Stringer Bell had a problem. On HBO’s show “The Wire,” the rather learned kingpin was concerned that the drugs his gang sold on the streets of West Baltimore were too weak, which jeopardized their control of the streets. So, in a memorable scene, Bell, who was taking economics courses at a community college, asked his instructor, “What are the options if you have an inferior product in an aggressive marketplace?” The instructor offered him some prescient advice, mentioning how WorldCom (now MCI Inc.) once faced a similar problem.
“The company was linked to one of the largest fraud cases in history,” he said. “So, they decided to change the name.”
Bell adopted the strategy. West Baltimore was soon flooded with the same inferior product, but with a slew of flashy new names.
The world of politics and ideas is an especially aggressive marketplace. Here, so-called centrist “New Democrats” adopted a very similar approach. For many years, Democrats proudly associated themselves with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a powerful group founded in the 1980s that sought to build a Democratic Party “liberated” from labor and grounded in “support for free market and free trade economics … an end to the politics of ‘entitlement’ [and] a rejection of affirmative action.”
At the height of its power the DLC was the dominant force in the party, boasting President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair as its acolytes. But like Bell’s weak narcotics, the DLC, which supported the Iraq War and received money from the likes of the Koch Brothers, soon became a tainted brand. Long before 2011, when the organization dissolved, the DLC label hung around politicians like a scarlet letter. Even President Obama publicly distanced himself from the organization in 2004 as he ascended as a national figure.
So, eager to maintain power and influence, New Democrats did what Stringer Bell ended up doing. They changed the name.
“I don’t think the people who ran the DLC ever really left,” said Norman Solomon, a coordinator for RootsAction, in an interview with Truthout. “It is the same product, different name.” Indeed, the DLC agenda is carried out today by think tanks like the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and Third Way, which push the same regressive agenda but under different labels, and with less public scrutiny. As the Boston Globe described in 2014, Third Way usually works “behind the scenes — in the White House, the corridors of Congress, and the office suites of lobbying firms in downtown Washington.”
Now, as Democrats face an existential crisis in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, these fundamentally conservative organizations, armed with millions in corporate donations, are working with a renewed aggressiveness in the public sphere. They are attempting to convince the party to shun its base and further embrace the so-called “vital center,” and the corporatism that has long defined these groups.
If Third Way succeeds, the Democrats will leave an opening for right-wing “populism” to thrive long after the Trump presidency. If this happens, Americans will increasingly (and correctly) see Democrats as a party run by the establishment, and serving the interests of its donors, rather than the working class. This is why progressive activists are fighting hard to rid the party of Democrats who embrace this agenda.
Wrong Lessons From 2016: Third Way’s Using Trump Election to Gain Influence
Sensing blood in the water since the election, the 13-year-old Third Way think tank, which was “never formally associated with DLC but self-consciously drawing on the same heritage,” as former DLC staffer Ed Kilgore once wrote, has been especially aggressive. It has thrown $20 million into its “New Blue Campaign.” The campaign, according to Third Way President Jonathan Cowen, aims to prevent Democrats from meeting “Donald Trump’s dangerous right-wing populism with a liberal populism of our own.” To put this in perspective, $20 million is enough to fund a fairly large nonprofit organization like 350.org or the Center for Constitutional Rights for about two years. However, it’s a relative drop in a bucket for an organization that by its own admission is backed almost entirely by Wall Street sources.
Additionally, the organization published a paper in late February called, “Why Demography Does Not Equal Destiny,” which has been covered by much of the dominant media and even been praised by numerous conservative outlets and think tanks. The basic premise: Democrats are wrong to appeal to growing demographics that lean liberal, such as Latinos and young people. Third Way claims that this thinking has led Democrats to “pursue a base-only strategy without worrying about persuading a broader swath of voters to support them.” Democrats are failing to acknowledge, it argues, that voters are increasingly registering as independents and do not identify as liberal. It declares that the party must move to the center.
Third Way’s argument rests on the flawed notion that the Democrats have already been guilty of running a “base-only” strategy. The party’s problems and electoral defeats, it argues, are because it is just too progressive for its own good.
However, the more persuasive argument is that the Democrats lost the election precisely because they are too much like what Third Way wants them to be: deferential, non-ideological and too close to Wall Street. “Secretary Clinton does represent the establishment,” Sen. Bernie Sanders explained during the primary.
Consider what occurred in 2016. The Democrats ran a candidate who spent most of her career as a figurehead for groups like Third Way and the DLC. Clinton was a prominent member of the New Democratic Caucus in the Senate and spoke at DLC conferences on multiple occasions as recently as 2008. She was also awash in corporate money, dominating every other candidate in donations from Wall Street, Big Pharma, Big Media and most other centers of private capital, while her primary opponent relied almost entirely on grassroots support. Meanwhile, she was given strategic support from the Democratic National Committee, which collaborated in efforts to discredit Bernie Sanders (which it vehemently denied before being exposed) and leaked debate questions to Clinton. The campaign, with the support of almost every powerful Democrat, went on to smear ideas that appeal to the base, such as Medicare for All and tuition-free higher education, saying they were unrealistic.
Working-class voters, especially in states hurt by the very same trade deals Hillary Clinton has defended and Third Way promoted vigorously, viewed her as part of “the establishment.” They were turned off by her relationship with Wall Street figures, who donated to her campaign in record numbers, and gave her grotesque sums of money to give speeches at Goldman Sachs (the contents of which were eventually leaked). Thus, Third Way got the candidate it wanted, she had the full support of the establishment, and she still lost. Third Way, however, continues to claim the party has been insufficiently establishment-oriented in recent years.
The Great Independent Voter Fallacy
Third Way’s rhetoric repeatedly conflates “independent” with “moderate.” This conflation is repeated frequently in the media as a truism. And while the specific politics of “independent voters” vary widely and change from election to election, pollsters agree that “it’s critical not to confuse ‘independents’ with ‘moderates,'” as 538 acknowledged in an article about Bernie Sanders’ success among independents.
The reality that “independent” does not equal “moderate” has been affirmed by many other pollsters and experts, including Tom Jensen at Public Policy Polling and even the DLC’s still surviving sister think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, which acknowledged as much in 2010.
“One of the frustrating things about contemporary political analysis is the frequency with which key terms get used in a very sloppy manner that reflects highly biased or inaccurate assumptions,” the Progressive Policy Institute stated in a 2010 article on its website. “A perpetual example is the use of ‘independent’ and ‘moderate’ as interchangeable words for unaffiliated voters.”
Yet Third Way insists Democrats must govern to the right because “a near record high 38 percent of Americans now call themselves a political Independent…. And key groups in the Rising American Electorate have a high proportion of Independents, particularly Millennials and Asians.”
This interpretation of millennials’ politics runs contrary to the research: Polls show a majority of millennials “reject capitalism.” The rise of movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, populated largely by younger people, also indicates that the equation of “independent” with “moderate” does not sync, when it comes to millennials. Polls show many young people are admirers of Senator Sanders, who himself is a registered independent. During the primary, Gallup showed Sanders with an 82 percent approval rating among millennial Democrats and 55 percent overall (compared with 38 and 22 percent for Clinton and Trump respectively). In fact, a March 15 Fox News Poll shows him as the most popular politician in the country overall, regardless of age. Yet Third Way insists the Democrats can win over these anticapitalist millennials by cutting entitlements and compromising more with Republicans — and it is now attempting to rally grassroots support for these efforts.
Third Way’s Media Offensive Isn’t Working
The aggressiveness with which Third Way is promoting the New Blue campaign and this flawed paper is noteworthy. On their Twitter account, they have been promoting their demography paper with a fervor that is unusual for a group that, as the Boston Globe described, usually works “behind the scenes” in “the office suites of lobbying firms.” Not only is the paper pinned to the top of its official Twitter account (@ThirdWayTweet), but the group has been retweeting it frequently from both its main account and other Third Way accounts, such as Third Way Politics (@TWPolitics). Third Way has also been publishing articles on Medium and even made a video explaining the paper’s content on its own YouTube channel.
It is notable that despite these efforts, there is so little grassroots support for Third Way. As of March 21, the official Twitter account has just north of 10,000 followers, slightly less than Flat Earth Today and about 20 percent the amount of Our Revolution. The group’s national security Twitter account has about 2,500 followers, as does its economic account (@ThirdWayEcon). And the account for its prized new “New Blue Campaign,” has 287 followers, which is about 100 fewer than an account devoted to cats in favor of abolishing prisons (@Cats4Abolition). The video version of “Why Demography Does Not Equal Destiny” was been watched on YouTube 134 times at the time of this writing. Comments and upvotes are blocked, perhaps because its administrators are aware that there is virtually no grassroots support for a group whose mission is to make the Democrats even more establishment-driven.
The lack of public enthusiasm for Third Way is not surprising. As Truthout has previously reported, New Democrats have never really been about popular support. Their audiences are inside meeting rooms in DC, and their currency is not the will of the masses, or crowded town halls, but, well, actual currency. In fact, one of the purposes of the Third Way/DLC crowd is to allow Democrats to succeed without needing to worry about unionists or feminists or protesters spoiling their party.
In fact, the Third Way staff actually promotes its ability to oppose grassroots interests. For example, on Third Way’s website, the staff bio for Senior Fellow for Health and Fiscal Policy Dave Kendall states: “In the early 1990s, he worked with moderate Democrats on the Hill to change the traditional approach to Democratic health policy-making, known as single-payer health care.”
Of course, the Democratic Party has made no secret of its failure to push for single-payer for years. But for a so-called Democrat to brag openly about helping the party abandon the very concept of universal public health care shows how little concern the so-called New Democrats have for actual Democrats, 81 percent of whom support such a system.
Third Way has gotten by with this indifference to actual people in large part because its strategy of “splitting the difference” between the two parties already sells well to a Democratic Party establishment, which has long been compromised by corporate money.
“In this sense, the DLC has already won,” said Steve Maher, a social critic and Ph.D. student at York University, in an interview with Truthout. “The Democrats have moved away from organized labor, toward corporate power and are pursuing a neoliberal agenda.”
This is especially true in a post-Citizens United world where corporate money has become increasingly important, at the expense of the value of public sentiment. Likewise, this centrist/moderate mantra sells well in the media, which has long been structured in a way that favors elite interests. The same kinds of corporate entities that fund Third Way, and benefit from their pro-business agenda, literally own the mainstream media. And sure enough, the argument Third Way is advancing is being amplified by dominant media outlets, often by name, and by numerous other writers making their own argument for pushing the party to the right.
The Death of the DLC and Progressives’ Premature Victory Party
Third Way’s real audience is not the masses of people protesting the gross inequities of our political and economic system. Its real targets are power brokers working on K Street or Wall Street. While Third Way may fail when it attempts to court support from the public, it rises to the challenge when it comes to wielding influence among elite players in politics, finance and media. When the DLC died in 2011, many progressives were (understandably) elated and declared victory in the battle for the “soul of the Democratic Party.”
“Where is the grave so I can go dance on it!” boasted Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, who fought several rounds with the DLC over the Howard Dean and Ned Lamont campaigns. “One of the things that is happening in Democratic politics is that progressives are winning the battle for the party,” said former Progressive Congress President Darcy Burner to Politico.
However, the victory dance was premature. The DLC was dead in name only. Even before it officially dissolved, its allies were laying the groundwork to continue its agenda. “I am a New Democrat,” Obama told the New Democrat Coalition in 2009, according to Politico. Obama’s unambiguous words of support to this faction of the party was notable, especially since for most of his career he has, as Politico noted, “largely avoided the Democratic Leadership Council.”
It is indeed telling that President Obama kept his distance from DLC, but still assured their people he was on their side. He knew the DLC name would hurt his carefully crafted image in the eyes of progressives, but in terms of general philosophy, Obama’s description of himself as a “New Democrat” was accurate. He embraced industry to a fault and kept his distance from the left. He relied solely on “market solutions” to health care, despite being a long-time supporter of single-payer.
He also hired DLC alumni often and in positions of importance, most notably appointing two White House chiefs of staff who were proud DLC allies: Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley, the latter of which is a Third Way board member. “Visitor logs show that Third Way leaders have enjoyed excellent access to the Obama White House, with at least 50 visits since 2009,” reported the Boston Globe in 2014.
“There will always be a class conflict, and the powerful will always try and use the Democratic Party as a vehicle to wage it,” Solomon said.
Indeed, the “battle” for the party’s soul is seemingly another endless war. After almost every election cycle, New Democrats either try to claim responsibility for the victory or use the defeat to advance their cause. In 2006, when Democrats took back Congress in large part due to opposition to President Bush’s war in Iraq, which the DLC supported, New Democrats said it was “a victory for the vital center.” When Democrats got crushed in 2010, Third Way was, as an American Prospect article described it, “salivating at the prospect of a Republican-controlled House” so it could “vigorously oppose the left.”