Books

Readorama: Thomas Frank, who sees change in people’s Democratic Party, to speak in KC

By Brian Burnes

bburnes@kcstar.com

March 19, 2016 3:00 AM

If the Republicans have their One Percent they allegedly aim to please, what about the Democrats’ 10 Percent?

Those are the tech industry innovators and other affluent and well-educated professionals who, in the hearts of Democratic Party strategists, have supplanted the party’s traditional blue-collar demographic.

So says Thomas Frank, the Kansas City-area native and political author who returns home this week.

In his 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Frank pondered the riddle of Kansas residents who routinely voted for Republican candidates when, Frank argued, it often seemed not in their own economic self-interest.

In his new book, “Listen, Liberal: or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?,” Frank considers the wisdom of longtime Democratic Party supporters who continue to vote for the party’s candidates even while — by Frank’s accounting — they haven’t delivered on their time-honored economic equality rhetoric.

Since 1992, Frank writes, Democrats have won the plurality of votes in every presidential election except one.

Yet in one 2014 poll, with the economic recovery allegedly on pace, three out four Americans believed the economy was still in recession.

“For average people, the recovery just never seems to come,” Frank said recently. “So my question is why isn’t the Democratic Party more interested in achieving results for those people?

“What interests me is that the Democratic Party has really changed the social groups that it imagines it is speaking for. When I recently visited the Truman Library in Independence, I was struck by the sort of language that Truman routinely used to talk about working people, like ‘Salt of the Earth.’

“Today Democrats might use that language every now and then, but the people they are proud of speaking for is the professional class, for whom they have all sorts of flattering descriptions, such as the ‘creative class’ or the ‘learning class.’ 

Those terms, Frank said, are meant to flatter the innovators in the tech, pharmaceutical and telecom industries and not so much the iron workers or truck drivers who voted for Truman. Perhaps that’s why Hillary Clinton isn’t connecting with some voters who usually support Democrats, Frank added.

“My take on her public personality is that she is uniquely given to a kind of ideology of professionalism,” Frank said.

“She is very proud of her professional status; she used to talk about it all the time. She can talk to working people as well as any other politician, but her heart is not in it.”

It’s possible, Frank said, that Clinton’s Democratic primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, has been receiving the attention of those longtime Democrats feeling taken for granted. Frank interviewed the Vermont senator at length for a 2014 article for Salon.

“This is a man who was really a marginal figure in American politics,” Frank said. “I suspected he was going to get into the race at that time, but I didn’t think he would have this kind of impact.

“The idea that a guy like Bernie Sanders — who wasn’t really even a Democrat — could win a bunch of Democratic primaries against a Clinton is kind of amazing.”

Thomas Frank speaks at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 24, at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza branch, 4801 Main St. For more info, go to kclibrary.org.

Bradbury biographer at Woodneath

Science fiction author Ray Bradbury startled his universe of admirers in 2007, when he announced that his 1953 novel “Fahrenheit 451,” with its book-burning firefighters, was less a nightmare vision of a totalitarian society and more a remark about the inescapable presence of television.

It 1953 it may have been easy to assume that Bradbury, who died in 2012 at age 91, was reminding readers of the books burned in earnest in Germany only 20 years before.

“Ray Bradbury lived such a long and prosperous life that his philosophies and political ideologies shifted over the years,” said Sam Weller, the Bradbury biographer who visits the Kansas City area this week as part of the Big Read of “Fahrenheit 451” coordinated by the Mid-Continent Public Library.

“The novel was written in the midst of the Red Scare shortly after the end of World War II, and I think Bradbury was responding to (U.S. Sen Joseph) McCarthy,” Weller said.

“But as he grew older and saw the proliferation of mass media though smartphones, tablets and the Internet, he grew aware that his novel was very much a commentary on that as well, and how television was dangerous in how it could distract.”

Weller speaks at 7 p.m. Monday, March 21, at the Woodneath Library Center, 8900 N.E. Flintlock Road in Kansas City, and at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Colbern Road Branch, 1000 N.E. Colbern Road, Lee’s Summit.

For more info, go to mymcpl.org.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.