Matt Stoller’s Great Man History of Al From and the New Democrats

This review essay by Matt Stoller functions as a perfect example of all that is productive and questionable about a “great man” history. In it, a dude most of you have never heard of (Al From) is presented as the secret catalyst behind “how the West is run” today. It proves a useful stratagem to the extent it ends up honing in on the finer details of everyday electoral politics from the “stagflationist” 1970s through the “New Democrat” 1990s. You learn about the role of Senator Edmund Muskie in refashioning right-wing austerity politics in “reformist” garb. You learn about why a right-of-center think tank responsible for hording economic and (therefore) political power, squeezing the middle class, eviscerating the working class, and swelling the ranks of the underclass, calls itself the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and sees itself, quite sincerely, as a proud descendent of the Civil Rights Movement. You learn about how the New Deal and populist remnants of the Democratic Party in the gloomy 1980s referred to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), just as sincerely, as “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” You learn about how “From’s and Clinton’s children are [now] everywhere,” from ostensibly liberal governor offices in New England to the most senior advisers of the Obama administration. When it comes to putting names and faces to the disastrous trend line in liberal and Democratic politics the past four decades or so, culminating with the much-deserved midterms rout of 2014, there’s no better merchandise in stock.

But since the microscope is so focused on individual Washington politicos and powerbrokers surrounding this repellent drama, there is so much you don’t end up learning. Most glaringly, Stoller almost falls into the trap of having From and company emerge from a vacuum, albeit one troubled by seemingly never-ending inflation and stagnant growth. What isn’t mentioned is the broader material conflict between labor and capital, or more specifically, between rising wages and diminishing profits. Since such structural postwar factors aren’t attended to, political operatives like From are invested with outsized agency and prominence. For instance, well before From stumbled on his peculiarly regressive politics of “reform,” a full-blown revolt of capital was already well underway. The Business Roundtable was formed in 1972 and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in 1973. Old corporate workhorses like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) were re-politicized around the same time. Meanwhile, the pungent chicken soup of right-wing think tanks and mildly less right-wing think tanks (what we now call “liberal” or “progressive” think tanks) were cropping up all about the capital, in strict accordance with the blueprint laid out by corporate lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in his notorious memo of 1971. Once this backdrop is taken into account, From and his happy band of reactionaries (again, we now call these people “liberals” and “progressives’) not only lose their claim to the Civil Rights mantle, but they lose their claim to protagonist status altogether.

Contra Stoller’s admirably generous read, it is an offense to history (not to mention its victims) to honor the New Democrats with the kind of well-meaning originality and primacy From is self-stylizing. The beltway neoliberals of the 1970s and 1980s might have convinced themselves of the nobility and novelty of their marching orders, but it was still marching orders they were obeying. And the orders themselves were being written not by men like From and Clinton, but by the sort of rarefied suits who wouldn’t be caught within 30 miles of a Civil Rights protest.

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