The Democratic Party as it stands today is simply a shell of its former self; it stands in the shadow of great policy and presidents who radically changed the system they operated under for (the most part) the better. What distinguishes the party of the past from the party of today? Identity. A sense of ideologic guidance with firmness in the right that they stood for something rather than ideological compromise.
The shift of the Democratic Party from the party of FDR and the party of the New Deal to President Bill Clinton and Third Way compromise politics should have been the end of the party itself.
Democrats of old (excluding conservative Southern Democrats) brought about high impact change based on principles of helping the average American. Under President Franklin Roosevelt, the party rebranded itself in terms of providing for the general welfare of the people and ensuring the rights of the common man (though this did not often extend to the common Black man).
Such bold rebranding can be seen in actual legislation such as the Wagner Act of 1935, which guaranteed private-sector employees could unionize and engage in collective bargaining, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which ensured a minimum wage and overtime pay among other things. The Wealth Tax Act of 1935 ensured that the richest Americans paid back to society that which society helped them achieve. Executive agencies like the Works Progress Administration gave jobs to the unemployed who built up the country through the construction of infrastructure still in use today. Social programs like Social Security provided insurance and therefore peace of mind to the elderly who deserve to retire without worry.
These policies lifted millions from unemployment, secured more rights for the laborer, provided better working conditions, and ensured a good quality of life until the end. These were all bold policies that made the lives of millions of people better. Many of them are not only still around today, but are beloved and ardently defended by those who benefit from them.
After World War II and 20 years after Roosevelt’s death, many of his programs were extended under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society domestic agenda. Healthcare was brought to the elderly through Medicare and to the poor through Medicaid. Training and experience for the job market were provided through government programs such as the Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), as well as provided early childhood education through the Head Start program.
The government invested in its future by investing in education at all levels. There was an investment in American culture and entertainment through the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
Laws were passed to protect consumers from companies looking to sacrifice their own customer base to make more profits. And importantly, actual inalienable rights were ensured to African Americans and other minorities who dared to participate in their own government through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
All of these were good tangible policies that helped and continue to help millions of people lead good, long, healthy, productive lives.
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party of bold action is not what we have today. Republicans and conservative Democrats have sought to undo the progress made under Johnson and Roosevelt. Throughout the 1960s and extending even to the current day, the ideological conservatives in Congress challenged the New Deal and Great Society programs as overbearing, bloated government overreach that needed to be dismantled. This message won Ronald Reagan in a landslide the presidency and the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1980s and 1990s. What was the Democratic response? Appeasement. Clinton and fellow “New Democrat” centrists raced to the right to compromise with Republicans ideologically in order to win elections rather than take bold action like their predecessors. Clinton redefined the party identity as dependent and subservient to Republican politics.
Extreme Republican ideas were negotiated down to center-right policies by Clinton. Instead of holding the moral high ground and allowing Republican plans to dismantle the social safety net of the country crash and burn, he arguably made their policies more popular under the guise of “reform.” The gains made with civil rights in the 1960s, for example, were set way back with Clinton’s signing of the Draconian Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (also known as the 1994 Crime Bill), which caused the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans.
Today, unless a Democrat specifically identifies themselves as a Progressive (and I assure you, they will if they are), you still will not hear Democrats espousing an ideology concerning the common man or laborer; you will find Republican policies taken, watered down, and made more palatable. Just to name a few, these include regulating businesses big and small less, supporting an ineffectual and expensive healthcare system and dismantling social safety nets under the guise of “reforming” the welfare system.
The Democratic Party today is listless and on the verge of rupture. A bold and distinctly left faction of the party has gained mainstream support among the party’s base as they realize their leaders do not share in their desire for radical and beneficial change that begins from the ground and works its way up. The party’s leaders could not even manage to sweep the presidency, House or Senate in a year where the president so incompetently handled every challenge handed to him it should have made taking back the presidency as easy as walking up to Trump and telling him “You’re fired.”
The people want messaging and policies that make sense to them. The Democrats used to be able to provide both, maybe they will again someday. As for now, the party needs to look in the mirror and decide whether it wants to reinvent itself a la FDR or give way to the faction that will.