Why the Democratic Party Acts The Way It Does
A book review of “The New Democrats and the Return to Power” by Al From
There is no end to the whining from Democratic activists after a rotten election, and no end to finger pointing after legislative defeats on contentious questions. This story in the Washington Post is the tell-all of the 2014 wipe-out, featuring the standard recriminations between the President and Congress. In it, the chief of staff of the Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid, David Krone, attacks the White House. “We were never going to get on the same page… We were beating our heads against the wall.” The litany of excuses is long. Democratic candidates were arrogant. The White House failed to transfer money, or stump effectively. The GOP caught up in the technology race, or the GOP recruited excellent disciplined candidates.
Everything is put on the table, except the main course — policy. Did the Democrats run the government well? Are the lives of voters better? Are you as a political party credible when you say you’ll do something?
This question is never asked, because Democratic elites — ensconced in the law firms, foundations, banks, and media executive suites where the real decisions are made — basically agree with each other about organizing governance around the needs of high technology and high finance. The only time the question even comes up now is in an inverted corroded form, when a liberal activist gnashes his or her teeth and wonders — why can’t Democrats run elections around populist themes and policies? This is still the wrong question, because it assumes the wrong causality. Parties don’t poll for good ideas, run races on them, and then govern. They have ideas, poll to find out how to sell those ideas, and run races and recruit candidates based on the polling. It’s ideas first, then the sales pitch. If the sales pitch is bad, it’s often the best of what can be made of an unpopular stew of ideas.
Still, you’d think that someone, somewhere would have populist ideas. And a few — like Zephyr Teachout and Elizabeth Warren — do. But why does every other candidate not? I don’t actually know, but a book just came out that might answer this question. The theory in this book is simple. The current generation of Democratic policymakers were organized and put in power by people that don’t think that a renewed populist agenda centered on antagonism towards centralized economic power is a good idea.
The book, however, is not written by a populist liberal reformer. It’s written by one of the guys who put the current system in place. And it’s a really good and important story. The New Democrats and the Return to Power is the book, and Al From is the man who wrote it. From was one of the key organizers of this anti-populist movement, and he lays out his in detail his multi-decade organizing strategy and his reasons for what he did.
Now, of course it’s an exaggeration to say that Al From created the culture of the governing class in the modern Democratic Party. But not by much. Don’t take it from me, take it from Bill Clinton. In 2000, at Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Hyde Park residence, Clinton said of From, “It would be hard to think of a single American citizen who, as a private citizen, has had a more positive impact on the progress of American life in the last 25 years than Al From.” Clinton overdoes the rhetoric sometimes, but not in this case. From helped put Clinton in the White House.
So who is Al From?
Most people who consider themselves good Democrats don’t know the name Al From, though political insiders certainly do. He was never a cabinet member. He worked in the White House, but in the 1970s, for as a junior staffer for Jimmy Carter’s flailing campaign to stop inflation. He’s never written a famous tell-all book. He hasn’t ever held an elected office, his most high-profile role was as a manager of the domestic policy transition for the White House in 1992, which took just a few months. He doesn’t even have a graduate degree. From fits into that awkward space in American politics, of doer, organizer, activist, convener, a P.T. Barnum of wonks and hacks. Such are the vagaries of American political power, that those who are famous are not always those are the actual architects of power. Because From, a nice, genial, and idealistic business-friendly man, is the structural engineer behind today’s Democratic Party.
To give you a sense of how sprawling From’s legacy actually is, consider the following. Bill Clinton chaired the From’s organization, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and used it as a platform to ascend to the Presidency in 1992. His wife Hillary is a DLC proponent. Al Gore and Joe Biden were DLCers. Barack Obama is quietly an adherent to the “New Democrat” philosophy crafted by From, so are most of the people in his cabinet, and the bulk of the Senate Democrats and House Democratic leaders. From 2007–2011, the New Democrats were the swing bloc in the U.S. House of Representatives, authoring legislation on bailouts and financial regulation of derivatives. And given how Democrats still revere Clinton, so are most Democratic voters, at this point. The DLC no longer exists, but has been folded into the Clinton’s mega-foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, a convening point for the world’s global elite that wants to, or purports to want to, do good. In other words, it’s Al From’s Democratic Party, we just live here.
So From has done us all a favor by writing his memoirs. Unlike most political biopics, which are often of the ‘kiss and tell’ variety and designed to sell books and settle scores, this book seems written by a man who cares more about ideas than personalities. He doesn’t pull punches, because he’s not a particularly high-profile figure. I spent some time with From, and while he still has strong feelings towards the Democratic Party, he seems to have no particular interest in the current President. In other words, the story he tells is believable. So if you want to know why America is governed the way it is, this story matters.
The book is loosely divided into three parts, which mirror the shift in the Democratic party itself as baby boomers gradually reorganized it into what it is today. The first was From’s formative political years, from the late 1960s civil rights era to the 1970s inflationary failure of liberal governance. It then moves into the Democrats in the 1980s, when the political eddies of baby boom youth leadership solidified into a clear set of policy elites bent on wielding power. And finally, Bill Clinton took office in 1992, and completed From’s revolution.
Like most great political operatives, From is an idealist, and his formative experience as a young man, like most of the baby boomers he helped boost to power, was the Civil Rights movement in the South. His view of government comes from his experience working in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, programs that inspired him to reject New Deal policies (while retaining what he saw as its spirit of innovation) and reorganize the Democratic Party. It is surprising, and perhaps not believable in today’s Piketty-infused political economy, that business-friendly Democrats were descendants of the civil rights struggle. But it’s true. Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign absorbed Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” model of multi-cultural organizing, and was the first Presidential candidate to talk to gay rights in serious way. Clinton himself notes in the forward to the book that the founding of From’s organization, the DLC, happened in 1985 because of “young Democrats” who were “inspired by the Civil Rights Movement.” Drawn into politics through the Great Society and the 1972 McGovern campaign, these officials had experienced the campaigns of 1972, 1980, and 1984, Presidential elections in which Democrats lost 49 states. The combination of the campaigns for desegregation, and the brutal electoral shellacking of the political party associated with them, birthed this New Democrat philosophy.
In his first job in 1966, From himself worked for Sargent Shriver in the Office of Economic Opportunity program in the Deep South, the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. Of his early lessons in welfare, From wrote, “Contrary to the conventional wisdom today, the War on Poverty was not a big welfare program. Just the opposite: it was an empowerment program. We hated welfare. In the Deep South, welfare was the tool of a controlling and detested white power structure.” For From, welfare, and eventually most government spending, meant injustice and dependency on the government dole. He relays examples, like Sunflower County, Mississippi, where he was supposed to investigate two competing Head Start programs. From reported back to his boss Shriver that the one with Federal funding was controlled by the white power structure, while the other was run on a volunteer basis by local blacks led by Fannie Lou Hamer. Shriver merged the two programs, forever changing the balance of power in that county. In Lowndes County, Alabama, From witnessed how anti-poverty programs created political power for blacks. He told a story of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader John Hulett being elected sheriff of the county just three years later after the Great Society came to their county, and how even George Wallace then courted him.
The anti-racist origins of the New Democrat philosophy matter because of what happened later. One of the key enemies of From’s rise in the 1980s was Jesse Jackson, and the DLC was often castigated as a Southern white men’s caucus because of their use of code words like ‘special interests’ when reflecting on party factions. But the stories From tells about the civil rights era have to do with the rise of black economic and political power as exemplified through a new class of black elected officials. His political organization in the 1980s included African-American politicians like Mississippi Congressman Mike Espy, who became the Secretary of Agriculture under Clinton, and Barbara Jordan, who had become famous for her work investigating Nixon. From told me that Barack Obama was identified early in his state legislative career as a rising star, though his record, From said, was that of a cipher. All of which is to say that the civil rights era birthed modern neoliberalism, not in the sense that it was an inevitable succession to it but in that those who run our neoliberal institutions got their inspiration from it. Clinton’s welfare reform in the 1990s was not a rejection of the civil rights movement, or at least Clinton and From don’t see it that way. It was a continuation of it.
This formative experience as a government-paid social organizer in the late 1960s then transitioned into the 1970s, and then into a confusing decade of policy experiments. From joined the staff of Senator Ed Muskie, the VP candidate in 1968 and a failed Presidential candidate in 1972. Muskie, From argues persuasively, was the political progenitor of Bill Clinton. In 1975, Muskie delivered a harsh rebuke to liberals, saying that “to preserve progressive governance, we had to reform liberalism.” Or less gently, “what’s so damn liberal about wasting money?” For three years, From worked for Muskie as he presented three key legislative proposals that became “important underpinnings of the New Democrat movement.”
The first was the Budget Act, which created the modern way that Congress spends money. Prior to the Budget Act, the Appropriations Committees simply spent a bunch of money, and the revenue committees (Ways and Means in the House, Finance in the Senate) brought in a bunch of tax revenue, with no overall planning to match up the two numbers or set priorities. The Budget Act created a Budget Committee, which forced the two committees to work together under broad government-wide caps. This institutional change made it harder to spend money on social programs, and has been used to implemented austerity policies for decades. Muskie reformed the process by which the government spent money, and in doing so, plugged up the mechanism that had been used by liberals to finance their government programs. It was a straight anti-New Deal institutional innovation.
The second and third bills, though politically significant, never became law. These were the Sunset Act, which would have forced every government program to end after four years unless Congress affirmatively renewed it, and the Countercyclical Revenue Sharing. This act would have automatically sent money to cities in times of recession, and automatically cut it in boom times. It was similar to the Federal Reserve in moving fiscal policy out of the realm of politics, though not as drastically. Both suggested aspects of what was to come — a government which would have to justify every penny of spending, and power moved out of democratic and into the technocratic realms.
From then joined the Carter administration working under deregulation czar Alfred E. Kahn. He describes the White House as something of a horror show in terms of its approach to inflation and the failure of productivity growth in the American economy. One story illustrates the incompetence of Carter’s regime. “I went to Alfonso McDonald, the White House staff director, to urge him to have the president publicly call out Mobil Oil as John Kennedy had blasted the leaders of the steel industry for raising their prices against the public interest in 1962,” he writes. “McDonald told me that I was plain wrong. Instead, he said, we should bend the guidelines to find Mobil Oil in compliance. “That way,” he said, “people will know the president’s program is working.” “You’re out of your mind,” I responded, “all people have to do is to fill up their tank and they’ll know the president’s program is not working.”
This experience convinced From, and many others in the Democratic Party, that “the Democrats had run out of ideas,” an experience confirmed by the 1980 election which turned Jimmy Carter out of office and wrecked the Democratic establishment. Though he did not support or like Reagan’s policies, this political shift suited From’s career, as he continued to expand his network of politicians who thought that the Democrats were in trouble and in need of reinvention.
From was then recruited by an old Louisiana politician, Gillis Long, as the executive director of the House Democratic Caucus. A conservative Southerner with strong partisan instincts, Long “was, in many ways, the godfather of the New Democrat movement.” From drove caucus strategy for a group of House Democrats who were scared in the face of a Reagan administration with deeply reactionary ideas, wounded by horrible election results, and confused by a country they did not understand. A group of young spitfires, “led by Tim Wirth and Dick Gephardt, and including Al Gore, Geraldine Ferraro, Martin Frost, Les Aspin, Tony Coelho, and many others,” got what was going on and began a crusade to resurrect the party. They formed the “Committee on Party Effectiveness”, producing reports for the Democratic caucus centered on repositioning Democratic Party’s vision of political economy. Government would focus on economic growth, fostering the private sector, and would no longer try to pick winners and losers. Antagonism towards business power would be replaced by public-private partnerships, rhetoric about opportunity, and a focus on high technology entrepreneurship. This group, sometimes known as “Atari Democrats” was influential — in 1984, Mondale sent his campaign chairman, Jim Johnson (who later ran Fannie Mae, sat on Goldman’s board, and organized Obama’s VP search committee), as well as his campaign manager Bob Beckel (yes, the Fox News guy), to learn about this new political agenda Gillis Long had put together.
But Mondale was never sold, and the way From tells it, he was too wedded to the ‘special interests’ in the party to challenge Reagan among voters tired of brittle bureaucratic redistributionist pro-government Democrats. Gary Hart, though more of a DLC type politician, lost the primary to Mondale. And thus the Democrats suffered another crushing defeat, and another signal they needed to ditch the New Deal. After the 1984 election, the group of politicians and operatives convinced From that he had to organize an independent policy and political arm dedicated to resurrecting the Democratic Party. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was born.
Ironically, for a Democrat who believed in reducing the power of government, From had always worked as a public servant. But once he filed the incorporation papers for the DLC (with Bob Bauer, later White House Counsel for Obama), he was on his own. Still, as an idealist, From says he “made sure that only our true believers set the agenda, not financial contributors or even the politicians who joined for political cover.”
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.”
One of the foundational policy pushes of the DLC was a national service program that would allow young people to pay for college — a watered down version of this became Americorps. The idea was to inspire a sense of the common good, and mutual and reciprocal obligation. Today we may see a financialized economy, but that should not obscure that this was a reformist movement.
In 1988, Democrats suffered yet another defeat as the bloodless Michael Dukakis once again led the party off a cliff. Throughout the 1980s, in both the 1984 and 1988 Presidential race, From relays how Jesse Jackson’s primary campaign efforts caused huge problems for the Democrats. DLC allies like Barbara Jordan tried to warn Jackson to hold off, but he would not. Jackson ran a strong and under-appreciated campaign in 1988, a strong voice for what From saw as “the old liberalism” in the Democratic Party.
In 1992, From finally had the candidate he had long sought in Bill Clinton, and Clinton managed to overcome the challenge of Jackson by co-opting him. And finally, with Bill Clinton taking the helm of the DLC, From had his winner.
What attracted From to Clinton was his charm, ability, and willingness as Governor of Arkansas to take on the powerful Arkansas Education Association through policies like school choice. From liked attacking liberal sacred cows, and he pursued politicians willing to do so. As just one example, he talked about how the DLC’s think tank, the PPI, released its first paper criticizing the minimum wage in favor of the Earned Income Tax Credit. From saw this as a revolution against orthodoxy, and in Clinton found a partner willing to lead his top-down revolution into the White House.
The dry seduction of Bill Clinton by From was an interesting aside, because it speaks to Hillary Clinton’s recent gaffe of arguing the couple was dead broke after leaving the White House. When Bill Clinton first discussed leading the DLC, he was trying to figure out if he could chair the organization while Arkansas Governor. That office was the lowest paid Governorship in the country, at $35,000 a year in salary. After deferring the decision of whether to chair the DLC, he finally told From, “If I don’t run for reelection, then I’m going to have to make at least $100,000 a year.” From offered to pay it, and the deal was done. Personal wealth, and the opportunity cost of politics, was apparently never far from his mind.
The dynamics of the 1992 occupy a good chunk of the book. In Clinton’s last year as Chairman of the DLC, he had scheduled a dinner with Ross Perot, where Perot made it clear he could not support George H.W. Bush. But Perot, who was so straight laced he fired employees for “wearing tasseled shoes,” would not support Clinton. The narrative of the race, and then Clinton’s Presidency, was that Clinton would veer towards the hated special interests on the Democratic left, and begin to suffer. Then From would step in with a memo, or advice, and Clinton would proceed to reclaim the mantle of reform. This happened during the race, and it happened after the Republicans took Congress in 1994.
From had three formal positions with Clinton. He was Clinton’s personal representative to the platform committee in 1992, he headed the domestic policy transition team, and he was a lobbyist for NAFTA in 1993 (his only time as a registered lobbyist). At the platform committee, From wrote a platform that called for a “revolution in government to take power away from entrenched bureaucracies and narrow interests in Washington and put it back in the hands of ordinary people by making government more decentralized, flexible, and accountable and by offering more choices in public services.” Clinton’s campaign was run on this theme, along with a dialogue on race, which had been injected into politics because of the Rodney King trial and the riots in Los Angeles. How NAFTA played in the race in 1992 was conspicuously absent from the book.
When Clinton took office, he did seek change, but did not at first succeed. “For his first two years,” wrote From, “he would be defined by the congressional Democrats he came to Washington to change.” That is, with one exception — the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. As From wrote in a memo to Clinton in his first term, “Of all the opportunities you have this fall, NAFTA presents the greatest. Passing NAFTA can make your presidency. NAFTA presents both an economic and political opportunity….I can’t tell you how much better it would make your life and how much it would strengthen your presidency for you to beat [David] Bonior and organized labor on NAFTA. That would reestablish presidential leadership in the Democratic Party, something that hasn’t happened since 1966.”
From had an institutionalist perspective on NAFTA. He believed in free trade, but he also believed in Presidential primacy over the legislature. “Politically, a victory on NAFTA would assert your leadership over your own party by making it clear that you, not the Democratic leadership in Congress or the interest groups, set the Democratic Party’s agenda on matters of real national importance.” You can hear echoes of Obama, and the broad Democratic party, in its collective disdain towards Congress. That is one consequence of From’s revolution, a shift of legitimacy away from the legislature.
From worked with Bob Rubin, Bill Daley, and Rahm Emanuel to run a campaign to pass NAFTA. Since rolling labor and crushing the left was his favorite activity, From jumped into this feet first. He registered as a lobbyist, talked to members on the Hill, and traveled nationwide to do public and media events on behalf of the agreement. It worked, and in his view, set the stage for the rest of Clinton’s term.
The Democrats lost Congress in 1994, a result of insufficient hewing to the DLC’s policy ideas by Bill Clinton and members in Congress. The American public punished Democrats for pushing gays in the military, a health care bill, lack of welfare reform, insufficient attention to crime, and a lack of spending cuts. But despite the loss, Clinton at a DLC gala argued that “more of the DLC agenda was enacted into law and will make a difference in the lives of the American people than almost any political movement in any similar time period in the history of the United States.” From agreed — “DLC ideas — national service, community policing, and the expanded earned income tax credit — had become law. He had pushed reinventing government against opposition inside his administration and Congress, and he had rolled over the congressional Democrats on NAFTA.”
It was not a main focus of the book, but Clinton also used DLC ideas earlier pushed by Chuck Robb to change the view of the Democratic Party towards corporate power. The role of government was to help corporations — “we will support your efforts to increase your profits — they’re good” said Clinton, while asserting he would hold them accountable for being good corporate citizens. It was a vision of political economy at odds with a more traditional populist orientation.
Towards the end of Clinton’s Presidency, as more and more DLC ideas were enacted into law, the organization went global. Third war leaders from around the world, from Britain’s Tony Blair to “Germany’s Schroeder, Chile’s Lagos, and South Africa’s Mbeki” worked to create a “progressive manifesto defining their common progressive approach to governance.” The New Democrat philosophy was everywhere, the true legacy of the New Democrat movement.
After Clinton’s time in office, Al From gradually receded from political influence. The 2000s were a time of Republican dominance, and new DLC type groups like Third Way took over his organizational duties. I got the sense that From considers his work done. From is now a consultant for business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and he hews to aggressive policy ideas. He believes, for example, that “we need to follow the New Orleans model in every major city and make every school a charter school or charter-like school. Rather than have schools run by overstaffed, costly, and sclerotic school administrations, every school should be put on a five-year charter or performance contract.” But these ideas are not new, they are what has animated his entire life.
As he put it, “The harsh reality of the New Deal era — the nine elections between Roosevelt’s in 1932 and Johnson’s in 1964 — was that it was the anomaly, not the norm.” Economist Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” makes a similar claim about these years. From saw himself as an engineer of a Democratic electoral coalition that could live outside these exceptional circumstances.
Today, From’s and Clinton’s political children are everywhere. To pick a random state, Rhode Island, financier Gina Raimondo is now Governor, and Clinton advisor Ira Magaziner’s son Seth Magaziner is now the state Treasurer. Most senior advisors in the Obama White House were trained in the Clinton White House. Institutionally, the party is dominated by a DLC approach to the legislature where the Presidency is utterly dominant. Even when the Democrats won majorities in the House and Senate from 2007–2011, they looked almost entirely to leadership from the White House. This is in stark contrast to the New Deal era, when legislative initiatives often came from Congress (as did oversight). The DLC approach to governing, which leads to concentrations of economic power in the private sector and concentrations of power in the White House, is simply what the American public now thinks is the system. There is no organized competition to the DLC, which is why its political heirs still hold power domestically and globally despite bailouts and corruption. That is the strength of the architecture From helped create.
In 2000, Bill Clinton spoke of the massive influence of this single private citizen. The President, while certainly willing to grant rhetorical flourishes to those who do not deserve them, was in this case not exaggerating. The two men — From and Clinton — really have carved out the political, financial, and rhetorical space in which most elected Democrats flourish. And that’s where they are still flourishing.
The book is not complete. I did not quite buy how From describes the leadership of old liberals such as Jesse Jackson. Jackson was just as much a baby boomer and in some ways a neoliberal as well. He and Coretta Scott King had actually fought over political ideology in the 1970s, with King arguing Jackson was too much of a ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ individualist. Jackson changed throughout the 1980s as the new reality of the political economy of Reagan’s America took shape, and the contours of that shift are not described. Throughout the book, in fact, From conflates different opponents into a vague generalized ‘special interests’ type moniker, without ever really defining what he opposed except for electoral defeat. From seems mostly guided by electoral success, as perhaps someone who cares about political rhetoric would. Even so, there are important deals left out of the narrative. The DLC emerged into a favorable atmosphere. There were bitter labor protests in the early 1980s against Reagan’s cuts and his aggressive campaigns against unions, but these are not mentioned at all. And as described in the important book Right Turn, the DNC Chairman from 1981–1984, superlawyer Charles Manatt, cut a deal with business elites and the waning labor movement to change the financing of the Democratic Party. Democratic caucus Chairman Gillis Long also was the mentor for Tony Coelho, who according to the seminal 1980s book Honest Graft was a key engineer for constructing the current business-friendly approach to fundraising and candidate recruitment. Ralph Nader pins the change in the party on Coelho alone.
I also felt there was never a good definition of the old ideology From was opposing. This is a very common problem in slippery New Democrat rhetoric. It’s reformist rhetoric, but without explicitly stating that it seeks to centralize economic power and organize itself around technocratic and anti-democratic structures. Still, it’s an important book and an important story. If you want to know why the Democratic Party behaves the way it does, recognize that behind its habits, customs, beliefs, and culture are organizers with strong beliefs, a rich history, and ideas. We’re just starting to learn the history of that period when the party really changed. What’s fascinating is how the anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements, commonly seen as exertions of left-wing political power, turned into the modern Democratic Party elite of bankers, venture capitalists, and technology entrepreneurs talking about the need for revolutionary and disruptive change. And they got their revolution.
Democrats faced a shellacking in 2010. They were just defeated, again, up and down the ticket. It happened again in 2014. And while you might think that occupying the White House is some sort of palliative (and it is), recognize that the Republicans today occupy two thirds of state legislative seats. This is a country governed at a local and legislative level by deep conservatives. But if you expect changes in philosophy and behavior due to these losses, you’re going to have to do what Al From did. Which is, organize. And don’t just organize to put Democrats in power, organize around ideas the way that Al From did. From’s ideas were incredibly consequential, and they are today the basis for how the West is run.