Since the 2016 elections, the corporate faction of the Democratic Party known as the “New Democrats” has poured its efforts almost entirely into trying to counter Bernie Sanders and the subsequent rise of democratic socialism. This fight could go a long way in determining the direction of the party.
The New Democrats came to exist, in part, to fight against challenges from the left. This brand of “centrist” Democrats was spawned in the 1980s from the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The faction’s goals were to pull the party hard to the right, embrace corporate donors and minimize the party’s reliance on its traditional bases of support, such as labor. The belief was that the country was center-right and after President Reagan won 49 states in 1984, the party needed to change.
The peak of its influence was when President Clinton won the presidency as a member of the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1990s. Its influence was instrumental in passing a regressive economic agenda under Clinton, including welfare reform, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the repeal of Glass-Steagall. All the while, its adherents have successfully raised massive sums from big corporate donors, especially in finance and pharma. President Obama distanced himself from the New Democrats at one point in his career but later came to identify with them. “I am a New Democrat,” he said in 2009.
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Now, New Democrats operate as members of the New Democrat Coalition in Congress, operating a super PAC (NewDemPAC) and think tanks like Third Way and the Progressive Policy Institute. They recognize that the remarkable leftward turn of the party’s base poses a unprecedented threat to the New Democrats and the interests of the donors who support them.
“I think these corporate Democrats are more on the defensive than in any time in decades — which is a good thing,” said Norman Solomon, cofounder of RootsAction, in an interview with Truthout. “The leftward momentum at the base has added a heightened intensity to this fight. It is leading to a clash, and battle lines are being drawn.”
New Democrats, accordingly, are ramping up for battle in the 2018 election cycle and beyond to try and stop the rise of democratic socialism in the party. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows NewDemPAC has already raised $2.7 million this election cycle, already a record amount for the PAC. The New Democrats have also increased their outreach, paying for studies, offering strategy memos and promoting an agenda focused on the “digital economy” called a “Social Contract for the Digital Age.” In 2017, Third Way spent $20 million on a listening tour of Trump districts.
“We’re actually doing this for a very straightforward reason: to stand up and launch a serious, compelling economic alternative to Sanderism,” said Third Way President Jonathan Cowan at Third Way’s invite-only conference in Columbus in July.
A War for the Soul of the Party?
There is a common media narrative describing the New Democrats and progressives, particularly during the 2018 election cycle, as being engaged in a war for the “Soul of the Democratic Party.” The corporate media often describes these New Democrats as “pragmatic” — portraying them as the lone adults in the room in a world of increasing partisan rancor. One galling example in The New York Times titled “The Center is Sexier Than You Think” cited Third Way’s own data to diminish the victory of left candidates.
This framing is especially dramatic this year with the big electoral victories for self-described democratic socialists. The most notable example is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who by defeating Rep. Joe Crowley not only beat a potential successor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, but also the former chairman of NewDemPAC.
But is it a war for the soul of the Democratic Party? The terminology may give the New Democrats too much credit. Within the base of the party, the war is over: the left won. Democrats support the major planks of the Sanders platform: Medicare for All, paid family leave, free college and more. The support for the party’s right wing only remains among consultants, billionaires and in Congress where the public will seems to have little influence.
Further, the New Democrats are almost entirely funded by Wall Street, Big Pharma and other corporate interests. Third Way’s board is filled with wealthy hedge fund executives worth hundreds of millions. Its conference in July was invite-only and featured 250 power brokers. The New Democrats can bring a handful of billionaires into one room but can it pack regular people into a town square? There is no grassroots appeal and there is no faction of Democratic Party voters pining for their corporate-friendly agenda.
The New Democrats represent centers of concentrated power more than some principled form of pragmatic liberalism. The chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, Rep. Jim Himes, has received $2.9 million from the finance industry. His largest contributor is Goldman Sachs, who has given Himes $333,000 since 2007. In 2015 Pro Publica published a headline calling New Democrats “The Coalition Pharma and Wall Street Love.”
In this sense, the New Democrats don’t represent a “wing of a party” trying to fight for moderate policies for ideological reasons. They represent the class interests they serve. The existence of this faction enables corporate elites to have considerable sway over both parties, to preserve neoliberalism and prevent a pivot toward social democracy. This isn’t a war for the soul of the party; it is plain old class war.
High-profile battles between progressives and New Democrats in past elections may have been more aptly described as a battle for the “soul” of the party. The battles of the past, unlike the ones happening today, were not really over class issues. It was two sides pulling on a rope, as opposed to colliding.
Truthout has documented some of these examples. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential candidacy and Ned Lamont’s primary challenge against then Sen. Joe Lieberman were portrayed in this fashion, though liberals were attracted to these candidates due to their opposition to the War in Iraq, which New Democrats supported. Neither proposed anything close to the kind of social democratic policies on the table now: Medicare for All, tuition-free college, a $15 minimum wage and so on.
In subsequent years, it became very clear that neither Dean nor Lamont was even genuinely progressive. Dean became a lobbyist for the health care industry and a surrogate for Hillary Clinton, who was a New Democrat during her entire congressional career. Lamont ran for governor of Connecticut a couple of years later as a pro-business centrist, lost, and is running again in 2018, this time as a “strong progressive.”
“Lamont’s liberal tone differs sharply from the more middle-of-the-road positions he took in his unsuccessful 2010 bid for governor,” reported the Hartford Courant.
“While Dean caused a stir for a few months in Iowa … and did help spark some grassroots groups, like Democracy for America, the [grassroots opposition] corporate Democrats face now is much different and a much bigger threat to this crowd,” Solomon said.
New Realities for New Democrats
New Democrats are right to be concerned about the rise of the left. Currently 60 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of socialism, and only a minority have a favorable view of capitalism. The consensus within the party’s base on health care, taxation, campaign finance, trade and the environment is exactly the kind of policy orientation that corporate donors are afraid of.
Democratic voters have long supported Medicare for All in polls, but the intensity of this support has risen significantly since the Sanders campaign pushed single-payer health care into the mainstream debate. In fact, a Reuters/Ipsos poll published on Thursday found 85 percent of Democrats and (for the first time ever) a majority of Republicans (52 percent) support the policy.
In elections past, the issue of universal health care wasn’t even on the radar of groups like Third Way because almost no prominent Democrats supported it. In 2008, no candidate with significant support favored Medicare for All. In the 1990s, the Democrats added work requirements to welfare and openly bragged about it. Now they are veering away from the word “moderate,” choosing to call themselves “Opportunity Democrats” instead.
All of this said, given their fundraising, the New Democrats have the resources to mount a serious defense. They have managed to successfully keep the Democratic leadership from embracing the left in the elections. As a Tarbell analysis recently showed, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has embraced the New Democrat Agenda in the 2018 midterms. The DCCC endorsed (through inclusion of its red-to-blue list) 25 of the 27 candidates endorsed by NewDemPAC, in addition to offering financial support to many of them. Despite there being a 17 percent job approval rating for Congress, Ocasio-Cortez is the only candidate to oust an incumbent in the 2018 Democratic primaries.
On the issue of health care, the top concern for American families according to polls, the influence of the New Democrats is especially noticeable. The Democratic Party leadership and its key organizations have been undermining popular support for Medicare for All throughout the 2018 election cycle. As part of this effort they have marched in lockstep with Third Way Democrats, who openly seek to strengthen the party’s relationships with corporate donors and to stop single-payer.
In May, Third Way released a strategy memo called “Winning on Health Care” devoted to dissuading Democratic candidates from running on single-payer.
“Those examining the issue should be wary of embracing single-payer based on political expedience and a belief that it is the best way to win the policy and messaging debate,” the memo reads.
It is important to note that Third Way’s memo is not targeting voters so much as candidates for Congress and other party power brokers. Either it worked, or the DCCC, also in bed with the for-profit health industry, made the same calculation on its own. Either way the Democratic Party leadership has spent most of the primary trying to “neutralize the threat” of single-payer candidates, as party insiders told Politico.
Even in opposition, Third Way and its allies are trying to be careful not to appear to be what they are: a regressive force in the Democratic Party designed to serve big business. In the same memo where they claim single-payer would be detrimental to the party and to patients, they say Medicare for All “is a welcome addition to the debate on universal coverage,” as if Medicare for All didn’t exist until 2016.
The Significance of Ocasio-Cortez
Younger voters have shown great affinity for democratic socialists as well. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a huge icon with a strong national following. As a young Latina politician, she does not suffer from the limitations that Sanders did as an older white man who struggled to connect with communities of color.
In 2018 a number of women have had success running campaigns with similar policies as the Sanders campaign. Ocasio-Cortez does not appear to be an outlier. Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, two socialist House candidates, beat establishment candidates in Pennsylvania. The primary win of Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, who was endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez, was another big victory for a socialist woman. If elected, she will be the first female Muslim to be elected to the House.
Across the country women are running and winning in record numbers. Nationwide 200 women have won their primaries for the US House, 19 women have won primaries in the Senate and 13 women have been nominated for gubernatorial races.
“We are seeing a level of enthusiasm among women voters that we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Democrat Laura Kelly, gubernatorial candidate in Kansas, to The Associated Press. The field is also diverse, said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization focused on increasing Black women’s representation in public office. At least 50 Black women are running for Congress.
“In addition to black women wanting to be part of history, people are realizing that regardless of what you look like, the leadership of the country has been predominantly white and male for far too long,” Peeler-Allen told The Associated Press. “Seeing the value of having diverse voices around decision-making tables is not limited to one demographic group, but includes people who want a more reflective democracy.”
This development might be what scares the New Democrats the most. According to Article 2 Section 1 of the Constitution, Ocasio-Cortez is too young to even run for president. She could conceivably carry Sanders’s message for generations — exactly what corporate Democrats do not want.
“I am sure many figured that when the 2016 primary was over, this momentum for the left would end,” Solomon said. “They were clearly wrong about that.”
New Democrats clearly do have sway over the party leadership and the dominant media, but their ideas are not sparking enthusiasm among voters. “There’s little evidence to suggest that [New Democrats] have ideas that are serious, compelling, or even an actual alternative to the ideas of the left,” wrote Matthew Yglesias, a center-left writer for Vox.
This may well be because the New Democrats value corporate interests over popular ideas. And it is apparent that the interests they serve are diametrically opposed to the goals of the left, as these challengers make their move to wrestle control of the party from neoliberals. If the left wants to take over the party, it will need to make the “corporate Democrat” a thing of the past.