What Liberals Don’t Get About Workers

Let’s start by blaming Thomas Frank. In 2004, before John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, Frank published What’s the Matter With Kansas?

What was the matter with Frank’s home state? Voters there were just too dense to understand that the liberals in the Democratic Party had all their answers. Frank’s thesis was that, even though Democrats had economic policies that benefitted the working class, the Republicans had hoodwinked them into voting for them by emphasizing hot button social issues.

What was taken for granted in Frank’s book was that economic issues should trump social and cultural issues. Except, of course, that they don’t. If you really think that abortion is tantamount to murder, why wouldn’t that be more important to you than the minimum wage?

As a matter of fact, affluent liberals make that sort of calculation all the time. They keep talking about how they want to raise taxes on themselves so that we can pay for all kinds of social goods. They’re choosing their values over their bottom lines, just like blue collar workers who might choose the party of pro-life over the party of the higher minimum wage.

But there was an even deeper problem with Frank’s argument. He didn’t just miss the point on values; he missed the point on the value of work, the value of earning things. Rightly or wrongly, the Democratic brand is about giving stuff away. Democrats are always talking about what the Federal government is going to do for you, and they’ll pay for all that by taxing rich people or corporations. It’ll be free.

Left out of the conversation is the idea that people should earn what they get. American workers do not want to be given things; they want to earn things.

Thomas Frank. Let’s start by blaming him.

And, of course, it gets worse. Because one of the things Democrats are famous for wanting to give away is a college education. Prominent Democrats would forgive up to $50,000 in college loans, no questions asked. No questions like, why did you take out the loan if you knew you couldn’t pay it back? Or questions like, why should the two-thirds of Americans without a four year degree, who earn half of what a college graduate earns, pay back their loans for them?

Also left out of Frank’s book is the recognition that not everybody hates the rich. There’s still a strong aspirational streak in working class Americans. They don’t want to bring down the “one percent” because they hope that they, or their children, will be the one percent some day. And even if they’re realistic enough not to believe that’s likely to happen, they still very well may see wealthy people more as job creators than as oppressors, oppression being very much a preoccupation of elites these days as opposed to those who are said to be oppressed.

Unfortunately, Frank’s argument has become dogma among Democratic elites. In a Labor Day essay for the home office of liberal dogma, the New York Times, Steven Greenhouse, a former Times labor reporter, offers comfort to readers. His narrative is right out of Frank’s book. Liberals know what’s best for workers and all they have to do is break through that evil Republican rhetoric about abortion, Critical Race Theory and the like, and they’ll be home free.

What about the politics of the last 17 years does Greenhouse not get? Democratic support among what was once their base has deteriorated because the party’s brand is trashed with them. And the brand is trashed because Democrats no longer speak to working class values. Sure, their policies are right, but their underlying philosophy and messaging are all wrong.

To make matters so much worse, when Democrats and liberals are confronted with this reality, they just dismiss it all as racism. When their arguments don’t work, they figure they’ll win over blue collar voters by insulting them. Always a good strategy.

Well, yeah, I’d be naive not to realize that there is an element of racism and xenophobia about all this. But it’s far from the whole story. It does not explain 100% of the problem.

For people who are always congratulating themselves for how smart, educated and well-read they are, it’s just amazing to me that the world view of affluent liberals is so simplistic. If all these dumb blue collar people, who can’t figure out their own self-interests, are racists to boot, how come so many of them voted for Barack Obama? Twice. And then turned around and voted for Donald Trump? Twice again.

Could it be that they’re so desperate for somebody who understands them that they’ll vote for a Black man (even though they might harbor some racist views) and then vote for a gross man (even though they understand what an idiot he is)?

And, by the way, you can make a pretty decent case that working class Blacks have more in common with blue collar whites than they have with elite African Americans. It was rank and file Black voters who saved Joe Biden in South Carolina and made him president. And Biden was most definitely not the first choice of Black elites.

Democrats will continue to lose support among blue collar voters until they shake off the false narrative of Thomas Frank. Because there’s nothing the matter with Kansas, but there’s plenty wrong with how the Democrats think about it.

Welcome to the 201st consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for read reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

12 thoughts on “What Liberals Don’t Get About Workers

  1. In the September Atlantic, David Brooks’ reconsideration of the “Bobo” phenomena (bourgeois bohemians; aka Richard Florida’s “Creative Class” ) is interesting on a number of levels. Including something he cites almost in passing when he quotes a Swedish political scientist named Bo Rothstein: “The more than 150-year-old alliance between the industrial working class and what one might call the intellectual-cultural Left is over.”

    Yeah, we know that: blue collar (high-school educated) workers voted for Trump. The fact they no longer see the Democratic Party as representing their interests and aspirations seems like a foundational political shift. Something that normally sharp writers like Steven Greenhouse and Tom Frank haven’t really wrapped their head around.


  2. “American workers do not want to be given things; they want to earn things.”

    Please think about what these words really mean. Note that this is directed to workers, not owners. It goes without saying that owners do not desire to earn things themselves. That’s the literal point, make money off capital and other people’s labor.

    Change “workers” to “people” and I’d love it if a party made that their platform. Only earning…. So that means no making money off of owning money and no making money off other people’s work?


    1. Get rid of capital, Rollie, and you have Venezuela, the Berlin Wall, and the killing fields. But go ahead, tell all those retirees living on their IRAs that you are going to eliminate capital.


  3. David Blaska – The references you made are complex political/economic/social situations that can’t be boiled down to catch-phrases or any single concept/theory.

    There are plenty of ways to structure secure retirements without the stock market if that’s something people want to explore.

    I was simply pointing out that people who make money from having money or from owning things don’t work in the same sense that we generally define work. If anyone is advocating that “all of us” work I’m totally on board so long as the investment banker has to take a shift on the shop floor too.

    If you think the concept of having everyone work is repugnant that’s fine with me too, I’m happy to discuss perspectives without jumping to scare tactics. I want a free exchange of ideas and challenges to logical frameworks.


  4. Been following for awhile, first time posting. By way of intro, I am an ex-lifelong Democrat, now transpartisan. I feel no party represents me or really anyone else, except for those who have bought them. I am also white, male and a business owner.

    You raise good points here Dave, particularly the aspirational aspect. The average person can see through the Democrat’s hypocrisy and hubris. ‘Know what’s best for workers’? The Democrats have been screwing the average person for decades now, since at least Slick Willie’s regime. Democrats are pro-Big Business and War. Add in the clueless, like the viewpoint Rollie expresses here and you have a perfect recipe for disaster.

    Until Democrats, like you, stop disparaging people who do not agree with your opinion on things for which you (plural) are sure you are right, there ain’t no way the current shituation is going to change.

    Joke – what’s the difference between Republicans and Democrats? Republicans bend over backwards for Big Business. Democrats bend over forwards.


  5. Michael Leger thinks I’m clueless but gives no reason why. I’m happy to be told where my logic is incorrect or where my non-logical beliefs/morals differ from others. We really all can make a better world through respectful discussion and debate and end up with a moderate average of all our viewpoints.

    I disparage no person’s beliefs/morals but will try to bring them to mine respectfully if they are willing to talk. After all, what are morals if you don’t think others should share them as well? I love to hear other’s thoughts on what is right or wrong if they’ve honestly spent time wrestling with their own morality. I will, however, disparage non-logical reasoning, especially when it results in deviations from a person’s claimed moral beliefs.

    On the contrary, I was indeed disparaged as “clueless” by the same person that wishes not to themselves be disparaged for their beliefs. Michael Leger – I do not disparage your beliefs but I do disparage your logical inconsistency.

    As an aside, I totally agree with Michael’s thoughts on the worthlessness and sold-out-ness of our two political parties and would love to help find a way to usher in a new political paradigm. Even if I am clueless 😉


      1. Rollie – I apologize for my flippant remark. Here is why I made the comment:

        “It goes without saying that owners do not desire to earn things themselves. That’s the literal point, make money off capital and other people’s labor.”

        I will assume that you have never owned a business. If you had, you wouldn’t have made that remark. The vast majority of ‘owners’ in this country are owners of small businesses. Almost all of whom have worked their tails off to hopefully get their businesses off the ground.

        Anticipating possible rejoinders, though I have serious issues with the gross wealth disparity in this country and in the West more generally, taxing people to redistribute wealth has never worked, and if I can be so bold, will never work. Marxism is, was and will always be a failure. And forcing the rich to ‘work’, as I think you’re defining it? Totalitarianism, which the Democrats are already well on their way to full implementation.

        I_never_thought I would ever hear myself say this, but I am incredibly grateful the Republicans control our state legislature. At least there’s a bulwark to thwart the march to the nanny state, nanny here meaning more Nurse Ratched than Mary Poppins.


  6. Thanks for the apology and for explaining your reasoning. I definitely do not want to speak badly about business owners on the whole, and no, I’m not a business owner. I think anyone doing productive work is a great person.

    I think you’re right that my phrasing was not specific enough and I can see what you mean. I’m speaking of ownership in-and-of-itself producing income without labor on the owner’s part.

    I do not mean that there aren’t owners who work hard and deserve to profit from their hard work. I do mean that someone should not be able to sit on a beach all day while the checks roll in. Much of my criticism ultimately falls much more strongly on the investor and banking class in this regard rather than small business owners. While a typical small business owner might be working shoulder to shoulder with their employees, other owners do nothing of the sort (I’ve worked in this type of company). There is a spectrum, and every case is unique.

    This is my opinion (not fact): I don’t think it’s morally right to profit from someone else’s labor, plain and simple. It’s ok for people to have different opinions and I don’t think they are stupid or evil if they don’t agree with me. We all need each other, we are One.

    Forcing everyone to work is not totalitarian, it’s reality. Primitively, if someone wants water they have to work to fetch it, if someone wants food they have to work to hunt, gather, or farm it, if someone wants shelter they have to build it. We all have to work just to live – life itself imposes that on us, not totalitarianism!

    But this is no longer the case. Wealth concentration has distorted this concept and wealthy people do not have to work. There are many people that really can just sit around all day and not work if they choose to. My understanding thus far is that this kind of wealth concentration seems to be most often a result of exploitation or scheming. Maybe I’m wrong, I’m still learning and thinking, and nothing is absolute.

    I am not saying that someone who has worked and saved does not deserve to be wealthy if their labor made them so. After all the work and saving, by all means please do sit on the beach – you earned it. This likely includes many small business owners, because as was said, many work very very hard and earn money honestly, exploiting employees minimally if at all. But if the wealth was generated by a huge team of wage laborers, none of whom will ever get a chance to sit on a beach, I do have a problem with that.

    I’m not a Marxist even if some of my beliefs align with his. I’m not educated enough to even know what Marxism really is. I’m not a Democrat or Republican or really any label. I’m trying to figure things out any way I can. I don’t advocate redistributing wealth via taxation, I’d prefer a flat tax on everyone. The best idea I have so far to marry my ideals to reality is employee ownership of all businesses, where the free market is there but the employees work democratically as a team and rise and fall as a team – no exploitation, no stock ownership. I’m sure this idea has holes and issues and I don’t claim to have all the answers. That’s why I also believe in democracy.

    Thanks, sorry I’m so long-winded…


  7. Thoughtful reply Rollie, thank you.

    Quick comment – we are no longer primitives. Forcing someone to do something is, by definition, totalitarianism. This is more of a spectrum than an either/or. We are forced to pay taxes, even if we disagree with how those taxes are spent.

    I thought similarly about the investment class, but they are not a homogeneous group. I do not know a way to stop those who are leeches from continuing their leeching without harming those who are not. Local banks are an asset. Transnational ones? IMO, they are vampire squids.

    I also think that employee ownership is a good idea. However, I think that cooperatives are a really bad idea. Leadership by committee is a great way to paralyze an organization.


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