Commentary: Messages from a forgotten America

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – The calls keep coming.

The writer Thomas Frank and I are talking over the air about his most recent book, “Listen, Liberal” – an unsparing critique of the ways the Democratic Party has lost its way by losing its connection with the working class, the dispossessed and the disinherited. His argument is that Democrats and liberals in many ways have become little more than milder versions of Republicans and conservatives.

John Krull, publisher,

Both see privilege and a disproportionate share of both power and wealth, Frank says, as both a natural and morally justifiable result of a meritocracy. Liberals of the Clinton and even the Obama stripe believe, like conservatives, that the people who have the most deserve the most, because they have earned it by going to the best colleges and assembling the best credentials.

And for the Americans who don’t have access to the best colleges or to the ladders of achievement that allow them to collect worthy credentials?

Well, Frank says, they’re out of luck.

Once upon a time – during the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s – the Democratic Party spoke for those Americans. The working class and the poor were the heart of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, which governed this country for more than 30 years.

In fact, securing a place at the table where decisions are made for those Americans who carried lunch pails may have been FDR’s greatest political achievement.

The historic struggles over the Vietnam War, civil rights and feminism, though, weakened and then broke FDR’s party.

Democrats became increasingly attuned, Frank says, to the politics of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation – and decidedly uncomfortable with the politics of social and economic class.

That left a huge swath of Americans in the middle and lower classes without a party to call home.

That’s what prompts the phones to ring.

Normally when I talk over the radio with a writer – other than young adult author/icon John Green – I’m lucky to get one or two calls in an hour.

With Frank, though, the calls come almost immediately. The phone lines fill up and they stay filled up. As soon as I take a call and clear a line, someone else dials in.

The calls all are variations on a theme.

The Democrats take us for granted, one caller says.

We’re working harder and harder and harder and we keep falling further behind, another says.

Who speaks for us? still another asks.

During a break, I ask Frank, who’s on a tour of the Midwest, if this is typical for him.

He nods, almost ruefully.

“There’s a lot of anger out there right now,” he says.

Back on the air, I ask Frank if the Democrats’ seeming abandonment of labor unions and other manifestations of the working class helped make possible Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency.

His answer can be boiled down to two words.

“Of course.”

The calls pile up as we talk about what it means to have a country that places great – in some cases, almost infinite – value on the innovators and supposed job creators and little value on the job executors.

The people who do the actual work.

The phone lines offer up a more eloquent answer to that question than anything Frank could deliver.

The people who do the work get angry.

They grow frustrated.

They grow desperate.

Several listeners ask if the struggle over who would be the new Democratic National Committee chair was a hopeful sign. Another asks if there is a way to get us all on the same page – for both the working and the professional classes to remember that we all want the same things, decent lives and better tomorrows for the next generation.

Many, though, deliver a message that is more plaintive.

When is someone going to hear us? When will we be told that we matter?

The hour comes to an end. The show goes off the air.

The phone lines still are filled, each light on the console pulsing like the anger that prompted the person to punch dials – the anger that is loose in the land.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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