The Democratic Convention speakers did an excellent job of convincing the country that this is a “choice” election, pitting two rival philosophies of government against each other. And they are right in principle: the country does need to choose between conservatives who distrust government and put their faith in markets, and liberals who believe that government is a necessary counterweight to business. Rhetoric aside, however, we will have no such debate. To understand why, we have to look at the recent history of the Democratic Party, and especially at the Clinton Presidency.
The Democratic Presidents of the sixties, such as Kennedy and Johnson, were the children of the New Deal. Similarly, the conservative Republicans who came to power in the 1980 election of Reagan were opponents of the New Deal. Faced with a strong challenge from the right during the seventies and eighties, Democrats could have forthrightly defended progressive principles, albeit revised for changing times. After all, these principles had defeated fascism, created the modern middle class, ushered in forty years of prosperity and sparked the civil rights and feminist revolutions. However, the Democrats made no such arguments.
Under Bill Clinton’s leadership, first as head of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), and then as president, they advocated and enacted a “third way.” This meant that they became pro-business, promising to shrink government, deregulate the economy, and attack “dependency.” Most importantly, they accepted the Republican idea that balancing the budget had to be at the center of the national agenda, abandoning their earlier view of the budget as a tool of national planning. The result was an effective fund-raising and election-winning strategy, but one that had two disastrous consequences from the point of view of a national debate.
First, Democratic politicians like Clinton marginalized the Left in their party, even though the more progressive Democrats tended to be activists and advocates. The effect was a slow but steady banalization of politics as talk of “pragmatism,” “compromise,” and the conflict between “the good” and “the perfect,” became Democratic commonplaces, and as Democratic politicians presented themselves as more “mature” than their opponents. Second, by taking over so much of the conservative agenda, DLC Democrats opened a path for figures like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, who found themselves threatened by the blurring of political boundaries and insisted that their party adopt more and more extreme and uncompromising positions to define itself.
The result was that we never had a genuine argument between progressives and conservatives. Although there is good reason to think progressives might have won, such an argument they blurred the differences instead. As a result, the terms of the national debate shifted to one between an absorptive center and an ever more extreme right.
When Obama sought the Democratic Party nomination in 2008 he signaled rank and file Democrats that he understood the problems the Clinton strategy had caused. He argued, for example, that the problems the country faced did not begin with the Bush Presidency, but rather during the Clinton years and that what the country needed was not simply a change in policies but also a change in mindset. Such signals won Obama the support of the anti-war and anti- Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, which he needed to gain the nomination. This strategy succeeded brilliantly. Obama won the third largest electoral victory in the history of the Democratic Party, provoking widespread expectations of a new progressive era, a “new New Deal,” a sea change in the U.S. role in the world– expectations that were augmented, not diverted, by the deepening economic crisis. At the very least, Obama’s election demonstrated that the DLC insistence (echoing the Republicans) that ours is essentially a conservative country, was untested, if not simply false.
Once he became president, however, Obama followed Clinton’s strategy in every particular. He ignored the Democratic Party base and addressed himself to the far Right in pursuit of a risible “bipartisanship.” The further right the Republicans moved, the further Obama followed them, knowing he would have no challenge from the Left, and knowing that he would always be the embodiment of progressivism so long as the parameters of the national debate stretched from him rightward. Most importantly, he accepted the long-standing Republican mantra that cutting the deficit was an immediate national priority. Granted, as reelection loomed and especially after Occupy Wall Street demonstrations won national headlines beginning in September 2011, Obama increasingly adopted a populist rhetoric, greatly abetted by Republican descriptions of him as a socialist. No one should doubt, however, that if he were re-elected he would follow the same Clintonian strategy of triangulation.
Was the change in American politics initiated by Clinton permanent, or can the country actually return to the great argument between progressives and conservatives that has shaped modern political history? There is no simple answer to this question, but one thing is clear. Only the reemergence of an independent leftist voice both inside and outside of the Democratic Party can change the dynamic. The exact policies of such a Left are certainly subject to debate, but what is not debatable is that it needs to break with third way centrism, which is ultimately a form of obscurantism. Without such a break, the country will continue to move to the right whoever is elected President.
Eli Zaretsky is Professor History at the New School for Social Research and the author of Why America Needs a Left: An Historical Argument (Polity, 2012)