March 2018

The Neoliberal Democrats

As one of the two viable political parties in a system designed to allow only a duopoly, the Democratic Party’s embrace of neoliberalism has been devastating long term. No longer the party of the working class, Democrats have embraced privatization, and taken steps to severely limit the rights of workers.

The conservative Reagan revolution saw Republicans holding the presidency for twelve years from the end of the single-term Carter administration in January 1981 until Bill Clinton was sworn into office in 1993. In the midst of Republican rule, a group of conservative Democrats worked to re-make the party in their image. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and other conservative Democratic leaders formed the Democratic Leadership Council to turn the party away from its progressive base and win elections in the short term.

Reagan ran and governed on a platform of limited government, emphasizing that, in his mind, government was the problem rather than the solution to social problems. After more than a decade of setbacks and frustrations, Democrats adopted and softened this message, rebranding themselves in the process. During his run for the Presidency, Bill Clinton advertised himself as a “New Democrat.” This new look for the Democratic Party emphasized “pragmatism” over ideology. At its core, however, pragmatism really meant turning to the right, and moving away from the core principles of party.

For a decade and a half between the 2000 election that saw Al Gore lose to George W. Bush on dubious grounds and the 2016 primary, the legacy of Bill Clinton and the left was, in effect, a neoliberal, “technocratic” consensus.

In a soaring endorsement of both Clinton and the platform of the new Democratic Party principles, Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal wrote in the New Republic in 1992: “The essential principle of Clinton’s agenda—leaner, activist government—is the result of a rethinking of the future of liberalism and the Democratic Party that he and his wife have been part of for years.”[1] Left wing commentators disagreed vehemently with the new direction that the party was taking, with Alexander Cockburn writing in the LA Times in October 1992, “Clinton is the ultimate distillation of neoliberalism. He thinks of human liberation as asset management. Asked about poor education or lousy healthcare, he speaks of ‘competitiveness,’ never about how such blights constrain people from living happier lives.”[2]

For a decade and a half between the 2000 election that saw Al Gore lose to George W. Bush on dubious grounds and the 2016 primary, the legacy of Bill Clinton and the left was, in effect, a neoliberal, “technocratic” consensus. While Obama and Hillary Clinton clashed during the 2008 primary, with Obama repudiating Bill Clinton repeatedly in debates, Obama and Clinton quickly made up after Obama became the Democratic Party nominee and Bill Clinton ultimately supported him in the general election and during his administration.

The period of relative unity that largely ended in the 2016 primary obscures the very real seismic shift that occurred in the party during the Clinton administration. Commentators critical of Clinton during his presidency struggled to make clear to their readers what the arrival of the New Democrats really meant, with some emphasizing that the New Democrats’ thinking was not new at all. Writing in the American Prospect in 1993, Jeff Faux discussed the fact that many of the New Democrats, including Clinton, were part of a cabal that had existed in the Democratic Party for decades: conservative southerners. While the civil rights movement in the 1960s had pushed many conservative Democrats into the Republican Party, there was still a group of conservative southern Democrats who wielded great influence within the Democratic Party, including former Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Faux was rather hard on these conservative Democrats, writing:

Their reach to establish a new ideology far exceeds their intellectual grasp. When faced with such central public problems as falling real incomes, impoverished cities, uncompetitive industries, and stubbornly high unemployment, their vision falters. Like their own caricature of the Left, the New Democrats are trapped in a “politics of evasion,” obsessed with abstract debates over social values, while the nation stumbles into decline.

Faux, Cockburn, and other critics on the left correctly understood that this turn was not emblematic of a new Democratic Party, but instead were repackaged ideas taken from Republicans, or at least conceding the legitimacy of Republican views.

As Cockburn and Faux’s ruminations on Clinton demonstrate, a more accurate term for New Democrat would be conservative Democrat. Neoliberalism has an infamously slippery definition and is almost always used pejoratively by those on the left to attack centrist Democrats. Bill Clinton and his supporters would never call themselves neoliberals. Many moderates reject the term in its entirety. Despite these protests, neoliberalism is a very real and totalizing ideology, and one that continues to make a large impact on the Democratic Party.

An accurate working definition of neoliberalism is the act of embracing free market solutions to economic and social problems. The neoliberal embrace of free market solutions extends beyond economics and has infected social interactions as well. The embrace of competition for resources in the name of the market, as opposed to working collectively, has pushed American society further and further into isolated pockets, has exacerbated poverty and disease, and has shortened life expectancy in many parts of the United States.

A more accurate term for New Democrat would be conservative Democrat.

The post-New Deal Democratic Party was largely built on the support of minority communities, as well as working class unions, with some remaining support in pockets of the south. This is the coalition that was hit the hardest by neoliberal reforms. Indeed, the new-looking Democratic Party of the 1990s was complicit in undoing protections for the people they were supposed to represent. Bill Clinton is credited with completing the Reagan revolution by extensive deregulation and Democrats turned to attacking their constituents in the form of “tough on crime” initiatives that disproportionately targeted people of color, as well as continuing attacks on unions which furthered the gap between the rich and everyone else. Globally, neoliberal economists including Jeffrey Sachs advocated a free market approach to the former Soviet Union.

The globalization of neoliberalism began in the 1970s with Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the rise of Margret Thatcher in England. By the 1990s, it was a truly global phenomenon. The demise of the Soviet Union and the largely disastrous reform efforts that defined the last years of the Soviet state were widely interpreted in the United States as signs that communism was an untenable pipe dream. This argument was made easier by the fact that the United States had for decades pushed anti-Soviet propaganda. With the demise of the Soviet system, liberal democracy and market capitalism were seen as the culmination of human history, and some optimistic political scientists declared the end of history, which they understood as a struggle between competing political ideologies.

While the New Democrats bent over backwards in various attempts to compromise with Republicans, their efforts were met with even more hardline stances. The willingness to compromise that helped Bill Clinton win his election in 1992 would quickly proved itself to be a flawed strategy. Instead of working to meet Democrats in some imagined center, Republicans went even further to the right. A 1994 midterm electoral victory brought hardline Republicans into control of Congress, and Democrats, lacking an identity to begin with, responded to extremist free market rhetoric not with an equally strong push for unions and support for what remained of the New Deal, but instead with a slightly gentler approach to ruining people’s lives.

As one of the two viable political parties in a system designed to allow only a duopoly, the Democratic Party’s embrace of neoliberalism was devastating long term. No longer the party of the working class, Democrats embraced privatization, and took steps to severely limit the rights of workers. During his time as president, Bill Clinton largely ignored and isolated the left and pandered to the right. While Ralph Nader is blamed for Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush, much of Nader’s appeal lay in reactions to the failures of the Clinton administration. Because of this, it could be argued that Gore’s presidential ambitions were the victim of the Democratic Party’s rightward turn.

The willingness to compromise that helped Bill Clinton win his election in 1992 would quickly proved itself to be a flawed strategy. Instead of working to meet Democrats in some imagined center, Republicans went even further to the right.

While issues such as white supremacy and racism clearly help Donald Trump in his presidential campaign, without a clear progressive vision, working class voters were left two economically conservative choices. Much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric was dismissive of free markets and encouraging of economic protectionism. While Hillary Clinton minimized her husband throughout her campaign, his record, both professional and personal, continued to come up in conversation. Although it is certainly unfair and inaccurate to place the failures of Bill Clinton’s administration on Hillary Clinton’s shoulders, the neoliberalism of the 1990s played a major role in the 2016 electoral cycle. These failures extended beyond the failures of the market economy, as Bill Clinton’s record on race and the carceral state were the subject of extensive debate and controversy especially during the Democratic primary.

The turn to the right that Democrats took in the 1990s, ostensibly in the name of pragmatism, left no viable party to hold up the values of the party that decades earlier ushered in the populist New Deal. Bill Clinton and the New Democrats gave the Democrats a new identity that, in terms of economics, did not substantively separate them from Republicans. Today we are seeing the long-term reactions to the Democratic Party’s short-term strategy to defeat the Republicans in the 1990s. The party itself is in a state of open warfare, with establishment groups actively working to stifle the growing dissent within the ranks. While not an exact parallel, this can also be seen in Britain, where socialist Jeremy Corbyn is now head of the Labor Party after a massive shakeup. With the rise of a brutal, hyper-nationalist conservatism in the Republican Party, the need for viable progressive alternative in the United States is clear. Those of us on the left can only hope that the Democratic Party realizes this before it is too late.

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Notes

[1] Sidney Blumenthal “The Anointed” The New Republic, February 3, 1992. p. 25.

[2] Alexander Cockburn “Bill Clinton: Puppy Dog of Neoliberalism” The Los Angeles Times, October 25, 1992.

Eric Morgenson is a PhD candidate in history at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include the intersections of race and class in the United States, the relationship between liberalism and the left in the twentieth century, and American Jewish history. Eric’s dissertation, The Last Step to Whiteness: American Jews and the end of the Civil Rights Coalition argues that allegations of antisemitism made against Black Power groups in the 1960s were part of a larger effort to distance liberal American Jews from the cause of civil rights. The work explores Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century. It emphasizes the impact that Jews becoming “white” i.e. culturally accepted had on the relationship between American Jews and African Americans. He received an MA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a BA from Concordia University-Nebraska, and an Associate of Arts from Southeast Community College in Lincoln, NE. Eric was born and raised in Bismarck North Dakota, but really hates cold weather. He currently lives in Connecticut where it is still too cold. He can be reached here.

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