If you're a political junkie you've probably heard the name before. If you haven't, meet Al From:
[Y]ou’d think that someone, somewhere would have populist ideas. And a few — like Zephyr Teachout and Elizabeth Warren — do. But why does every other candidate not?....The current generation of Democratic policymakers were organized and put in power by people that don’t think that a renewed populist agenda centered on antagonism towards centralized economic power is a good idea....
[Al] From was one of the key organizers of this anti-populist movement, and he lays out [in his new book] in detail his multi-decade organizing strategy and his reasons for what he did.... In 2000...Clinton said of From, “It would be hard to think of a single American citizen who, as a private citizen, has had a more positive impact on the progress of American life in the last 25 years than Al From.”...
From, a nice, genial, and idealistic business-friendly man, is the structural engineer behind today’s Democratic Party....
Bill Clinton chaired the From’s organization, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and used it as a platform to ascend to the Presidency in 1992. His wife Hillary is a DLC proponent. Al Gore and Joe Biden were DLCers. Barack Obama is quietly an adherent to the “New Democrat” philosophy crafted by From, so are most of the people in his cabinet, and the bulk of the Senate Democrats and House Democratic leaders. From 2007–2011, the New Democrats were the swing bloc in the U.S. House of Representatives, authoring legislation on bailouts and financial regulation of derivatives.
The DLC no longer exists as such, but its ideology has shaped the political and policy strategy of the Democratic Party and the vast majority of the wonks and politicians currently within it.
Incredibly, the Civil Rights movement and LBJ's Great Society programs are what he claims as his inspiration for devoting his life to turning the Democratic Party away from supporting FDR's New Deal and progressive policies generally.
Drawn into politics through the Great Society and the 1972 McGovern campaign, these officials had experienced the campaigns of 1972, 1980, and 1984, Presidential elections in which Democrats lost 49 states. The combination of the campaigns for desegregation, and the brutal electoral shellacking of the political party associated with them, birthed this New Democrat philosophy.
Of his early lessons in welfare, From wrote, “Contrary to the conventional wisdom today, the War on Poverty was not a big welfare program. Just the opposite: it was an empowerment program. We hated welfare. In the Deep South, welfare was the tool of a controlling and detested white power structure.” For From, welfare, and eventually most government spending, meant injustice and dependency on the government dole....
[T]he stories From tells about the civil rights era have to do with the rise of black economic and political power as exemplified through a new class of black elected officials.
This, um, counterintuitive take on government giving a hand up to historically economically oppressed minorities is how From and his DLC try to claim that undoing the progressive social policies of the the past century are not a rejection of them but in fact a direct inspiration and positive development of them.
From joined the staff of Senator Ed Muskie, the VP candidate in 1968 and a failed Presidential candidate in 1972. Muskie, From argues persuasively, was the political progenitor of Bill Clinton. In 1975, Muskie delivered a harsh rebuke to liberals, saying that “to preserve progressive governance, we had to reform liberalism.” Or less gently, “what’s so damn liberal about wasting money?” For three years, From worked for Muskie as he presented three key legislative proposals that became “important underpinnings of the New Democrat movement.”
So, we had to destroy the village to save the village.
The first was the Budget Act, which created the modern way that Congress spends money. Prior to the Budget Act, the Appropriations Committees simply spent a bunch of money, and the revenue committees (Ways and Means in the House, Finance in the Senate) brought in a bunch of tax revenue, with no overall planning to match up the two numbers or set priorities. The Budget Act created a Budget Committee, which forced the two committees to work together under broad government-wide caps. This institutional change made it harder to spend money on social programs, and has been used to implemented austerity policies for decades. Muskie reformed the process by which the government spent money, and in doing so, plugged up the mechanism that had been used by liberals to finance their government programs.
From has been a kind of nightmare anti-progressive Zelig for the Democratic Party.
From then joined the Carter administration working under deregulation czar Alfred E. Kahn.
Then, during the Reagan years, he "helped" out again:
From drove caucus strategy for a group of House Democrats who were scared in the face of a Reagan administration with deeply reactionary ideas, wounded by horrible election results, and confused by a country they did not understand....
They formed the “Committee on Party Effectiveness”, producing reports for the Democratic caucus centered on repositioning Democratic Party’s vision of political economy. Government would focus on economic growth, fostering the private sector, and would no longer try to pick winners and losers. Antagonism towards business power would be replaced by public-private partnerships, rhetoric about opportunity, and a focus on high technology entrepreneurship....
Over the course of the late 1980s, the DLC continued its attack on the orthodoxy of the populism that had residual power in the party. The DLC’s Chairman, Virginia Senator Chuck Robb, said it clearly in an influential speech during this period. “The New Deal consensus which dominated American politics for 50 years has run its course.” Economic growth, not redistribution or getting in the way of corporate power, was now on the menu. The DLC attacked all facets of policymaking, setting up a think tank called the Progressive Policy Institute (because From was tired of being called conservative) and hosting forums on poverty, welfare and crime with liberals like New York Governor Mario Cuomo. PPI and the DLC pushed globalization, the shareholder revolution, and reforms in entitlements like Social Security and Medicare (initially pressing to link their growth to productivity growth).
The final solidification of From's DLC control over the policies of the Democratic Party came in the 1990's when he brought Bill Clinton aboard.
From liked attacking liberal sacred cows, and he pursued politicians willing to do so. As just one example, he talked about how the DLC’s think tank, the PPI, released its first paper criticizing the minimum wage in favor of the Earned Income Tax Credit. From saw this as a revolution against orthodoxy, and in Clinton found a partner willing to lead his top-down revolution into the White House.
To all the people wondering why Dems didn't run on raising the minimum wage in 2014, an obviously wildly popular idea, or why economic populism is something Dem strategists and politicians run from like a vampire runs from sunlight, there is your answer. Because the party has over a couple of generations now been bred to reject and fight those ideas like an immune system rejects and fights invading germs.
NAFTA. Privatization. The Imperial Presidency. The destruction of organized labor. Spending cuts. Handing power to corporations. Charter schools. Think of a bad idea promoted by the Democratic Party over the past generation or so, and you'll find Al From and his DLC behind it.
It's led the party to the sorry state it's at now -- with the Republicans in control of two of the three branches of government and in possession of two-thirds of state legislatures.
He's spent his life organizing to get the party to this point. It's going to take a lot of people a lot of time organizing to undo all the harm he's done.
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