Part I, The Progressive Era
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
The distinction between Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton couldn’t be sharper. If this doesn’t seem obvious, it is because Beltway media coverage of the candidates obscures more than reveals. Financial considerations of the for-profit news media creates short time horizons and shallow perspectives. The historical context of current events is often lost. To clearly see how different our choices are between these two Democratic Party candidates we need a little more information.
The two biggest areas of contrast between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are centered around two words that are very much in the public debate. These words are, “progressive” and “electability.” This essay is broken into two parts, each dedicated to these significant differences.
The Progressive Era
The term “progressive” as it relates to politics is not as vague a term as current usage suggests. The “Progressive Movement” was an historical development leading to a particular political philosophy. Born out of the Gilded Age, it held that the irresponsible actions of the rich were a corrupting influence on public and private life in America. It’s most influential period was between 1900 and 1920, although its influence continued throughout the 20th century. Progressivism was both a political and a social movement. It held that advances in science, technology, economics, and social organization could improve the conditions in which most citizens live, and that government had a role to play in promoting these advances.
Progressivism was a rejection of Social Darwinism (arguably a forerunner of Aya Rand’s Objectivism). It was a reform movement with goals considered radical in their time. Progressives sought to curb the power of big business and US corporations. It brought about laws to regulate fair commerce and break up monopolies. It fought to eliminate bribery and corruption in politics and to bring about political reforms. It fought against the extreme social injustice and inequality of that time, including opposition to child labor, widespread illiteracy, and horrible working and living conditions. It sought to improve lifestyles and living condition of all Americans and to establish health and safety standards both in the workplace and the communities where people lived. The progressive movement was also for the conservation and protection of our natural resources.
Among the activists in the movement were people such as Thomas Nast, Upton Sinclair, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Eugene Debs, Jane Addams, who founded Hull House and pioneered the field of social work, Booker T Washington, W. E. B. DuBose and many more. They and the muckrakers of the day found a sympathetic ear in Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican President. This is an important point as Progressivism was a sweeping and transformational movement supported by candidates in both political parties. The Progressive Movement ushered in the modern, middle-class oriented society we enjoy today.
Rise of Conservative Movement
Fast-forwarding for the sake of brevity skips a lot of important history, but it is fair to say that a strain of Progressive Movement philosophy has been baked into our political DNA. It remains most prominent in the Democratic party while largely disappearing from the establishment wing of the GOP. It’s disappearance is roughly correlated with the rise of our current income inequality and the growing power of the super rich. But a progressive element within the GOP is still not entirely absent even in conservative voters as evidenced by the continuing popularity of Medicare and Social Security among Tea Party Republicans.
On the Democratic side, the progressive vein of the party suffered though a crushing political loss with the landslide victory of Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972, followed a decade later by the rise of the conservative movement capped by the landslide election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
President Reagan’s election marked the beginning of a successful and synergistic partnership between the Republican Party and private corporate wealth. This partnership began a decade earlier with the conscious decision to create ideologically conservative public media platforms and apply modern business marketing techniques to promote conservative causes, including a successful anti-union marketing campaign that turned workers against unions. The power of organized labor was also challenged by newly organized industry advocacy groups. These industry trade groups gave rise to the powerful corporate lobbies we have today. Among the early successes of industry trade groups was a law that created political action committees, or PAC’s where corporations were able to provide substantial campaign contributions to political candidates of their choosing, and their candidates were all conservative and mostly Republican. The influx of money, the marketing prowess and the organizing clout of this marriage between the GOP and big business overwhelmed the Democratic Party. The effectiveness of massively coordinated conservative messaging cannot be overstated. It began the shift of America’s political center to the right. The power of this massively coordinated messaging, rather than the strength of conservative ideas, continues to power this rightward movement of our electoral center today.
DLC Transforms The Democratic Party
To many Democrats it was clear that the Party had to change strategy. Progressive causes were no longer winning elections. The diagnosis, unfortunately, was that the progressive agenda was the problem rather than copious amounts of corporate money, more effective marketing techniques, and the rise of conservative funded media outlets with their focus group tested propaganda.
A Democratic political operative name Al From believed that economic populism was no longer politically viable. He founded an organization named the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to move the Democratic Party away from progressive and socialist influences. The DLC sought more conservative alternatives that could appeal to the rightward shifting center of the American electorate. This required a willingness to compromise progressive values and embrace some conservative ideas. It was a strategy that triangulated politicians and the political party base on both the right and the left to win broad appeal for more “centrist” proposals. It also meant shifting Democratic Party allegiance towards big business interests and away from the poor and working classes. (The impact that this shifting focus had on the Democratic electorate will be explored more in Part 2).
More and more Democrats joined the DLS and adopted its ideas, which became known as the Third Way. It’s adherents became known as New Democrats. Their willingness to compromise and pass corporate friendly legislation, in combination with corporate lobbying, brought in the donation needed to fund successful campaigns. The crowning success of the New Democrats was the popular election of their candidate, President Bill Clinton. From then till now Democratic Party has hitched a ride on the shifting center of the American electorate. The DLC’s New Democrats became the establishment wing of the party.
Under Bill Clinton the New Democrats schemed and compromised their way with Republicans to pass a mixed bag of legislation, from a progressive stand point. Clinton got passed a the Family and Medical Leave Act, welfare reform legislation, legislation to deregulate banks and insurance companies so they can compete with investment banks, to list a few accomplishments. The DLC’s had to push ever further to the right to follow the shifting electoral center, but it was winning elections again. To better compete with GOP success, the Democratic party began adopting Republican style marketing strategies and ever closer ties to big corporate donors. Still, the electorate slide to the right continued. The Party was locked into a strategy that kept Democratic candidate competitive but left no room to challenge the conservative movement or corporate media more broadly. There was always the danger that directly confronting the right wing conservatives would dry up the corporate donation that Democratic candidates came to rely on.
It’s work on transforming the Democratic Party done, the DLC dissolved in early 2011, and on July 5 of that year, DLC founder Al From announced on the organization’s website its historical records had been purchased by the Clinton Foundation. The DLC had become the Democratic Party establishment.
Democratic Establishment Today
Today, New Democrats are simply called Democrats. They still claim the title of progressives, but it is a more relative term today. Those most closely associated with the former DLC, however, hold important policy positions that are considerably more conservative than before the DLC was founded. For example, former DLC activist oppose single-payer universal healthcare. They are more hawkish. They supported the Iraq War and are in favor of stronger military interventions in areas of active conflict. They are in favor of charter schools and “No Child Left Behind”. They are more aligned with Wall Street and market-based solutions to economic problems. They support free-trade agreements including NAFTA, and now the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). They continue to fear that economic populism is not politically viable and while they have come late to addressing income and wealth inequality, their are less aggressive in their approach
This is the current state of the Democratic Party establishment, of which Hillary Clinton is the heir apparent. If she doesn’t see that she is an establishment Democrat, it is because a true progressive alternative has not presented itself in a long time. Today’s Democratic Party is progressive in name only. Hillary Clinton revealed more than she realized when she recently said some call her a centrist and she is proud to wear that label. Capturing the electoral center remains at the heart of her campaign strategy.
What she and other establishment Democrats haven’t realized is that they have chased the electoral political center far to the right of actual political sensibilities of most ordinary citizens. For decades Democratic and independent voters have given up on the electoral process. They are not among the likely voters the Party targets to win elections. And the Party has stopped listening to the families they represent. They haven’t notice just how rigged the economy has become. They have stopped talking about the poor and the term “working class” has disappeared from the Party’s vocabulary. They compete instead, with Republicans on the issues of the GOP’s own choosing while conservative operatives successfully frame every debate to benefit wealthy donors. Establishment Democrats have not stopped to notice just how painful the nearly 40 year decline in wages has been for the middle-class .
Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has never stopped listening to the people or noticing what is happening to poor and middle class Americans. He retained his progressive values as an independent representative from Vermont. His record on this is clear. He continues to to promote progressive values and even retains the “socialist” tag that became associated with progressive philosophy in the 1960’s. When Hillary Clinton challenged him in the recent debate by asking what made him the gatekeeper of who is a progressive, Bernie couldn’t reduce his answer to a pithy sound byte. The question is breathtaking for those familiar with the transformation of the Democratic Party over the decades. There are very few champions of true progressives left in politics today. How could anyone answer her in question in a short few words? It requires too much context because so much of the history of the Party has been lost. But once the context is understood, the stark contrast between Clinton and Sanders is between:
1. A candidate who will continue to ride the electoral center wave to the right in exchange for small but more certain gains that improve our lives, or
2. A candidate who awakens the vast number of disaffected voters to challenge right-wing ideology directly, sweep conservatives from office and make way for bold ideas that will greatly benefit most people.