obama clinton
The then-presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and former rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton wave to the crowd in Unity, New Hampshire, June 27, 2008. Getty Images/Mario Tama

In the last decade, the Democratic Party lost the White House, Congress, most governorships and hundreds of legislative seats. That happened as Democratic powerbrokers worked to promote more corporate-friendly leaders like Hillary Clinton, holding back more progressive icons like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

As the 2018 election approaches, author Thomas Frank argues that the party has made a catastrophic mistake by coddling big money and disavowing its New Deal roots.

Frank first gained national notice with his 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” which analyzed how working-class voters backed Republicans — even as GOP politicians promoted policies that favored the rich. In his more recent book “Listen, Liberal,” Frank argues that the Democratic Party aided and abetted that trend by becoming the party of Wall Street.

In a recent podcast with International Business Times’ David Sirota, Frank asserted that President Obama had followed through on a multiyear project — first spearheaded by the Clintons — to move the Democratic Party away from its populist legacy and toward a politics that embraces corporate power and elitism. What follows is a lightly edited excerpt of that discussion.

Sirota: Where do you think the Democratic Party is today? Destroyed? On the verge of a rebound? Somewhere in between?

Frank: Basically, I think the Democratic party is in deep trouble. The evidence of that is now plain, I think, to everyone — that they're in a state of historic wipe-out across the country and in both of Houses of Congress, and of course, they lost the presidency, too… The leadership of the party have persuaded themselves that they don't really have a problem, that all they have to do is wait for [Donald] Trump to screw up and they'll waltz right back in, and so they don't have to do anything different. I think Trump represents the culmination of a long-term shift of working people, working-class people away from the Democratic Party.

Sirota: What do you think that the Democrats didn't do right in the election, and even more importantly, what are they not doing right right now?

Frank: Look, you can talk about the tactical blunders and the things that brought them down: email scandal, or the premium increase in Obamacare, and all that stuff matters. The way I look at it is that this is a long-term problem. This is a culmination of a very long-term problem with the Democrats very gradually, but definitely, abandoning the interests of working-class voters, identifying themselves instead with a more affluent group, with the affluent white-collar professionals.

It starts in the 1970s with the Democrats removing organized labor from its structural position in the Democratic party, and then it goes up through Bill Clinton getting NAFTA done, the free trade deals that the Democrats have ... By the way, in my opinion, free trade or the trade agreements, I should say, was probably the issue that if there was one issue that really did Hillary in, I think that's what it was: the trade deals under the Clinton administration, Obama sort of dropping the ball on labor's various issues, doing these incredible favors for Wall Street while he blew off the concerns of union.

The ultimate evidence is what's happening with inequality. It gets worse and worse and worse every year. It's very easy to show how the Democrats have forgotten about organized labor, but what is really striking is the passion that they show for the knowledge industries, which includes Wall Street, Silicon Valley, big pharma, that sort of thing.

Sirota: Where do you see that passion the most?

Frank: Bailouts. The Wall Street bailout was the worst. This was, of course, George W. Bush ... No, take a step back further. The deregulation under Clinton. Do you remember, bank deregulation was something that we now think of it as one of the central elements of neoliberalism, but Reagan couldn't get it done. Reagan tried. They put some dents in Glass Steagall when Reagan was president, but it took a Democrat to really get it done, Bill Clinton, and it wasn't just blowing up Glass-Steagall. There was this whole series of bank deregulatory measures when he was president. By the end of his term in office, basically, Wall Street was more or less openly identified with the Democratic Party. This is an enormous historical shift…

The Democratic party [used to be] this sworn enemy of Wall Street. Franklin Roosevelt broke up all of these banks, the Glass Steagall Act, put all these banks out of business, and set up the Securities and Exchange Commission to regulate these guys, all of these regulatory measures. That's the Democratic heritage. That's the legacy of the New Deal. Up until the days of Clinton, that's really who the Democratic Party was. They had a very populist tone, and they would never identify themselves with Wall Street.

Barack Obama comes in, and I was one of these people who thought that he represented a turn back in the other direction and that he would be, very shortly would be, getting tough with Wall Street. He had all the bailouts were underway. He had total authority over these guys, and he didn't do it. Instead, he appointed all these various Clinton people to come in and manage the bailout situation.

Sirota: Why do you think Obama didn’t take the Democratic Party back to its New Deal roots?

Frank: That is the ultimate historical question about Barack Obama's presidency, and that's the shadow that will hang over him. That, and then the Trump election. Those two things are the shadows that will hang over his presidency forever. We don't really know. He's never really said, but the theory that I hammer at in "Listen, Liberal" is that there's a class solidarity between the people at the top of the meritocracy, the academic meritocracy, the kind of people that Barack Obama appointed to run all of his agencies, the kind of person that Barack Obama is, quite frankly. There's a class solidarity between that group and the Wall Street people. They're forever expressing their admiration, before the crash, of course, before the financial crisis, were forever expressing their admiration for the Wall Street guys, talking about how creative they were, how sophisticated they were, how much they admired them.

Sirota: On that point about class solidarity in the Democratic Party, it almost sounds like that famous idea of the “best and brightest” — the smartest folks who made tragically bad decisions back then about the Vietnam War. Is there a similarity there?

Frank: It's almost exact. There are very similar groups. I was a big Obama supporter in '08. One of the reasons I really liked him is because I knew how smart he was. I had met Barack Obama, and I was very impressed by him. I knew that he would bring in smart people to run government. By the way, that's always the word that these people use to describe themselves. Smart. That's always the word they use.

This seemed like a really good idea after George Bush, after the administration of hacks and cronies and all the idiocy. They'd run Washington into the ground. I was really excited that here comes Obama. He's going to put in these very smart people, and it's Larry Summers and it's Tim Geithner. Larry Summers was ... He's supposedly the smartest economist of his generation. He's the president of Harvard University, and all of these other guys. You go right down the list, and it's all of these people who are certifiable geniuses. They have very extremely excellent, formal academic credentials, and they proceed to continue the policies of the Bush administration towards Wall Street, basically unchanged.

Sirota: This gets to a question about “expertise.” If, as you argue, very smart, well-educated folks are making bad decisions, what is the alternative?

Frank: There is another option that I eventually figured out while I was writing this book because the first thing I did was to say, "Well, look, government by expert has, is failing us, you know?" I'd dig around in the past. Has it ever worked? The first thing you come across is the book you mentioned, "The Best and the Brightest," when the exact same thing happened during Vietnam, where you have these experts from, and again, they're mostly from Harvard, but from various other Ivy League institutions. It's the same problem. They won't listen to voices from outside their discipline, and they show this extraordinary deference to one another, to the people at the top.

Then I say, "Well, has there ever been a time when it worked?" This is where it gets interesting because, of course, there is. Government by expert has worked. The Roosevelt administration. They call them The Brain Trust. It worked very well. They pulled us out of the Depression. They won World War II. These guys were awesome. I start digging around. Who were these guys? Here is the fascinating thing. They were brilliant, but they came from all different walks of life. They weren't all these highly credentialed academic authorities. That's not what they were. This is the thing that you finally realize. There are highly intelligent people all over America, from all sorts of backgrounds, in all sorts of different industries. The best minds in banking aren't necessarily at Goldman Sachs…

What I discovered also is there is a lot of pathologies of professionalism. We had been talking about one of them, which is that they show this deference to one another at the top. Another is that they don't listen to voices from outside their discipline. You have the problem of orthodoxy.

Sirota: Which area of “expertise” do you think these problems are most prevalent in?

Frank: The worst offender is economics. This is a discipline...I went to the University of Chicago. I have firsthand experience with these people, and they get things wrong all the time. They predict things that never happen. Things happen that they had could never have foreseen. They're just constantly, constantly getting things wrong, and they're protected. They're shielded from any kind of accountability by the nature of the professional discipline.

When you decide that this is how you're going to define expertise, this is how you're going to define excellence, is by going to the top people in a discipline like that — oh my God, I could predict even before you start what a disaster it's going to be. There's many other disciplines that are the same way. Political science. This is an endemic problem.

The other problem, I talked about how they have this deference for each other at the top. They have zero solidarity for people below them, zero.

Here's what I realized. Basically, the unofficial philosophy of the Democratic Party is meritocracy, as defined by education. Everybody gets what they deserve, and what they deserve is defined by how they did in school. This is pernicious doctrine in all sorts of ways, but one of the most pernicious ways is that there is no solidarity in a system like that between the people at the top and the people lower down in the hierarchy. This is killer.

Sirota: Let’s turn to Obama’s record. Democrats and liberals often portray Obama’s legislative accomplishment in superlative terms. Do you think he amassed a record that puts him among the great Democratic presidents?

Frank: Let me put it this way. Everything that Barack Obama did, all of his great achievements in office, and there's basically only three of them, but all of them are half measures that were horribly watered down by a desire to do the exact opposite of what he was trying to do. Obamacare, the reason Obamacare is so incredibly tortuous and screwed up is because he was trying to preserve the private insurance companies. Dodd-Frank is the same kind of deal. He's trying to preserve the Wall Street banks and make sure nothing happens to them. You know how Dodd-Frank isn't ... They aren't even done writing it yet. It's incredibly long. I forget how many pages, 20,000 pages?

Sirota: Obama’s defenders, though, say, "Well he had to deal with a Republican Congress."

Frank: That wasn't correct at the time. This was before the Republicans got in. You’ve got to remember something about politics. It's not just inevitable that the Republicans are going to take over. Obama had many opportunities to get tough with the banks in a much more direct way… He could have put a bunch of these Wall Street banks out of business, put them into receivership. They richly deserved it… Obama didn't even prosecute anybody. There were civil suits against the banks, but those don't hurt anybody. Those were paid by the shareholders. The managers and the people that were passing off these obviously, clearly, blatantly fraudulent derivative securities, nothing happened to these guys.