The unexpected result of the 2016 election sent shock waves through the Democratic party and has led to an immediate period of reflection and doling out of blame. The quick diagnosis among party insiders and journalists is that during past election cycles the party had focused too much on so-called “cultural issues” such as marriage equality and gender equity and not enough on the economy. Hillary Clinton herself offered a similar interpretation in an interview with the New Yorker’s George Packer weeks before the election. “We need to get back to claiming the economic mantle,” she told him.
This interpretation of the election and the party’s troubles represents an updated version of the narrative of the decline of liberalism symbolized by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan’s success in winning the support of blue-collar workers who had once served as the linchpin of the New Deal Coalition. While there are undoubted parallels between some Trump followers and the Reagan Democrats, what this interpretation misses is that the Democratic party has not abandoned economic issues. Rather, since the 1960s, it has increasingly embraced a particular neoliberal vision of economic growth predicated on market-based principles and notions of public-private partnership. This vision has been more aligned with the educated professionals who have become the center of its base than with blue-collar workers. The 2016 election represents not a coda to the story of the unraveling of the New Deal but the culmination of the party’s transformation since the 1960s.
The idea that the government should invest in the private sector and seek to stimulate market forces dates back to the New Deal. In the postwar era, signature liberal programs like urban renewal aimed to boost the private sector to address the problems of urban decay. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations both placed a strong emphasis on public-private partnership and economic growth as the prerequisite for alleviating poverty and economic inequality. However, beginning in the 1970s, a new Democratic vision and policy about the market emerged touted by a group of politicians known as the “Watergate babies” and later “Atari Democrats.” These politicians, such as Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, Tim Wirth, Paul Tsongas and Michael Dukakis, shifted away from the party’s traditional focus on full employment and housing as the favored means to create social equality and economic security, and instead concentrated on stimulating entrepreneurship and private sector growth. Many of the Atari Democrats echoed the meritocratic commitment to increasing opportunity for all Americans stressed by Kennedy and Johnson. However, they believed empowerment and opportunity could better be achieved through programs with a more market-based and privatized orientation. They argued that the market offered the best way to bring about both economic growth and government efficiency. Adhering to the to the mantra that “the solutions of the thirties will not solve the problems of the eighties,” they focused on the politics of investment over redistribution. The group frequently touted the notion of public-private partnerships and developing better relationships between government and business, especially the high-tech industry, which led to their video-game affiliated moniker. The attention to expanding the high-tech sector and keeping taxes low made the Atari Democrats quite popular among professionals with advanced degrees. However, this set of priorities simultaneously showed how this branch helped to move the party even further away from its previous commitment to labor unions and the issues and members they represented.
The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), with which many of the Atari Democrats were affiliated, became committed to perpetuating these ideas, believing that they were central to the Democrats’ ability to recapture the White House. In 1990, led by chairman, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, the group issued a statement of principles entitled the “New Orleans Declaration: A Democratic Agenda for the 1990s.” The statement announced that “America is at a turning point, and so is the Democratic Party” and clarified that the Party’s “fundamental mission should be “to expand economic opportunity not government” for “economic growth is the prerequisite to expanding opportunity for everyone. The free market, regulated in the public interest, is the best engine of general prosperity.” Once in the Oval Office, Clinton closely abided by these principles and made public-private partnerships and economic growth central to his “Third Way” philosophy and policies.
In spite of commitment to “change” Barack Obama perpetuated this emphasis in his own agenda. As it had for his predecessors, it proved important to his ability to carry educated professionals at very high rates. And, for all the praise of the progressiveness of the Democratic Platform in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton also extended many of these themes, almost adopting verbatim much of the language and ideas of the Atari Democrats and the DLC. She defined herself as an “economic growth Democrat” and repeatedly called for “strong growth, fair growth, and long-term growth.” She stated that as president she hoped “to really marry the public and the private sector” and “leverage private capital to make investments that advance our competitive advantage for the 21st century economy.” These statements reinforced the party’s longstanding commitment to an economic agenda that privileged growth and investment over redistribution. The election results prove that such messages continued to resonate with educated professionals. Even though she lost college-educated whites, she closed the gap considerably over Obama and won a majority of voters with a college degree or more at even higher rates than Obama. However, clearly many voters found this economic message less inspiring.
If there is one ever so slight silver lining that came from Clinton’s defeat, it might be that it provides an opportunity to rethink and revise many of the narratives adopted by historians to understand the Democratic party and neoliberalism. It would be a mistake to either return to the shopworn explanation of the party’s failures symbolized by the Reagan Democrats or to treat neoliberalism solely as product of Reagan and the Right. Instead, coming to terms with the Democratic party’s transformation and neoliberal bent can lead us to develop more nuanced interpretations of the past and present of the party. Hopefully, it will also lead to better models for the future.