Forging a New Democratic Party: The Politics of the Third Way From Clinton to Obama
Atkins, Curtis Gene
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This dissertation analyzes the evolution of the American Democratic Party’s ideological orientation from 1985 to 2014. The central problem is to develop an understanding of how shifts in political-economic context and factional agency combine to produce alterations in the predominant ideology of a U.S. political party. The primary question posed is how the centrist perspective known as the ‘third way’ replaced the left-liberalism of the New Deal and Great Society eras as the guiding public philosophy of the Democratic Party. Whereas many scholars propose that the modern third way revisionism of center-left parties is explained primarily as electoral opportunism or as an adoption of the political logic of the New Right, this study focuses on how changes in political economy (particularly the transition from Keynesianism to neoliberalism) prompted the elaboration of an alternative ideological framework that sought to adapt to new times. In the U.S. case, the primary agent of this process of ideological reorientation was the New Democrat faction, most well-known for its connection to President Bill Clinton. Combining qualitative document analysis and focused interviews with personnel from the think-tanks and policy institutes of the New Democrat faction and its competitors, the dissertation finds that the initiation and maintenance of reorientation is dependent on a faction’s success in elaborating and continually ‘decontesting’ an alternative framework that de-legitimatizes a party’s pre-existing ideological commitments. Adapting Michael Freeden’s approach to the study of ideologies, a conceptual morphology, or map, of third way politics is presented that centers on the particular meanings of opportunity, responsibility, and community elaborated by the New Democrats. These ‘decontested’ concepts signified a commitment to equality of opportunity over egalitarian outcomes, a vision of the welfare state centered on obligation rather than entitlement, and a devotion to communitarian rather than class or identity politics. By analyzing the process of continuous decontestation engaged in by this faction, the dissertation argues that the third way not only constitutes a distinct ideological system, but that it has been the predominant policymaking outlook of the Democratic Party for nearly a quarter century – stretching from Clinton to Obama and possibly beyond.