Updated: Jul 6
The Democratic Party hasn’t always been the feckless liberal organization we know it as today. Once upon a time it was the closest thing that America had to a labor party. In fact, one of the main tactics of the Bernie campaign was invoking the image of the Democratic party of the past. Hardly a speech or interview went by when the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t mentioned as the historical patriarch of American social-democracy.
So what went wrong? How did the modern Democratic Party emerge?
The most marked difference between the practices of New Democrats and old Democrats is their ability to deliver material change. The Democratic Party of the past is famous for FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society.
Both of these campaigns embarked on ambitious programs to genuinely change the distribution of resources in America on a large scale. The New Deal created massive work programs to aid struggling families, and the Great Society directly funded the healthcare of millions of seniors and low-income families.
Now, it should be emphasized that the Democratic Party of the past wasn’t socialist by any stretch of the imagination. They were loyal first and foremost to the ruling capitalist class, as shown in their support for imperialist ventures like the Vietnam War.
This ruling class, however, recognized the threat posed by organized labor, which was at the height of its power in the post-war boom era. The Democratic Party of this time period therefore represented the section of the ruling class that was willing to cede some political power to the working class for the purposes of stability.
After all, it was the golden age of American capitalism. World War II had left the relatively untouched United States as the world’s industrial powerhouse. Decolonization allowed the US to exploit new markets that were previously the exclusive domain of old European powers. There was plenty to go around in the metropole, and so the Democratic Party was able to give the working class a slice of the pie.
Of course, this state of affairs didn’t last. By the late 70s the golden age was over and what was once a booming economy was plagued by stagflation and oil shortages. American capitalism had finished spreading its tendrils into most profitable sectors of the global economy, and Europe had completed the process of recovering from the devastation of the war.
The pie of American prosperity was no longer growing. The rate of profit was beginning to decline. This presented a crisis that the Democratic Party as it existed was fundamentally incapable of addressing. The only reason it had been able to play the role of patron to the working class was because profits only went up faster and faster.
Now that things were beginning to change, the rich and powerful weren’t willing to give workers what they had been promising. This crisis was epitomized in President Carter’s famous “Malaise” speech, in which Carter stated:
“We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”
America has gone down that road Carter warned about. Of course, Carter is in some ways to blame for this. He stood passively by as the material foundations of his party’s politics crumbled before his eyes and the working class was evicted from its seat at the table of American politics.
It is in the aftermath of this tectonic shift that the current Democratic Party was built. It began with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), an organization that found a way to bring the party back from the brink of death. The DLC’s goal was to build a new coalition for the Democratic Party.
With organized labor now weak and the prospects of granting concessions to workers off the table, the DLC turned to white middle class suburbanites. To appease these well-off and more educated voters, the party would embrace neoliberal market economics but pair it with progressive social messaging in contrast to the more overtly bigoted Republicans. They would become New Democrats.
The DLC’s ultimate triumph came in 1992 with the election of Arkansas Senator Bill Clinton to the presidency. From this point forward, the DLC would be the master of Democratic politics, ensuring its vision of the party was made reality. The Clinton administration embodied everything the council stood for.
Clinton pursued social liberalism, being far more friendly to the LGBT community than any president in history. Simultaneously, he signed NAFTA and the Crime Bill, ruining the lives of millions of American families. Substantial change in distribution of wealth was substituted with cultural signifiers and appeals to bourgeois sensibilities. The New Democrats had won, and they would make the party in their image.
While the DLC dissolved in 2011, its spirit still lives on. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden all represent the politics of the DLC and New Democrats. They speak in terms of cultural progress and ignore cries for the economic justice needed to make any of that progress real.
They have successfully redefined politics as a war over culture, with distribution of resources taking a backseat. In the end, it isn’t surprising that the DLC was forced to close its doors. It had accomplished its goal. The DLC has become the Democratic Party itself.
Michael Walsh (CAS ’24) is from Bayport, N.Y. He majors in computer science.