By the election of November 3rd, 1992, the Republican party had held a firm grasp on American politics for nearly two decades, with the only reprieve being the wildly unpopular Jimmy Carter presidency. The poor performance of what few liberal candidates attained office along with the lingering effects of McCarthyism and many of the other Cold War propaganda campaigns against Soviet Communism had left an indelible mark on the American public’s psyche.
The memories of the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal social programs, credited often for rescuing the US economy, were already rapidly fleeting the minds of voters by the time George H. W. Bush had previously taken office; free-market capitalism, union-busting, Protestantism, heavy policing, patriotism, foreign intervention, and all the other tenants of neoconservatism being held as the reasons for the staving off the Red Menace. All in all, leftist ideologies seemed to have no further place in the United States outside of small niche intellectual circles.
However, this aforementioned tight grip was also beginning to loosen, which left an opening for the Democrats to wrest control. Bush Senior’s policies did well to alienate many of his former supporters who expected his candidacy to be a continuation of the Reagan years whom he once served as Vice President. While a recession gripped the country, the media did well to portray the then president as an out of touch elite that regularly visited his expensive properties while unemployment claims rose daily. When citizens were worried about their own country’s recovery, Bush was launching the Gulf War in yet attempt to police a world where its greatest enemy, the Soviet Union, was no longer a threat. Democrats would never have another chance like this, but they had to abandon the stiff left-leaning policies that had failed to win popularity in other elections. Bill Clinton had long campaigned the answer to their public image dilemma by advocating the policies of a “Third Way”, which is largely understood in a Post-Obama world to be another name for neoliberalism.
Clinton’s Third Way was marketed as being the best of both sides of the political spectrum. According to a New York Times article, he outright rejected any immediate association with the left and would scoff at any attempt to label him as a stereotypical supporter of big state government and heavy taxation. In order to distance both himself and his party from leftism and commonly associated Marxist thought, he labeled his views as “centrist” in his approach, which sometimes meant embracing some conservative ideas. For example: while his campaign lambasted “trickle-down economics,” a Republican propagated economic theory, his later presidency embrace many other facets of free-market capitalism and globalization. A much more recent New York Times article reflects on many of Clinton presidential policies that echoed conservative economics that his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had promised to continue in her own hypothetical presidency. For one, his administration tried its best to leave domestic markets as unregulated as possible and even signed agreements that eliminated barriers to free trade like tariffs. To much criticism, he refused to sign into law agreements that would break up big banks —a preservative sentiment reserved for them that would be mirrored in later Obama era bailouts. Clinton’s social policies were not a far cry from his right-wing counterparts in his signing of the crime bill and his prevention of LGBTQ members from entering the military. The Obama administration would take many of the Third Way’s and added foreign intervention to the mix in the form of his drone programs in the Middle East. Obama’s “Obamacare” policies were often lauded as the biggest compromise between the polarizing desires for privatized or public health care at the time. While these policies did much to win over the middle class and moderate neocons, they only served to alienate not only the Old Left but also their greatest bastion of voters: the working class.
While globalization and its accompanying neoliberal policies seem to enrich the greater parts of society, including notable gains in GDP, plenty of workers saw entire industries that they depended on for work being upended. Simple manufacturing jobs that served as the provider of labor to the bulk of America’s workforce showed preference to cheap immigrant labor and brought their factories and plants to developing nations, where they could take advantage of little to no regulations and more affordable costs. These policies left many not only jobless, but also undermined many of the vital social programs that would have provided for them such as affordable health care, food stamps, social security, and unemployment. From the early 21st century onward, a resentment towards neoliberal policies would drive working-class citizens into the arms of nationalists and paleoconservative right-wingers that fed on xenophobic attitudes towards those very same developing countries as well as foreign workforces. Feeling a sense of betrayal by the current guard of the Democratic Party, many liberals that felt nostalgic for the days of FDR wished to double down on the identity that Clinton had rejected more than a decade earlier. By the 2016 election, Bernie Sanders was running as the only Democratic Socialist candidate on the Democratic ticket.
While more in line with the Social Democracy model of Nordic countries that expressed a preference for capitalistic models with a well-funded welfare state rather than Marxist socialism, Sanders’ campaign wore the socialist title proudly, challenging much of Third Way philosophy entirely. He embraced the vision of the former ruling New Deal Democrats and wanted to expand all government programs to provide for struggling workers as well as give them access to universal free healthcare, education, and basic income. Instead of shying away from a Big State model as Clinton did before, Sanders wished it and put it to work for the American public. He wholeheartedly rejected notions about continuing policies of foreign intervention in the Middle East and called for the transference of military funding into much-needed infrastructure development. Unlike Trump or Obama, he supported the legalization of criminalized substances like marijuana while also not shying away from supporting the LGBTQ community. Sanders chastised many of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama era crime policies that disproportionately jailed African American and other minorities, While being himself a candidate of advanced age echoing policies from the Great Depression, he found a support base among a more generation of youth more liberal than their parents that had grown up during several wars and financial crises and found themselves crushed under oppressive levels of college debt.
These new “progressives” embraced many of the talking points of the Old Left while also expanding on the platform with the addition of identity politics and environmental protectionism. It is not uncommon to find progressives rallying behind causes that revolve around queer identity, black rights, opening borders to immigration, gun control, or climate change. All areas where the antagonistic policies of the nationalistic Trump administration only seem to embolden them. Their recent traction in the political arena came to surface in the last year’s proposed Green New Deal Program. Its title alone gave a haunting impression that it was inspired by FDR’s similarly name program with the added proposal of environmental regulation. The costly program was backed by progressive superstars Representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey and further distanced them from many of the neoliberal members of their party. While their new measures did much to earn the ire Republicans, progressives are never against bringing the fight to members of their own party.
With Sanders also running in the 2020 Democratic primaries, many of the same criticisms he aimed at Hillary Clinton years before were further applied to Joseph Biden, former Vice President of Barack Obama, during his initial run. It gave credence to the idea that there was a deep ideological divide within the Democratic Party that threatens their united front against the Trump administration. The Biden campaign seems unwilling to adopt many of the progressive reforms meant to solve educational woes or police violence, and it rather conservatively sticks to the policies that won its party the nomination in the last few decades. In trying to earn more broad appeal, the older members of the Democratic Party leave the impression that they refuse to compromise with their much younger voters.
The culmination of this reality coming to fruition with the nomination of Kamala Harris as Biden’s VP. While on the surface, it seems to be the symbolic elevation of the first black woman into the highest office in the country, it also is seen as the doubling down on approval of former controversial legal policies by giving more power to a candidate with a “tough on crime” record. This preference to compromise with conservative voters rather than liberal ones may not cost them this coming election, but it may create a chasm within the party that can surface again in the future. It is also arguable that a continuation of Third Way politics may only worsen the woes of working-class life to the point that progressives may seem like the only viable option for the party’s continued existence.