Democrats vs. the New Deal: Who really runs the party -- and why it might surprise you

Dems taking pride in FDR's historic legacy need to reckon with a basic truth: The party is now firmly anti-New Deal


Michael Lind
December 9, 2014 4:59PM (UTC)

In the aftermath of the shellacking they took in the midterm congressional and state elections, many Democrats are calling for their party to return to its New Deal roots.

This is inadvertently comical.  The present-day Democratic Party has next to nothing to do with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  Today’s Democratic Party is a completely different party, which coalesced between 1968 and 1980.  And this half-century-old party has been anti-New Deal from the very beginning.

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Now that I have your attention, allow me to explain.

While there have been two parties called “the Democrats” and “the Republicans” since the mid-19th century, these enduring labels mask the fact that party coalitions change every generation or two.  Franklin Roosevelt created a new party under the old name of “the Democrats” by welding ex-Republican Progressives in the North together with the old Jacksonian Farmer-Labor coalition.  The contentious issue of civil rights nearly destroyed the Roosevelt Democrats in 1948 — and finally wrecked it in 1968, when George Wallace’s third party campaign proved to be a way-station for many working-class whites en route from the Democrats to the Republicans.

Today’s Democratic Party, in contrast, took shape between 1968 and 1980.  Although George McGovern lost the 1972 presidential race to Richard Nixon in a landslide, the McGovernites of the “New Politics” movement wrested control of the Democratic Party from the old state politicians and urban bosses of the Roosevelt-to-Johnson New Deal coalition.  Robert Kennedy’s aide Fred Dutton, one of the architects of the disempowerment of the old New Deal elite, called for a new coalition of young people, college-educated suburbanites and minorities in his 1971 book "Changing Sources of Power: Politics in the 1970s."  Sound familiar?  That’s because, nearly half a century later, the same groups are the core constituents of today’s Democrats.

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Jimmy Carter was the first New Politics president (or New Democrat or neoliberal, as they were later called).  He was a center-right Southern governor who ran against big government and touted his credentials as a rich businessman.  He did not get along with organized labor, one of the key constituencies of the Roosevelt Democrats.  His major domestic policy achievement was dismantling New Deal regulation of transportation like trucking and air travel.  He appointed a Federal Reserve chairman from Wall Street, Paul Volcker, who created an artificial recession, the worst between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, to cripple American unions, whose wage demands were blamed for inflation.

Even before Carter’s election, the Democratic “class of '74” in Congress wrested power from the old largely Southern politicians of the New Deal era. The  northern Irish Catholic-Southern alliance, symbolized by House Speakers Tip O’Neill and Jim Wright, gave way among congressional Democrats to a new Northeastern-West Coast domination, beginning with Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley, of the state of Washington.  Many of these younger Democrats were deficit hawks, like Bill Bradley of New York and Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.  Democrats like these supported the 1983 Social Security “reform,” which cut Social Security benefits by raising the formal retirement age from 65 to 67.  In his 1984 presidential campaign, Carter’s former vice-president, Fritz Mondale, made deficit reduction his central issue.

Bill Clinton had worked for McGovern’s campaign in 1972.  A center-right Southern governor like Carter, he too combined moderate economic conservatism with social liberalism.  Like Carter, Clinton attacked a major New Deal program, teaming up with the Republicans in Congress to abolish a New Deal entitlement, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and replacing it with what conservatives wanted: federal grants to state-based programs.  Clinton made deficit reduction rather than public investment central to his presidency. Clinton also supported the dismantling of New Deal regulations of the financial sector, completing the dismantling of the New Deal in the economy that Carter had begun.  In the 1994 midterms, many of the remaining Southern “blue dog” Democrats were replaced by Republicans, shifting the regional base of the party even more to the former liberal Republican states of the Northeast and West Coast.

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Barack Obama is the third New Politics Democrat in the White House, following Carter and Clinton.  His base is the Fred Dutton constituency — young people, some college-educated whites, and blacks and Latinos.  Like Carter and Clinton, he went after a major New Deal program — the most iconic of them all, Social Security.  Obama proposed cutting Social Security by means of inflation adjustments or “chained CPI” as part of a “grand  bargain” with Republican conservatives.  He backed off only after a rebellion from what remains of the Democratic left.  Those who call him an “Eisenhower Democrat” recognize that he is closer in outlook to penny-pinching, dovish mid-20th century liberal Republicanism than to “guns and butter” Rooseveltian liberalism.

The New Politics Democrats, in class terms, are an “hourglass party,” uniting the disproportionately nonwhite working poor with affluent whites who are drawn to the Democrats by non-economic issues like environmentalism and feminism and gay rights, not the bread-and-butter issues of the older Rooseveltian New Dealers.  While the New Dealers preferred universal jobs programs and universal social programs like Social Security and Medicare to means-tested “welfare,” all of the social insurance programs pushed by the New Politics Democrats since the 1970s — SCHIP, the earned income tax credit, Obamacare — have been means-tested welfare programs targeted at the working poor, not at the better-paid but still struggling working class or middle class.

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The policies of the New Politics Democrats are frequently the exact opposite of those of the old New Deal Democrats.  Here are a few examples:

Foreign policy.  The New Deal Democrats were more hawkish than mid-century Republicans. New Politics Democrats, from McGovern to the present, have been more dovish than post-Reagan Republicans.  Even the hawks in the Democratic Party in the 1980s and 1990s distanced themselves from the greatest New Deal presidents — FDR and his protégé LBJ.  Instead, they tried to rehabilitate Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman.  Because of Vietnam, the erasure of LBJ by embittered antiwar baby boomers is understandable.  But didn’t FDR win World War II, while Truman’s Korean policy was a bloody debacle?  It is bizarre that partisan Democrats created the Truman National Security Project instead of a Roosevelt National Security Project.

Civil rights.  The liberal rather than radical proponents of desegregation in the mid-20th century, like Bayard Rustin and Hubert Humphrey, favored race-neutral remedies, instead of race-based affirmative action (Martin Luther King Jr. was ambiguous).  Today any Democrat who questioned race-based affirmative action — including preferential policies for Latinos who arrived following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — would be ostracized.

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Immigration.  To protect the working class from wage-lowering immigrant competition, the New Deal Democrats abolished the Bracero program (a Mexican guest-worker program).  The Hesburgh and Jordan commissions, appointed by President Carter and President Clinton, respectively, reflected this older pro-labor emphasis by calling for reductions in low-wage immigration.  Today’s orthodox Democratic position favors not only an amnesty for undocumented immigrants already here, but also more legal immigration and fewer penalties for "illegal" immigration.  This was, and still is, the position of Republican business elites, who want to use immigration policy to create a buyer’s market in labor.

The white working class.  The loss of the white working class to the Democrats is hardly a new development. It goes back to George Wallace in 1968. Every decade since then there has been a debate in the New Politics party about whether to try to get the white working class back.

You get the point. Today’s Democrats have no more in common with Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson than today’s Republicans have in common with Abraham Lincoln or Dwight Eisenhower.  From its origins in the 1970s to the present, the contemporary Democratic Party has had deficit reduction, cutbacks of New Deal-era entitlements and regulations and identity politics in its DNA. This is a party that is not only post-New Deal but in many ways anti-New Deal. It was born that way.

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If I am right, the New Politics party, as the most recent party to use the Democratic label, is between 40 and 50 years old.  In the 1960s and 1970s, the steam had pretty much gone out of the New Deal Democrats, many of whose young idealists had aged into corrupt hacks. Today it is the New Politics Democrats who are running on fumes.  The neoliberal combination of center-right economics, deficit reduction at the expense of middle-class entitlements, and means-tested small-bore welfare programs for the working poor is tired and uninspiring.

For their part, the Republicans can’t go on for much longer trying to revive the imagined glories of the Reagan presidency in the 1980s.

Real change may not come in 2016, or even in 2020.  But no party system lasts forever. The Great Recession failed to shake up the New Politics-Movement Conservative dichotomy that has held since the 1980s. But maybe at some point sheer boredom will succeed.


Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

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