We read constantly about the changes in the GOP and how it is no longer George W. Bush’s party, or even Ronald Reagan’s. But what about the changes in the Democratic Party—which may, in fact, be more consequential and further-reaching? That is the subject of Joshua Green’s The Rebels, a portrait of the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left.

Green, a senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, begins with Jimmy Carter and a little-known story of his proposed tax-reform bill. Carter and his domestic-policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat wanted to get rid of the deduction for the so-called three-martini lunch. Yet when the bill went through Congress, special interests changed it to make it more business friendly. In those days, Democrats ruled both the House and the Senate, seemingly in perpetuity, so Carter felt that he had no choice but to go along with his fellow Democrats in Congress. According to Green, this Democratic openness to special-interest pleading helped set the trajectory for the Wall Street–aligned Democratic Party that emerged during Bill Clinton’s presidency 15 years later.

Green’s account is interesting, but it’s not the whole story. Carter’s unpopular administration and the three consecutive election losses that followed in 1980, 1984, and 1988 created a sense of Democratic desperation. That, in turn, created an opening for Bill Clinton, who rose to power with the backing of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council. But it is also important to note that Clinton faced internal resistance. His DLC was mocked by the left, with Jesse Jackson claiming that DLC stood for “Democrats for the Leisure Class.”

For Green, Clinton and others were aberrations along the party’s natural journey to the far left. Green highlights the efforts of the ambitious congressman and über-fundraiser Tony Coelho, who served in the Democratic majority in Congress during the 1980s. Coelho, who had pursued the priesthood but then set his sights on politics, used heavy-handed tactics to make Democrats competitive with Republicans when it came to business executives and Wall Street types. As Green writes, “partisanship, Coelho reminded them, is a luxury few executives can truly afford if their business intersects in any meaningful way with U.S. Congress.” In other words, Coelho told them, nice business you got there; it would be a shame if something happened to it.

Coelho’s approach took Republicans by surprise. After all, they saw Democrats as the party of the unions, which meant that business ought to be on the Republican side. Green quotes Coelho’s counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Guy Vander Jagt: “It never even occurred to me that if business formed PACs the great bulk of the money wouldn’t go to Republicans.”

Business owners, however, were more interested in protecting their businesses than in any principled defenses of free markets and competition. Encouraged, or intimidated, by Coelho, they began hedging their bets. According to Green, Coelho’s fundraising successes influenced Democratic policy by making dollar-hungry Democratic legislators open to the arguments of business lobbyists. Coehlo himself had to resign from Congress during a financial scandal in 1989, but his innovative approach continued to bear fruit for his party.

This era ended with the financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent election of Barack Obama. Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren started making a name for herself as chair of a panel Obama created to oversee the funds used to rescue Wall Street after the disaster. She leveraged her perch to excoriate Wall Street bankers and thereby secure a Massachusetts Senate seat.

Warren’s arrival in Washington heralded a new breed of Democrats who rejected Coelho’s model of working with business. Among them was Bernie Sanders, who had been elected to the Senate in 2006. “With his Brooklyn accent and a nimbus of flyaway white hair,” Green writes, Sanders “was the antithesis of the package to the poll-tested Clinton. He struck people as being angry about the right sorts of things.” He points out that Sanders was largely a nobody in Washington until his unexpected 2016 challenge to Hillary Clinton—which acts as a poignant reminder of how much has changed in just eight years.

Sanders was followed in 2018 by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a twentysomething who got her start in the 2016 Sanders effort. In securing her seat in Congress by winning a primary no one was even watching, she had successfully defeated another archetype of the D.C. establishment: Joseph Crowley, a top House Democrat with little ideo-
logical fire. Green describes Ocasio-Cortez’s rise as part of an effort by disaffected progressives to take over the Democratic Party, and he even cites this magazine as helping to inspire them. Green writes, “operating under the heavy influence of Bayard Rustin’s famous 1965 COMMENTARY essay, ‘From Protest to Politics,’ which argued that the civil rights movement could achieve its goals only by attaining political power, many of the organizers went on to launch their own groups or take up key positions in them.”

Green seems pleased with the new path. As he writes, “Warren, Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez pulled the Democratic Party back toward its roots, toward the still unrealized dream of a broad, multiracial coalition of the working, middle, and upper classes and a political economy that works for everyone, not just the privileged few at the top of the income scale.”

In telling this tale of the party’s transformation, Green fails to grapple with implications beyond the domestic. He says almost nothing, for example, about how these progressives have been changing the Democratic Party’s approach to Israel, and for the worse. Another unanswered question in Green’s history is whether the recent change in the Democratic Party was inevitable. Yes, it is possible that the Bill Clinton period was a historical anomaly. Or perhaps the same leftist inclinations that led to so many electoral defeats in the 1970s and 1980s are reasserting themselves—with new levels of institutional support, media protection, and elite backing that play a key role in winning elections nowadays.

Photo: AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

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