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The Democrats need to stand for something

The Republican vision for America is disastrous. Do Democrats have an alternative?

May 18, 2015 2:00AM ET

Anyone who donated to Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 or has given money to support a liberal Congressperson is regularly bombarded with fundraising emails from the Democratic Party. Their consistent focus: the overwhelming imperative of stopping the Republicans.

A recent blast from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office warns, “House Republicans just passed a budget that would hit middle class families hard.”

And when Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy, the Democratic National Committee sent an email, studded with ominous photos of Republican presidential candidates, reading, “She’s In For 2016 … So We Need To Know Right Now … Are You?”

But what, exactly, are we supposed to be in for?

Lack of debate

Other than vague bromides about “the middle class” and “our values,” it is not clear what the Democratic Party offers as an alternative to conservative ideology. The true believers at the base accept this weak tea because the Republicans are so extreme. But the rallying cry of “stop the other guys” is hardly going to inspire the unconverted.

There are two related problems here.

First, there isn’t much of a compelling debate over the vision of the Democratic Party. Unlike the Republicans, who make their party line depressingly clear, Democrats rarely demonstrate what they really stand for. Conservatives can reduce their message to a few core points: “Small government, family values, unregulated markets.” But if you ask a voter to give the same summary of the Democratic platform, they are bound to stumble.

This relates to a second problem: Absent a real vision, Democrats end up being merely a “lite” version of the Republican Party. When politicians on the Right demand cuts to government services, Democratic leaders merely propose to cut a little less. On issues such as school privatization, trade agreements and corporate deregulation, top Democrats have followed conservatives' policy positions, giving voters a muddled choice at best.

Bottom-up dialogue between leading candidates and the base of the party is essential if the Democrats are to be a real party rather than just a cult of personality.

Last time there was a real debate about the vision of the Democratic Party, it was with the rise of the “New Democrats.” In the wake of former Vice President Walter Mondale’s resounding 1984 defeat, a band of self-described centrists headed by political strategist Al From founded the Democratic Leadership Council, or DLC. They argued that the party needed to move to the right if it wanted to have any hope of regaining power. To this end, they promoted traditionally conservative ideas such as welfare reform, free trade, and prioritizing balanced budgets over goals such as full employment.

These so-called New Democrats found a champion in Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who proceeded to implement many of their favorite policies when he became president. He could do so with confidence that “captive constituencies” such as labor and African-Americans would not abandon the Democratic Party, since they had no where else to turn.

Clinton’s welfare reform was the logical conclusion of Ronald Reagan’s pernicious use of the “welfare queen” myth in the 1980s. During the 1990s, the economists with the greatest sway over the Democratic Party, such as Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, orchestrated sweeping deregulations of the financial industry. They reversed many New Deal regulations of Wall Street that restrained its most destructive practices, creating the conditions that lead to the Great Recession.

The DLC disbanded in 2011, but only because their side had already won. The centrists still have a firm grasp on the party’s soul. Examples abound: Bill Clinton once pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement over the strong opposition of the labor movement, environmentalists and human rights advocates; now Obama is expanding the same trade model to a host of new countries with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

Missed opportunity

The lack of a competitive Democratic primary, with Hillary Clinton all but securing the nomination before the race has formally begun, means a missed opportunity to articulate an overarching vision for the party that is distinct from the DLC’s neoliberalism.

In the 2008 presidential primary, both Clinton and Obama competed to be more progressive on issues such as health care and environmental regulation. Likewise, before the recent Chicago mayoral election, Rahm Emanuel, facing a strong challenge from within his own party, froze charter school growth in Chicago for the year.

Of course, politicians are known to backtrack on campaign vows. Candidate Obama, for one, vowed to champion the interests of working people, but failed to put any muscle behind organized labor's key policy demands, such as the Employee Free Choice Act — while actively promoting Social Security cuts. As an anonymous union official recently told Politico, “He’s our best friend when it doesn’t matter.”

Fixing this problem requires more debate, not less. The Democrats need more intense primary contests, not coronations of top candidates, who are thus relived of the responsibility of actually explaining what they stand for. As things are currently going, Hillary Clinton is set to easily claim the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Although it has not seriously affected Hillary’s chances, the entry of Bernie Sanders into the race at least opens up the possibility of some debate.

Let’s hope that Clinton takes this opportunity to stake out a real progressive vision. Avoiding a more rigorous conversation in the primary won’t help her in the long run. Bottom-up dialogue between leading candidates and the base of the party is essential if the Democrats are to be a real party — a unified movement with a shared politics — rather than just a cult of personality. Without a vision for the nation forged in this type of intra-party conversation and backed by grassroots buy-in, the odds are that Clinton will maintain the Democratic Party’s uninspiring position as a Republican-lite entity. And running as a lesser-evil candidate is a recipe for an uninspiring contest. 

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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