What the DLC got wrong
(And what they got right)
Someone recently asked me how my current approach to politics and Democratic Party factional infighting aligns with the approach associated with the Democratic Leadership Council from a generation ago. It’s an interesting question, and I want to try to flesh out the answer for myself just as much to clarify my own thinking as to answer the question for anyone else.
The individuals associated with the DLC (people like Will Marshall, Bill Galston, Elaine Kamarck, and Al From) aren’t as prominent as they used to be, but in terms of present-day controversies, I think I am pretty closely aligned with them, although 15 years ago I used to argue with them a lot. That’s in part because I’ve developed a new appreciation for some of the things that they’ve been saying all along. But it’s also because the hottest topics of debate 15-20 years ago are now off the agenda, so some of the things they were wrong about just aren’t very salient right now.
Mostly, though, I think the entire leftward trajectory of the Democratic Party has collapsed what used to be very important differences.
When I came to D.C. in 2003, I would have characterized the party as split between a labor-liberal faction and a DLC faction. I was working at The American Prospect (TAP), a labor-liberal publication, and while I was a bit to the right of the publication as a whole I definitely fit in there better than I would have at the more DLC-aligned magazine The New Republic (TNR). Today my old editor at TAP is the editor of TNR, while TAP under its new leadership continues to be more left-wing. In terms of the specific disputes between labor liberals and the DLC, I continue to think the labor faction was mostly right.
But this faction is now on the right side of a more left-wing Democratic Party. In concrete terms, when the Progressive Caucus wanted to hold the infrastructure bill hostage as part of a crazy bank shot strategy, they found themselves fighting with their more moderate colleagues but also with the AFL-CIO. In the old days, the union position was the progressive position — but today we live in a new world.
What the DLC got wrong
These factional fights have a very long history. If you want to know about the specific origins of the DLC as an institution in the 1980s, its alliance with Bill Clinton, and its influence on public policy in the 1990s, I really recommend Kenneth Baer’s 2000 book “Reinventing Democrats.”
I was a little kid while all that was happening, and don’t have particularly strong feelings about any of it.
By the time I graduated college, though, there was a huge intra-party disagreement about a topic that didn’t exist in the 80s and 90s: the Global War on Terror. And the DLC came out very strongly for a set of “liberal hawk” national security positions that I think were just very wrong on substance.1 What’s more, while at the time I think basically everyone acknowledged the need for political caution on the same-sex marriage issue, I was very much in favor of equality on the merits, which many older Democrats were not. There was also a big substantive disagreement among Democrats about Bush-era fiscal policy.
The DLC faction, with the agreement of most Democrats, argued not only that Bush’s tax and spending priorities were misguided but that the budget deficit was a huge substantive problem. They argued this before the 2007 financial crisis — wrongly, I think — and largely continued to argue it even after the crash, at which point they were definitely wrong.
That said, they also got some things right, the significance of which I perhaps failed to fully appreciate at the time.
What the DLC got right
Looking back at Galston and Kamarck’s classic essay “The Politics of Evasion,” you can see that Democrats in 1989 were arguing about some of the same things we argue about on the internet today.
In particular, the essay criticizes factional rivals who believe:
That there is a huge untapped pool of non-voters waiting to be mobilized by a left-wing message
That demographic change will naturally propel a progressive majority into power.
In terms of the specific fights of 2007, I don’t think either of those ideas was particularly germane. But I think the post-2012 evolution of the Democratic Party has had a lot to do with the malign influence of those two ideas, and the DLC was right all along to criticize them.
Both appeal to progressives because they superficially seem to imply that it’s okay to just blow off public opinion. But it turns out that while non-voters have demographic characteristics that are more similar to Democrats than Republicans (i.e., they are younger, poorer, less white, and less religious than the electorate as a whole), in terms of their actual stated views, they are more moderate than people who routinely vote for Democrats.
The demographics issue is a bit different, but the basic story here is that while Black and Latin people are much more likely to vote for Democrats than are white Anglos, they are also not ideologically monolithic and there was always a risk of alienating Black and Latin voters with moderate-to-conservative views. There is a lot you can say about the Hispanic vote shift toward Trump in 2020, but I think this one chart from Equis Research tells you more than a thousand chin-stroking words about “investment” or “disinformation:” conservative Latinos shifted toward Trump.
More than anything else, this is the big thing the DLC has been right about all along — there’s no cheat code that lets you do politics in a way that is detached from the contours of public opinion, including the reality that self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals by a large margin, so to win, Democrats need to secure large margins among self-identified moderates.
The implications of that for positioning on specific issues vary, but it makes a big difference in terms of the overall approach. Running around and promising “sweeping,” “bold,” “structural” change is probably a bad idea compared to “common-sense reforms.”
The wisdom of the ancients
I haven’t yet talked about race or “wokeness,” but often these disagreements come down to that. And here’s where I think there’s a very clear contrast between the labor-liberal approach I identify with and both the DLC formula from the 80s and 90s and the contemporary left.
The DLC hated Jesse Jackson, but I think his speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention is great:
It does not make sense to be escorting all our tankers up and down the Persian Gulf paying $2.50 for every $1 worth of oil we bring out, while oil wells are capped in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. I just want to make sense.
Leadership must meet the moral challenge of its day. What's the moral challenge of our day? We have public accommodations. We have the right to vote.
We have open housing. What's the fundamental challenge of our day? It is to end economic violence. Plant closings without notice — economic violence. Even the greedy do not profit long from greed — economic violence.
Most poor people are not lazy. They are not black. They are not brown. They are mostly White and female and young. But whether White, Black or Brown, a hungry baby's belly turned inside out is the same color — color it pain, color it hurt, color it agony.
Most poor people are not on welfare. Some of them are illiterate and can't read the want-ad sections. And when they can, they can't find a job that matches the address. They work hard everyday. I know, I live amongst them. They catch the early bus. They work every day. They raise other people's children. They work everyday.
They clean the streets. They work everyday. They drive dangerous cabs. They change the beds you slept in in these hotels last night and can't get a union contract. They work everyday.
No, no, they're not lazy. Someone must defend them because it's right and they cannot speak for themselves. They work in hospitals. I know they do. They wipe the bodies of those who are sick with fever and pain. They empty their bedpans. They clean out their commodes. No job is beneath them, and yet when they get sick they cannot lie in the bed they made up every day. America, that is not right! We are a better Nation than that!
This is the idea that I have referred to in the past as the “wisdom of the ancients,” reflecting how Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, and other Civil Rights Movement leaders thought about the questions facing America after the successes of the early 1960s. It involves exhorting people to find unity in common economic uplift rather than emphasizing elite-level diversity or the need to center the racial angle in every controversy.
Was this Jackson message too left-wing for 1988? Maybe. Was America just too racist to vote for a Black person no matter what he said? Very plausibly. Public opinion was way more conservative in the 1990s, and to an extent, we maybe couldn’t have done much better than Bill Clinton.
But we know Americans in Iowa and Ohio and Florida were ready to vote twice for Barack Obama based on a message of unity. And while I think his administration had serious failings, I think these were mostly failures of technical policy analysis (especially about the deficit/stimulus balance) rather than basic political judgment. And I think what Democrats need today is more TAP in 2002 than TNR in 2002, more William Julius Wilson than Will Marshall. But the big DLC meta-analytic points about the need to cater to the existing electorate and create a big tent party rather than one whose brand is dominated by leftist intellectuals are completely correct.
But Matt, didn’t you support the war? I absolutely did. As a college student, I heard Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton and Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle and Tony Blair say this was a good idea and figured naively that they’d kicked the tires on the intel and Bush had this right. They, of course, had not kicked the tires and Bush did not have it right. The specific etiology of why I showed poor judgment about this and what I learned from it is interesting, but I think it is actually a different question from why one faction of Democrats continued forward with the liberal hawk policy for years after it was clear that the whole WMD argument was factually wrong.