The Democratic Party has implemented modest reforms, but corporate power continues to dominate the party. In the fall of 2017 and early summer 2018, the Democratic National Committee voted to refuse donations from employees or corporate PACs of a handful of toxic industries that contradict the party’s platform, namely the payday loan, tobacco, gun manufacturing and fossil-fuel industries — though the ban on fossil-fuel money was effectively repealed in August 2018. Meanwhile, the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee continue to freely take big corporate donations.
The “Better Deal for Democracy” platform that Democrats put forward for the 2018 midterms does include proposals to lessen corporate control over politics with an emphasis on campaign finance reform. But the reality of corporate leverage over the party remains largely intact. One measure of the clout corporate interests wield is revealed by analyzing how Democrats act on economic issues in states (from California to Connecticut) that they politically control. David Sirota published such an analysis in The Guardian in September. He put his conclusions in a tweet: Democrats in blue states “have used their power to block single payer & a public option, enrich Wall St, subsidize corporations, slash pensions, lay off teachers, promote fracking & engage in pay to play corruption.”
A test of whether Democrats on Capitol Hill would side with corporate or public interests was provided this year by the GOP’s successful effort, working with powerful bank lobbyists, to weaken the Dodd-Frank Act (under the guise of helping small community banks). More than one-third of Senate Democrats joined the effort to weaken Dodd-Frank, many of whom were recipients of significant banking donations. In the House, 33 Democrats joined most Republicans to pass the measure; journalist David Dayen reported that nearly all of the 33 identify as corporate “New Democrats” (and nine were members of the Congressional Black Caucus).
Think tanks that are closely allied with party leadership continue to rake in millions from corporate donors, billionaires and Persian Gulf despots. A case in point is the Center for American Progress, which takes major donations from Apple, Walmart, the Walton family, Bill Gates and the dictatorship of United Arab Emirates (along with dozens of “anonymous” donors). It’s difficult to tell how much influence those big donors have on CAP’s policy initiatives, but it’s worth noting that the influential think tank didn’t back Medicare for All (such as the bill proposed by Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris) but instead promoted something called “Medicare Extra for All.” While an improvement over the Affordable Care Act, CAP’s proposal stops short of putting its weight behind existing initiatives to provide Medicare to all Americans. To critics, CAP’s plan is needlessly complex and, at worst, an effort by the corporate wing of the party to co-opt — and water down — the growing single-payer movement.
While Democratic leaders — beginning with President Clinton and NAFTA, if not earlier — have been, at best, half-hearted supporters of the labor movement, Democrats should take note that the U.S. public is warming in its attitudes toward unions. Harold Meyerson reports that a Gallup poll timed for this Labor Day “showed support for unions at 62 percent, the highest level in 15 years, with majority backing from every demographic group except Republicans, and even they are evenly split, 45 percent to 47 percent.” And there was much public sentiment in support of teachers who went on strike against neo-liberal budget restraints this spring, including in “red states” like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Further evidence that Democratic Party priorities often align more with wealthy elites and corporate newspaper editorial boards than with average Americans is that the party’s top leaders still obsess over deficits — something the tax-cut-happy Republican Party long ago stopped even pretending to care about. In September, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi preemptively boxed in any potential left-populist agenda on Capitol Hill by backing reinstatement of a “pay-go” rule to offset all new spending with tax increases or budget cuts. A former legislative director for three Democrats in Congress, Justin Talbot-Zorn, responded with an article for The Nation pointing out that “bold progressivism and ‘pay-go’ fiscal conservatism are mutually exclusive.” He added: “The existential challenge of climate change demands that we fully overhaul our energy and transportation infrastructure in a short period of time. The issues of America’s rising inequality and frayed social contract — including stagnant wages, unaffordable college, and exorbitant health care can only be fixed with major new investments. While much of this needed spending can and should be offset — for example with cuts to our exorbitant and wasteful military budget — it’s far more important that the underlying problems are solved.”
Why the Democratic leadership stays in the “deficits” trap can seem like a mystery, but the main clues point to corporate power and the leverage of great wealth. Our society is in desperate need of massive public investment, but such talk is anathema to Wall Street and other sectors where maximizing private profits is the top priority. While the platforms offered by Democrats have moved leftward on economic issues during the last year, a crucial disconnect remains between rhetoric about corporate influence and subservience to it.