When Centrists Sounded Like BernieRoundup
tags: political history, Democratic Party, Moderates, centrism
Edward Burmila is a Chicago-based writer and host of Mass for Shut-ins, a podcast of leftist politics and historical arcana. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is working on a book about why the Democrats are so bad at politics.
A polemic against the Democratic Party titled “A Party Afraid of the Truth” sounds like the latest Bernie-or-bust take on the 2020 nomination process. Based on the title alone, you can probably guess the article’s complaints: Stop blaming young people, offer voters a coherent vision, propose something other than “We are not the Republicans.” The left-leaning view of what ails the Democrats has been said—and said repeatedly since 2016. But mainstream Democrats have made it clear that they are not interested in this unsolicited advice.
Fair enough. The left and the center have been at odds in the Democratic Party for decades, and neither faction is eager to be lectured by the other.
Perhaps, though, the center would be more willing to listen to itself. The antiestablishment broadside about a timid Democratic Party was from 1990 and came from a group associated with Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and, yes, Joe Biden. In the mid-1980s, the New Deal liberal coalition stitched together by Franklin D. Roosevelt still dominated the party, but a new faction of moderates called the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) had emerged.
The activist Al From formed the DLC in 1985, after Walter Mondale’s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in 1984. It increased in visibility and influence in Democratic politics after the gray, lifeless campaign of George H.W. Bush defeated the even grayer, even more lifeless Michael Dukakis campaign in 1988. That election was the fifth loss in six presidential elections for Democrats. And the only win—Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford in 1976—was arguably a fluke stemming from a post-Watergate, anti-Republican backlash. Simply put, Democrats could not seem to field competitive presidential candidates, despite running strongly in Congress and at the state level at the time. Their candidates not only lost, but in the cases of George McGovern (1972) and Mondale, they were walloped.
The goal of the DLC was to reposition the party closer to the ideological center. Its points of departure from the dominant liberal view of the time were on economic policy. It rejected redistributive economic populism and championed the free market and what it considered mainstream values like being tough on crime and reshaping welfare. The emphasis on crime, welfare, and “values” was an effort to reverse Democratic losses among—stop me if this sounds familiar—non-college-educated white men, which was once the core of the Democratic base.
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