to have more success, Frank said. He said he thinks a national plebiscite would reveal that 70 to 80 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction economically under current Republican leadership.
Frank said part of liberals’ problem is their inability to create a cadre of progressive thinkers and writers — as conservatives have done — with ideas that will excite and engage the public.
“Liberals are just so frustrating to deal with,” he said. “The Democrats just suck. They can’t play the game. The Republicans, who have what should be a limited appeal, have managed to run the board for 30 years. I am agape in admiration at what the Republicans have done. The Democrats are not even in the same league.”
Frank listed literary critics Edmund Wilson and H.L. Mencken as examples of the kind of thinkers who once offered cogent defenses of progressive ideas, but who are no longer to be found on the left.
The failure by conservatives to deliver on issues of “moral values,” on which they often campaign, has left liberals an opening to campaign on economic issues, Frank said.
“You saw this in the Terri Schiavo case,” he said. “The conservatives were saying, ‘We’ve been electing these guys for years. This is our payoff. They have to take a stand on Terri Schiavo.’ It’s like butting your head against a brick wall. The president did what they asked, and it got them nowhere.”
Students at the talk said they found Frank’s comments insightful and provocative.
Erica Larsen ’07, who had seen Frank on television but had not read any of his books, said she found Frank’s discussion of politics to be candid and refreshing.
“I found it depressing in a kind of uplifting way,” she said. “I’m not sure I know enough about economics, but I think he’s on to something. I think the moral values stuff is a cover. Economics is huge, but liberals don’t want to address that huge issue.”
Andrew Strand ’07 said he is interested in reading Frank’s book after hearing about his views.
“I thought he was very informative,” he said. “Anyone like me who is very ignorant in this area should read his book.”
After the tea, Frank gave a lecture Monday night sponsored by The Hippolytic and Campus Progress, titled “The Populism of the Right.”