Do Democrats really need Wall Street?

A former Democratic operative writes in The New York Times that the party needs to drop FDR's progressive coalition and strengthen ties to Wall Street. He's dead wrong.

SOURCEMoyers & Company
Image credit: Mark Morgan/ flickr CC 2.0

Halloween is coming and fear mongering seems to be the order of the day – not just on the part of Republicans, but apparently no less so on the part of “centrist” and conservative Democrats who are expressing growing anxiety about offending big donors who see politics not as the pursuit of justice but as the pursuit of their interests.

Douglas Schoen, said to have been Bill Clinton’s favorite pollster during his presidency, has taken to the op-ed page of The New York Times to warn center-right party members and friends that ‘all Hell will break loose’ if the Democrats embrace a platform promising “wealth redistribution through higher taxes and Medicare for all” and utilizing democracy to challenge the power of money. Don’t be bewitched by the fantasies of folks such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Schoen counsels, for if you do, the American financial elite will not keep the party’s “coffers full.” Indeed, he argues, “Democrats should strengthen their ties to Wall Street,” for “America is a center-right, pro-capitalist nation.”

“Memories in politics are short,” Schoen wrote. And he wrings his hands over the amnesia that robs people of remembering that the center-right assembled under Bill Clinton enabled him to balance the budget, limit government and protect essential programs “that make up the social safety net.” Leaving behind “that version of liberalism,” Schoen writes, has cost Democrats several elections. He even claims that Hillary Clinton lost in Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016 because she “lurched to the left.”

Yes, memories are short indeed, but they are made even shorter by the likes of Schoen. The horrors he prophesies make it clear that he does not want us to remember. He wants us to forget, and therefore to tame our aspirations for social democracy and an economy that serves everyday people instead of the one percent.

Schoen wants us to forget that Hillary Clinton lost the Upper Midwest not because of her supposed “lurch to the left,” but because many working people could not erase from their minds her lavishly paid Wall Street engagements and her adamant refusal to “release the transcripts” of those flattering speeches to the bankers. To many a Rust Belt voter she was the “Goldman Sachs” candidate, something Schoen would consign to the memory hole.

Moreover, he wants us to forget that she likely lost the blue state of Wisconsin, where I live, because she took it for granted. Defeated here by Bernie Sanders in the primary election, she never returned to Wisconsin to campaign against Donald Trump, who visited the state several times and took advantage of the impact Russian-sponsored ads on Facebook and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s voter suppression drive that deterred thousands of minority voters from turning out.

More critically, Schoen also wants us to forget how Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton turned their backs on the Franklin Roosevelt Democratic tradition and proceeded to turn liberalism into neoliberalism. He wants us to forget how Carter alienated working people, opening the door to the conservative administration of Ronald Reagan, by deregulating key sectors of the economy and instituting, in Carter’s own words, “austerity” in government while corporations were exporting jobs, busting unions and devastating communities.

And Schoen, who has been paid handsomely as a lobbyist to several large corporations (something The New York Times did not point out), would erase from our awareness President Clinton’s sabotage of labor and environmental movements as he pushed the GOP’s pro-corporate North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress, and then proceeded – after declaring “the era of big government is over” in his 1996 State of the Union Address – to encourage ever greater corporate concentration of ownership in telecommunications; inflict “mass incarceration” on individuals (mostly poor) and communities (mostly black); end “welfare as we know it” at the expense of families who needed it, and – egged on by right-wing Republican senators and Wall Street Democrats whom he had named to run economy policy – killed the New Deal law prohibiting commercial banks from speculating with depositors’ money for risky bank activities, thus putting America on the road to the Great Recession of 2009.

Shoen knows damn well that if we do remember the history that really happened … we might well stop fearing. We might in fact start remembering that we are descended from revolutionaries, radicals, socialists, progressives, populists, labor unionists, feminists and civil rights and environmental activists who made America truly great.

Most critically, Schoen wants us to forget the democratic roots and achievements of what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called “the long Age of Roosevelt.” He utterly effaces from the Democratic story the historic and history-making “center-left coalition” that FDR and the New Dealers built – the coalition of tough-minded liberals and progressives, backed by working people in all their diversity, which regulated ruthless capitalism, taxed the rich (who nonetheless still seemed to be living high on the hog), rebuilt the nation’s infrastructure, improved the environment, created social security, empowered labor, rescued and supported farmers, fueled consumer movements and enlarged the “We” in “We the People.”

Here, again, Schoen suffers his own memory loss – of how this coalition led America in the fight against fascism, expanded democracy at home, enacted the GI Bill and launched a postwar economic boom that not only made the nation richer and stronger, but reduced inequality. Then came legislation for civil rights and voting rights, immigration reform, Medicare and Medicaid, environmental protections and laws to make both the workplace and marketplace healthier.

Schoen would have us forget both how Democrats once upon a time won national and state elections not by deferring to the demands of corporations but by challenging the power of predatory money, enhancing the rights and benefits of working people and directly addressing inequality and poverty. He obviously would not have anyone read Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank, who described how neoliberal Democrats turned the Party of the People into the Party of Financial and Professional Elites – the 1 Percent.

I’ll wager Schoen actually knows those histories. And yet he wants us to forget them. Why? Because he knows damn well that if we do remember the history that really happened, not the past he is conjuring up, we might well stop fearing. We might in fact start remembering that we are descended from revolutionaries, radicals, socialists, progressives, populists, labor unionists, feminists and civil rights and environmental activists who made America truly great by refusing to bow to the powerful and wealthy and instead fighting to extend and deepen freedom, equality and democracy. The poet Carl Sandburg spoke lyrically of that possibility 100 years ago: When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget…

Schoen, who spends a lot of time on Fox News as a commentator, appears to be doing the work of Fox & Friends, of conservatives and neoliberals, and that cabal of fixers, white-shoe lawyers and the political strategists and moneyed crowd of Washington that accelerated America’s race to the financial debacles of 2007-09.

Are we to make the Democratic Party all the more the Party of Wall Street? Sure – and follow this pied piper right to oblivion?

So, dear reader, my recommendation is to celebrate Halloween by getting yourself a Douglas Schoen mask, knocking on neighborhood doors and handing out this homemade sign to anyone who answers: “‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933. Don’t forget!!


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Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster). He is currently writing Radicals at Heart: Why Americans Should Embrace their Radical History (The New Press). Drawn from work on his new book project, these words were delivered as the Keynote Address at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters. Follow him on Twitter: @harveyjkaye