Especially after this recent presidential primary season, it is safe to say that most observers would agree that the Republican Party has swung so far to the right that their icon, Ronald Reagan would not be conservative enough to be nominated if he were alive today. But what about the Democratic Party? An argument can be made that it too has moved to the right over the last few decades. If so, what effect has this had on a number of its traditional liberal constituents?
Thomas Frank in his latest book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? argues that the party has abandoned the working man, long considered the backbone of the party, in favor of a more elite professional class.
Frank is best known for a previous book, What's the Matter with Kansas? where he skewers Republicans for conniving to get conservatives to vote against their own economic self-interest. This time, he’s back to accuse some of the Democrats of doing the same to its liberal supporters.
Back in 1985, the Democratic Leadership Council was formed as a reaction to the crushing defeats of strongly liberal presidential candidates George McGovern and Walter Mondale. In order to effectively compete in future elections, it was believed that the party needed to move more to the right, especially on economic issues. This meant a closer relationship with the corporate and financial sectors. But it also meant that the era of the New Deal and strong labor unions was fading away.
And as Frank notes on Page 57 of Listen, Liberal:
As the DLC saw it, whenever Democrats lost an election, it was because their leaders were too weak on crime, too soft on communism, and too sympathetic to minorities.
When its leader in Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, the ideas of the DLC could be put into action.
Clinton’s time in office has been praised for a number of successes. Among them was a booming economy and a balanced budget to pass on to his successor. But Frank had some sharp criticism for a lot of what happened on Clinton’s watch which he details in his book which the reader is invited to check out. But for now, here is a summation from a recent article by Frank in Salon.com:
Evaluating Clinton’s presidency as heroic is no longer a given, however. After the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the corporate scandals of the Enron period, and the collapse of the real estate racket, our view of the prosperous Nineties has changed quite a bit. Now we remember that it was Bill Clinton’s administration that deregulated derivatives, that deregulated telecom, and that put our country’s only strong banking laws in the grave. He’s the one who rammed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress and who taught the world that the way you respond to a recession is by paying off the federal deficit. Mass incarceration and the repeal of welfare, two of Clinton’s other major achievements, are the pillars of the disciplinary state that has made life so miserable for Americans in the lower reaches of society. He would have put a huge dent in Social Security, too, had the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal not stopped him. If we take inequality as our measure, the Clinton administration looks not heroic but odious.
Whew! While Clinton is generally seen as a centrist, he certainly comes off as governing from decidedly right of center.
As for another centrist, Barack Obama, Frank’s criticism is more oblique. While he rightly praises him for Obamacare, he criticizes him for being just too chummy with Wall Street. With his Wall Street advisors leading the way, the perpetrators of the Crash of 2008 were allowed a soft landing with bailouts and no prosecutions to inconvenience them. Unlike so many other areas that were under control of a Republican obstructionist Congress, Frank argues that this was largely under his control.
Hillary Clinton, the almost certain Democratic presidential nominee is much more difficult to fairly evaluate. She was an important part of her husband Bill Clinton’s administration. So can we also blame her for Bill’s policy failures? Not fair, say Hillary’s supporters; she is her own person and would govern in her own way. But then Hillary did announce that Bill would serve as her economic adviser if elected.
Then there is the nagging question of where Hillary truly is on the political spectrum. This Wikipedia article attempts to sort this out. At one time, she was a prominent member of the above mentioned center right DLC (which by the way, also supported the invasion of Iraq). But she has also identified as being a moderate along with being a progressive which has led those especially on the left to question her authenticity as a candidate.
But a little perspective is in order here. While the Clintons and President Obama have been found wanting by liberals on occasion, they are not to be confused in any way with the present day Republicans who occupy the far right of the political spectrum. For whatever gripes liberals have had with Presidents Clinton and Obama, they have appointed reliably liberal Supreme Court Justices during their time in office and we can obviously expect Hillary to do the same if she is elected. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan gave us Antonin Scalia. George H.W. Bush gave us Clarence Thomas. And George W. Bush gave us John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Nuff said?
So we close here by trying to answer the question of what is the true identity of the Democratic Party – both now and in the future. Frank concludes his book in a deeply pessimistic tone having little hope that the party that seemingly abandoned many of its core liberal constituents will ever change back.
But apparently after Frank finished his manuscript, Bernie Sanders (not mentioned in the book) came out of nowhere to single-handedly try and drag the Democratic Party (kicking and screaming) back to its glory days of the New Deal and true concern for the working man. And although he is going to fall short of getting the nomination, he has awakened a passion in a lot of those in the liberal wing of the party who thought they had been forgotten.
Most notably, the strongest support for Sanders has been from the youngest voters. They represent the party's future. As a (not young) passionate Bernie Sanders loving liberal, to borrow from Mark Twain, I’m here to tell you that the death of the liberal branch of the Democratic Party has been greatly exaggerated!