Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul

As the Democratic Party regroups and prepares for its time as an opposition party, it’s worth re-reading Matt Stoller’s piece in The Atlantic,How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul. He begins immediately after Watergate, when a wave of reform-minded young Democrats were elected to Congress. These “Watergate Babies” swept out establishment Democrats who had led Congress since the economic populism of the New Deal era.

Over the next 40 years, this Democratic generation fundamentally altered American politics. They restructured “campaign finance, party nominations, government transparency, and congressional organization.” They took on domestic violence, homophobia, discrimination against the disabled, and sexual harassment. They jettisoned many racially and culturally authoritarian traditions. They produced Bill Clinton’s presidency directly, and in many ways, they shaped President Barack Obama’s.

The result today is a paradox. At the same time that the nation has achieved perhaps the most tolerant culture in U.S. history, the destruction of the anti-monopoly and anti-bank tradition in the Democratic Party has also cleared the way for the greatest concentration of economic power in a century. This is not what the Watergate Babies intended when they dethroned Patman as chairman of the Banking Committee.

Here’s a spoiler of how this story ends, with Bill Clinton elected the 43rd President with a platform completely silent on anti-monopoly policies for the first time since the 1920s. ​

Old problems also reemerged. Financial crises unseen since the 1920s began breaking out across the world, from Mexico to East Asia, prompted by “hot-money” flows. Deflation, rather than inflation, and a capital glut, rather than a capital shortage, started to concern policymakers. And it turns out, according to a McKinsey study, that a disproportionately large amount of the productivity gains from the remarkable computerization of the economy were the result of just one company: Walmart, the new A&P. The mega store’s economic influence “reached levels not seen by a single company since the 19th-century.” The gains of the 1990s, it turns out, were not structural, but illusory. Early in Bush’s term, the stock-market bubble burst and wages collapsed. A few years later, a global banking crisis, induced by a financial sector that had steadily gained power for 40 years, erupted. Concentration of power in the private sector, it turned out, had its downsides.