Looking out over Washington, DC, from his plush office, Al From is once again foaming at the mouth. The CEO of the corporate-sponsored Democratic Leadership Council and his wealthy cronies are in their regular postelection attack mode. Despite wins by economic populists in red states like Colorado and Montana this year, the DLC is claiming like a broken record that progressive policies are hurting the Democratic Party.
From’s group is funded by huge contributions from multinationals like Philip Morris, Texaco, Enron and Merck, which have all, at one point or another, slathered the DLC with cash. Those resources have been used to push a nakedly corporate agenda under the guise of “centrism” while allowing the DLC to parrot GOP criticism of populist Democrats as far-left extremists. Worse, the mainstream media follow suit, characterizing progressive positions on everything from trade to healthcare to taxes as ultra-liberal. As the AP recently claimed, “party liberals argue that the party must energize its base by moving to the left” while “the DLC and other centrist groups argue that the party must court moderates and find a way to compete in the Midwest and South.”
Is this really true? Is a corporate agenda really “centrism”? Or is it only “centrist” among Washington’s media elite, influence peddlers and out-of-touch political class?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “centrism” as “the political philosophy of avoiding the extremes of right and left by taking a moderate position.” So to find out what is really “mainstream,” the best place to look is public polling data.
Let’s start with economic policy. The DLC and the press claim Democrats who attack President Bush and the Republicans for siding with the superwealthy are waging “class warfare,” which they claim will hurt Democrats at the ballot box. Yet almost every major poll shows Americans already essentially believe Republicans are waging a class war on behalf of the rich—they are simply waiting for a national party to give voice to the issue. In March 2004, for example, a Washington Post poll found a whopping 67 percent of Americans believe the Bush Administration favors large corporations over the middle class.
The “centrists” tell Democrats not to hammer corporations for their misbehavior and not to push for a serious crackdown on corporate excess, for fear the party will be hurt by an “anti-business” image. Yet such a posture, pioneered by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, is mainstream: A 2002 Washington Post poll taken during the height of the corporate accounting scandals found that 88 percent of Americans distrust corporate executives, 90 percent want new corporate regulations/tougher enforcement of existing laws and more than half think the Bush Administration is “not tough enough” in fighting corporate crime.
On taxes, self-described “centrists” like Senator Joe Lieberman, a senior DLC leader, attacked proposals to repeal the Bush tax cuts to pay down the deficit. Yet even the DLC’s pollster found in 2001 that a majority of Americans support such a policy, and that a strong plurality of voters would actually be more likely to vote for a Democrat who endorsed this proposal. Lieberman caricatured those in favor of repeal as extreme, claiming a repeal would alienate millions of voters who supposedly feel the tax cut helped them. Yet a September 2004 CBS News poll found that 72 percent of Americans say they have either not been affected by the Bush tax cuts or that their taxes have actually gone up.
On healthcare, we are led to believe that it is a “liberal,” “left” or “socialist” position to support a single-payer system that would provide universal coverage to all Americans. But if you believe the Washington Post, that would mean America was some sort of hippie commune. The newspaper’s 2003 national poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans say they prefer a universal healthcare system “that’s run by the government and financed by taxpayers” as opposed to the current private, for-profit system.
Same thing with prescription drugs. DLCers like Senators John Breaux and Evan Bayh, who both pocket thousands from the pharmaceutical industry, have vehemently opposed bipartisan legislation allowing Americans to import lower-priced, FDA-approved medicines from Canada. But polls consistently show overwhelming support for the proposal. A March 2004 AP poll, for instance, showed that two-thirds of Americans favor making it “easier for people to buy prescription drugs from Canada or other countries at lower cost.” The measure is so popular among average Americans that even some ardent Republicans like Senator Trent Lott have been embarrassed into supporting it. But apparently the same can’t be said for some corporate factions of the Democratic Party.
On energy policy, those who want government to mandate higher fuel efficiency in cars are labeled “lefties,” even though a 2004 Consumers Union poll found that 81 percent of Americans support the policy. Corporate apologists claim this “extremist” policy would hurt Democrats in places like Michigan, where the automobile manufacturers employ thousands. But the Sierra Club’s 2004 polling finds more than three-quarters of Michigan voters support it—including 84 percent of the state’s autoworkers.
Even in the face of massive job loss and outsourcing, the media are still labeling corporate Democrats’ support for free trade as “centrist.” And the DLC, which led the fight for NAFTA and the China trade deal, attacks those who want to renegotiate those pacts as just a marginal group of “protectionists.” Yet a January 2004 PIPA/University of Maryland poll found that “a majority [of the American public] is critical of US government trade policy.” A 1999 poll done on the five-year anniversary of the North American trade deal was even more telling: Only 24 percent of Americans said they wanted to “continue the NAFTA agreement.” The public outrage at trade deals has been so severe, pollster Steve Kull noted, that support dropped even among upper-income Americans “who’ve most avidly supported trade and globalization [and] who’ve taken the lead in pushing the free-trade agenda forward.”
Despite this overwhelming evidence, Washington, DC, Democrats apparently have not gotten the message that their current definition of “centrism” is actually pulling the party further and further out of the mainstream. Instead, insiders are doing their best ostrich imitation: putting their heads in the sand, pretending nothing is wrong and continuing down the same path that sells out America’s working class—the demographic that used to be the party’s base.
For instance, the DLC has issued a “heartland strategy,” telling Democrats to jettison economic populism, which has been used to elect Democrats in various red regions in America. Their solution? “Talk more about reducing teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births, which have led to an expansion of single-parent families beset by poverty, welfare dependence, and other social ills.” Above all else, they caution, do not turn up “the volume on anti-business and class warfare themes”—a euphemism for not discussing DLC-backed free-trade policies that have ravaged economies throughout the heartland. The strategy conveniently avoids the issues that might make the DLC’s corporate backers uncomfortable.
Now an effort is under way to set this faux “centrism” in stone. One of the leading candidates for Democratic National Committee chairman is Simon Rosenberg, a former free-trade lobbyist and head of the business-backed New Democrat Network. His group is joined by even more organizations designed to push the party to the right. The Washington Post reports that a group calling itself the “Third Way” (read: “Wrong Way”) is forming to tout “centrist” policies for Democrats. Instead of leaving the Beltway and holding a town meeting to gauge the pulse of red America’s working-class core, the group held its initial meeting “over dinner at a Georgetown mansion.” Instead of engaging in grassroots funding efforts, it is openly relying on corporate contributions.
“The answer to the ideological extremes of the right has to be more than rigid dogma from the left,” said Senator Bayh, a leader of the new group and one of Washington’s most highly trumpeted “centrists.” But really, who is pushing a rigid dogma: these bankrolled politicians who have hijacked “centrism” to sell out America’s middle class, or the progressive populists who most often have the backing of the American people?
David Sirota is a fellow at the Center for American Progress.
© 2004 The Nation