Inequality is for Winners

I talk to Tom Frank, author of Listen, Liberal, about the Democrats’ break up with the working class and why education can’t save us…

listen liberalJennifer Berkshire: Your recent book, Listen, Liberal argues that Democrats are no longer the party of the working class, which now seems to have some, well, data behind it.

Tom Frank: The Democrats are now a party of the professional class: affluent, white-collar professionals. They themselves say this all the time; they talk about the professional class as being their constituency. But we don’t often try to put the pieces together and try to figure out, well what does it mean to be a party of the professional class vs. the working class? One thing it means is that inequality is seen as the natural order of things. In fact, professionals believe in inequality. They think of inequality as totally fair and the way things should be, and they think that because they themselves are the winners in the great inequality sweepstakes.

Berkshire: There are many great lines in Listen, Liberal, but one of my faves is that whenever the kind of liberal you’re describing stumbles upon an economic problem—say, the collapse of the middle class—s/he sees an education problem. I can’t help but think of this when you hear voters in, say, the Heartland, talking about feeling looked down upon.

Frank: That’s one of the lines in the book that I’m quite proud of. The liberals I’m describing are an affluent group, by and large, who’ve done very well, and they attribute their success to their education. The professional class is defined by educational achievement. That’s who they are. They’re defined by how and what they did in school. So they look out at the rest of the country that’s going in reverse, at the middle class dream that’s falling apart, and they say *you know, it’s really your own fault. You should have tried harder in school. You should have gone to the right school.* But defining every economic problem as an education problem is basically a way of blaming the victim.

This is where the idea that education solves economic problems totally breaks down. What my generation learned, and what everybody is starting to understand now, is that it’s not about education—it’s about power. It’s about power in the workplace. And we didn’t have any.

Berkshire: Here, allow me to repeat that for emphasis, but with italics to emphasize the condescension: you know, it’s really your own fault. You should have tried harder in school. You should have gone to the right school.

ivyleagueFrank: There is nothing that gives the lie to the meritocratic view of the world than what’s happened to humanities PhDs. These are people with the highest degree there is. They spent the most time in school of anyone. This is where the idea that education solves economic problems totally breaks down. I spent 25 years in school and got a PhD in history at the University of Chicago, a degree that used to be valued in the marketplace. But the marketplace figured out a way to casualize university labor. The whole idea of the professional, meritocratic way of looking at the world is that if you study, you’ll win—good things will come to you. I studied hard, and I got good grades and I got a PhD and my dissertation was even published. None of it made any difference. What my generation learned, and what everybody is starting to understand now, is that it’s not about education—it’s about power. It’s about power in the workplace. And we didn’t have any.

Berkshire: Readers of this blog will recognize some not insignificant overlap between the liberals of which you write and the education reform wing of the Democratic party. This particular varietal not only sees every economic problem as an education problem, but sees teachers unions as a singular impediment to at last fixing our economic problems through education.  

Frank: I think about all of these people who blame everything on the teachers unions and it drives me crazy. As though they think that getting rid of any kind of power for teachers is what we need to do. I went to public schools in suburban Kansas City and they were excellent, and my teachers were in the union and they were first rate. You know what else is fascinating is the utter lack of solidarity among professionals. When they do this to K-12 teachers, does anybody think they’re going to stop there? Why would not university professors be next? They’ve already casualized university labor, bidding down the price of teaching down to almost nothing. You see the same thing happening in journalism now too. And yet there’s no solidarity for other teachers from on high, from the leaders of these disciplines. There’s no solidarity between the powerful figures in teaching literature, for example, and the adjuncts who do the actual work. By and large they don’t seem to care about what’s happening to their own colleagues.

Berkshire: Listen, Liberal, with its explanation of why blue collar workers feel abandoned by the Democratic party, has been described as *prescient.* Which is another way of saying that you’ve been ranting about the same things for a long time. For example, your criticism of NAFTA goes back long before anyone had even heard of Bernie bros.

business handshakeFrank
: I’ve been talking about NAFTA since the day it was passed, and one of the things you run up against in political commentary is people who just laugh at you if you say there might be something wrong with NAFTA. It’s like talking about the Kennedy assassination—it’s that stigmatized to even imply that these trade deals may not have been the most wonderful thing in the world.These things are so obviously good. What kind of sorehead could be against them? The phrase the New York Times always used was *no brainer.*  And now look at what’s happening. Donald Trump’s movement was in part powered by his denunciation of trade deals. It was so strong that even Hillary Clinton, who voted for many trade deals when she was Senator and even helped negotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership when she was Secretary of State, had to back away from it. She didn’t mean any of it, of course. It’s out of control now. It’s a prairie fire.

Berkshire: Your tour through the break-up between the Democratic party and the working class makes at an extended stop in a city I know very well: Decatur, IL. I grew up near there and the labor struggle you write about, at a local corn processing company that had been bought by a huge multinational sugar conglomerate, had a profound effect on me. In fact, it was the experience of interviewing the workers there and helping them tell their story that made me realize what I wanted to be when I grew up, thus launching me on my extraordinarily non-lucrative path.

Frank: I heard about what was going on in Decatur because a worker from Staley, came to the University of Chicago when I was in grad school and made a presentation about it. They’d made a video about their struggle and the video had that scene where the staleypepperpolice pepper sprayed protesters. I was shocked by that. I went down there several times with a friend of mine and we wrote an essay about what was going on Decatur for the Chicago Reader. At one point while I was there, there was enormous march through the city that I’ll never forget. I climbed up on a highway overpass, and the marchers, who were marching from the Staley to the Caterpillar plant, filled this major road running through Decatur, from one side to the other, all the way to the horizon. I’d never seen anything like this before in my life. All of a sudden I had this spontaneous understanding of what liberalism was and where it came from, this kind of 1930’s vision of working people in their numbers and in their majesty. Here they are, the population of your town rising up. It was an extraordinary feeling.

Berkshire: I was at that march! Alas, this is a story that doesn’t end happily. The workers were crushed, and Decatur today, well, I’ll let you do the honors…

Frank:  In the last part of Listen, Liberal, I go to Martha’s Vineyard, then go back to Decatur—these are two scenes that really represent the different parts of democratic party. Martha’s Vineyard is where the President and the Clintons go. All of these democratic powerbrokers go there and they hang out with their billionaire friends in these enormous mansions with their private beaches. Then I went back to Decatur, and it’s a disaster. It has completely fallen apart. Those workers turned out to be totally right in their warnings to the nation. They used to always talk about how what they were going through was really a battle over the future of the middle class, one that the rest of us were going to to have to fight someday. And nobody listened to them.


Tom Frank is the author of Listen, Liberal -or- Whatever Happened to the Party of the People


  1. Thought:

    “I went to public schools in suburban Kansas City and they were excellent, and my teachers were in the union and they were first rate.”

    Frank grew up in Mission Hills – a suburb that is 98% white with a median family income of $200,000 per year. So, yeah, maybe not the most representative place in America when considering the public schools – especially when thinking about places that would hope to see better outcomes for their students. Generally, schools like Frank’s are most coveted by the average teacher and therefore they have the “pick of the litter” so to speak when considering teaching candidates. I’ll also assume that: (1) his school “tracked” because that’s what most American schools do, (2) he was in the upper track, because he eventually got a PhD at U of C, and (3) the best teachers teach the upper track (as is typical, I think, though sometimes it’s just veterans). Therefore, this leads me to assume that Frank was taught in school by some of the very best teachers in the Kansas City region. So I’m guessing their union status was not why they were excellent. I’m also guessing this is not exact same experience as the black (59%) and Latino (27%) students in the Kansas City School District.

    1. I think you’re confusing Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas. It’s OK – people who aren’t from the Heartland do it all the time. Did Frank really say that his teachers were excellent because of their union status? I must have missed that part, just as you appear to have missed the larger political issue he was raising. I’ll attribute it to the heat dome as I know you to be quite bright 🙂 Thought of you this AM while reading this NYT story about Trump in Scranton, PA promising to bring back jobs. The reporter encounters a pair of retired math teachers who are voting for Hillary because, as one of them explains: “I still have my two main organs, my brain and my heart, so I’m a Democrat.”

      1. Doh, definitely picked the wrong Kansas City. My apologies. The numbers are 34% African-American and 46% Latino (13% White).

        I assumed that Frank mentioned their union status either to imply they were good because they were unionized, or despite their unionized status, no? Maybe I read this wrong, but he seems to say that teachers should not have their power reduced and as his evidence he brings up his experience having unionized teachers, hence my point that he likely had a non-representative sampling of union teachers in the KC, KS region.

        “I think about all of these people who blame everything on the teachers unions and it drives me crazy. As though they think that getting rid of any kind of power for teachers is what we need to do. I went to public schools in suburban Kansas City and they were excellent, and my teachers were in the union and they were first rate. ”

        As a teacher, I love the ideas of teachers having power. As a parent, I love the idea of parents having power as surrogates for their children. When the interests align, things are hunky-dory. This is not always the case – especially when the needs of low-income, kids of color are at play. Unlike in the wealthy suburbs, where entitled parents lord over the upper-middle class teachers’ of their kids, in urban districts the teachers are often the higher class folks looking out for their own interests in the face of their less-well-off students.

        Defending the rights of teachers is undeniably honorable, but not at the expense of kids who should be able to learn, and are not. It’s just not that simple. It’s easy to say what’s the right call for one interest group if you ignore the needs of another.

        1. The fact that we seem to be ending up with a new variety of school (and a system of schools) in which teachers have little if any power – but parents and students haven’t gained power from the teachers’ loss (and fundamental inequities remain not just unaddressed but undiscussed) makes me think that this analysis was probably flawed from the start. The question that concerns me most these days is where the push for change comes from once you’ve eliminated the ability of teachers to act collectively and reduced parent input to “feet voting.” Ideally, this wouldn’t be a problem if all of our autonomous school leaders were visionary and beneficent – but alas, I fear that this is not the case. I think students will end up being the drivers of change. And I’m not giving up on unions either. I think organizing by charter school teachers will become a force and that young teachers in what remains of traditional districts, who went into teaching because they believe in social justice, will take over the dino unions and force them to broaden their visions. But my vision of the world tends to be ‘box half full,’ as you well know!

  2. Except that the Democratic Party isn’t really the party of the professionals either. Look how they’re destroying so many professions. We all know what’s happened to teaching. And as Frank talks about in this article, university teaching is suffering its own fate because of the use of adjuncts. And everything that’s happening in teaching is happening in various forms in medicine. Middle management is long gone. I guess lawyers are still doing pretty well, at least the big-time corporate ones, but they’re taking some hits too.

    To put it even more honestly than Frank does, the Democrats are not the party of professionals, but the party of the 1% (as are the Republicans, before anyone gets on my case). They don’t care about ordinary professionals any more than they care about working class people. They care about the people who can line their coffers.

  3. I think the fundamental assertion that power is more important to economic success in the USA than is education rings true. Look at the quantitative data available regarding underemployment among post-docs in biomedical sciences or mid-career workers in many of the engineering disciplines. These are graduates in the STEM fields now so popular in elementary education who reach dead-ends in their early thirties and face a life of alienation. This sort of thing is unnecessary, inhumane, an enormous waste of talent and education, and proclaims institutionalized anti-intellectualism. The moral of the story is that every variety of labor, even those remarkable for extreme levels of educational achievement, are still just LABOR and prone to becoming commodities. Without organized resistance to the ascendancy of advantages to capital, this trend will only become worse.

  4. Lots of interesting things to talk about here, to many perhaps for one post.

    Let me start with the concern about the value of doctorates. The first thing we might note is that doctorates are becoming relatively more common. In 2014 (the latest year that i could easily find data for in the NSF survey of earned doctorates) there were 54,070 doctorates awarded by US colleges and universities. Thirty years before, in 1984, there were 31,334 doctorates awarded. The percentage increase in doctorates awarded was around 72%. During that same time, the percentage increase in the population of the US was about 35%. In all likelihood, the increase in the population of traditional college age students was no where near as high as 35%, so we in general we have more Ph.D.s chasing fewer undergraduates.

    The second thing we might note is that the return to a Ph.D. depends greatly on the field, largely because of the numbers of Ph.D.s awarded in each field and the options for employment the degree creates. In my field of economics, a Ph.D. student might be employed in a job where a Ph.D. in economics is a job requirement in the academy, in the public sector, or with private industry. There are many fewer jobs for which a history Ph.D is a job requirement. The salary also depends on the institution. A brand new Ph.D. in economics will get a job offer of at least $130,000 at a top department, a job offer of at least $100,000 at any university with a graduate program in economics, and possibly job offers of less than $50,000 at struggling small colleges. Experienced non-tenure track economists with full time lecturer positions will earn in the high five figures or low six figures at research universities. These lecturers are the casual workers mentioned in the interview.

    Finally, being the world’s expert about something the world cares little about was never a path to high compensation. It is not about either power or education, it is about relevance. My twenty two year old son earns twice my salary because his work writing code potentially has a direct impact on the entire world population, while my work is only possibly important to the students that can be stuffed into a lecture hall.

    Next entry: NAFTA.

    NAFTA is, in fact, not really a big deal. Mexico was and is too small, too poor, too inefficient in production to have had a big impact on the US economy. The real culprit, if you want to put it that way, is technological change.

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