Column No. 108 By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH - June 1, 2006
“Why Don’t the Democrats?” This is a common plaint heard among left-wing Democrats, among old-style New Deal Democrats, among progressive Democrats, among many traditional liberal Democrats, among all sorts of Democrats that is, except the so-called “New Democrats,” lead by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). It was put together by certain sectors of the Party leadership in the 1980s. In this column, I attempt to provide some answers to that question.
To begin that task we must first look at the DLC a bit. It was designed to counter the identity-group Democratic Party politics that had developed in the 1960s that eventually lead to the Presidential nomination of George McGovern in 1972. That nomination had been opposed by significant sectors of the Democratic Congressional leadership. The stone-faced visage of “Scoop” Jackson, the “Senator from Boeing” (nominally from the State of Washington) looking down upon the assembled throng on nomination night is forever etched in my memory. Jackson, and Hubert Humphrey too, and a number of other center and center-right Democrats did not lift a finger for McGovern.
They were right about the dead-endedness of identity group politics. You cannot win on a national scale by having a platform made up of pieces appealing to one identity group after another with nothing tying those pieces together. This is surely not to say that equality for women, a peace-first/shoot-later multi-lateral foreign policy, civil rights, environment protection and preservation, labor rights, gay rights and protections, establishing an equitable and cost-effective national health care system, and so on and so forth are not among the most important central political objectives of any Democratic Party that it is to live up to its name and its history.
It is to say that the way they were put forth in the McGovern era, with no central bring-them-all-together themes a) didn’t work, and b) made them and the Democratic Party an easy target for the ever-rightward lurching Republicans, as well as for rightward-lurching leadership Democrats.
The first DLC candidate-in-fact although without the label and without the organization was that nice, totally inexperienced, one-term Southern governor, Jimmy Carter. He was actually an accidental candidate. The logical one for 1976 was Ted Kennedy, but the Chappaquidick tragedy had done him in. The other logical candidate was Hubert Humphrey, who with his minuses also brought many plusses, including what it meant to be a New Deal/Great Society Democrat.
However, bladder cancer intervened and we were left with Jimmy. It is notable that even in the post-Nixon, post-other-Republican scandals, Carter is principally remembered for just two things: presiding over the development of the Camp David Accords that brought peace between Egypt and Israel, and presiding over the development of the worst inflation that the nation had seen in the 20th century. Hardly elements of the traditional Democratic agenda. And so, Carter brought us Reagan, not a product per se of the Republican Religious Right (although definitely of the Goldwater right-wing of the Party), but the historical transition figure who brought his Party and the Nation directly to the RRR’s current control of the Federal government.
The DLC grew out of the era of the Carter Presidency. It developed on the one hand in response the anti-Vietnam War movement both within and without the Party that bore a major responsibility for the nomination of Sen. McGovern. On the other hand it developed in response to the identity-group politics that the Senator surely did not foster or even like very much, but whose constituents were instrumental in gaining the nomination for him. And they dominated the then-liberal wing of the Party. At that point, in the midst of the Reagan Presidency that was clearly taking the country to the Right, Democratic Party reform could have gone either to the Left, developing a New Deal-successor overarching public-service philosophy or to the Right.
The DLC took it to the Right. In a posture that it still holds to today, they stood for two principal principles: in order to get elected in our public persona we have to look as much like Republicans as possible, except that we’re nicer, and we have to play “small ball,” not in the sense that those hateful single-issues that those very loud identity groups do, but in the sense that we have to go with issues at the secondary and tertiary levels of importance, preferably ones that won’t offend very many people who traditionally oppose us (although they may offend traditional Democrats) when we put them forth.
The DLC in fact had as a basic premise one that stands at the center of Religious Right Republicanism, so famously put by Bill Clinton in one of his most memorable State of the Union addresses: “The era of big government is over.” And so the DLC took, and takes, the position which is at the center of contemporary far right Republicanism. The functions of government are to be as limited as possible in doing the people’s business, infra-structure, health care, environment, public services, education, economic regulation, and etc., as “strong” as possible when it comes to oppression and repression and military might. The government’s role in suppressing freedom of thought and personal action, so dear to the hearts of the Religious Right, the DLC just ignores.
Following in importance the two positions on whether we should actually have a Constitutional Democracy or a government by “Unitary Executive” (read dictatorship) running the country, the biggest difference between the Georgite Republican Party and the traditional Democratic Party in fact is over the role of government. The Georgite Republicans, as I have written in this space many times, want to, in the immortal words of Grover Norquist referring to all the kinds of governmental functions called for by the Preamble to the Constitution, “shrink government to the size of a bathtub and then drown it in the bath tub.” The DLC’s only President, Bill Clinton, functionally agreed with this view, as he said, although he would not use Norquist’s rhetoric. Traditional Democrats beg to differ. We look to the Constitution and its Preamble*, which sets forth a broad and strong role for the Federal government in running the affairs of the nation as a whole.
And so, we currently face this divide in the country, on Constitutional government to begin with, then on the role of government, then on the Iraq War, then on the drive to divide and conquer with homophobia, misogyny, racism, and etc. The DLC surely does not endorse extreme Georgite positions on all of these matters. But they consistently try to find a “middle ground,” as on abortion rights, where there clearly is none. On foreign policy for example, the DLC has just come out with a book entitled With All Our Might. Our colleague Michael Carmichael has said of it: “Nowhere does the DLC volume present a serious critique of Bush administration foreign policy failures. Quite the contrary, the authors would have the Democratic Party default to the PNAC (Project for the New American Century, read ‘neo-con’) positions on virtually every point of defense, military and foreign policy.” Further, according to Michael the authors of the book spend a lot more time attacking fellow Democrats than they do attacking the Georgites.
Once again, on the War, on global warming, on other ravagings of the environment, health care, education, civil rights, civil wrongs, sexuality rights, on the nature of the Republican Party itself, in the context that Bush’s poll ratings are in the toilet, the question is asked “Why Don’t the Democrats?” The first answer is because there is no THE Democrats. The Party is obviously split, and I am hardly the first observer to come to that conclusion. The question then is obviously “what do we do now?” I will be getting to a consideration of that one in future columns in this series. But let me conclude this one with the briefest examinations of why this is so. Why does the DLC do what it does? Are they stupid, or abstruse, or just plain shortsighted? In my view none of the above.
First and most important, they actually like many of the Georgite polices, especially in the economic and military and even foreign policy arenas. Why? As David Sirota says in his new book, Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government--and How We Take It Back, (quoting here from the BuzzFlash promo for the book), “If the opposition party becomes part of the corporate consensus, in effect part of a hostile takeover, then you have an entire political system where ordinary people’s interests are not even being represented in the debate, much less in public policy. . . . the middle and working class in America are being absolutely crushed everywhere they turn.”
Next the DLC seems to really believe, despite what the polls tell them, that there is some vast electoral middle out there when it comes to Georgite policy and plans for the country. Third they focus on how they think the Democratic Party can win electorally using this issue or that, not using that other issue or this, rather than first on why the Democratic Party should win, then going on to the “how.” Certain leading DLCers are actually saying “gee, maybe it would be better if we lost the mid-term elections so that we would have a better chance of winning (electorally) in 2008,” ignoring what further substantive harms will come to country and Constitutional government under another two years of total control of the Federal government by the Republican Religious Right and the Georgites.
As I said above, to be continued.
* Preamble: We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.