Progressive Pragmatism: The Death of the Left

Part 1: The fall of the Democratic Party.

The talking heads of the American media are in full agreement on the subject of the Democratic Party and its abysmal showing in the recent mid-term elections. They have finally realized what many frustrated progressives have known for a long time: The Democratic Party is a broken organization.

Not only does the party lack any sort of clear philosophy or purpose, but it is also desperately lacking in leadership. The truth in both of these assertions is plainly apparent to even the most disinterested of observers. Yet the cadre of cable news channels seem intent on repeatedly offering up this tidbit of information as if we should be shocked by it. There is nothing shocking about the defeat of a party which has been in meltdown for at least the last 15 years.

Some political pundits — both inside and outside of the party — seem intent on placing the blame for the party’s dysfunction on its ever shrinking liberal wing. “The country, Tuesday, moved somewhat to the right,” said Rep. Martin Frost (D-TX) during his short-lived attempt to become the next Minority Leader in the House. “I believe our party must occupy the center if we are to be successful, if we’re to come back in the majority and not move farther to the left.”

Mr. Frost has not been paying attention for at least a decade. If anything, the Democratic Party has grown more conservative in recent years. A sharp move to the right and an epidemic of internal disorganization are the underlying causes of the state of disarray into which the Democrats have fallen. And if Mr. Frost is looking for a culprit behind this dire set of consequences, I suggest he stop brow-beating liberals and start looking at Bill Clinton.

No politician in the last half-century has been as politically resilient as President Clinton. He survived economic scandals, a government shutdown, and even an impeachment trial to leave office with one of the highest approval ratings any president has ever consistently received. Republicans loathed and reviled him from the moment he took office until the moment he left. Even now you can hear the venom in their voices when they’re forced to speak his name.

But regardless of what they may say, the source of their hatred for Clinton was not because of his liberalism. It was because he was more successful at being a conservative than they were.

Clinton’s major achievements all came directly out of the conservative agenda. He enacted Republican-style welfare reform which has abandoned hundreds of thousands of people into poverty. He took a shot at limiting freedom of expression on the Internet through the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Long before Enron became synonymous with corporate malfeasance, Clinton opened the floodgates of corporate scandal through a whole host of laws aimed at the deregulation of business. He even collaborated with his friends across the aisle on a highly organized attack on gays and lesbians by quietly signing into law the Defense of Marriage Act.

Yet when he stood in front of the cameras, he was a man of the people. He pandered to big labor and the NAACP. He was the perfect wolf in sheep’s clothing. When Republicans attempted to push this kind of an agenda, they had been viewed as stodgy, conservative, even bigoted. When Clinton pushed the same goals, he was seen as a bridge builder and a statesman, a moderate in a sea of extremists. It was a brilliant political strategy.

The problem is that while Clinton’s politics were keeping him afloat even in his darkest of times, they were crippling his party. The Democratic Party, already disoriented after 12 years of Reagan/Bush, looked to their shining star, the youngest president since John Kennedy, to guide them into the 21st century.

What they received was a mixed message. Act liberal around liberals, moderate around conservatives, and conservative when actually dealing with matters of substance. Take firm stances but reverse them quickly if they aren’t immediately successful (as he did on both the issues of universal health care and gay rights). Take credit for the good (the economy) and lay blame on somebody else for the bad (racial profiling, education, health care, the environment, and … well … the economy).

Rather than unite Democrats in the way that Reagan had united Republicans, Clinton made the party more factious than it had ever been before. Many have become New Democrats, a Clinton-endorsed group of Democratic lawmakers who embrace conservative economic policy. A significantly smaller group make up the majority of the 59 member Congressional Progressive Caucus. Those unable to pick a side during the Clinton years were usually floated along into Clinton’s agenda.

Now that Clinton has left the White House and relegated himself to an Arby’s somewhere on Long Island, those same Democrats — those who still occupy elected office — have been left ideologically bankrupt. Out of these groups, only the New Democrats have the organization and the numbers to really push the party in one direction. Therefore, the party as a whole has been consistently conservative in recent years, when it has made a stance at all.

When debate forms within the party, the media has characteristically simplified the exchange down to two opposing views. One says that the party should become more liberal and win back its base. The other suggests that the party become more moderate and score points with that famous nebulous of voters dubbed “the center.”

Neither polemic is fully in touch with the realities of contemporary American and global political thought. Progressivism, which informed the consciences of great Democratic statesmen from Franklin Roosevelt to Robert Kennedy, down through to the recently deceased Senator Paul Wellstone, has been left entirely out of the equation.

Perhaps this should not be so surprising. After all, the party was not born progressive. It came to life under President Andrew Jackson, arguably one of the least progressive figures in American political history. It is the party that opposed emancipation of the slaves. It is the party of the South.

It was not until the Depression that the Democratic party started to find its progressive voice. It was a party that was born into an ideology that was hard to categorize in any other way except to say that it was antithetical to what might be called progressivism today. Perhaps it is fitting that it die in just about the same state.

The death of the Democratic Party in many ways parallels the death of the Ottoman Empire. In each case, the process was excruciatingly slow. In the case of the Ottomans, bits of their empire remained in place for many years past when they should have been absorbed by other powers, who couldn’t create a stable enough peace among each other to decide how best to carve the empire up.

Similarly, the Democrats still stand as the mainstream party of the left because the many people on the left who are disgusted with the party cannot seem to find enough common ground with each other to take the party to task. And so the Democrats will roll on unchecked, dismally performing in election after election as their ideology becomes more diluted and their candidates for office more corrupt.

Some progressives still struggle to make a difference in the party, and it is their prerogative to do so. However, if progressives ever hope to have a meaningful voice in Washington again, the time to begin organizing a resistance is now. Otherwise, we may wake up one morning after Election Day to find that as the final nail has fallen into the coffin of the Democrats, and our hopes and dreams for the future of our country have been buried with them.

Article © 2002 by Jonathan Ratican