The Demise of the Democratic Leadership Council and the Future of Liberaltarianism

A recent Politico article reports that the Democratic Leadership Council is about to “suspend operations” for lack of funds. The DLC was a group founded in 1985 to try to move the Democratic Party to the center. Among its founders was then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who became the most successful of the DLC-affiliated New Democrats. DLC-supported ideas were one of the sources of the Clinton Administration’s relatively pro-market policies on various issues, including welfare reform, free trade, and spending restraint.

Today, the DLC and its ideas are out of favor in liberal Democratic circles. It is telling that the organization is failing for lack of funds at a time when most of the issues it used to emphasize are as important as ever. Certainly, we have a much more serious spending problem today than in the 1980s and 90s. The Politico article indicates that the DLC’s role will now be filled by the Progressive Policy Institute, the think thank which was affiliated with the DLC until a recent split. But the article also notes that PPI has only two fellows and eleven paid staff – a very small size for a major DC think tank. Evidently, there is very little donor support available for centrist Democratic organizations. The article also refers to a more recently established group called “Third Way” as a possible successor to the DLC. But Third Way is not clearly a centrist group, and its “board includes old –line liberals like Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.).”

The fall of the DLC and the lack of a strong successor organization has important implications for “liberaltarianism,” the idea of a political alliance between liberals and libertarians. Although the New Democrats were far from being libertarians themselves, there was important common ground between the two groups. The weakness of the DLC and other similar organizations today is an indication of the extent to which liberal Democratic thinking has moved left over the last decade. This movement makes it much harder to achieve any viable liberaltarian coalition, a point I previously emphasized here.

This state of affairs need not last forever. The initial rise of the DLC and New Democrats was stimulated by the political defeats Democrats suffered in the early 1980s and the the intellectual success of free market economics during that era. A similar combination of political defeat and favorable intellectual trends could resuscitate these ideas in the future. For the moment, however, liberals and libertarians are farther apart than at any time since the pre-Clinton, pre-DLC era.

Of course the DLC was not all good from a libertarian perspective. For example, some of its leaders advocated mandatory “national service.” At this February 2009 Hudson Institute panel, I debated both mandatory and voluntary national service with then-DLC President Bruce Reed, among others (unfortunately, the transcript has some misprints and other minor errors). Reed had previously advocated mandatory national service in a book coauthored with soon-to-be White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. On that issue, at least, libertarians should be happy that the Obama administration didn’t follow the advice of the DLC leadership.