Few on the left will disagree that John Kerry’s Democratic Party is corporatized, conservative and cowardly. But it’s the best we can do, the Anybody-But-Bush argument goes, until the liberal wing of the party reasserts itself against the conservative Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).
There’s no question that the DLC–an organized faction in the party once derided as the “Democratic Leisure Class” by Rev. Jesse Jackson–played a major role in dragging the Democrats to the right. Formed in 1985, its stated aim was to distance the party from “special interests” (translation: labor unions, African Americans, women’s organizations) to make the Democrats “electable” in the post-Reagan era.
The DLC put forward an agenda explicitly aimed at winning support from Corporate America–free trade, deregulation, law and order, and cutbacks in government spending, particularly on programs for the poor. Its strategy for the party focused on election appeals to “swing voters”–invariably seen by the DLC as middle-class white men living in the suburbs.
“The boundaries of the mainstream were defined by the DLC’s donors from Corporate America–ARCO, the American Petroleum Institute, Dow Chemical, Prudential Bache, Georgia Pacific, Martin Marietta and many others,” wrote liberal journalist William Greider in Who Will Tell the People? in 1992. Conservative southern and western Democrats dominated in the leadership of the DLC–including Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who both took a turn as the organization’s chair.
The DLC set the course for the Democratic Party’s move to the right. But what some forget is that the liberal wing of the party not only adapted to this rightward turn, but also helped to consolidate it.
That’s because the underlying reason for the Democrats’ move to the right isn’t the DLC itself, but a shift in U.S. politics that began in the mid-1970s with the end of the long post-Second World War economic boom. Corporate America reacted to the decline of U.S. economic power by seeking to dismantle the welfare state and cut workers’ living standards through privatization, deregulation and “flexible” labor policies–policies today known as “neoliberalism.”
In 1978, United Auto Workers President Doug Fraser denounced the “leaders of the business community” for having “chosen to wage a one-sided class war” and “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress.” But it was labor’s choice in 1976, Democratic President Jimmy Carter, who began implementing the new agenda with huge cuts in social spending and a buildup of the military.
Carter’s right turn created an opening for the Republican right led by Ronald Reagan–forces previously seen as outside the U.S. political mainstream–in the 1980 elections. Carter mouthed some liberal slogans to fend off a challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the Democratic primaries in 1980–and then imitated Reagan’s calls to balance the budget in the general election.
Carter’s terrible record–and his echoing of Reagan–doomed him to defeat. Kennedy’s opposition to Carter had burnished his image as the standard-bearer of Democratic Party liberalism. Yet Kennedy used his influence to move the party to the right as well.
It was Kennedy who called for deregulation of the airline and trucking industries as early as 1974, two years before Carter was elected. “[Kennedy] won Carter to the cause in the 1976 campaign and ultimately gave the president the issue,” the Boston Globe noted.
The consequences of Kennedy-sponsored deregulation are still being felt in the series of airline bankruptcies today and the virtual deunionization of the trucking industry. More recently, Kennedy gave political cover to two of George W. Bush’s policy initiatives–the No Child Left Behind education bill and the Medicare prescription drug benefits.
In both cases, Kennedy later denounced the administration–for underfunding No Child Left Behind, and for undermining Medicare finances in the final version of its legislation. Yet Kennedy negotiated with the Bush White House in the first place because he shares the economic and political assumptions of neoliberalism–for example, providing market incentives to pharmaceutical giants for Medicare prescription drugs.
Kennedy’s support for the corporate agenda could also be seen in Congress’ recent bailout for underfunded pensions, which allows companies to lower their payments to pension funds–a move that will only deepen the crisis later on.
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ONCE FIGURES like Kennedy started embracing neoliberal policies, Democrats began searching for a new political formula that would appease corporate donors while still mobilizing the party’s traditional base of workers, African Americans and women. Pioneering this approach was Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who had established his liberal credentials as campaign manager for George McGovern in 1972.
As a candidate for president in 1984, however, Hart was “one of the younger breed of pragmatic liberals who does not flinch from some of President Reagan’s budget cuts,” as the Associated Press put it. After Hart’s campaign imploded in a sex scandal, the eventual Democratic nominee, Carter’s vice president Walter Mondale, campaigned on raising taxes to overcome Reagan’s budget deficits. Mondale’s approach excluded any discussion of restoring social programs cut by Reagan–let alone creating new ones–and Reagan won big.
The Democrats’ right turn did lead to a backlash among Democratic liberals, expressed in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. In his second run, Jackson won 7 million votes, 30 percent of the total. But instead of using his influence to turn his Rainbow Coalition into a membership organization, he folded the operation.
Jackson himself embraced the Democrats’ turn toward business with the launch of his Wall Street Project in 1997, an effort to promote investment by African Americans and hiring of Blacks by leading corporations. At a time when CEO pay was spiraling and social inequality worsening, Jackson gave credence to the idea of trickle-down economics.
Meanwhile, the Black elected officials elected in the wake of the civil rights and Black Power movements today function as loyal machine politicians. As journalists Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman pointed out last year, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation receives funding from giant companies such as BP Amoco, General Motors, Anheuser Busch and R.J. Reynolds–raising the question of whether “like the vast majority of members of Congress, the caucus has been bought off by the corporate commercial interests.”
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THE CONVERGENCE of the Democrats’ and Republicans’ policies was made clear by Michael Dukakis in his acceptance speech for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination to run against George Bush Sr. “This election isn’t about ideology,” he said. “It’s about competence”–that is, the question of who can more effectively manage the parties’ shared agenda.
Dukakis’ loss taught Bill Clinton a lesson. Clinton made the promise of a real reform–a national health care plan–the centerpiece of his 1992 election campaign. At the same time, he appealed to conservatives by playing the race card through his support for the death penalty and law-and-order policies. Once in the White House, the health care plan died after Clinton’s clumsy attempt to combine a market-based approach with a complex bureaucracy. It was easy meat for industry lobbyists.
Following the Republicans’ capture of Congress in 1994, Clinton tacked slightly to the left of the Republicans while competing for the same corporate cash in political donations to win re-election in 1996. The result: the shrinking of the federal government to it smallest size in 40 years, the abolition of federal welfare, the criminalization of Black men, a further decline of labor union power and the deregulation of finance and telecommunications.
Meanwhile, Clinton tended to the interests of the military-industrial complex by presiding over the expansion of NATO and launching a series of “humanitarian” military interventions–what Andrew Bacevich, author of American Empire, summarized as “the unprecedented militarization of U.S. foreign policy.”
Clinton’s pro-corporate policies shaped Al Gore’s 2000 campaign–so much so that Gore was reluctant to appeal the Democratic Party’s base lest populist rhetoric upset his corporate backers or raise potentially destabilizing expectations of gains for working people. John Kerry, of course, has veered even further to the right.
Having concluded that the Democratic “base”–African Americans, unions, progressives–is in the bag, Kerry’s handlers think that a support-the-war, cut-the-deficit platform will keep the CEOs sweet, while appealing to Republican-leaning swing voters. That’s why the 2004 presidential election isn’t about ideology. It’s about maintaining the neoliberal consensus in U.S. politics–one that will remain in place until the left is strong enough to challenge it.