“The Changing of the Guard:” the prescient 1980 book that foretold neoliberalism
About a month ago I read the synopsis of an interview in which Thomas Frank described the near evisceration of the Democratic Party. Here’s his simple version:
“[T]he Democrats have, what happened is that some years ago they decided they didn’t want to be the party of the people anymore. They didn’t want to be the sort of traditional Democratic Party that I grew up with, the party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson. That’s not what they wanted to be.
“They wanted to be something different. This involved … It was an enormous transition in the Democratic Party all through the seventies, all through the eighties, all through the nineties until they are what we see them as today. They are a party that represents a group of very affluent white collar professionals. That’s who leads the party. That’s who they speak for. That’s whose issues they care about. That’s really who they are….
“[T]he Democrats, as they moved away from their old working class base and they treated them very poorly and they did the same with other essential elements of their constituent groups, minorities for example … [W]hen they did things like got NAFTA passed which was really hard on working class people, when they did those things they used to have a saying. They’d say, ‘Well you know we don’t have to worry about that. Those people have nowhere else to go.’ Nowhere else to go. This was a Democratic saying in the 1990s.
“Trump gave those people somewhere else to go.”
This critique rang a bell, not because I have read similar requiems before, but because I read it as a foretelling nearly 40 years ago, in the late David Broder’s “Changing of the Guard.” Broder described the worldviews of a bunch of technocratic Democrats — and some Republicans — then in their 30s and 40s, people like Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, and a guy named Bill Clinton, who … well, let me turn the mike over to the right-wing Commentary Magazine, which said in its review at the time:
“For anyone still perplexed by the Democratic party’s recent [in the early 1980s] misfortunes, a careful look at these interviews … suggests that the much-heralded collapse of liberal ideology is a more serious problem than even the election debacle would indicate. The conventional analysis is that liberalism’s dilemma stems from a failure to advance beyond the policies and attitudes embodied in the career of Hubert Humphrey: a reliance on economic growth as the principal means of curbing poverty, a generous and ever-expanding system of social-welfare benefits, and a foreign policy stressing containment of the Soviet Union and aid to the developing world. But it is important to keep in mind that many new-generation liberals have consciously rejected the Humphrey tradition. “We are not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” Gary Hart declared upon winning election to the Senate in 1974 ….
“They speak with pride of having promoted more open and efficient government, of being more accessible to the public, of maintaining their “independence” from the established party organizations, and of their opposition to the spoils system.”