Has American Liberalism Abandoned Free Speech? Interview With Thomas Frank

The celebrated author writes an article in The Guardian opposing censorship, and is stunned by negative responses

Writer Thomas Frank published a piece in The Guardian last week called, “Liberals want to blame rightwing 'misinformation' for our problems. Get real.” Its basic argument was that rather than look inward for reasons the Democratic Party message isn’t succeeding, and why political extremism is on the rise, Democrats have instead opted for a strategy of “shushing the world.”

Frank addressed the “clampdown mania” of the Internet era, expressing puzzlement over a change in how Democrats look at the speech issue now, versus how traditional liberals almost unanimously viewed the issue in the not-so-distant-past.

“Criticism, analysis, mockery, and protest: these were our weapons,” he wrote. “Censorship and blacklisting were, with important exceptions, the weapons of the puritanical right.”

To say the piece didn’t go over as he expected is an understatement. Although some liked it, he was stunned by the reaction from people he once considered political allies. “People were like, ‘Fuck you, Frank!’” he says, half-laughing.

Not long ago, Frank might have been American liberalism’s favorite writer. As detailed last summer’s review of The People, No!, he became a pop-culture sensation with his 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. That book came outat a time when American liberalism was first beginning to grapple with a new phenomenon: a loss of status as the typical political theology of an ordinary working-class person.

“There was a time when liberalism was the dominant tradition in America,” he says. “Democrats always controlled the House of Representatives. And they couldn’t figure out what happened to them.”

In 2004, What’s the Matter With Kansas? offered an explanation that was soothing, on its face. The core thesis was that cultural issues replaced economics as the primary driver of decision-making in the heartland, and Republicans were winning by appeals to evangelical Christianity, racism, and other passions. This explanation was alluring to a lot of Democrats at the time, among other things because it absolved the party of blame for losing influence. After all, if people in Kansas were superstitious racists, what’s a K Street Democratic consultant to do? You can’t pander to Klansmen and idiots.

Many Democrats agreed with Frank’s idea that modern Republicanism was a bait-and-switch: rail against busing or Piss Christ, then get ordinary voters to ignore “their own interests,” i.e. economics.

Few, however, remembered the end of the book, which warned of a negative trajectory within the Democratic Party. While Republicans “were industriously fabricating their own class-based language of the right” and “made their populist appeal to blue-collar voters,” Democrats were “giving those same voters—their traditional base—the big brush-off.”

This warning — that becoming the party of “affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues” would ultimately backfire — proved prophetic, not that it did Frank any good. As he continued to issue this same warning with books like Listen, Liberalwhich came out during the 2016 presidential cycle and predicted with hideous accuracy what was to come — he found himself less and less in demand as a green room invite or guest editorialist.

Nobody in the commercial press wanted to hear that ditching the Democrats’ historical blue-collar coalition formed during the F.D.R. years had been a bad idea. Big media companies now wanted voices who made railing against Trump their expertise.

It wasn’t that Frank liked Trump, he just didn’t find saying the obvious interesting. “I mean, kicking Donald Trump?” he says. “Yeah, the guy’s stupid, but making fun of stupid people, that’s not a challenge.” For the same reason, Frank notes, he never wrote about censorship before, because being for free speech for a liberal was such a “no-brainer” that it never even occurred to him.

The type of liberalism Frank knew growing up, and for which he was such a prominent symbol in the Bush years (when “libruls” were commodities hated as fervently as terrorists in some circles), would never have entertained censorship as a serious solution to anything.

What happened? Why has American liberalism gone through such a sea change on this issue? I asked Tom about this, and about the Guardian piece that sparked the backlash:

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