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The co-founder of the DLC wants to take back red districts, not the Democratic Party

“When you’re in the minority, you need to expand in every direction.”

EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images

If I’m being honest, I called Will Marshall expecting controversy. As co-founder of the Democratic Leadership Council and longtime director of its allied think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, he was among the intellectual architects of the Democratic Party’s shift toward a hawkish neoliberalism — a shift that has fallen into disrepute after the twin debacles of the Iraq War and the financial crisis.

So I was interested to see that Marshall has formed a new organization: New Democracy, which promises to “expand the party’s appeal across Middle America and make Democrats competitive everywhere.” The DLC wing of the Democratic Party has been surprisingly quiet as its legacy has come under attack, and as the argument over the future of the party has centered on how far left it should go. The debate, I assumed, was about to be joined. But when I reached him, that’s not what happened.

“I don’t know the one true path to durable progressive majorities, and I don’t think anyone else does either,” Marshall says. “When you’re in the minority, you need to expand in every direction.”

To Marshall, the Democratic Party’s problem is that it’s looking for a single answer to a question that has as many answers as there are elections. “Different places lend themselves to different strategies,” he says. What works in New Hampshire may not work in Montana. Some districts may need liberal populists; others may need culturally traditionalist incrementalists. Marshall’s main message was that a party that has lost power at every level of government should be wary of being too prescriptive or too choosy going forward.

In its mission statement, New Democracy says, “The road to new Democratic majorities runs through the places we are losing — the outer suburbs and exurbs, smaller cities and towns and rural areas of America’s vast red interior.” Their theory is to look to the candidates already winning in these areas and try to replicate what’s made them successful, both by recruiting and supporting candidates like them and by distilling their learnings and lessons for others.

Marshall is particularly focused on North Carolina, where an especially extreme form of conservatism took over the state and bred a backlash that led to Roy Cooper, a Democrat, taking back the governor’s mansion. Cooper is now trying to recruit a slate of Democratic candidates to recapture the state legislature. New Democracy is hoping they can help and, if it succeeds, hoping they can spread that success.

In our conversation, Marshall struck me as uncertain about the political era in which he finds himself. Donald Trump is president of the United States. A political independent who self-identifies as a democratic socialist is the most popular politician in the Democratic Party. When I asked Marshall how his view of politics had changed over the past decade, he rattled off a long list of forces that made today different from 1992 — party polarization, social media, a shrunken center, fractured news sources — but there was no grand theory, no confident map of the path forward.

Marshall suggested that Democrats have lost the language of economic growth and said that they need to rediscover a hopeful vision of the future, but then, everyone says that. When I pressed him on the difficulties of emphasizing growth in an age when its gains are so completely captured by the rich, he didn’t push the point. “I’m not a seer,” he said.

When I asked him whether Democrats should be emphasizing issues like single-payer — the kind of question the DLC of the ’90s would have a strong, negative view on — he allowed that he thought it would be a “distraction” from a more focused economic message, but that he also wasn’t sure he was right. “If people want to run on single-payer out there, they should go see where they can win with it,” he said. “I am skeptical it will [do] a lot of good in red and purple terrain, but I also don’t have much metaphysical certitude that we know how every candidate should speak for the party to win.”

This was, to be honest, not what I expected. A few decades ago, Marshall helped lead a confident ideological insurgency that reshaped the Democratic Party from top to bottom. Today, he sounds chastened. “We’re not interested in engaging in sectarian battles for control of the Democratic Party’s steering wheel,” he says. “New Democracy isn’t aimed at safe blue districts. The Democratic Party is doing well there. We’re focused on the competitive ground where we need to make big gains.”

This approach won’t work everywhere. At the presidential level, the party really will need to decide on a single standard-bearer, and so the differences between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker and John Hickenlooper and Tim Kaine will have to be resolved. But in congressional and state legislature races — where Democrats face a deep disadvantage for being clustered into big cities and big states — the Democratic Party will need to be many, many things at once, and arguments and ideological fractures that often seem like they need to be resolved will instead need to learn to coexist.