The Death of the Democratic Party

by Thomas J. Sevigny March 24th, 2001
Originally published in The Voice

Harry Truman once remarked that given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat who acts like a Republican, the American people will choose a Republican. Bill Clinton and his new generation of Democrats have certainly made Harry seem like a prophet. Under Clinton, the ideology of the Democratic Party has became a zigzagging chameleon that seeks the votes of liberals, labor and racial minorities while borrowing Republican policies in an effort to stay close to "the center," seldom straying far from the interests of corporate America.

Another Clinton legacy is the old-time Republican game of money-saturated politics that values party donors more than activists and weighs policy in terms of fundraising potential. When Clinton pardoned a fugitive financier on his last day in office, he ended his administration in the manner he had governed for eight years–by obliging the well-heeled and well-connected and by figuring that his rhetorical gifts and charisma would obscure the absence of ethics. Since corporate dollars flow more naturally toward Republicans, the grubbing of the Democrats forthis same cash has caused not only ethical lapses but corruption, if not outright abandonment, of Democratic positions. In 1993-94, when they controlled the White House and Congress, it was the Democrats who blocked any meaningful campaign finance reform. In 1996, it was the Clinton-Gore campaign that made soft-money loopholes into gaping canyons that obliterated existing campaign finance laws.

Such infusion of corporate cash made corporate concerns priority number one in the Clinton-Gore administration as they quickly succumbed to the appeals of major donors and their high-powered lawyers and lobbyists. It was the Clinton White House that supported the 1996 giveaway to media conglomerates known as Telecommunications Deregulation. (I'm still waiting for my cable bill to go down, by the way.) It was the Clinton White House that steamrolled over labor, environmental and consumer rights advocates to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And it was Clinton and Hillary who were unwilling to fight for Canadian-style national health insurance–instead they offered a proposal supported by big insurers that was so bureaucratic and convoluted it collapsed of its own weight without coming up for a vote.

Behind the rise of the "new Democrats" has been the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), a Washington outfit of largely Southern Democratic politicians that makes up for its lack of a mass base with a bounty of corporate cash–from a wide array of firms such as ARCO, Chevron, Du Pont, Philip Morris and Merck. It has become the main policy voice of corporate America inside the Democratic Party, supporting "free trade," partial privatization of Social Security, increased military spending, and other positions unpopular with rank-and-file Democrats. It was set up to weaken the power of unions, feminists and civil rights activists in Washington.

Years ago, these folks might have been called "Rockefeller Republicans;" now they dominate the party of working people. Gore was one of the founders of the DLC in the mid-1980s. Joe Lieberman was the group's chairman when he was drafted by Gore last year. Clinton, then thegovernor of Arkansas, was its national chairman when he launched his long-shot bid for the presidency in 1991. Even with the loss of Clinton from the White House, there still remains a well-funded and influential DLC. Their power within the former "people's party" is guaranteed with the recent installation of Clinton's personal fundraiser Terry McAuliffe–a financialexecutive well-connected to big business–as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

A dinner last month honoring Lieberman and benefiting a DLC-allied political committee, the New Democrats Network, raised $1.2 million from the likes of Aetna, American Airlines, AT&T, Citicorp and GE. When elite media pundits–many of whom cheer the DLC's economic conservatism and social liberalism–discuss Democratic presidential prospects for 2004, they regularly promote DLCers such as Gore, Lieberman and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, the group's new chairman. The power of the DLC within the Democratic Party was evident in last year's presidential contest that pitted the DLC ticket of Gore-Lieberman against the GOP. There was no debate on many issues that matter to the Democratic base–from trade, corporate welfare and bloated military spending to criminal justice issues like capital punishment and the counterproductive, racially-tinged drug war, which helped boost America's prison population during the Clinton years from 1.4 million to more than 2 million people.

What does the Democratic Party have to show for its rightward drift? Before the ascendancy of the DLC-led Clinton administration, Democrats controlled the U.S. Senate 57-43, the U.S. House 258-176, and the country's governorships 30-18. By becoming Republicans in Democrats’ clothing during the Clinton administration, the Democratic Party has lost the presidency, both house of Congress, almost all its majorities in state legislatures and most governorships. Under Clinton's leadership, the party has gone from majority to minority status–Harry Truman must be smiling somewhere.

Let's be honest: the Democratic Party is dead! If it was alive, it would insist that the budget surplus be spent on health care for the 44 million Americans who are now without it. It would have stood up to Bush's nomination of Ashcroft and other far-right Republicans for cabinet posts. It would say that the plan to spend $300 billion on the military when the Cold War is over–not to mention tens of billions more on a missile-defense shield that won't work–is totally absurd. It would be outraged that most of the benefits of Bush's tax cut will go to people at the top. Instead, we get platitudes about bipartisanship. When did partisanship become a dirty word?

As Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration, recently stated in an editorial, "The DLC stands for nothing, nada" (except the flow of corporate cash into Democratic coffers). "Centrism is wherever the polls say most Americans are. Centrism has no vision. Centrism doesn't lead, it follows. Centrism is nowhere." Or as progressive pundit Jim Hightower states so eloquently, "There is nothing in the middle of the road except yellow stripes and dead armadillos." The Democratic Party is no more. It has ceased to exist. It has expired. It is now time to form a true second party in this country.

Thomas J. Sevigny is co-chair of the Connecticut Green Party.

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