How the Democrats Became a Conservative Party

State Of The Nation Democrats
How the Democrats Became a Conservative Party

Amid the sea of signs at the protest, one stood out to me.


Forty-nine years ago, to be exact.

In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 7-2 that, under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, women had the right to abortions. Then, in June of 2022, our latest iteration of the Court – rotten with corruption, stolen through underhanded machinations, and ripe for reactionary action after decades of plotting – overturned Roe v. Wade to the shock and astonishment of millions.

The protest came a few days later in balmy, swampy Georgia. The people I talked to were stunned. Some were terrified. To a person they felt like everything they’d taken for granted, every protection, every right, was suddenly on the chopping block. 

And that’s because it was.

It took a while to understand the full scope and magnitude of the situation. Back in 2015 and 2016, as I watched the MAGA Movement gain power and purchase, I knew Donald Trump and his supporters presented an existential threat to America, but I didn’t yet understand what exactly it entailed. By 2017, the research made it clear that Trump was a clown and a weapon, his followers trapped in a faux-populist cult, the GOP a public-relations front, and, behind the veil, a vast network of rich donors and their pet think-tanks and institutes directed it all.

Their goal was more than winning elections. It was reversing the progress of the 20th century and a final, decisive death-blow to liberal democracy. For half a century this plan had been churning, chipping away at the New Deal, shredding the social safety net, undermining everything from education to science itself, and seeding the ground for the moment we presently inhabit.

And yet, in the face of this rising authoritarianism, the Democratic Party has been dragged further right and become a conservative body by definition. Its main appeal to voters now is to conserve what remains. There is no ambitious plan for an overhaul of these systems. The best we can expect is a protection of reproductive rights that brings us back to 1973, a protection of statutes that were earned through blood and sweat and tears via the mid-century Civil Rights Movement.

Any vision of progress was largely abandoned with the neoliberal consensus in the 1990s, creating a political duopoly that could only move further right while neutralizing any “leftist” ideals or bodies that might build on the foundation of the New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960’s. This only makes the rightward trajectory of our culture a fait accompli. Citizens are left with a damning choice: rally around to protect a status quo that does not work or throw in their lot with authoritarians who are at least offering change.

The threats that small-C conservative movement are pushing back against have turned comically dark as a second Trump administration looms. No demolition surprises me anymore, be it the intentional starving of the educational system, an aggressive push for employing children in factories and slaughterhouses, or the robust attack on voting rights. It helps, after all, that the think-tanks, institutes, and politicians pushing the assault are gleefully open about their plans now. All one needs to do to understand is look at the widely circulated Project 2025 agenda for Trump’s potential second term, prepared by the Heritage Foundation and the noxious all-stars of the Right-Wing ecosystem.

As the demolition has gained speed, the GOP moved further and further right, shedding any “liberal principles” they once espoused and now aggravating for the kind of authoritarian government necessary to shift this project into its next gear. This authoritarianism can take any number of forms, including Christian Nationalism, a tech-led neo-feudalism, or a “retribution against the Deep State,” which is just a new coat of paint on antisemitic narratives the Right has relied on for centuries. The ideology is just a veneer, a means of activating certain supporters and justifying the living, beating heart of the plan: a strict, brutal hierarchical society in which the uber-wealthy dictate politics and culture without interference from representative government, oversight, or democracy itself.

The GOP and their donors could not have done this by themselves. Following Ronald Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984, the Democratic Party shifted to the right and embraced the emerging neoliberal consensus. In doing so, the party became more centrist and eschewed aspects of its base – namely minorities, labor, and the working class – in favor of the growing professional managerial class and corporations. Bill Clinton’s tenure as president saw the construction of globalism, as imagined by free-market neoliberals, and reform that ate away at the New Deal and the social fabric. The economic benefits quickly gave way to trillions of dollars transferred to the wealthiest few, a precarious economic landscape, and an environment in which the wealthy could utilize their historic wealth to corrupt representative government and take aim at remaining protections and rights.

To get here, the foundations of American life had to be poisoned and rotted through, leaving the faux-populist cult with an earned distrust for the status quo that is felt almost universally throughout the population. There is a reason people don’t trust our institutions: they have earned it. We know they are unfair. That they are programmed to favor the wealthy and the white. All it takes to understand that our economy is rigged is to live in it, to feel the constant threat of annihilation as corporations expect more and more and wave innovations like artificial intelligence around like weapons.

We know our healthcare system is unacceptable because we either drown in debt or choose between eating and our medication. The educational system, what’s left of it anyway, is on life support. And we all just lived through a generational pandemic where the government dramatically reduced poverty then let millions of people slip back into it as they willingly let successful programs expire, and science itself was bullied by weaponized nonsense.

That long-gestating rot has more paths to the surface today than ever before. Our present technological tools can be used for surveillance and disinformation purposes on a scale most are afraid to even admit to themselves. Whether it is on the issues of immigration or the use of our judicial system to quell protests and punish enemies, we see a broad migration to right-wing, illiberal positions in America’s liberal party. In so-called “leftist” media platforms, we encounter homophobic and transphobic opinions presented as rational and defensible. Centrists with incredible sway are continuing to advocate for moderation even as the Right grows increasingly more authoritarian and radical, a move that history tells us will only lead to disaster.

Around the world authoritarian energies are growing, spreading from Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the supposed liberal bastions as conditions deteriorate. And as climate change worsens, economic precarity grows, and American hegemony gives way to the capitalistic domination it has always served, these trends will only accelerate.

While the Republican Party is wildly unpopular, the minoritarian institutions set up by our elitist Founding Fathers continue to benefit them electorally, and the reactionary project they front is becoming more attractive to the same people who populated “The Resistance” to Trump in 2016. The Democratic Party has become a repository for former Republicans who laid the groundwork for our present conditions, continually featuring speechwriters and policymakers who powered the Bush Administration and neoconservatism writ large. Meanwhile, the Left simply does not exist in the elite halls of power and is relegated to token committee assignments and grassroots pockets where political orphans organize their workplaces and protest brutal war crimes around the world.

What’s missing is a voice in the conversation that presents a roadmap for a better future. That roadmap must address the material conditions which created this crisis in the first place, in a way that does not embrace authoritarian means to an end. Instead of fighting to maintain rights and protections that were won a lifetime ago, it is time to imagine progress that builds on their foundation. Authoritarianism and, by proxy, neoliberalism are ideologies that systematically abuse populations and promise that change for the better is impossible and, even worse, a dangerous idea to put forward. But clinging to the wreckage of the 20th century as it disintegrates is even more dangerous. It only brings ruin and certain destruction. And that fact should be clearer than ever now.

Jared Yates Sexton is the author of The Midnight Kingdom: A History of Power, Paranoia, and the Coming Crisis. He co-hosts The Muckrake Podcast and blogs at his Substack, Dispatches From A Collapsing State.

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