In Why Have Democrats Failed in the State Where They’re Most Likely to Succeed, Thomas Frank criticizes the Democratic Party in its most dominant state – Massachusetts. As a serious study, it belongs in the Department of Dubious Research. As a polemic, he gets his core argument right: the Democratic Party has forsaken the lunch pail in favor of social interest liberalism favored by the affluent.
Frank’s article appears in The Nation and is a tease for his new book. He argues that the working class gets shafted nationally but the Democratic leadership’s response is ‘this is the best we can do with these Republicans around’, but Massachusetts has almost no Republicans around, so what’s our excuse?
Frank contends that everything that has made part of Massachusetts prosperous (he means you, Boston’s innovators and entrepreneurs) is a betrayal of all that is right and true if you believe in the Democratic Party of the New Deal. But we don’t have the Democratic Party of the New Deal (except for Elizabeth Warren) we have the party of that arch-innovation Democrat, Deval Patrick.
Frank knows all this because he visited Fall River, a desolate shell, and contrasted it with Boston where “I was surprised to discover . . . that Boston boasts a full-blown Innovation District.” Now that is a man who enjoys the thrill of being easily surprised. Frank also thinks we like former Governor Patrick so much because he’s honest and Massachusetts is “a state accustomed to wide-open corruption.” But it isn’t really (see here) and in any case, other than shenanigans in the King administration over thirty years ago, you have to go back a long ways to find much serious corruption in the governor’s office.
More problematically Frank appears to have blown into Massachusetts, gotten the impressions he was looking for, and departed. But there is serious work about inequality in Massachusetts, including MassInc’s 2011 report Recapturing the American Dream: Meeting the Challenges of the Bay State’s Lost Decade. It was prepared by Professor Andrew Sum and co-authors from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Among other things, the report laid out in detail how Massachusetts was once among the most equal states in the country, but is now among the most unequal in income. It’s a huge divide and one factor is a vast regional imbalance in income, education, and opportunity. The Recapturing the American Dream report even predicted that the disparity in growth rates between the knowledge industries around Greater Boston and lagging industries in the rest of the state would exacerbate the problem. Frank could have learned all of this and more by simply visiting the MassInc Gateway Cities Innovation Institute. If he’d surfed to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Gateway Cities web page, he’d even have learned that Fall River is a Gateway City.
Now having a governmental agency acknowledge an issue or a think tank work on it is obviously far from solving the problem. My point here though is that Frank’s approach – cherry picked impressions – isn’t serious either.
Frank gets some things right – the condition of the Democratic Party, for instance. The party has undergone a severe tilt away from the pocketbook worries of the working class and toward the socially liberal concerns of the affluent. Tufts Professor Jeffrey M. Berry wrote about this in 1999 in The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups, and it has been a theme of political scientists like Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson too. So Frank didn’t discover some political Higgs Boson here.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt isn’t walking through those doors, folks. If he could, perhaps he’d repeat what he said in a campaign speech in Madison Square Garden in 1936:
We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.
This isn’t 1936 though, it’s 2016. Even the Koch Brothers may vote Democratic.