Richard D. Elliott, UMBC:
The Democratic Party has been, for the last 50 years or so, the home of American progressive politics. However, the rightwing surge of the 1990’s has put quite a dent in that legacy. It’d be ludicrous to argue that the Republican Party is a progressive unit, but the Democratic Party has certainly forsaken some progressive ideas for the sake of electability. For instance, Franklin Roosevelt chose Henry Wallace as his Secretary of Agriculture because of his advances in agronomy, while current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was an advocate for Monsanto while serving as the governor of Iowa. Robert Rubin was a banking executive at Goldman Sachs for 26 years before Bill Clinton tapped him to for Secretary of the Treasury, where he opposed banking regulations. His successor, Lawrence Summer, was one of the main forces behind the repeal of Glass-Steagall.
This is a sellout of the Wisconsin Idea, a series of reforms, originally proposed by staunch progressive Robert La Follette, to get big-money interests out of politics. This is not to say that the Clinton and Obama Administrations have completely sold it out. But for every Robert Reich or Richard Riley, there’s been a Robert Rubin or Larry Summers or Timothy Geithner. The inclusion of such champions of the financial sector along with the New Democratic fundraising donors in the finance, insurance, and real estate industries means that the Democratic Party has become uncomfortably close with big business. The model of government officials retiring and becoming lobbyists, which has been done by both Democrats and Republicans, is both a symptom of and a contributing factor to the close ties between corporate America and politicians.
Sure, the Democratic Party was in decline from when they were painted as the party of “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion” until the neoliberal era. From 1968 to 1992, there was only one Democratic president: Jimmy Carter, who has low historical rankings. The neoliberal era has breathed new life into the Democratic Party, but it is insidious and deceiving. This new life is funded by big business and sold to the American people as “pragmatic progressivism”: maintaining the status quo on economics, fighting for small and mostly symbolic change on social issues, and most importantly being electable by selling centrism. This is exacerbated more by the huge rightward shift of Republicans, which make neoliberals appear even more electable. Bernie Sanders and his campaign have definitely showed that true progressivism can return and that politics doesn’t necessarily have to be intertwined with big business to raise large sums of money. A move towards government of the people, by the people, and for the people and away from corporate centrism is needed to make the changes necessary to improve our country.