In an op-ed today in the Guardian, Al From, the architect of Bill Clinton’s New Democrat centrism and founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, put his foot down on the populist forces that have taken over American politics, arguing that “as reactionary populism continues to tap into the frustration of many voters, anger won’t improve our nation.” Instead, he called for Democrats to “rededicate ourselves to the core New Democrat principles—opportunity, responsibility, community—the first principles of the Democratic Party.”
If there is a wrong way to kick off 2017, it’s by listening to From.
Opportunity and responsibility are fine until they come at the expense of social security and equality. For example, during the Bill Clinton welfare reform era, the principle of “personal responsibility” was utilized to take cash benefits away from the poor. In return Clinton increased work-based tax credits, which From cites in his piece, like the EITC. And while such credits did indeed help millions of working families, they left the most precarious in our society, mainly women and children in deep poverty, worse off. It is these types of policies, along with other From-backed ideas like NAFTA and the 1994 crime bill, that have resulted in a lot of frustration and anger. Meanwhile, the myriad opportunities seemingly provided by the 90s dot-com boom didn’t lead to the kind of widespread advancement Democrats had imagined.
Bill Clinton used his political talents to speak to a eclectic coalition of voters, winning states that have now gone thoroughly red, like Arkansas and West Virginia. In an anti-establishment era, the challenge for Democrats going forward is to create a coalition of voters around a set of policies that will reduce economic and racial inequality—and that very much includes tapping into the populist groundswell.