Brett Gale
Friday, 14 December 2018

What’s the Matter with America? Nothing that Can’t be Fixed by Australia

When the Chifley Research Centre sponsored American author Thomas Frank’s visit to Australia earlier this year we subtitled his visit “Lessons for Australia from Trump’s America.  As it turns out the visit may also have been titled “Lessons for America from Australia”.

Indeed, after spending a week in Frank’s company I don’t know whether to be depressed about the state of American politics, or somewhat delighted at the positive beacon that Australian Labor holds up for social democrats around the world.  

As Thomas Frank subsequently wrote to Chifley members,

“What I found so gratifying about my visit to your country was the way the Chifley Research Centre encouraged Americans and Australians to compare the different routes that our two democracies have taken.

Our countries are superficially so similar, and yet what I saw in Australia was the ‘path not taken’ by my own country, which has turned so resolutely against its social-democratic past.”

Throughout his events for Chifley, Frank painted a bleak picture of political events in the US. As he did in his landmark books “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” and “Listen Liberal, or, Whatever happened to the party of the people?”, Frank took the time with Australian audiences to examine the fall of the Democrats as the party of the (white) working class and the rise of the Republicans as the “workers friend”.  

Indeed, Frank at times envisaged a nightmare scenario in which the Trump/Bannon project of creating a permanent right-wing working class party.  

How did America reach this state of affairs?

In What’s the Matter Kansas? Frank called out how Republicans won votes by transforming the overwhelmingly economic grievances of working people into generalised opposition to an ever-present but vaguely defined ‘political correctness’ (of course this is a right-wing tactic should sound familiar to anyone who has had the misfortune to stumble across Sky News after 6pm).    

As the intro to that book makes clear the fact that working people “getting their fundamental interests wrong” by voting for conservatives was “the bedrock of American civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests”.

Unfortunately, not much has changed politically in the decade and a half since Thomas Frank first wrote those words.  And, in many respects Donald Trump is not a break with the past of the Republican movement he is the logical extension of the angry zeitgeist that Republicans have been tapping into since Nixon.  

In fact, Trump may have taken it a step further by not just talking about cultural ills but actually talking about the everyday economic concerns of the working class who have been left behind (even if he has no intention of actually fixing their problems for them).

As Thomas Frank told Chifley audiences, over the last 40 years  the “Republican Party in America had successfully inverted their historical brand-image as the party of the high-born, remaking themselves as plain-talking pals of the forgotten people who had so spurned them during the Great Depression”.

Modern Republicans are, “very comfortable with discontent. They are endlessly aggrieved. Modern American conservatives don’t speak to us in the manner of the capitalists of old, invoking the divine right of money or demanding that the lowly learn their place in the great chain of being. On the contrary: They imagine themselves as enemies of the elite, as the voice of the unfairly persecuted, as a righteous protest of the people on history’s receiving end.  They deliberately mimic the historical left”.

What makes Thomas Frank unique as a thinker though, is not just his critique of this great Republican con.   It is the fact that he is not afraid to call out where the supposed party of the people – the Democratic Party – has also let down those who they claim to represent.

Franks’ 2016 book “Listen Liberal” sets out in compelling detail the case that over the past 40 years the Democratic Party has transformed itself from a party of the working class into a party of the professional class and along the way has promoted and implemented policies that actually hurt the working class.  

Again, as Frank told our events, “Democrats decided they didn’t want to be the party of labor any longer. What Democrats had to embrace instead, the party’s thinkers decided, was the emerging postindustrial economy — and the people the Democratic Party needed to identify with were the winners of this new order: the highly educated professionals who populated our innovative knowledge industries”

The effect of these changes in the fundamental structure of America’s political parties (Republicans harvesting working class votes whilst screwing over their American interests and Democrats forgetting about their former working class bases) has been  an ever-increasing inequality.

Or as Thomas writes in his latest book “Rendezvous with Oblivion”, about the economic trajectory of both parties over the last few decades, “Utilities were privatised to disastrous effect, the real estate bubble grew and burst, the banks got ever bigger, state governments declared war on public workers, and the economy went off a cliff”.

Thomas Frank’s Chifley tour provided a sobering warning as to a future we must avoid.  Of course, any one paying attention to Australian politics over the last few years would know that at a time of growing inequality in our own country, Australian Labor will not be content to go the way of its American cousins.

Addressing inequality and putting fairness back into the system has been a hallmark of the Shorten opposition.  Often based on work done by the Chifley Research Centre, which takes seriously our mandate to work on long term policy solutions to help reduce inequality.   

Talking privately with Thomas Frank during his Australian tour it was clear that he was impressed with Australian Labor’s approach to these issues.  Happily for Australia, Frank found optimism in the structures and policies of the ALP such as the fact that Australian unions provide an anchor for Australian Labor that is missing from the American Democrats.

It wasn’t just Labor’s intrinsic links with the trade union movement and the Shorten Opposition’s relentless focus on fixing inequality that Frank found impressive about Australia.   

Australia’s independent and fair election system and system of compulsory voting appealed strongly to Frank (not just because I suspect he had a sneaky thought that Republicans might never get elected if the system wasn’t rigged in their favour).


And, it wasn’t all doom and gloom on Frank’s tour either.  Of the over 1000 people that attend our events I’m sure that all were impressed by Franks’ warmth, humility and sparkling sense of humour.  Lines like, “the rich people of today make the rich people of my childhood look like Soviets”, had audiences laughing appreciatively.  At other times, one could have heard a pin drop as he made passionate points that resonated strongly with Australian crowds.

In the end we also finished on a high, with Australians learning as much from Frank as he took away.  

In the long afterglow of Thomas Frank’s visit to Australia there may even be an optimistic outcome in his own country not just relying on Australia for his warmth. The American mid-terms saw massive gains for the Democrats in the Federal House and in State races.  Many of the successful candidates ran on the sort of platform that Frank had been espousing down under.

And perhaps most pleasingly of all there is hope again in Kansas.  In his Kansas book, Frank made outgoing Governor Sam Brownback the poster boy for batshit crazy Republicanism.  After driving the state off a cliff in his time as Governor his hand-picked Trumpian would be successor Kris Kobach was soundly defeated.  The Democrats also picked up a Kansas House seat. What’s the Matter with Kansas indeed!

The last words of optimism should belong to Thomas Frank and should ring true for all progressive activists:

“As I look out over the wasteland of American politics, I am increasingly convinced that there is really only one set of successful politics for an age of inequality like this one, and it naturally favors the party of the left, the party of labor.”

About Brett Gale:

Brett Gale is the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre.