Al From’s Democratic Party
I have heard the name Al From before, but I had no idea he was the man responsible for expunging the spirit of the New Deal from the Democratic Party, birthing a new Democratic movement that culminated in the electoral victory of Bill Clinton in 1992.
Matt Stoller has a very important review of From’s book, The New Democrats and the Return to Power. Stoller titles his review Why the Democratic Party Acts The Way It Does and it’s quite illuminating.
From created the Democratic Leadership Council and used this organization to enact a “bloodless revolution” within the party:
The DLC was controversial from the start, both because it was competitive with existing party institutions and because the existing party establishment did not agree with this new agenda. The DLC was called the “southern white boys’ caucus”, and Jesse Jackson and populist Senator Howard Metzenbaum, both called it the “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” From mediated this anger by appointing a man with a conciliatory personality, Dick Gephart, as the DLC’s first chairman. While controversial, the DLC was also spectacularly successful at placing itself in the center of the party. Groups of DLC politicians dubbed “the cavalry” traveled around the country to talk to reporters, activists, and operatives about what they were doing and what the Democrats needed to do to be successful. Their message was, well, “change and hope.” Arizona Governor and later Clinton cabinet member Bruce Babbitt explained it as such. “We’re revolutionaries. We believe the Democratic Party in the last several decades has been complacent. . . . We’re out to refresh, revitalize, regenerate, carry on the revolutionary tradition.” It was immediately successful among media elites — the Washington Post’s David Broder headlined his column: “A Welcome Attack of Sanity Has Hit Washington.”
Over the course of the late 1980s, the DLC continued its attack on the orthodoxy of the populism that had residual power in the party. The DLC’s Chairman, Virginia Senator Chuck Robb, said it clearly in an influential speech during this period. “The New Deal consensus which dominated American politics for 50 years has run its course.” Economic growth, not redistribution or getting in the way of corporate power, was now on the menu. The DLC attacked all facets of policymaking, setting up a think tank called the Progressive Policy Institute (because From was tired of being called conservative) and hosting forums on poverty, welfare and crime with liberals like New York Governor Mario Cuomo. PPI and the DLC pushed globalization, the shareholder revolution, and reforms in entitlements like Social Security and Medicare (initially pressing to link their growth to productivity growth).
The DLC group is sometimes portrayed as a pro-Wall Street set of lobbyists. And From did recruit hedge fund legends like Michael Steinhardt to fund his movement. But to argue these people were corrupt or motivated by a pay to play form of politics is wrong. From is clearly a reformer and an ideologue, and his colleagues believed they were serving the public interest. “Make no mistake about it,” wrote From in a memo about his organization’s strategy, “what we hope to accomplish with the DLC is a bloodless revolution in our party. It is not unlike what the conservatives accomplished in the Republican Party during the 1960s and 1970s.”
Now that Democrats are back to getting their asses kicked, electorally speaking, maybe it’s a good time to scrutinize From’s revolutionary dismantling of the New Deal legacy.
Just a thought.