Writing in Vanity Fair, pundit T.A. Frank offers some stern commentary that’s sure to upset his liberal readership. And yet if conservatives read his piece, it’s likely that many of them, too, will be upset. So perhaps Frank has something interesting to say.
Frank argues that the elites of both parties have misunderstood the American electorate—and still do. Yet weirdly, he adds, so long as both parties’ elites misunderstand the voters, those same elitists are safe, because the voters have no good choice, only two bad choices. And so by definition, in a two-party system, a bad choice wins.
For decades now, according to Frank, top Democrats and top Republicans have believed—sometimes loudly, sometimes quietly, sometimes reluctantly—that the optimum political agenda mix is to lean right on economic issues and to lean left on social issues. That is, a sort of tacit mix of economic libertarianism and social liberalism has prevailed, even if many individual politicians have declaimed against, even voted against, parts of that mix.
To help illustrate this libertarian-liberal combination, we can cite just two of many issues in the national policy mix: gay marriage and taxation. As we know, gay marriage is legal, and taxes are, by 20th century historical standards, low.
To be sure, each of us can be for or against one or both of these policy stances, and yet it’s obvious that taken together, they represent a victory for the libertarian-liberal outlook. And one could cite a hundred other issues as well, from transexual rights to expanded trade, that bolster the same point: The libertarians and liberals, for all their differences, have jointly prevailed.
Yes, libertarians, mostly on the Republican side, and liberals, mostly on the Democrat side, may indeed be fighting each other constantly. Yet even so, they are both getting a lot of what they want, and that’s why some have looked at this tacit semi-unity and dubbed it the “Uniparty”—or, as Breitbart News’ Joel Pollak calls it, the “hopelessly corrupt Uniparty.”
By contrast, other ideological factions, including social conservatives and economic populists, have been far less successful in seeing their goals brought to fruition. There are plenty of Americans who would like to see, for instance, abortion prohibited, transexual rights curbed, and, at the same time, taxes on the rich go up and Big Tech be broken up.
Yet as the results of the last few decades have shown, these folks, both conservatives and populists, have had but a limited national voice—and darn few consistent political champions.
So the unanswered question, Frank continues, is whether or not the dominant libertarian-liberal consensus accurately reflects American opinion—or does it just reflect elite American opinion? That is, have the policy preferences of the elite simply trickled down onto everybody else?
Here’s how Frank explains this libertarian-liberal coming together at its high-water mark, during the 1990s:
There was a broad consensus about how the world works. Free trade would lift developing nations out of poverty and foster the rule of law and political liberalization … High levels of migration from the developing world would rejuvenate the developed world and leave everyone a winner. Foreign military intervention to protect vulnerable populations, as in Kosovo, was laudable, and failure to intervene, as in Rwanda, was despicable.
As a result of this consensus, many important items on the libertarian-liberal—also known as neoliberal—agenda were enacted.
One such enactment was the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA was conceived by a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, negotiated by another Republican president, George H.W. Bush, and actually implemented by a Democrat president, Bill Clinton. That is, all three presidents were united around NAFTA as part of their overall commitment to expanded free trade. During that time, of course, the vast majority of pundits and experts were strongly supportive of NAFTA, as well as other trade bills.
So we can step back and behold the power of an elite consensus: Yes, plenty of Americans opposed NAFTA—including independent presidential candidate Ross Perot—and yet these critics were scorned, deemed to be outside of the elite policy narrative. And so they were critiqued, marginalized, and, sometimes, painted as kooks.
Yet today, as we know, the public backlash against free trade has been strong—indeed, too strong to ignore.
The most obvious indicator of this backlash was the 2016 election victory of Donald Trump—although, in that same year, opposition to free trade was a propellant for the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders. And Sanders, that prickly socialist, was almost as distant from the Democrat elite as Trump was from the GOP elite. Yet even so, coming from nowhere, Sanders nearly toppled the anointed candidate of the Democrat establishment, Hillary Clinton—herself always a staunch free-trader.
We might observe that opposition to free trade—as well as a general opposition to immigration and globalism—continues to power Trump. And yet some of those same themes are also powering Sanders as he runs again, as well as other Democrat hopefuls, most notably, Elizabeth Warren. (In fact, as I have noted, Warren sounds a lot like Trump on trade.)
Thus as we can see, there’s a lot of populist ferment on questions of trade and globalism. And yet as Frank notes in his article, “None of this seems to have changed the views of our educated class.” That is, the elite is comfortable with its views exactly as they are, even as, Frank continues, “ordinary Americans, many of whom find themselves farther from economic security and dignity than ever, are in a different place.”
So Frank’s goal is to educate that “educated class” as to what ordinary Americans actually believe, and why they are in “a different place.”
To that end, Frank fires off a volley of public-opinion statistics, aimed at proving that the leaders of both parties have read the public wrong. That is, top Republicans like to think that the majority supports free markets and limited government, while top Democrats like to think that the country is far to the left on social issues.
Here’s Frank and the first barrage of his poll numbers:
Over 60% of Americans favor increased federal spending on education, infrastructure, and veterans benefits. Fifty-five percent support spending more on environmental protection. Sixty-two percent believe that corporations don’t pay their fair share. Sixty percent say that the government must ensure that all Americans have health coverage.
Okay, so far, that’s good news for Democrats. Yet there’s more, and the “more” is not such good news for the Dems.
As Frank observes, cutting-edge Democrats—especially those most active on social media—seem to have lost interest in “meat and potatoes” issues (this is especially true for vegans!), as they pursue newer policy passions, such as “wokeness” and campus-style Social Justice Warrior-ing. And yet here, Frank says, these progressives are at risk of busting their swords, because strong national majorities oppose such cultural radicalism. Here’s another barrage from Frank:
Sixty percent think that admiring traditional masculinity is good, not bad. Sixty-seven percent (as of 2016) support the right to make offensive statements about minority groups, and even more support the right to make offensive statements about religion. Fifty-seven percent (as of 2017) have a lot of confidence in the police. Seventy-three percent are opposed to the use of race or ethnicity in admissions. Over 70% are opposed to abortion past the first trimester. Seventy-nine percent support requiring employers to verify that the people they hire are in the United States legally. And 60% think athletes should be required to stand for the national anthem.
Frank is himself on the left. And yet his leftism is of the old kind, focused on economics and budgets, as opposed to avant-garde culture. That is, he is more interested in, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and less interested in RuPaul and Drag Race. (Indeed, Frank bears some resemblance to another figure on the old left, John Judis, whom this author has written about for Breitbart News, in 2016 and in 2018.)
To bolster his argument, Frank points to the work of political scientist Lee Drutman, who created a four-panel quadrant to show where the beliefs of the elite and the masses diverge. As Frank explains:
Political scientists speak of the economically left and culturally right quadrant of voters as being underserved. But … it’s not just an underserved quadrant. It’s the deciding quadrant. [Emphasis added]
Let’s stop and chew on that point a bit: Frank is saying that the “deciding,” as in decisive, group of voters are economic liberals and social conservatives—whom he dubs “Deplorable New Dealers.” And yes, Frank is using the “D” word, “Deplorable,” in exactly the same way that it was used in 2016 to describe Trump voters, many of whom, of course, are descended—and not that different from—the class-conscious, family-oriented, New Dealers who once dominated the Midwest and South.
Yet as we have seen, these “Deplorables” have few steady and consistent champions among the elite.
One champion, to be sure, is Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who back in January attacked libertarians and took the side of the economic populists and social conservatives. In June, Carlson went even further, speaking favorably of Elizabeth Warren’s “Plan for Economic Patriotism.” (Carlson made it clear, at the same time, that he strongly opposed Warren’s left-wing social agenda.)
Meanwhile, as described here at Breitbart News, Sen. Marco Rubio has put forth a strongly culturally conservative, yet still strongly economically patriotic, response to Warren.
For his part, Carlson is not in elective politics and seems to have no interest in seeking any sort of public office. So the question is this: In addition to Rubio, what other Republican office-holders fit this bill of economic patriotism—being simultaneously a populist on economics and a conservative on family values?
One new prospect, without a doubt, is Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who is so intriguing, in his intellect and his sincerity, that a dozen different Breitbart News writers have chronicled him just in the last year.
Indeed, what’s even more intriguing about Hawley is that he has the makings of crossover appeal. For example, there’s Matt Stoller, an anti-trust-minded scholar at the center-left Open Markets Institute.
Stoller doesn’t appear to be a Republican, or anything close, and yet like Frank and Judis, he is focused on populist economics, not progressive culture. Thus Stoller has been fiercely critical of the economic policies associated with Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden.
In the meantime, just on June 17, Stoller tweeted some guarded, but respectful, praise for Hawley:
It’s interesting how much Republican Senator @HawleyMO upsets both Koch brother libertarians and the center-left. His socially conservative anti-corporate stance is touching some raw nerves. Hawley is a social conservative who opposes corporate concentration and Wall Street dominance … this is a powerful combo. It may not be Hawley, but if Dems don’t move away from neoliberalism someone like Hawley will win. [Emphasis added]
We can end with those words: “Someone like Hawley will win.”