Ever since Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 with an appeal to blue-collar whites, politicians have chased the “Reagan Democrat.” The key to capturing swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, the theory went, was to win over white workers turned off by “tax-and-spend liberalism” and the excesses of the Democratic Party.
Bill Clinton restored Democratic control of the White House in 1992 by wooing back some of these voters. His role in transforming the Democratic Party at the national level throughout the 1990s is undeniable. It was Clinton — not Reagan — who balanced the budget and ended “welfare as we know it,” cementing a long-running reorientation of his party. Where Democrats once sought to expand the welfare state, the Clinton-led party managed its decline.
In this pursuit, the president found an ally in his wife. As first lady, Hillary Clinton echoed the administration’s tough-on-crime rhetoric and strongly supported landmark achievements such as the 1996 welfare reform bill, which placed onerous new restrictions and requirements on recipients of the program, and the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
This wasn’t a mere case of spousal solidarity: Hillary Clinton’s own ideological background is rooted in the “New Democrat” tradition embraced by her husband’s administration. The New Democrats pursued a “third way” between the European-style social democracy and free-market orthodoxy and rallied together under the auspices of the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in the late 1980s. Their platform was a direct response to the Reagan-era triumph of conservatism and its perceived sway among ordinary voters.
According to the New Democrats, blue-collar whites were wary of “big government.” By crafting policies palatable to these voters, Clintons and their allies, the story goes, were able to capture the White House and at least guarantee some form of progressive governance, albeit watered down, after the era of Reagan.
But much of this conventional wisdom is wrong. As political scientists Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers note in “Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics,” in 1979 close to 80 percent of Americans polled thought there was too much power concentrated in large corporations. A majority in the same survey thought that business was making too much and supported a cap on corporate profit.
What the Clinton Democrats actually did was build a coalition based around the interests of business, not those of most voters. They knew that they had to replace the fragile alliance between organized labor and the old Democratic business bloc that held together the New Deal (though it may be shocking to recall now, the oil industry was a key component of this) with new elites incorporated from Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
This approach was never popular with working-class voters, even if many still voted for it over Republican alternatives. Over the long run, pro-business and anti-labor policies such as NAFTA only undermined the popular base that Democratic politicians relied on. It wasn’t that poor and working-class people all became Republicans; they just simply weren’t inspired to turn out to vote.
The closeness of this week’s Iowa caucuses, which ended in a virtual tie between Hillary Clinton and Vermont socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, is a sign that the New Democrat chickens are coming home to roost. The candidates, after all, could not have more different backgrounds. It’s not just that Clinton is polished and her talking points are carefully vetted, while Sanders is scraggy and more prone to speak off the cuff. Nor is it Sanders’ almost anachronistic background on the socialist left. The difference can be found in their language and the way they frame their appeals — both the style and substance of their politics. Clinton is quick to remind audiences that she “represented Wall Street” as a New York senator. Sanders, on the other hand, speaks of “breaking up” big banks, calls for a “political revolution” and doesn’t flinch from his socialist identity.
President Barack Obama, despite his promises of change during and after his 2008 primary battle with Clinton, has represented continuity with much of the DLC agenda. Yet many Democratic voters have opposed New Democratic policies, as well as Clinton’s closeness with Wall Street and aggressive stances on foreign policy, including her vote in favor of the Iraq War as a senator from New York.
Sanders’ success is less the result of his individual merits as a candidate than of the tensions between the party’s base and its leadership class. Even if he loses the race this year, there is a real possibility that an emerging generation of “Sanders Democrats” — pushing traditional social-democratic solutions, such as universal health care and public jobs programs, to the country’s problems — will be a thorn in the side of the Democratic leadership caste for a long time to come.
A party that has been chasing “Reagan Democrats” since the 1980s will struggle to adjust without losing its powerful business allies. If history is any guide, party elites will choose their funders over their voters, and the huge numbers of millennials who support Sanders and his political vision will have to express their rage and discontent elsewhere.
It’s hard to say what form that outrage will take, but it’s enough to wonder whether Clinton solutions can triangulate the problems of this era as well as they did two decades ago.