13 December 2013

Thomas Frank: Gerrymandering is no excuse

Thomas Frank is tired of hearing Democrats and liberals whine about gerrymandering or the intractable bigotry of Republican voters. His "Easy Chair" column in the January 2014 Harper's is a blast against a kind of liberal fatalism that is sometimes complacent (when expecting demographic trends to assure future victories) and sometimes helpless (when blaming their failures to retake the House of Representatives on gerrymandering, etc.). "Why haven't Democrats made the G.O.P. pay for its widely despised views?" Frank asks, "Why aren't they threatening to run up monster victories in even the safest red districts?" Why, instead, have we seen an "unprecedented right turn that so many have taken as a response to the economic disaster that began in 2008"? Neither racist backlash (that explanation "simply doesn't do it") nor gerrymandering ("similarly incapable of explaining the whole mess") can excuse Democratic weakness, except indirectly, since for Democrats "each of them is an excuse for doing nothing." Frank's thesis of the month is that sins of omission by Democrats have mattered more than any sins committed by Republicans and Tea Partiers. In his view, the persistence of the Right has less to do with any attempts to suppress the vote than with "positive actions" that Democrats (or the left in general) should emulate. Republican conservatism "must be entrepreneurial in order to succeed; it must organize, proselytize, demonize" because "these are people who do not count solely on demographics to deliver their results -- they can't, since they're defending a system that truly benefits only a few." But they keep finding ways to convince people otherwise, while Democrats do little more than denounce Republican meanness. "Being on the left is about good taste and personal intellectual rectitude," Frank writes, "The idea is to summon the right answers for the Big Exam and to castigate the dunces who get them wrong." Instead, to sum up Frank's argument, the left should be out there making promises to people.

I can't help but think that a higher minimum wage might sound good to people toiling for pennies, or that a massive public-works program might appeal to the unemployed. So would an expansion of Obamacare that covers everybody as a matter of course....Organize a movement around these issues; make them ubiquitous; then let's see how well gerrymandering protects those Republican stegosaurs.

Apologists may immediately cite their favorite Democratic pol or progressive talker who does advocate for some or all of these things, but Frank is convinced that "Democrats aren't really interested in such an effort." He seems to suspect that most Democrats are technocratic deficit-hawks who may be more compassionate than Republicans but don't really identify with, or even trust, the people whose votes they need to reunite the government under their control. He almost seems to concede a truth to the case Republicans make against liberal cultural elitists ("the model for progressives today is academia"), even though he's always denounced (and still does) their argument (however truthful it may be) as a distraction from working people's real interests. He accuses Democrats, in short, of simply waiting for Republican voters to die, since they're convinced (so Frank supposes) that they can never change those people's minds. Although he doesn't raise the point in this column, it may also be true that liberals have simply heard too many Republican and conservative arguments, and being liberals have taken some to heart. Many Democrats may now sincerely believe that we can't make the sort of promises to people Frank calls for, much less deliver on them. They may remain the more compassionate party, for all the good that does them, but they may have given up on the old ideal of an easier life for everyone, whether it is "earned" or not. They definitely seem to have given up on the idea that poor people have a moral right to demand an easier life, believing instead, I suspect, that the Market is the ultimate judge of what we can expect, if not the divine force Republicans and libertarians worship. How progressive, finally, can anyone be who no longer believes in demanding a better, easier life constantly? How much progress would we have made since the 19th century if people didn't believe that an easier life -- more pay for fewer hours, social security, etc. -- was their due as human beings? Every step on that way, reactionaries protested that such demands were not sustainable; their descendants think themselves confirmed in their historic skepticism. If today's progressives don't have the same faith in progress, how progressive are they, really? If someone can renew that faith in progress understood as  an easier life for all, Frank may be right to believe that no amount of gerrymandering could stand against it. But he's probably also right to believe that today's "progressive" politicians can renew the faith.


Anonymous said...

The economic "disaster" didn't happen in 2008. Apparently, Mr. Frank - like most repugnicans - seem to suffer from memory loss. The Wall Street meltdown happened under Bush, but corporations have been siphoning jobs out of the US for a few decades now, hemorrhaging the economy at an ever increasing rate. Although no repugnican (few Americans in fact) want to accept the FACT that unregulated capitalism, driven by uncontrolled greed, is the reason our economy is doing so badly.

Anonymous said...

I don't accept that poor people - or anyone - has a "right" to demand an easier life, but in this nation they ought to have a right to demand equal opportunities, equal education and equal health care.

Other than that, your life is exactly as easy as YOU choose to make it.

Samuel Wilson said...

Anon 1: Actually, Frank is quite aware that life has been getting worse for the working class since the 1970s. His great project has been to figure out why, despite this, many working-class voters cling to the self-evident party of the rich and the corporations.

Anon 2: As long as we don't confuse the theoretical right to make the demand with the legitimacy of the demand, fine. But when there has been strong working-class politics in this country, it has been because workers believed they could and should have an easier life than their employers would concede -- easier, as I said, in terms of fewer work hours and more pay. Only a "repugnican," I presume, would sneer at such demands.

Anonymous said...

1)Duh! It's getting worse for the working class because they ONLY "power" they have over wages, working conditions, in other words, their lives, is through the government or unions, both of which the wealthy either buy or undermine.
To be clear, when I say "wealthy" I mean those who have "non-political" power over economic policies (such as wages, working condtions, benefits, etc.)
The wealthy will ALWAYS put profit over people which makes them basically amoral to begin with.

Anonymous said...

By "easier life" what I'm saying is getting more out with less effort. I don't believe anyone should be expected to sit on their ass and live in a castle. But if a person is willing to in proportion to his/her desired lifestyle, then the government ought to ensure that every opportunity exists for the person to do so, while regulating the level of exploitation.