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The Democratic Party Downfall Began With Turn to the Right

President Bill Clinton meeting on Air Force One with advisers (R to L) Al From, Richard Riley, Rodney Slater, Aida Alvarez, and Kirk Hanlin. By White House Photograph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The Democratic Party now belongs to moderate Republicans.” – Noam Chomsky

After the party was on the receiving end of the worst upset in modern political history, reality came crashing, shattering the glass ceiling the nominee had vowed to break. Not only was the White House now lost, but they failed to retake the Senate or the House, all in addition to losing a Supreme Court nomination due to GOP hooliganism, leaving the party without control of any of the three branches of government. This was further compounded by the vast discrepancy between the two major political parties at the state level, with the GOP controlling 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships, relative to the Democrats’ 13 state legislatures and 16 governorships.

Nearly a year later, the party is seemingly further fragmented than at the time of the historic defeat. The progressive Sanders wing and the Clintonite establishment wing, have continued to spar in regard to the direction of the party moving forward, including the rehashing of the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary. Sanders supporters are still healing from the WikiLeaks dumps, which showed a substantial anti-Sanders sentiment within the DNC leadership, pro-Clinton structuring of the primary process, a continued alienation of progressive supporters, and a new bombshell by Donna Brazile, confirming the earlier Politico report indicating the contract between the Clinton camp and the DNC effectively gave Clinton control of the DNC, and that this contract resulted in “essentially … money laundering.”

Furthering the divide, and fueling the feeling of helplessness since the revelations, was the DNC Fraud Lawsuit. The lawyers for the DNC argued the DNC is a private entity, and thus were permitted to pick and choose their candidates as they please, even in violation of their own charter.

In contrast, Clinton backers have continued to cast blame on Sanders and his supporters, indicating that Sanders stayed in the race too long, he wasn’t as “helpful” as he could’ve been, and that he was too aggressive and negative during the primary. They portray his policy proposals as utopian, promising everything for free, which they propose made the pragmatic Clinton seem undesirable, particularly to the youth.

Yet, at this point in time, it looks as if the party has conducted little to no introspection into exactly how the party, as a whole, has gotten into the catastrophe they currently find themselves in. How the Democratic Party is a failure at both the state and federal levels of government, all while the political arena continues to polarize.

Glancing back at recent party history, a noticeable shift begins to take place during 1988, immediately after the election of George H.W. Bush, and then drastically so after the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. This new era in the party, ushered in by the “New Democrats,” was the beginning of a calculated rightward shift, and the downfall of the Democratic Party.

The DLC’s Domination

The “New Democrats” prided themselves on being moderates, or centrists. This was partly in response to losing three of the four prior presidential elections, which elicited views from party insiders that the party had given too much power to the people, and that the reformers were to blame.

In 1985, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was created, a 501 (c)(4), by Al From. From created the DLC with the goal of moving the Democratic Party from the left to the center, in an attempt to win back the white working class and the so-called “Reagan Democrats.”

From understood that for the DLC to be taken seriously, they needed a politician that both already had notoriety, yet also had a bright future which ultimately could culminate in reaching higher office. In 1989, From had identified his man, and that man was William “Bill” Clinton.

On April 6, 1989, From met with then Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, and began courting Clinton to become the chairman of the DLC. From took a particular liking to Clinton, a Democratic Party Governor in a conservative state, because, as he put it, “He was not afraid to challenge old orthodoxies.” From further stated, “Most important, Clinton believed in the DLC philosophy—in the basic bargain of opportunity and responsibility.”

The GOP have utilized such euphemisms as key illustrations of their ideological values — opportunity for those willing to work for it, and responsibility for those who don’t — which ultimately were thinly veiled racial ploys to attract white working-class voters. By the time the meeting between From and Clinton had concluded, an agreement had been reached for Clinton to become the chairman of the DLC.

After securing their leader, the DLC shifted its attention to critics that were harming its reputation. The DLC was composed of southern, white, centrist Democrats, most notably Al Gore, Chuck Robb, and Bill Clinton. Bob Squier referred to the DLC as the Southern White Boys’ Caucus.” Jesse Jackson, a fierce critic of the DLC and their strategy to move the party to the right, would refer to the DLC as the Democrats for the Leisure Class.”

From admitted that it was difficult to overcome the nicknames critics would give the organization. Thus, they decided to co-opt the term “progressive,” essentially calling their right-wing policies “progressive,” in an attempt to save face. In late 1989, the DLC launched their own think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

As the DLC began preparing their leader for a potential 1992 presidential bid, they began laying out their policy positions. The PPI’s first paper attacked the Democratic Party’s support for a higher minimum wage, calling it “anachronistic,” with Robert J. Shapiro, the Vice President of PPI, further stating the minimum wage “actually hurts poor people. It’s classically regressive.” The DLC rejected “old” New Deal politics in favor of a neoliberal agenda. They rejected the concept of wealth redistribution, instead, valuing market-oriented solutions to achieve both economic and social growth.

In her book, The Workfare State: Public Assistance Politics from the New Deal to the New Democrats, Eva Bertram states that the DLC had an “aggressive law-and-order agenda, opposition to affirmative action, and its support of welfare reform were viewed by many as thinly veiled appeals to white working-class voters uneasy over the gains of the civil rights movement.”

Another major deviation from party orthodoxy was the DLC’s position in regard to education. From detailed Clinton’s characteristics that were particularly attractive to the DLC, stating, “He was not afraid to challenge old orthodoxies. In the early 1980s, long before I knew him, he and Hillary Clinton pushed cutting-edge education reforms, like pay for performance and public-school choice, against the opposition of the powerful Arkansas Education Association.” Here, From gushes over Clinton’s hostility towards teacher’s unions, clearly depicting the guiding philosophy of the DLC.

The DLC was adamantly opposed to labor, or as they referred to it, big labor,” and dramatically shifted party emphasis on courting big money corporate donors as opposed to grassroots support. Early financial backers of the organization include the Koch brothers, AT&T, Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Pfizer, and British Petroleum (BP) among other major financial players. Additionally, wealthy donors were able to essentially pay for power, as the DLC’s board of trustees membership was reserved for major donors, which included two high-level Koch executives. Richard Fink was the executive vice president of Koch Industries.

In 1996, From suggested that then-President Clinton, should begin a “fundamental restructuring [of] our biggest systems for delivering public benefits — Medicare, Social Security, and public education, for openers.” This was elaborated on further at the time by PPI’s Will Marshall, who proposed transforming Medicare and Medicaid “into the new marketplace.” Additionally, the DLC were adamant supporters of the Iraq War, and often launched vicious attacks on anti-war liberals who spoke out against the war.

The DLC was largely credited for Clinton’s surprise presidential victory, and immediately became the de facto organization of the Democratic Party. Their influence would be witnessed on issue after issue, as the party charted its centrist path to perceived executive relevancy. Clinton’s major legislative achievements led to a number of cataclysmic results that shaped the country, and the views of the Democratic Party, to this day.

Clinton, to the dismay of progressives, reappointed Alan Greenspan as the Federal Reserve Chair, which sent a clear, and welcoming message to wall street. Shortly after taking office, Clinton signed the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994, which cleared the path for large banking mergers.

Possibly the most relevant act of the Clinton presidency, which still has vast influence in the political arena, was the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), in 1993. NAFTA effectively gutted American manufacturing jobs, which resulted in a conservative estimate of 600,000 lost jobs in the US, according to Dean Baker of Center for Economic and Policy Research. Furthermore, it resulted in wage stagnation due to the lower costs of moving production elsewhere, an ever-widening trade gaplowered environmental standards, and disproportionately gave corporations power that allowed them to challenge the local law in the name of profit.

Another DLC position Clinton worked feverishly on was the Crime Bill, or the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which contained the now infamous 3 strikes rule, as well as mandatory minimum sentencing, including those convicted of nonviolent crimes. This law resulted in the highest surge in the US prison population in history, imprisoning more individuals than George HW Bush and Reagan combined.

A central DLC initiative, which Clinton gleefully backed, was the push on welfare reform, or the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The passage of the bill eviscerated America’s safety net, yet achieved one of Clinton’s campaign promises in which he spoke of his desire to “end welfare as we know it.”

Several years later, Clinton pressured Democrats to pass the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act), which repealed the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, and permitted the consolidation of commercial and investment banks, as well as security and insurance firms. Many have suggested that this was the single greatest factor that caused the financial crash of 2008. Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review even went so far as to say, “Bill Clinton was responsible for more damaging financial deregulation—and thus, for the financial crisis— than any other president.”

The DLC’s influence reached far greater than the few instances discussed. Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the concerted effort to shift the Democratic Party fundraising focus from grassroots centered to emphasizing large donors and corporations, as well as conducting nearly more foreign operations than both Reagan and Bush combined, depict the realities of the Clinton administration that many Democrats fail to recognize.

The DLC capitalized on the fears of Democratic Party representatives in the south, in which the southern realignment had endangered their political careers, and orchestrated a rightward shift of the party, valuing neoliberal principles to achieve both economic and social ends.  The major legislative accomplishments of the Clinton administration had catastrophic results for the future of the Democratic Party, none displayed more accurately than in the 2016 presidential elections, in which free trade became the center of the debate. Yet the results of the party at both the federal and state level are even more concerning.

The Democratic Descent

In 1978, the Democratic Party controlled 31 state legislatures, compared to just 11 for the GOP. In 1992, as Clinton won the presidency, the Democrats controlled 26 state legislatures, compared to just 7 for the GOP, with 16 shared control legislatures.

In stark contrast, the GOP currently control 32 state legislatures (most in GOP history), compare to just 14 for the Democrats. Additionally, in 1992, the Democratic Party controlled 30 governorships compared to just 18 for the GOP. In contrast, the GOP currently controls 33 Governorships, compared to just 16 for the Democrats.

At the federal level, the power shift may possibly be even more drastic than at the state level. The GOP controlled the Senate for just 10 years between 1933-1992, leaving Democrats in control of the Senate for 49 years during that span. During this same period, the GOP controlled the house for just 4 years, leaving the Democrats in control of the House for 55 years, and 40 years straight (1955-1995). Then, in 1995, Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” swept the nation, resulting in what is known as the “Republican Revolution”, which gave the GOP control of both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.

Since 1995, the Democrats have controlled the Senate for just 6 out of 22 years. Additionally, the Democrats have only controlled the House for 4 of the last 22 years, and have controlled both the house and the Senate for a total of just 2 years out of 22 years. Furthermore, 2016 demonstrated the trend has continued, proving to be a pattern that the party will not be able to sustain without risking irrelevance at every level of government. With the party so battered that a constitutional convention is a possibility, the source of party corporatism must be identified, and the cancer eliminated.

Al From and the DLC’s influence has created a noticeable trend in essentially every facet of the party. In a healthy democracy, there are at least 2 parties, often more, presenting differing visions and values for the country. Thanks in large part to the DLC, the Democratic Party is effectively no longer an opposition party to an increasingly radical right-wing GOP. The difference between the Democrats and the GOP has narrowed dramatically, constricting the scope of discussion. Educated debate has devolved into name calling and fear mongering in the name of political opportunism, all culminating in the takeover of the Democratic Party by individuals with a soft spot for neocons and unregulated corporatism.

Centrism, the DLC, and organizations like it, are responsible for the state of the party and the constant capitulation on issue after issue. The team of From and Clinton accomplished more for right-wing causes than those on the right could’ve ever dreamt of, and their destruction deserves to be highlighted to fully comprehend when and how the party sold its soul. To solve any problem, you first need to identify the cause. Thus, the shift of the party’s values and the embracing of free trade, “ending welfare as we know it”, favoring the privatization of education, mass incarceration, and deregulation, resulted in a failed, fractured Democratic Party, when America needed them most.  

Writer and activist. Adversary of political tribalism. Follow Christian on Twitter

Christian is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

One Comment

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  1. The Democrats were /never/ a progressive party. My fellow socialists can delude themselves that they can take control of the party, or use it to run for office, but the reality is that Wall Street controls the Democrats. I grew up in the South where the Dems were the party of segregation and Jim Crow. Not that much has changed. The DLC were just the old party in new clothing. If you want a really progressive party, start from scratch – build a workers party instead of tying yourself to the /other/ bosses’ party

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The Democratic Party Downfall Began With Turn to the Right