In Praise of Thomas Frank

I would hazard a guess that the average person on the street would register a blank gaze if asked who Thomas Frank is.  The odd baseball fan might think about a legendary designated hitter nicknamed “The Big Hurt”, but that was Frank Thomas.  No, Thomas Frank is not a baseball player; he is a writer.  And a fine one at that.  Frank is a columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the author of several books on culture, business and politics.  I first encountered Frank when I was teaching media and came across his book The Conquest of Cool:  Business, Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.  The book convincingly explains how quickly businesses hijacked rebellion in order to sell more of everything from soda pop to cars.  I remember how saddened I was at Frank’s thorough documenting of the manner by which advertisers were so easily able to redefine ‘cool’ as something you purchase rather than a set of values or a way of relating to others.  And yes, in our post Mad Men society, that might be considered an obvious observation, but in 1997 when the book came out, the methods of advertising did not hold quite as central a place in pop culture as they do today.  I’ve been coming across Frank’s name again just recently.  I’m in the midst of reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money:  The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.  It is another meticulously researched book that makes me sad.  (I know, you’re thinking: ‘Stop reading books that make you sad’, but sometimes that’s the price of being informed).  Mayers refers to Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?:  How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.  Though I haven’t read the book yet, the subject matter couldn’t possibly be more timely.  It apparently focuses on how populist conservatives have managed to win voters in the heartland of America by emphasizing divisive social issues and distracting voters from the devastation wrought by decades of deregulation.  Mayers has a special interest in Kansas because Wichita is home to Charles and David Koch, the billionaire libertarians who have evaded taxes by making charitable contributions to establish and maintain think tanks which are thinly disguised attempts to sway the academic and political conversation on the role of government (aka lobby for deregulation and increase Koch profits).  Frank’s latest book takes aim at the Democrats rather than the Republicans.  It is entitled Listen, Liberal:  Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? and was released last year.  I haven’t read this one either, but hope to soon.  Frank’s thesis here is that the Democrats have turned their backs on the working class and on unions, and have tied their wagon to the professional class, a move which makes them susceptible to claims that they are elitist.  Frank’s latest concern is that the resistance which has arisen in response to Trump’s appalling executive orders will be co-opted by opportunists with much less noble goals in mind. Throughout his writing, Frank seems to possess a deep understanding of misdirection and how authentic and well-meaning social impulses can be subverted by fortune hunters.  If you’re interested not just in where we are and how we got here, but where we might be headed, you might want to give Frank a look.

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