The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The man who asked ‘What’s the Matter with Kansas?’ now wonders what’s the matter with Democrats

Voters cast ballots in the primary election in Chesterville, Ohio, on March 15. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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In 2004, Thomas Frank published "What's The Matter with Kansas," a book asking why so many working-class and poor white Americans in the heartland had taken to voting for a party that in both word and deed advanced policies of great value to the rich. In short, the question was: Why were these folks Republicans when Republicans weren't with them?

Frank's book became a kind of cultural touchstone, or at least a shorthand reference for what lots of political analysts, consultants and certainly Democratic politicians and their staffers had talked out behind closed doors for years. "What's The Matter with Kansas" didn't delve deeply into the white-identity politics, race-based sense of economic entitlement, anxiety and resentment that seem to play such a prominent role in the 2016 campaign, but it certainly gave a lot of people a lot to think about.

Now, Frank is out with a book called "Listen, Liberal" that seems about as confrontational as that title sounds. This time, people on the other side of the political aisle — Democrats and self-described progressives — face Frank's frank assessment.

Since the 1970s and even more markedly during President Bill Clinton's tenure in the 1990s, Democrats have played a central role in trade deals that sped up the departure of manufacturing jobs from the United States and also in rolling back the social safety net. Clinton proudly signed the biggest welfare reform package in decades, all based on the idea that those on welfare, not that the program itself, was in dire need of reform.

Today, the share of people receiving cash welfare assistance has dropped precipitously, even during the worst of the Great Recession. In other words, that's not because people's incomes otherwise grew or they didn't need the help.

It's mostly because states have made it increasingly difficult to access cash assistance, freeing state lawmakers to redirect the federal block grants dispatched to cover these benefits to finance other state needs, according to a 2015 analysis released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In 2014, the report found, states spent more of their federal welfare block grants on these other programs and costs — often meaning they plugged various state budget gaps — than they did basic cash welfare assistance.

And those who are receiving cash aid are getting a lot less. After accounting for inflation, cash welfare benefits slid 35 percent between 1990 and 2015. And most year-to-year increases in welfare benefits paid to families are so small it's hard to imagine the mathematical basis on which they were set. For instance, in 2014 in South Carolina, a poor family of three that met all program guidelines could receive up to $277 a month. In 2015, that figure climbed all of $3 to $280.

That may sound like good news to those who want to shrink public budgets no matter the cost, or philosophically object to the very existence of cash public assistance. But, in the past, that did not include the bulk of Democrats, Frank argues. Democrats used to be the party that defended the social safety net so that it might help those in need climb back toward independence and solvency but also aggressively championed a wider array of policies protecting American jobs, worker safety, wages and the like. That made unions a natural and central part of Democratic coalition.

Democrats used to battle the primary drivers of economic inequality, Frank argues. Now sometimes, they advance them.

In a Q&A with In These Times' Tobita Chow published this week, Frank goes even further in pinning the blame on Democrats who followed Clinton in the 1990s. Frank's is a critique that certainly includes — no, calls out — the Obama administration, too. The Obama White House would almost certainly counter that things like the recent reform in overtime pay rules and the Affordable Care Act have been of great benefit to the middle and working classes as well as the poor.

But Frank has some other complaints. Here's a sample from the worthwhile Q&A:

Q: The book is about how the Democratic Party turned its back on working people and now pursues policies that actually increase inequality. What are the policies or ideological commitments in the Democratic Party that make you think this?
A: The first piece of evidence is what’s happened since the financial crisis. This is the great story of our time. Inequality has actually gotten worse since then, which is a remarkable thing. This is under a Democratic president who we were assured (or warned) was the most liberal or radical president we would ever see. Yet inequality has gotten worse, and the gains since the financial crisis, since the recovery began, have gone entirely to the top 10 percent of the income distribution.
This is not only because of those evil Republicans, but because Obama played it the way he wanted to. Even when he had a majority in both houses of Congress and could choose whoever he wanted to be in his administration, he consistently made policies that favored the top 10 percent over everybody else. He helped out Wall Street in an enormous way when they were entirely at his mercy.
He could have done anything he wanted with them, in the way that Franklin Roosevelt did in the ’30s. But he chose not to....

There's so much interesting stuff in this Q&A, we are going to strongly suggest you give it a read. Just click here.