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Where the Liberals are.

At the Democratic convention in Chicago, Al From must have been smiling to himself. From is the current president of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the right-leaning outfit that has arduously been pushing the party away from liberalism since the mid-1980s. One of the group's founders, From takes pleasure in recalling that in 1980, the Democratic Party's platform included a crime plank denouncing excessive police brutality, an education agenda focusing on social concerns, and billions in job programs and public investment. This year's document, echoing Newt Gingrich on point after point, contains an explicit pledge to reduce the role of government and shift spending to localities; calls for cracking down on criminals; endorses the death penalty; denounces the "failed" welfare system; brags of cutting off aid to illegal immigrants; and champions NAFTA.

"The ideological battle in our party is over," From has declared. What he means is that old-style liberalism--forged during the New Deal and Great Society years and dedicated to government activism on economic and social matters--is dead in the water. In its place is the neoliberalism of the "New Democrats," whose guiding principle (indistinguishable from that of most Republicans) is, "Leave it to the market."

Culminating a trend to the right that began in the late 1970s when Jimmy Carter set the stage for Reaganomics by cutting social spending and raising the defense budget, the Democratic Party is now, under the auspices of the DLC and Clinton completing Reagan's task of demolishing the welfare state. Clinton's decision last summer to sign the welfare bill on the White House lawn with two black welfare recipients at his side epitomized the demise of "bleeding-heart liberalism."

No longer the party of blue-collar workers, blacks, women, immigrants, and the poor, the party of the New Democrats now speaks proudly for information-age technocrats, suburbanites, yuppies, elite professionals, and the upwardly mobile portions of the middle class.

Is the party over, then, for progressives and the left? A new group, calling itself the Campaign for America's Future, contends that it is not. "There is a battle yet to be waged," insists Roger Hickey, who is co-chair, with Robert Borosage, of the Campaign.

However complete the drift to the right may seem, say Hickey and Borosage, the future in American politics lies not with the free-market technocrats of the DLC but with old-style progressives and activists willing to speak clearly and cogently on the fundamental issue of our age: economic insecurity. Decrying the "failed consensus" that has placed unqualified faith in the wonders of the market, the Campaign's founding manifesto calls for giving working people a real raise, committing to full employment, holding corporations accountable, and using large-scale public spending to invest seriously in the economic future of the country.

"America needs a progressive movement that stands for the principle that fundamental economic change is possible and is willing to rally a majority of Americans to fight for good jobs, sustainable growth, and a better life," says the Campaign's manifesto.

The reason such an agenda can win, argues Jeff Faux, author of The Party's Not Over: A New Vision for the Democrats and a founding member of the Campaign, is that, in an era of rising insecurity, it simply represents what most working people need and want. Says Faux: "I think you have to ask yourself, `Why is Bill Clinton fifteen points ahead of Bob Dole?' The Al From answer is that he has co-opted the programs of the Republicans. But I think the real reason is that he is seen as the defender of Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid to education, federal protection of the environment, a rise in the minimum wage. If these things are not `big government,' what is?"

As Faux sees it, twenty years ago Democrats of Clinton's ilk made a conscious decision to side with the economic "winners" (white suburbanites, professionals, corporations) rather than the "losers" (blacks, blue-collar workers, the poor) who represent the party's traditional base. The strategy assumed that the middle class was growing and the electorate was becoming ever more prosperous. Today, Faux argues, with real wages stagnant, inequality rising, and insecurity widespread, such assumptions no longer hold. As more and more people experience the pain of being downsized, outsourced, and having their wages and benefits gouged, a program of economic populism becomes not just viable, but politically imperative.

This may be true--in theory. Yet, as Faux and others within the Campaign concede, the Democratic Party today is hardly answering the call. And one of the major reasons is that the party, awash in donations from corporations, is feeling absolutely no countervailing pressure from the left. So long as Democrats like Clinton know that they can sell out their traditional constituency and still hold on to key endorsements and votes, they will do so.

Many of the Campaign's founding members--including Jesse Jackson and John Sweeney--are currently stumping for Clinton. The Campaign itself has called a cold truce with the President, assailing conservative Republicans but not their Democratic counterparts for leading the country astray. "The Democratic Party is the logical home" for progressive politics, the Campaign's manifesto declares. "In recent months, it has drawn the line against the conservative agenda."

Drawn the line? Such fawning over the Democrats came just before Clinton signed the welfare bill, capping his wholesale abandonment of liberalism.

This raises the central questions: Is the Democratic Party the logical home for progressive politics? And assuming for the sake of argument that it is, how does the Campaign plan to go beyond exhorting the Democratic Party to change its ways and succeed in actually pressuring it to do so?

On the first question, the left is by no means united. "The only way to move debate to the left is to work directly with people and take action," argues Bob Kazin, an organizer with the Labor Party in Washington. For Kazin, this means trying to build an independent party from the bottom up that can represent the views and interests of working people, not the corporations whose money floods the coffers of Democrats and Republicans alike. "There's $600 million flowing to the parties in this electoral cycle. The way the money is spread out, the boss owns both of them."

It's an opinion heard frequently these days--from Ralph Nader, Jerry Brown, organizers for the Green Party and members of the New Party, social workers, labor leaders, and activists throughout the country. However, as even the most ardent advocates of third-party alternatives are aware, building a viable alternative takes time. At present, the Labor Party is not fielding any candidates, the New Party operates primarily on the local level, and the Green Party is running a candidate who is barely running a campaign.

"As far as we can see into the future, this is going to be a two-party system," argues Faux. "I just don't think abandoning the Democratic Party to business and to conservatives makes any sense at all."

Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of California at Riverside and another founding member of the Campaign, is also an active member of both the New Party and the Labor Party. "We don't really know what we have" in these new groupings, he says. "We do know what we don't have, which is a strong left. The important thing for us to think about is ways to advance our agenda." Though he will not vote for Clinton as a matter of principle, Pollin sees the Campaign for America's Future as complementing the efforts of these alternative groups, drawing attention to issues of class that both major parties have chosen to ignore.

Exactly how the Campaign intends to exert pressure on the Democrats, however, remains to be seen. Borosage says that in the months ahead, aside from holding seminars and debates to get the message out, the Campaign will focus its energy on a few defining issues--including privatizing social security and expanding NAFTA--around which the battle lines will be drawn.

Several members of the Campaign say that, over the long term, they would like to see the group serve as the activist, lobbying arm of the Economic Policy Institute, the left-leaning think tank started by, among others, Hickey and Faux.

Jeff Cohen, executive director of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and a founding member of the Campaign, would like to see it concentrate on simply making noise--"news conferences to attack Democrats when they cave, quarter- and full-page ads in The New York Times, emergency picket lines, every tactic of public display possible."

Inevitably, however, if the goal of the Campaign is to pull the Democratic Party to the left, it will have to stand up to Clinton and the whole rightward drift of the party. With a few honorable exceptions, leaders of virtually every group on what can be called the left today--from the major women's organizations to the civil-rights groups, from labor unions to environmentalists--have spent the past two years fronting for the President even as he accelerates his assault on the values and the programs these groups purportedly cherish.

Clinton grants the FBI vast, invasive powers to fight crime and prevent "terrorism," yet civil libertarians barely protest. Clinton opens millions of acres of ancient forests to logging, but the major environmental groups stand by his side. The labor movement throws its money and energy behind the Administration that gave it NAFTA, GATT, and Alan Greenspan.

Then, of course, there is the welfare bill. "There should have been tremendous protest," says Ron Daniels, head of the Center for Constitutional Rights and one of the founders of the Campaign for a New Tomorrow, a group that, like the New Party and the Labor Party, seeks to organize an independent progressive party for the future. "You've had NAFTA, GATT, and a lot of fundamental things happening, and no protest."

Daniels attributes the silence to the lesser-evil syndrome and the fear that criticizing a Democrat will only help Republicans consolidate their power. "I say this without wanting to downplay what Republican control would mean," says Daniels, "but you reach a point of diminishing utility when you are always choosing the lesser evil. The specter, the ogre, the greater evil, becomes the politics of fear."

That's why many on the left are bolting. "I held out for a very long time, hoping to build something within the Democratic Party," says Adolph Reed Jr. "But the struggle is over; the other side won. The most important thing is to build something new."

Barbara Ehrenreich agrees--and she is listed as a founder of the Campaign for America's Future. "I've finally decided that the illusion of having access to the Democratic Party has been extremely destructive to the American left," she says.

For his part, Borosage retains hope. "Progressives are much more popular within the Democratic Party than they've shown," he says. "Where the DLC has the clout of money, we have the clout of people."

But if the Campaign intends to exercise this clout, it must speak out not only against the ravings of the Republicans but against the poisonous accommodations of the Democrats who play along.
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Title Annotation:explaining rightist movement in the Democratic Party
Author:Press, Eyal
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Words:1846
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