In 1998, during the second term of her husband's presidency, Hillary Clinton led a meeting of high-ranking Democratic officials and leaders of the so-called Third Way movement, by then an influential — perhaps the most influential — flank of the party's establishment.
One purpose of the meeting was to determine a path to victory in upcoming elections. Another, in the words of the New York Times, was to address the Democrats' "national identity crisis."
"This was a step in the long-term development of a new progressive politics in America that has been begun by the President,'' Sidney Blumenthal, then a senior aide to Bill Clinton, said of the meeting. ''And it reflects that the center of political and intellectual vitality lies here in what we call 'the third way.'"
Many gatherings of this kind took place in various settings throughout the 1990s, all with a similar goal: To discern the way forward amid a tumultuous political scene beset with scandals, a productivity boom coupled with still rising inequality, the declared end of the "era of big government," the destruction of "welfare as we know it," and a new trade status quo established by the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"We're a party that's going through a transition from one ideology to another," said Simon Rosenberg, the founder of the New Democrat Network.
And this transition was one that had enormous practical — and financial — implications.
As Robert Dreyfuss has documented, years earlier the Democratic Leadership Council, founded as a bulwark against the New Left, invested heavily in the political career of "an ambitious young Arkansas governor," largely by currying the favor of some of America's largest financial institutions — including Goldman Sachs.
The DLC associated with and was funded by a startling assortment of names in the business community, including Boeing, Chevron, Texaco, IBM, Citigroup, and, yes, even Koch Industries.
The eventual election of Bill Clinton was, in the minds of many, the culmination of this neoliberal, corporate-friendly surge within the ranks of the Democratic Party, a party that had previously been home to organized labor and those sympathetic to the aims of the working class.
No longer. To compete with Republicans — those comprising a party that had rapidly lurched to the right over the span of several decades, transforming into a party fervently opposed to the New Deal order — Democrats, it was said, had to change their collective tune.
In 2003, Senator Evan Bayh would express a sentiment that was as common then as it was among New Democrats during the rise of Bill Clinton.
"The administration is being run by the far right," he said. "The Democratic Party is in danger of being taken over by the far left."
So change their tune they did. But instead of returning to the liberalism that dominated the early to mid-twentieth century, the Democratic Party's center of gravity shifted rightward — a response to both the pull of the "radical insurgency" that is the Republican Party and the forceful push of the neoliberals.
Once merely, in Dreyfuss's words, a "forum within which like-minded pro-business Democrats" could "share ideas, endorse one another, and commiserate about the persistence of the Old Guard," the Third Way movement embodied by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton has now become the core of the Democratic Party.
As historian Lily Geismer has written, "suburban knowledge professionals and high-tech corporations have supplanted urban ethnics and labor unions as the party's core constituency. This shifting base intensified structural inequality and constrained the party's ability to deliver progressive reforms."
The professed goal of the New Democrats was to eradicate the perception that they "stand for big government, want to raise taxes too high, are too liberal and are beholden to special interest groups." They also encouraged the implementation of policies that would, in the words of Al From, promote "private-sector economic growth."
"It's hard to argue," Dreyfuss concludes, "that they haven't succeeded."
This success wasn't, however, a transition from a party "beholden to special interest groups" to a party free from such restrictions; rather, it was a transition from one set of "interest groups" to another.
"We still believe in liberty and justice for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out," wrote Charles Peters in his manifesto celebrating the rise of neoliberalism. "But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work, we have to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative."
His assessment proved to be a prophetic explanation of Democrats' insistence that they are not captive to any particular ideology.
But what was an ostensibly neutral posture toward business and labor morphed, more often than not, into a favorable attitude toward the most influential, powerful, and affluent.
The result is what we see today: A Democratic Party heavily bankrolled by corporate America; a party that relies on lavish celebrity fundraisers over grassroots organizing; a party that has succeeded in tempering the expectations of its voters through its conflation of incrementalism and realism; and a party that peddles the ahistorical notion that change is a top-down affair, rather than a bottom-up struggle.
With this context in mind, the events of late last week should come as no surprise.
On Friday, representatives chosen by both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders met to discuss, debate, and vote on key elements of the party's platform.
Representative Keith Ellison, appointed by Bernie Sanders, led the push for an amendment that would insert stronger language in support of a $15 minimum wage, arguing that the language currently in the platform is vague and non-committal.
"We are going through one of the worst periods of wage stagnation in our nation’s history," Ellison observed, emphasizing the importance of establishing $15 as the minimum and indexing it to inflation.
Hillary Clinton's appointees were nonplussed, insisting that the platform's language is adequate — an unsurprising assessment, given that the language is modeled after Clinton's incrementalist approach to a higher minimum wage, which has ultimately led her to endorse a $12 minimum, not $15.
Those appointed by Sanders (plus Barbara Lee) voted for the amendment, while those appointed by Clinton (plus Howard Berman and Bonnie Schaefer) voted against it, leading to the proposal's defeat.
Clinton appointees also rejected an amendment — again put forward by Keith Ellison — that would have articulated the party's opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that would, if implemented, grant corporations unprecedented power.
Their justification for doing so was startling: "What I don’t want to do," said Representative Luis Gutierrez, "is leave this place disregarding the position of the President of the United States, who is the leader of our party today, independent of my disagreement with him."
As I have noted in the past, and as Kevin Gosztola pointed out on Sunday, it has become a common ploy for Democrats to appeal to vague notions of loyalty and party unity to renege on promises and to avoid taking principled stands on important issues.
This tactic has become particularly explicit throughout the 2016 primary process, as Democrats attempt to justify their support for a candidate who unabashedly flouts the party's professed dislike for America's corrupt campaign finance system.
Clinton-appointed representatives also voted down amendments that called for a carbon tax, a ban on fracking, and "an end to occupation and illegal settlements" in Palestinian territories.
On Twitter, Bernie Sanders expressed his disappointment that "allies of Hillary Clinton beat back Democratic Party platform proposals on trade."
But disappointment is a feeling usually reserved for the unexpected.
There is nothing surprising about Clinton Democrats' opposition to the inclusion of bold, decisive, and ambitious language in the platform of a party that has, in the words of William Greider, "lost its soul."
Doug Henwood has written that the Democrats are "running against hope," that they have abandoned any pretense of representing — or lifting the ambitions of — working class voters, and that they are, in fact, the enemies of ambitious social programs.
Having witnessed the performance of Clinton surrogates on Friday, can there be any question that Henwood is correct?
"Those committed to transformative change," Lily Geismer concludes, "should be skeptical of the Democrats' ability to deliver more than tepid reforms without a substantial shift in the party's class composition."
With the neoliberals at the helm, why should we expect more than managed decline?