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Progressives and Corporatists Struggle for Control of the Democratic Party

Last week, I wrote about a powerful lobbying group of the wealthy and their corporations, Campaign to the Fix the Debt. Fix the Debt has among its members the CEOs of Boeing, Dow Chemical and AT & T. Critics have richly pointed out that this group ostensibly so dedicated to reducing government debt has members, like Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein, who have taken some of the largest government handouts in history. Fix the Debt’s efforts have been intensely focused on getting legislators to implement austerity measures, a combination of draconian cuts to social spending like programs for the poor, elderly, and disabled, public education, and healthcare, with increases in corporate welfare. However, as much as liberals might want to cordon off conservatives as the only perpetrators of these “eat the poor” policies, Fix the Debt has Democratic members. It is the very fact that the Democratic Party is such a big tent that has many people upset. Some do not think the party should include leaders who will support Fix the Debt. This month, L.R. Runner discusses the issue in the Nation essay, “Can We Save the Democratic Party?”

Runner writes,

“Too many members of the party’s nationwide hierarchy are closer, ideologically and politically, to Wall Street than to Main Street—to the corporate, rich and powerful than to the stricken middle class, the increasingly impoverished working class (and the diminished and embattled unions that protect it), and the unemployed and perpetually poor.”

Runner’s essay highlights the tension in the Democratic Party between the “apologists” and the “progressives.” While there has been a lot of attention on the schisms within the Republican Party after the election, there has been less discussion of how the internal dynamics of the Democratic Party have been affected by the election. Prior to November 6th, the need to stop Mitt Romney from winning was forcing the marriage of two factions of the American Left. With the election over, Runner’s article appears to be one of the first to turn attention to the schism on the left between what some may call the corporatists and the progressives. It has come to the point when the interests of corporatists and those of progressives are deeply at odds. Runner thinks democracy itself will be on the line:

“An influential group of disaffected Democrats, led by financial titans, highly placed columnists and other privileged insiders, has been clamoring for an avowedly “centrist” party based on still more “bipartisan compromise,” as though Democrats have been lacking in that regard. If the project, essentially a version of the “grand bargain,” succeeds in swaying the Democratic establishment (which may be its actual purpose), the result would be a democracy without any alternatives to government of, by and for the 1 percent—that is, no democracy at all.”

The viewpoint of the corporatist is not only considered pro-business, it’s seen as all-American. There are clearly those in the Democratic Party who believe in cultivating relationships with Wall Street, corporations, and the business community as a whole. It’s good for campaign fundraising. It’s good for gaining access to power.  But it’s certainly bad when it comes to making policy; as Democrats grow closer and closer to the people at the top of the hierarchy, social policy is written more and more in favor of the rich and powerful, or simply by them. For example, leaders of the Democratic Party such as former chair of the Democratic National Convention, Antonio Villaraigosa, and former Democratic Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, are actually members of the board of Fix the Debt. These two men represent just two of many Democrats who do things like get involved in an organization that advocates policies at odds with what should be Democratic Party values.

Another member of Fix the Debt is Erksine Bowles. He has spent years in high-powered business firms. Of course, he is also the Bowles part of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan, the country’s 2010 attempt at austerity. But, Bowles is also curious, because he has longed claimed to be a Democrat, even having served as President Clinton’s White House Deputy Chief of Staff well before his gig on Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, yet his austerity policies could have been written by a right wing ideologue.

Contrast Democrats like Villaraigosa, Rendell, and Bowles with those like Sherrod Brown or Elizabeth Warren, and it’s easy to see how there is a struggle for the soul of the party. On the one hand you have party members who are willing to let big business write law to limit regulation, reduce corporate taxes, and slash government spending. On the other hand, you have party members who are middle and working class champions unwilling to see social programs eliminated so that the wealthy can keep tax breaks and averse to seeing big business unregulated and operating without contributing to society. In the big tent of the Democratic Party, these two factions seem to be on a political collision course for control of the party and its policy.

But the debate over the soul of the Democratic Party is actually an old one. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was frustrated with the party’s split loyalties and wrote a never-delivered letter declining to be re-nominated for the Presidency in 1940:

“In the century in which we live, the Democratic Party has received the support of the electorate only when the party, with absolute clarity, has been the champion of progressive and liberal policies and principles of government. The party has failed consistently when through political trading and chicanery it has fallen into the control of those interests, personal and financial, which think in terms of dollars instead of in terms of human values.”

As FDR wisely said, the Democratic Party had served two masters, but it did best when it kept the best interests of “the People” at heart. If we put this advice into practice, we would stop the rightward drift of the Party. We would stop supporting austerity as Democrats like Bowles, Rendell, and Villaraigosa recommend. We wouldn’t have Democrats who were members of ALEC or Fix the Debt making policy. We would not have stories in the news like the one this past week talking about how Senate Democrats are split on whether to implement cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We would have a party unified around policies that support “the People.”

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