In the wake of President Obama’s electoral victory and inauguration much of the political analysis has been about the continued chaos inside the Republican Party. With some establishment conservative figures openly questioning whether it was good for the party to continue to be dominated by the hard right, some in progressive circles have been downright giddy, as they have watched the circular firing squad proceed. While this is surely entertaining sport, the more important battle may be happening inside the Democratic Party.
As Politico recently observed, “almost as soon as the echo of Obama’s inaugural address fades and he instantly becomes a lame duck, Democrats are going to have to face a central and unresolved question about their political identity: Will they become a center-left, DLC-by-a-different-name party or return to a populist, left-leaning approach that mirrors their electoral coalition?”
Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman note that the old cultural rifts in the party have disappeared now that the Obama coalition has transformed the Democrats into a solidly socially liberal party. Nonetheless, problems remain because now, “For Democrats, the gulf is over fiscal and class issues, between their populists and their elites on how to appeal to a broad group of voters while retaining their traditional commitment to those in need.
In other words, finding a way forward that represents the interest of their supporters making six (or seven) figures in places like McLean, Va., and Bryn Mawr, Pa., while staying true to middle-class backers in La Crosse, Wis., and doing right by the poor of Albuquerque and Philadelphia.”
In that vein the Politico piece raises a number of key questions. Will the Democrats become the party of Elizabeth Warren or Rahm Emanuel? Is inequality the issue that drives a progressive agenda or will the party that houses progressives be driven by Wall Street money? Can we expect them to fight and hold the line against entitlement cuts or will they blithely embrace them in the name of a grand bargain? Are we going to see Democrats acting like Republicans by accepting austerity as the new normal and arguing for less spending while bucking up against labor or will we see them embrace further efforts at progressive taxation to fund a bolder agenda?
During the last primary season, I wrote about this schism inside the Democratic Party and argued that it was centrally important because of where the New Democrat Coalition (the spawn of the DLC) wants to move the party: “[W]hat the folks in the New Democrat Coalition are interested in doing is unmooring the Democratic Party from its economic populist roots so that the mainstream of the party will all be good ‘Republicrats’ who won’t scare away the big money that is the mother’s milk of their ‘soulless’ and ‘corporatist’ agenda, as Ralph Nader has characterized it.
Sadly, it’s just as important to understand the conservative ideological and financial networks inside the contemporary Democratic Party as it is study the right-wing think tank network that has spawned folks like Carl DeMaio. Once you make those connections, you really see what plutocracy looks like. As Dennis Keith Yergler explains, the New Democrats’ effort to move the party to the right has been well-funded by the Fortune 500 from the beginning:
Over the coming years the corporate contributors to the DLC read like a “Who’s Who” of Corporate America. As Nichols writes, “Those corporate contributors … include(d) Bank One, Citigroup, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Electric, the Health Insurance Corporation of America, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, Occidental Petroleum, Raytheon, and much of the rest of the Fortune 500.” In the words of Ralph Nader, the DLC had become “rooted in their philosophy of turn-your-back-on-organized labor and open-your-pockets-to-corporations.” More pointedly, the author Kenneth Baer, in his book Reinventing Democrats, concluded that the DLC had become nothing more than “an elite organization funded by elite-corporate and private-donors.”
So, if you like the sell-out Dems who helped kill the public option, embraced draconian corporate education reform, and promoted trade deals that have made multi-nationals rich while speeding the race to the bottom for American workers, then you’ll love the New Democrats.”
While it would seem likely that the big money that comes from solidly aligning the party with corporate interests would make this an easy win for the NDC crowd, the constitution of the Democrats’ winning coalition complicates matters. As Martin and Haberman point out, it was Mitt Romney who won over 53% over the vote of those earning over $50,000 a year while Barack Obama was the favorite of over 60% of voters making under $50,000. Hence, the Democrats court Wall Street at the risk of losing their base.
Progressives inside the Democratic Party, then, have good reason to argue that those who would abandon the legacy of the New Deal in favor of becoming a new ruling party that is socially liberal but economically in line with a corporate agenda might not have the winning hand they think they do.
The end result of this inner-party struggle will have a profound effect on the lives of millions of people who never read Politico but still think that the Democrats are the party of the little guy. It will determine the future of America in many ways that won’t show up on the front page. In the final analysis it’s a question of how much a Democratic party that already has what Sherrod Brown calls “an upper class accent” thinks it can talk populist, walk corporate, and get away with it. Progressives’ hopes lie in the hands of genuine populists like Brown and Elizabeth Warren. They need to create enough of a stink to keep an already deeply compromised Democratic Party from selling out for good.
Postscript: Just in time to kill your post-inauguration buzz, Harry Reid caved on meaningful filibuster reform, throwing progressive Democrats under the bus in favor of a feeble compromise with Republicans who immediately crowed about having “defeated the liberals” in the Senate. This disgraceful sell-out combined with the President’s appointment of Mary Jo White to head the Securities Exchange Commission is not a good sign. As Matt Taibbi notes of the White pick, “couldn’t they have found someone who isn’t a perfect symbol of the revolving-door culture under which regulators go soft on suspected Wall Street criminals, knowing they have million-dollar jobs waiting for them at hotshot defense firms as long as they play nice with the banks while still in office?” Apparently not.