It's not as if the Democratic Party was ever "the party of the people" — at least not in the mystical sense depicted by both party loyalists and some on the left who are nostalgic for the liberal tradition established by Franklin Roosevelt and carried forward by Lyndon Johnson.
But the party was, at one point, quite responsive to democratic pressure from below — and systemic change has always been prompted by movements, not party leaders.
The New Deal was possible not because Roosevelt was a benevolent warrior of the working class, but because, as the historian Robert Brenner has put it, "starting in Detroit auto plants in spring 1933, you got a series of ever larger and more encompassing strikes, mobilizing ever broader groups of workers on the shop floor and the streets — organized and unorganized, employed and unemployed, in an ascending wave."
"Programmatic demands and ideas that seemed pie in the sky were now, with the increase in workers' power, plausible and actionable," Brenner concludes.
In the decades following Roosevelt's time in office, however, the reforms that imperfectly but substantially enhanced worker power and protected laborers from the ravages of capitalism were gradually and systematically rolled back. Commentators frequently begin the story of the New Deal's demise in the 1970s with the Powell memo, a "call-to-arms for corporations" that urged business leaders to push back against a perceived "assault on the enterprise system" by "Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries."
In reality, though, resistance against the reforms of the New Deal began as soon as they were implemented, as Kim Phillips-Fein documented in her study Invisible Hands. And, as Phillips-Fein emphasized, pro-business reactionaries led the fight. From the beginning, they viewed the struggle to peel back progressive gains as one that would take place over a long stretch of time — and one that would require tireless coalition-building, message-making, and influence-peddling.
Surveying the political and economic landscape today, a scene beset by incredible corporate power and soaring income inequality, it is impossible to deny that their efforts, which continue to this day, have been a staggering success. And the Democratic Party, it must not be forgotten, played a key role in institutionalizing these successes.
Because Democrats, too, were susceptible to the pressures imposed an increasingly aggressive business class, and it was under Jimmy Carter, not under a Republican, that neoliberalism began to take hold.
"The austerity so often associated with the Reagan presidency actually began with Carter, under whom spending on welfare, for example, contracted more rapidly than it ever would under Reagan," notes the historian Paul Heideman. "Carter also moved to deregulate huge sections of American industry, including the airlines, trucking, and, perhaps most saliently today, banking."
This rightward trend continued in the aftermath of the Reagan-Bush years; Bill Clinton, in fact, quite explicitly ran on a platform of continuing the right turn that characterized the Carter presidency. Clinton ambitiously declared that "the era of big government" — by which he clearly meant the New Deal and the Great Society — "is over." He went on to destroy welfare, as promised, and to continue the deregulation of industry that began under Carter. He also signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement, which rapidly accelerated job loss.
This history cannot simply be wished away — and it cannot be ignored when discussing the present.
Over a period of decades, the composition of the Democratic Party, as scholars and commentators have emphasized, rapidly transformed. It can now rightly be considered an "unruly coalition," one that brings together high-income, white-collar professionals and low-income workers, many of them minorities.
Unsurprisingly, given its wealth and political clout, it is the former faction that exerts the most influence.
"As it stands, the Democratic Party is much more than a repository of liberal values," observes Lily Geismer. "It's a party that consistently favors its upper-middle-class base in both presidential campaign platforms and its governing agenda."
In a recent piece for Vox — titled "Democrats never stopped caring about the working class" — the political scientist Hans Noel pushed back against the now prevalent argument that Democrats have abandoned the working class, paving the way for the phony economic populism of president-elect Donald Trump. For Noel, this "abandonment" is more perception than reality; if Democrats are at fault, he argues, it is because of their ineffective messaging, not their actions.
To bolster his argument, Noel points to various policy achievements of the Obama administration, including the Affordable Care Act, the stimulus package, Dodd-Frank, and "updated overtime rules." These achievements — in conjunction with Democratic proposals that have yet to be realized, from "a major infrastructure bill" to a $12 minimum wage — put the lie to the notion the Democrats have neglected working class Americans.
Unfortunately, to make this narrative whole, Noel resorts to both distortion and omission. And, making matters worse, many lines of his piece can be reduced to the tiresome trope, "Democrats would have done better, if not for those meddling Republicans."
All of this serves to exonerate the Democratic establishment, thereby furthering the trends that have turned the party into what Vox's own Matt Yglesias recently called "a smoking pile of rubble."
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Again, history — including very recent history — is useful here. Noel makes a point of highlighting the fact that "parties are coalitions," which is true.
Although Obama ran a presidential campaign that ostensibly placed him in opposition to much of the platform of the so-called Third Way Democrats, he also had to deal with his own "unruly coalition," one made up of both working class Americans longing for change and Wall Street firms, which helped bankroll his efforts.
Obama entered office in the midst of a financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression. It was a worrying moment, but also a moment that presented major opportunities to reshape the norms that sparked the Wall Street collapse and the subsequent recession. With a Democratic congress, it seemed that the president had clear path forward.
But what he ultimately did in these circumstances does little to serve Noel's argument; in fact, many of the president's actions undermine it thoroughly.
Obama, almost immediately upon his election, "packed his economic team with Wall Street insiders," indicating all too clearly what was to come.
In particular, the foreclosure crisis presented the president with a chance to make good on his promises to hold financial institutions accountable and to come to the assistance of those harmed by rampant Wall Street criminality.
"We cannot only have a plan for Wall Street," Obama said in September of 2008, prior to his victory over John McCain. "We must also help Main Street."
It was soon obvious, however, that the former took precedence over the latter. Rather than aggressively pursuing the firms that were engaged in systemic fraud, the Obama administration essentially applied a light tap on the wrist, all the while allowing the foreclosure crisis to persist with little resistance.
The administration's sorry "attempt" to remedy the crisis — a program called the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) — indicated, in the words of David Dayen, that the president "prioritized the health of financial institutions over the lives of homeowners."
"HAMP cannot be justified by the usual Obama-era logic, that it represented the best possible outcome in a captured Washington with Republican obstruction and supermajority hurdles," Dayen concludes, providing a firm rebuke to Noel's framework. "It was entirely a product of the administration's economic team, working with the financial industry."
(The program is set to expire at the end of this year; its long-term effects are hardly worth flaunting.)
The foreclosure crisis, and the recession more broadly, devastated millions, and its effects were most profoundly felt in minority communities. As Bernie Sanders noted on the campaign trail, "the African-American community lost half of their wealth as a result of the Wall Street collapse." Furthermore, The American Prospect reported in 2014 that because black communities were disproportionately targeted by predatory banks, "black homeowners were disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis, with more than 240,000 blacks losing homes they had owned."
Curiously — or perhaps not — none of this received the slightest attention in Noel's piece, a rather telling omission. If the president's handling of the foreclosure crisis doesn't constitute abandonment of the working class, I'm not sure what does.
And this is just one — hugely consequential — example. The president's aggressive push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement that has far more to do with the rights of investors and massive corporations than the rights of workers, is yet another indication that the working class, in the view of his administration, ranks somewhere quite below corporate America. One can look also to Obamacare's failures, which have had more to do with the design of the program than with Republican obstructionism.
At the core of Noel's piece is the argument that Democrats' actions have been good, but their rhetoric has been ineffective; they are poor messengers of a righteous cause.
But this is precisely backward. In reality, Democrats have, over the last several decades, continued to talk a big game, ensuring labor unions and progressive movements that they can count on the party's full support. Their actions, however, have demonstrated that they are who Kevin Phillips thought they were: "history's second-most enthusiastic capitalist party."
It is true, of course, that the Republican Party is viciously anti-labor. But the Democratic Party has failed to mount anything that would qualify as effective resistance. Instead, Democrats have continued to support the working class in word, while often acting as their enemies in deed.
A viable political party simply cannot be deeply committed to both the needs of capital and the needs of the working class. As Adam Smith understood, "The interest of the dealers...in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public."