Thomas Frank
Thomas Frank; drawing by James Ferguson

As a reviewer of political books, I get a lot of them unbidden in the mail. I remember vividly, one day in 2003, opening a package from a publisher, finding Arianna Huffington’s anticorporate screed Pigs at the Trough, and thinking: finally, after all these years, somebody has moved from right to left! Through the 1990s, Huffington had been a fairly dutiful Republican—at one point, even a Republican political wife. She enthusiastically supported the impeachment of Bill Clinton. As late as 2000 she was presenting herself as a kind of militant, pox-on-both-your-houses centrist. But now, as usual, her timing was impeccable. Soon she had founded The Huffington Post, which has amassed an online audience on the left that exceeds that of almost all the mainstream news organizations.1 (And it may be a harbinger of something else, I’m not sure what, that Huffington has just announced she will be leaving Huffington Post to run a “corporate and consumer well-being platform” called Thrive Global.)

For most of the three decades preceding Huffington’s conversion, moving from left to right, or at least from left to less left, was far more common than the other way around. Ex-Communists used to ask, “What was your Kronstadt?,” referring to the 1921 uprising against the Bolsheviks that presented one of the first occasions to become disillusioned with them, to be followed by many others. American domestic liberalism provided people looking for Kronstadts with a long series of opportunities, beginning in the mid-1960s. These included, for example: the Black Power movement, for those who thought Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech fully and exclusively represented the thinking of black America; and the crushing defeat of George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972, for those who planned to run for office (like Bill and Hillary Clinton). Also, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Silicon Valley at home, many liberals began to think of capitalism in a far more broadly positive way than had been typical in American liberalism. That wasn’t as dramatic a change as moving from right to left, but because it involved many more people, it had a large effect on the location of the political consensus.

Elected officials are still wary about calling themselves “liberal,” but this year the momentum seems to be strongly in the direction that Huffington sensed was coming. The big surprise of the Democratic primary season was how well Bernie Sanders did, and Hillary Clinton has moved a couple of notches to the left in response, for example in turning against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and in proposing a very generous new federal program to reduce tuition at public universities. But “left” is not a neat category. Donald Trump and Sanders share a number of positions and rhetorical gestures, including opposition to free trade agreements and harsh criticism of Wall Street. (Indeed, Trump’s nomination seems to be a Kronstadt for many conservatives.) In his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, Trump predicted that Sanders’s supporters will vote for him. Sounding a lot like Sanders, he said, “Big business, elite media, and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place.”

This year’s Republican platform calls for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act, which is the 1933 law that separated commercial and investment banking—signed by Franklin Roosevelt, repealed by Bill Clinton in 1999. This was an often-repeated Sanders position, but Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic platform, don’t agree. The platform merely calls for Glass-Steagall to be “updated and modernized.”

Countries with parliamentary systems can have social-democratic parties, nationalist parties, green parties, ethnic parties, business parties, regional parties, religious parties, feminist parties, agricultural parties, and so on, which can fall into and out of coalitions with one another. The United States has a peculiarly durable two-party system that makes this process invisible because it takes place behind a deceptive façade that presents to the world one party for liberals and one for conservatives. Figuring out where American politics is moving ideologically requires establishing better definitions than thinking merely in the most broad and obvious terms that the two parties offer us.

Daniel Oppenheimer’s Exit Right is a collection of six profiles of men who moved from left to right—before, during, and after the period when it seemed as if everybody were moving from left to right. They are an odd assortment. Three of Oppenheimer’s subjects—Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, and David Horowitz—were “on the left” in a truly life-encompassing way. Chambers and Burnham were Communists, as were Horowitz’s parents. Of the other three, one, Christopher Hitchens, would at times have called himself a Marxist (but unlike the others, after conversion he never became a real movement conservative); Ronald Reagan was for some years a standard-issue New Deal Democrat, like most Americans of his generation and background; Norman Podhoretz published some left-wing writers in the early years of his editorship of Commentary, but even before his well-known switch to conservatism in the late-1960s he had written attacks on the Beats, Hannah Arendt, and James Baldwin, which wouldn’t have been the program of typical leftists, or even liberals, of the day.


Oppenheimer’s sensibility is more literary than political—he’s mainly interested in his characters’ ideological evolution as revealing something about them personally, not about their times. In the opening pages of Exit Right he writes: “It is easy to disparage other people’s politics by psychologizing, historicizing, biologizing, or sociologizing them. The harder and more important truth to admit is that everyone’s politics are resonating on all of these frequencies.” But that standard, to which Oppenheimer scrupulously adheres in his six profiles, tends to keep the focus on his subjects’ inner lives rather than on the outside world. Although Oppenheimer hints that he is a liberal, he tries hard to leave his own views out of the book; still, Exit Right implicitly depends, in many instances, on the idea that becoming conservative is something to be explained on personal grounds, not as a reasoned response to events, and his stories emphasize family tragedies, betrayals, mentorships gone awry, and spiritual crises.

Here, for example, is the way Oppenheimer describes Leon Trotsky’s appeal to James Burnham: “He told a story—a brilliant, beautiful, absurd story—that bound together the heroic past and beleaguered present into the only kind of narrative structure that his ego could bear to carry.” Oppenheimer is a diligent researcher, and he also describes the external causes of his subjects’ disillusionment. Burnham, who later became the chief ideologue of the early National Review, was drawn to Trotsky rather than Stalin, and, after some agonizing, joined the tiny American Workers Party, rather than the Communist Party USA, in the early 1930s. Burnham wound up arguing with, and then breaking with, Trotsky himself. Events like the Nazi–Soviet nonaggression pact and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Poland from the east led him to quit the Workers Party in 1940. Chambers joined the Communist Party, but his disillusionment began even earlier than Burnham’s, with Stalin’s trials and executions of his prominent rivals in the mid-1930s. He left the Party in 1938.

Each of Exit Right’s profiles ends at the moment of the subject’s disillusion and conversion. This, too, serves to keep the focus on the personal; it shuts the door on the possibility of examining the particular variety of conservatism, the vision of a good society, that each man wound up professing. Oppenheimer’s subjects all wrote their own political autobiographies, and, while drawing on them, he seems especially, or even principally, interested in them as writers. At the end of the book he asserts that the best political writing is done “by someone who is in tension” between impulses—who is “writing from within the tension.”

That definition puts political writing based on certainty on a lower plane, even if certainty about crucial political realities, like Stalinism and anti-Stalinism, would seem necessary. Most of the conservative writings of David Horowitz, who was disillusioned principally by the murder of a friend by the Black Panthers in 1974, are crudely ideological and not very interesting, but the best-known conservative books by Chambers and Burnham, Witness (1952) and The Managerial Revolution (1941), have stood up better than what they wrote during their left-wing days.

Explaining why American politics became more conservative during the last quarter of the twentieth century isn’t the task Oppenheimer set for himself, but it is exactly what Steve Fraser, in The Limousine Liberal, and Thomas Frank, in Listen, Liberal, have set out to do. Both of them write from the left, and both argue that the shift to the right since the last part of the twentieth century was anything but a natural, spontaneous response—by voters, intellectuals, politicians, or anybody else—to what was happening in the world. Instead, it was a change engineered by adept professionals within the major political parties.

At first glance Fraser’s and Frank’s books appear to be quite different. Fraser’s focuses on how the conservative stereotype of its title was used to persuade Democratic voters to switch parties, and Frank’s is an angry denunciation of moderate, market-oriented Democrats like Bill Clinton for tearing the party asunder from its historic roots.

Father Charles Coughlin attacking the Roosevelt administration at the Townsend Convention, Cleveland, Ohio, July 1936

Everett Collection/Alamy

Father Charles Coughlin attacking the Roosevelt administration at the Townsend Convention, Cleveland, Ohio, July 1936

But the books have a great deal in common. Both Fraser and Frank are economic liberals who see the New Deal, and its labor-centered coalition, as the natural state of the Democratic Party. If the Republicans today are not simply the party of the top half of the income distribution and the Democrats the party of the bottom half, that, for them, is odd and disturbing, since the fundamental purpose of the Democrats is to represent the economic interests of the least-well-off Americans. This corruption of the Democrats’ mission happened for reasons of social class and culture. Though he doesn’t use the specific phrase, Frank is no less interested than Fraser in limousine liberals—they’re the people he thinks have ruined the Democratic Party.


Fraser’s book covers the entire span of the twentieth century, and Frank’s is mainly about the period from the 1990s onward, so they also go together sequentially. Although Fraser says the first person to use the term “limousine liberal” was Mario Procaccino, the Democratic machine’s candidate who used the label against John Lindsay in the 1969 New York City mayor’s race, a better name for his subject would be “right-wing populism” (his term), and that goes back a long way. Fraser’s account encompasses such figures as Father Charles Coughlin, Joe McCarthy, Phyllis Schlafly, and George Wallace—all people who built a substantial following of white working-class conservatives by playing to resentment of elite, affluent liberals. “What has given the metaphor of the limousine liberal its stamina,” Fraser writes,

has been its ability to collect together a disparate array of discontents, anxieties, and sentiments aroused by the advent of modern corporate and finance capitalism, cosmopolitan living, consumer culture, and the growth of a supervisory state that helps keep the whole mechanism running.

It becomes clear after the opening passages that Fraser actually does not consider the limousine liberal to be a mythological figure—instead, the idea is “part myth, part social reality.” Limousine liberals are well educated, confident, and more closely attuned to issues like racial justice, environmentalism, feminism, human rights abroad, and cultural tolerance than to the economic welfare of laboring people in the United States. Procaccino was not entirely wrong about his opponent, Fraser admits:

Lindsay’s liberalism accepted organized labor as a fact of modern life, but treated it with none of the sympathy it exhibited for the marginalized poor. Nor did it feel at home having to share power; it preferred to bestow it with all the sense of dependency and gratitude such a gift implicitly entailed.

Right-wing populism, Fraser observes, has been intermittently left-wing on economic issues. Father Coughlin used to rail against Wall Street’s cozy relationship with the Federal Reserve. Then, during the long decades of the cold war, as Fraser points out, “hostile talk about capitalism…was virtually verboten,” so there was a long interlude when “social” issues of race, religion, and sexual mores came to the fore within right-wing populism. When the Tea Party emerged in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, one of the elements in its stew of resentments, along with race and immigration, was discontent with the Federal Reserve’s having rescued the “too big to fail” banks. The Tea Party wound up being so focused on dislike of the first black president, and so generously funded by the Koch brothers and other rich donors, that its economic-populist strain was easy to miss. But now the Trump campaign, with its claims that trade agreements hurt American workers, has shown that a mix of economic nationalism and nativism is once again possible on the right.

Fraser argues that it’s misleading to think of business as being uniformly on one side or the other of the war between right-wing populists and limousine liberals. What he calls “family capitalism,” run by dynastic owner-operators, tends to be right-wing (think of Koch Industries); corporate capitalism, with its credentialed and salaried managers, is more liberal (think of Apple Inc.). Businesses in the Sunbelt tend to be to the right of businesses in the Northeast and Midwest.

In this complicated picture, the allegiance of working-class voters is up for grabs in a way that would once have been inconceivable, and it’s also not clear which of the two parties is their logical home today, especially if you understand such voters as being motivated by cultural as well as economic calculations. Thus far, they seem to be very roughly divided by race (whites Republican, minorities Democratic), by sex (heterosexual men Republican, women and LGBT people Democratic), and by employment sector (heavy industry Republican, services Democratic).

To Thomas Frank, all of these realignments were harmful, because by taking the primary focus of politics away from the issues of working-class income and employment they resulted in increases in inequality that were not only large but also entirely unnecessary. It is, he writes, a

Democratic failure, straight up and nothing else…. The current leaders of the Democratic Party know their form of liberalism is somehow related to the good fortune of the top 10 percent. Inequality, in other words, is a reflection of who they are. It goes to the very heart of their self-understanding.

Frank’s collective villain is highly educated “professionals,” who “undertook a mass migration from the Republican to the Democratic Party” beginning in the 1950s:

In addition to doctors, lawyers, the clergy, architects, and engineers—the core professional groups—the category includes economists, experts in international development, political scientists, managers, financial planners, computer programmers, aerospace designers, and even people who write books like this one.

These people, by his account, think of themselves as meritocratic and virtuous—indeed, superior—and as having transcended any fundamental opposition between capital and labor that may once have existed. (They aren’t so different from the elite-liberal collective antiheroes of such previous books as The Managerial Revolution, Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, and Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites.)

Professionals, according to Frank, tend to regard other participants in politics as self-interested. They consider that “their views are based on reasoned analysis and universal values.” For him they make up “‘a second hierarchy’—second to the hierarchy of money, that is—‘based on credentialed expertise.’” Chief among their views, Frank writes, is the profoundly anti-working-class idea that a good society should honor “individual excellence” and mistrust solidarity. They tend to argue that the kinds of market-oriented policies Frank hates, like free trade and other forms of deregulation, are in tune with inevitable and irresistible modernizing forces, to which resistance is prejudiced and futile. The result has been “something truly unfortunate: the erasure of economic egalitarianism from American politics.” And as (or, more accurately, because) this has happened, the professionals have prospered.

Many liberal writers have called attention to a memo that Lewis Powell Jr., on the eve of his nomination to the Supreme Court in 1971, wrote to the president of the US Chamber of Commerce, proposing a long-term strategy of conservative and Republican institution-building to counteract the dominance of liberalism. The enactment of the ideas in the Powell memo is one frequent explanation for the rise of conservatism.

Frank puts considerable blame instead on a manifesto written in the same year by a prominent Washington Democrat, Fred Dutton, titled Changing Sources of Power. It called on the Democratic Party to reorient itself from blue-collar to white-collar workers, from the high school–educated to the college-educated, and from the middle-aged to the young. Implicitly this meant downgrading the importance of economic issues in the Democratic pitch to voters. After Dutton’s manifesto came wave after wave of “New Democrats” like Gary Hart, whose stump speech, Frank reminds us, was called “The End of the New Deal,” and who “made his name denouncing old-fashioned, working-class politics in favor of a more tech-friendly vision.”

By far the worst of these, to Frank, was Bill Clinton: “What he did as President”—NAFTA, welfare reform, poking at the inviolability of Social Security, and so on—“was beyond the reach of even the most diabolical Republican.” (Barack Obama, to Frank, is merely disappointing, not malign. And the prospect of Hillary Clinton’s winning the presidential election recently elicited this comment from Frank, in The Guardian: “‘Jobs’ don’t really matter now in this election, nor does the debacle of ‘globalization,’ nor does anything else, really. Thanks to this imbecile Trump, all such issues have been momentarily swept off the table while Americans come together around Clinton, the wife of the man who envisaged the Davos dream in the first place.”)

Frank writes in a tone of angry sarcasm, and he knows his primary targets well enough that his collective portrayal of them has a real sting. Here is part of an extended aria on the professionals’ invocation of “innovation” as the solution to every problem in society, for example:

Innovation was the driving force behind [the] new era, sometimes personified by Wall Street, on other occasions by Silicon Valley. The place where the magic happened was “the ideopolis”: the postindustrial city, where highly credentialed professionals advised clients, taught college students, wrote software, cracked mortgage-backed securities—and were served in turn by an army of retail greeters and latte foamers who were proud to share their betters’ values.

What Frank finds most maddening about the professionals is their unwillingness to believe that a core purpose of politics is to redistribute money and power, or to understand that social and economic structures are human-made, not natural. “Government could easily have prevented or at least mitigated every single one of the developments I have described,” he writes; and a little later, “in a democracy we can set the economic table however we choose.”

The professionals he writes about prefer to imagine themselves as inhabiting a world in which everybody, not just them, wins, and the unifying cause is not to reduce economic equality but “to defeat the Republicans, that unthinkable brutish Other” whose voters don’t believe in gay marriage or gun control or legal abortion or the threat of climate change.

Would it have been possible to maintain the Democratic Party in an essentially New Deal configuration, eighty years after the New Deal? Frank writes on the assumption that the answer is a resounding yes, so much so that he doesn’t take it on himself to explain in detail how that would look today. In any event he’s right, and Fraser is too, that both parties have changed substantially in composition and ideology since the great days of Franklin Roosevelt. (Neither of them makes much of what may be the biggest change, which came after the Democrats forced civil rights on the South; this led the white electorate there to switch from overwhelmingly Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican.)

One way to understand the professional, or limousine, liberals is to see them as comparable to the old, and vanished, liberal wing of the Republican Party, now reborn as a visible and influential wing of the Democratic Party. If John Lindsay was indeed the original limousine liberal, it’s worth remembering that he switched from Republican to Democratic in 1971, just as much of the rest of the country was moving in the opposite direction. The wealthy Upper East Side district he represented in Congress before he was mayor is now Democratic, like many former liberal Republican redoubts in and near the big cities. This is likely to be the first presidential election since such things have been measured in which the Democratic candidate wins a majority of the votes of college-educated whites.

Winning this group over has helped the Democrats financially and electorally, but in politics any mass defection has a strong effect on both the party the defectors left and on the party they joined. Gaining southern and evangelical voters (two overlapping categories) helped the Republicans win elections; but those Republican gains entailed adopting policies on issues like abortion and guns that drove many of the party’s educated liberals into the arms of the Democrats—who then moved right on economic issues by way of accommodating them. According to the website, the five organizations whose employees contributed the most to the Obama campaign in 2012 were the University of California, Microsoft, Google, the US government, and Harvard. Those are exactly where one would find the people Fraser and Frank are talking about. None of their institutions is a hotbed of blue-collar unionist sentiments.2 It is worth noting that since 1983 union membership has fallen from 20.1 percent of the workforce to 11.1 percent.

The phenomenon of a liberal political party that does not make economic justice its overriding concern, and that includes well-off professionals in its core constituency, is not simply an aberration of contemporary American politics. It has existed in the American past—think of the Liberal Republicans who nominated Horace Greeley for president in 1872, or Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party in 1912—and now exists elsewhere in the world, for example in the Congress Party in India or the Kadima Party in Israel.

People participate in politics for all sorts of reasons. A collection of essays called The Future We Want, edited by the founder of the socialist magazine Jacobin and an editor at The Nation, is resolutely uninterested in ideas that will seem “reasonable.”3 In its pages, various writers propose entirely eliminating financial markets, police forces, state governments, the current political parties, and intellectual property laws. Nonetheless the contributors spend a good deal of energy trying to persuade people on the left that gay issues, black issues, feminist issues, and so on are all really about capitalism, because the oppression of gays, blacks, and women serves corporate interests. That’s a sign that even many committed radicals don’t see the world as Fraser and Frank see it. The US may be moving back to the left politically in the twenty-first century, at least in presidential politics, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a left that seeks to put economic equality in the place of honor.

But Fraser and Frank were prescient: publishing in a presidential election year, but writing before it was clear how the parties’ primary campaigns would go, they still help explain why voters in both parties (and also abroad) have powerfully forced the economic dissatisfaction of working people to center stage, in ways that the people running the parties hadn’t expected. A dominant complaint has been against the trend of a small minority at the top being the overwhelming beneficiaries of economic growth. Recognition of the power of the “one percent” seems to be a global electoral Kronstadt.

One should be careful, though, about concluding that, starting now, the Democratic Party will begin the process of reorienting itself in what Fraser and Frank would consider the proper direction. Even if Donald Trump loses badly, it’s conceivable that his brand of economic policy—which is suspicious of the power of the market—could over the years become the core of a successful Republican Party’s appeal, in the same way that the ideas behind Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 helped lead to Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, especially if some future Republican figures out how to decouple Trumpism from its disdainful rhetoric about race that is guaranteed to keep minority voters loyal to the Democrats. And the Democrats could remain politically successful while gradually ceding their identity as (to quote Frank’s subtitle) “the party of the people” to the Republicans. They might do so by making the interests of the vast white-collar suburban middle class their overriding concern, with lessening attention to poorly paid workers, notwithstanding the urgings of Bernie Sanders.

The American political parties, because they are so big, are necessarily mésalliances—unlikely matches whose fundamental illogic almost always causes strains, which periodically become life-threatening crises for the parties. The New Deal coalition was a mésalliance of workers and segregationists. The Republican Reagan coalition was a mésalliance of business and white evangelicals, and this sort of alliance combined to oppose Obama. The idea of a Democratic Party that is truly consistent and unified around the fight against inequality—Frank’s ideal—is too much to hope for, and it may not even be a good idea. Better to have the Democrats’ prosperous leadership struggling to hold together an unruly coalition of labor, minorities, and social movements than to trust that any group leading a unified party won’t turn into just the kind of self-regarding, self-dealing insiders that Frank so much dislikes.