Two camps of Democrats each claim to know the better way forward. They have clashing understandings of what is happening in America and sharply divergent ideas about politics and policy. Sometimes, it is hard to believe the contenders are living in the same country, let alone that they are members of the same political party.
On the party’s center-right are the New Democrats, captained by Al From and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI). New Democrats favor a politics of “reinventing government,” and they want to attract Republicans and independents by focusing on middle-class suburban voters. The DLC claims a network that includes one in 10 Democratic legislators nationwide and more than 50 senators and representatives in Congress.
The DLC’s thinking is laid out in “The New Progressive Declaration,” a manifesto co-authored by From, Marshall, and two former Clinton administration officials, William Galston and Doug Ross. According to the manifesto, the country is undergoing an inexorable transition from an “industrial age” to an “information age” economy. American businesspeople are “pioneers” building “new knowledge industries,” and most workers are “exchanging the mind-numbing drudgery of manual labor for jobs that allow them to think, create, and share in decisions.”
The New Democrats believe the way to beat Republicans is to steal their thunder by offering a market-oriented “third way” between Republicans and outmoded liberal Democrats. “The real challenge,” reads the declaration, “[is to replace] top-down bureaucratic government with a new model for bottom-up self-governance.” Americans should stop depending on government to solve problems, since welfare-state entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare are too expensive to sustain. Rather than “creating government programs for every problem,” the United States should use “information, market incentives, civic networks, and performance standards to equip individuals and communities to solve their own problems.”
Meanwhile, center-left, “populist” Democrats, reinvigorated by the labor unions’ high profile in last year’s election, have gained a new voice by launching the Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), an advocacy group intended to serve as a counterweight to the DLC. Founded by more than 100 left-leaning “activists and thinkers,” and claiming the sympathy of more than 100 members of the House of Representatives, the nascent CAF issued its own manifesto last summer. In “Taking Back Our Future,” the CAF contends that most Americans are trapped in an economic “age of anxiety.” For the past 25 years economic growth and rising profits have been accompanied by stagnating or declining wages, especially for the 75 percent of American workers without a college degree. “Inequality has risen to heights not seen since before the Great Depression. CEO salaries have soared, while wages have fallen…. America, which once grew together, is now growing apart.”
Hoping to avoid the racial conflicts that bedeviled liberal Democrats after the mid-1960s, today’s populists favor broad national efforts to help working families — the middle class along with the less privileged. They see Social Security and Medicare as models to be adjusted and supplemented, not “reinvented” into individual, market-based plans. “The task of the Democratic Party,” declares Jeff Faux of the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute, “is not to echo a Republican view of the world.”