Can We Have a ‘Party of the People’?

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…

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