Caroline Poplin, M.D., J.D.
15 min readApr 29, 2020


Democratic leaders branded Senators Sanders and Warren ‘radical’

Senator Sanders terrified many Democratic Party leaders and all the major Democratic presidential candidates this year except Senator Elizabeth Warren. They were convinced he could not possibly win a general election, were relieved that their preferred, most “electable,” candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden finally won a primary, in South Carolina, and immediately cleared the field for him.

No doubt now they are relieved, and ready to press on.

In contrast to Hillary in 2016, Vice President Biden did the right thing: he reached out to Bernie, showed interest in some of his ideas. Bernie reciprocated and endorsed the former Vice President. Senator Sanders likely did this for two reasons: first, Trump would destroy the country in a second term (he has made a stunning start), and second, Biden seems to be considering some of Bernie’s platform. Biden should not hesitate to go further.

To win in November, the Democrats need not only Bernie’s and Elizabeth Warren’s voters and their enthusiasm — they need his (and her) policies in the campaign. Progressive, New Deal style policies beat better Republicans than Trump in the twentieth century, and will resonate with voters again.

Progressive policies are more appealing to Americans than tax cuts for the rich, cuts to Social Security and Medicare, deregulation of large corporations, exploitation of workers and communities, consumer fraud, environmental degradation, fiscal austerity, unrestricted financial speculation by hedge funds and banks — and of course, indifference to pandemics and other emergencies.

Democratic leaders seem clueless about the Vermont senator, even after five years of observation. They can’t fathom why he ran in 2016, why he stayed in the primaries until the convention (although it should be clear to Hillary Clinton, who is nevertheless quite bitter — in 2008 she didn’t concede to Obama until June). The Democratic establishment doesn’t understand why Bernie is so popular with some 30% of active Democrats, why his supporters are so loyal and enthusiastic (in marked contrast to many Biden voters), or why some 10% of his supporters voted for Trump in 2016. Many highly placed Democrats dismiss his policies as ‘socialist.’ They also appear to assume that anyone who voted for Trump is lost to the cause, which is foolish.

Most important of all, the Democratic leaders don’t understand Bernie’s (or Elizabeth Warren’s) ideas, or where they came from.

I do, even though I qualify as a charter member of the Democratic elite. Except for the fact that three of my grandparents were Jewish refugees, my background is similar to Hillary’s. We are the same age, early Boomers. My father was a small businessman; originally we lived behind the family store in a gritty Massachusetts mill town, Hudson, which hung on after the mills left. When I was five we moved to Newton, a suburb of Boston, where I attended public school, K-12. The store didn’t move, so my father commuted 26 miles back to Hudson, six days a week, where he remained a pillar of the community, like his father. I graduated from Bryn Mawr College and was Hillary’s classmate at Yale Law School. Like her, I met my (now late) husband, Martin Slate, there. Marty and I both worked for the Federal government: he was appointed to a senior position in the Clinton administration. Hillary spoke at his memorial in 1997

Senator Sanders is not pushing the party to the radical left, he is bringing it back to its roots.

We already have seen Senators Sanders’ and Warren’s policies work here — at scale

Many of Bernie’s policies were already in place as I was growing up (though not in the Jim Crow south). They were the laws, norms, and aspirations of the New Deal, which gave the U.S. the most peaceful, prosperous, egalitarian decades it ever enjoyed.

The 1940’s after World War II, the 1950’s and 1960’s, were hopeful times, when the American dream was alive, social mobility was robust, and the middle class expanded. A single factory job could support a family with spouse at home and children. Wages were sufficient to buy a modest home and a modest car. Public education was free through grade 12, public higher education was affordable. That same factory job provided health insurance, sick leave, opportunity for advancement, job security, and a decent pension to supplement Social Security in retirement. In the 1960’s, President Lyndon Johnson and a bipartisan majority in Congress passed laws to remedy the exclusions exacted from President Franklin Roosevelt by southern Democrats. The economy grew, wage inequality declined to the point where economists named it “the Great Compression.” America was far from perfect, but some might say, relatively speaking, it was ‘great’.

I’m sure there are Trump voters who remember those times. Americans had no reason not to expect steady progress indefinitely.

Yet somehow, most of the leaders of my party, even my generation, seem to have forgotten what made the good times good — I don’t know why.

Perhaps, while we are all locked down, they should watch Ken Burns’ documentary on the Roosevelts (Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor) on PBS.

Progressive policies are not radical — they are not even new, even in the U.S.

Bipartisan agitation for the Federal government to protect ordinary citizens from the excesses of rapid industrialization, capitalism, and corruption developed in response to widespread abuses in the late nineteenth century, the “Gilded Age”. Democrats under William Jennings Bryan urged serious reforms in the 1890’s. Progressive Republicans expanded on them as the Progressive Party, nicknamed the Bull Moose Party when it nominated former President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican of course, for U.S. President in 1912. TR did not mince words: he labelled banks, financiers and great industrialists who exploited and oppressed ordinary people “ malefactors of great wealth.”

In its 1912 platform, the Bull Moose Party advocated, among other things, limits to and disclosure of all campaign contributions, prohibition of child labor, a “living” wage for women, an 8-hour day, one day of rest for workers every week, prevention of industrial accidents and occupational diseases, employer compensation for death or injury at work, an interstate commerce commission to supervise commerce — and, notably, “[t]he protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of social insurance adapted to American use”. [Emphasis added.] For good measure, the platform also supported conservation, women’s suffrage, public investment in infrastructure (including roads, waterways, and the Panama Canal), a progressive inheritance tax, and a Constitutional amendment to establish an income tax.

In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican Party and lost, but Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson enacted some of the agenda: the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and banking regulation via the Federal Reserve System, much as it is today. He created the Federal Trade Commission to investigate corrupt, unfair or anti-competitive business practices, set up the Department of Labor as a cabinet agency and nominated a former union official to be its first Secretary. Congress passed an eight hour day for railroad workers which gradually spread to other industries. Wilson appointed the progressive Louis Brandeis, the first Jew, to the Supreme Court.

Even President Hoover advanced some progressive policies in an attempt to reverse the Great Depression, however timidly But he believed in limited government, soliciting voluntary co-operation with industry, balancing the budget, leaving direct relief for impoverished citizens to private charities and the states. He signed the Smoot-Hawley tariffs, starting a disastrous trade war. The Depression rolled on; FDR defeated Hoover in a Democratic landslide in 1932.

FDR, with new Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate, quickly built on and expanded progressive policies, pushed them to scale and invented new ones: stock market regulation (SEC), empowerment of labor unions (NLRA), protection of almost all workers (FLSA) (Southern Democratic Senators obtained the exception of blacks as the price of their votes), Social Security, seriously progressive taxation, vast publicly financed infrastructure projects (WPA), financial support for farmers, insurance for bank deposits ( FDIC), mortgage insurance (FHA) and purchase of home loans (Fannie Mae) so banks could finance new home mortgages — and much more. Most of these programs continue today, albeit in weakened form.

In Madison Square Garden in 1936, FDR angrily denounced those who caused the Depression:

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism [he meant oppression of the poor by the rich], sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hatred for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

Have we heard anything like that from any leading Democrats other than Senator Sanders and Warren?

Why did the New Deal end?

New Deal policies were popular then, and are popular now.

However, even before the pandemic, the country is in a far different, angrier place today than it was forty years ago.

Since 1980, wages have stagnated, despite steady increases in productivity. Corporate and Republican opposition to unions has eviscerated them. While unemployment has been low, the middle class is shrinking, good jobs have declined. Social mobility has stalled for many. In the worst recession since the Great Depression, 2007–2009, millions lost their jobs and their homes, and may never get back to where they were. Meantime Presidents George W. Bush and Obama bailed out the banks and the bankers. Prospects for a secure retirement are grim. Inequality has reached levels not seen since the 1920’s. Corporate profits soared even before the 2017 big corporate tax cut. No wonder many Americans are disappointed and angry. They feel left behind, as indeed they still are.

How did this change happen?

(A) Party Realignment

This is a complicated question, and I am no expert, only a witness. I would say there are three principal reasons. First, in the 1960’s many Americans lost trust in government. The State was the linchpin of the New Deal, the only force powerful enough to protect the people from the depredations of powerful corporations and unrestricted capitalism. The Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, mandating school desegregation, and the multiple Federal civil rights laws of the 1960’s, provoked a massive backlash in the South. The Vietnam War, and the lies the Johnson administration told about it, provoked a major backlash among liberals.

Those events elected Richard Nixon in 1968, and led to a significant political realignment favoring Republicans.

Since 1908, with the election of William Taft, Republicans had become the pro-business party, calling for the smallest Federal government possible, low taxes, high tariffs, and no labor unions. Conservative Republicans fought the New Deal, and so remained a minority until 1968. Nixon, however, decided to expand the party base by appealing to Southern white Democrats (the Democratic party had been the party of the Confederacy, after all) with dog whistles, calling for neighborhood schools (instead of forced busing), and “law and order,”, relaxed enforcement of the Civil Rights statutes. It was called the “southern strategy”. Reagan followed suit. It worked. (In fairness, they also soon added the social issues — abortion, guns, and so forth).

(B) Radical Right Ideological Shift

As Republicans gained power, they completely changed the terms of the political debate in this country. They attack government relentlessly — it was Reagan who said, “Government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem.” (I was working at EPA, trying to protect our air and water, when he said that.) I realized then that when Reagan said “freedom”, he meant the free enterprise system. Deregulation was first priority. In general, Republicans believe that the best solution to any problem is the “market” option. If your wages are low, that must be because you have no useful skills or other qualities, you are not worth anything, it is up to you to better yourself. Private for profit companies always produce “better, more efficient” outcomes than government can: government functions, like prisons, hospitals, K-12 schools, colleges, and more, should be privatized. Reagan and George W. Bush wanted to privatize Social Security.

When Republicans took over government, they could, and did, turn their theory about chronic government failure into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I saw it at EPA; readers saw it with President Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, not to mention COVID-19. (There is no Defense Production Act for states.)

Republicans found support in the academy. In the post WWII years, many large corporations provided benefits to workers (health insurance, job security, pensions, training) and their communities, especially local charities, as part of their “social responsibility”. In 1970, to-be Nobel laureate Milton Friedman declared in an op-ed in the New York Times that in a capitalist country like the U.S., the only responsibility of corporations was to maximize shareholder profits. He seems to think that the world is a zero-sum game. Conservative corporate titans eagerly took up the theories of Friedman and his followers, and founded multiple think tanks — starting with the Heritage Foundation in 1973 — to spread, expand and promote their ideas and to turn them into actionable policy proposals.

Radical New Tactics

Finally, when Newt Gingrich was first elected to Congress in 1978, he vowed to completely change Republican tactics, from civility, working with Democrats to produce compromise legislation (“Boy Scout” behavior, he described contemptuously), to instead win total victory, whatever it took — vicious personal attacks, conspiracy theories, take no prisoners, disrupt, never compromise. He nationalized the 1994 election with his “Contract for America” (conservative themes, no details) and achieved Republican control of Congress, which the party relinquished only once (2006–2010) until 2018. Also, he set the stage for the anger and polarization we see today — and, of course, President Trump.

The Democratic Response So Far

Unfortunately, it appears that all this profoundly intimidated the Democratic leadership. In 1972, Nixon won 49 states. In 1984, Reagan did also. In response, leading Democrats formed the Democratic Leadership Council to reduce the influence of the Left on the party. They did — and Bill Clinton (third chairman of the DLC) was elected for two terms, as was Obama. Both Democratic presidents, and Hillary Clinton in 2016, de-emphasized if not repudiated important New Deal programs. (In fairness, both Clinton and Obama had to deal with a Republican controlled Congress for six years each. In particular, Obama had to deal with Senator McConnell, who obstructed everything he could.)

It was President Clinton who said “the era of big government is over”, as he dismantled the Federal welfare program (AFDC) created in 1935. He repealed Glass-Steagall (which limited bank investments). And of course, he signed NAFTA, and PNTR for China, without any significant protections for U.S. labor or the environment. Both his healthcare plan (which failed) and Obama’s (the ACA) were derived from a Republican market mode, based on private insurance (“managed care, managed competition”) as opposed to Medicare, a classic social insurance program. None of the Democratic presidents after President Johnson did anything much for labor, both signed on to the importance of deficit reduction and austerity.

I, for one, was disappointed with both presidents.

What should Democrats do?

“Moderate’ Democrats (ideologically closer to post-war moderate Republicans) apparently have come to believe that New Deal policies are “radical” and would damage our free market economy, which benefits us all. In 2016, they nominated Hillary, after a nomination race that was much closer than anyone expected.

Yet Hillary, for decades a centrist like her husband, lost the 2016 election in the Electoral College. Yes, she did suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune — Comey, the Russian hacks of the DNC, the Russian disinformation campaign, conspiracy theories, absurd allegations of criminal behavior (from a man many of whose campaign associates are now in jail) that were picked up the media (the emails), outrageous amounts of free media attention to Trump because he jacked up ratings.

This time Democrats are counting on large number of moderates to vote for Biden, running on the same platform. Yet if they didn’t come out for Hillary, why would they come out in droves for Biden? And why did Bernie do so well in 2016 given the slings and arrows directed at him?

Here is the most important reason, in my opinion: New Deal policies are popular. They were popular through 1968, and they are still popular today. For sure they are more popular than the “Gilded Age” policies of the Republicans, that’s why Trump won the Republican primary: he promised to return good jobs to the U.S. That may be why some 10% of Bernie voters voted for Trump. Also, he pledged (fingers crossed behind his back) to maintain Medicare and Social Security.

Even if the economy was growing before the corona virus, only the very rich really benefited: from 1979 to 2017, earnings of the bottom 90% of Americans rose (after discounting for inflation) 22.2%; the earnings of the top 10% rose 157%; the earnings of the top 0.1% rose 343.2%. Almost eighty percent of Americans say they live paycheck-to-paycheck. The costs of housing, health insurance, and higher education have soared over the last twenty years: it now often takes two incomes to support a middle class family, where a one job was once good enough. Most disturbing, perhaps, research by Princeton professors Case and Deaton showed that mortality for white Americans ages 45–54 with a high school degree or less rose at about half a percent a year 1999–2014. Nor were the increased deaths from the usual causes — heart disease, diabetes: instead, they were “deaths of despair”, due to suicide, drugs, and alcohol-related liver disease.

At the beginning of his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Vice President Biden suggested that the solution to our problems was to return to the policies of the “Obama-Biden” years. Yet these problems were not caused by Trump (although he is making many of them worse). Yes, President Obama did help the country recover from the Great Recession, he made progress on the environment, he and the Vice President pushed the ACA (a mixed blessing) through Congress. President Obama’s administration also negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which, like NAFTA, benefited numerous large corporations and did nothing to protect labor or the environment. (It was ultimately disowned by Hillary, but too late. Trump dropped it.) President Obama offered to cut Medicare and Social Security in exchange for tax increases on the rich, the so-called “Grand Bargain”. (Thankfully, it failed because Republicans could not stomach any tax increase.)

The living conditions of the bottom 90% did not materially improve under Obama/Biden after the Great Recession ended.

Like Hillary in 2016, the centrist Democratic candidates this year offered a list of specific reforms: elimination of human rights violations in the treatment of immigrants and refugees, increased minimum wage, paid sick leave, more affordable child care, aid for post-high school education, expanding food stamps, some improvements to Medicare and Social Security, a public option for the ACA, maybe some help for unions, increased anti-trust enforcement, restoration of Obama regulations on the environment, labor, banking, finance, and investment, Medicaid, TANF (the time -limited replacement for AFDC), and so forth.

I would say that, except for immigration, campaign finance and voting reforms, these plans are Band-Aids, and will be seen as such (although of course anything is better than Trump.) They will not solve the problems underlying today’s economy which cause so much distress.

Also, in contrast to both Roosevelts, leading Democrats other than Sanders and Warren don’t seem to hold anyone responsible for anything, such as, for example, Wall Street, large corporate interests, and others promoting radical capitalist theories. These Democrats appear afraid to criticize the rich and powerful conservatives who constructed the new paradigm and benefit so much from it. Instead, to the extent they blame anything, moderates mention globalization and automation, seemingly immutable forces we can’t do much about except to “upskill” our work force. Could this be why we are vilified as “the elite”?

Many citizens remain anxious and angry. Those looking for scapegoats — immigrants, minorities, the elite (us) — will vote for Trump again.

Bernie and Elizabeth called instead for fundamental structural changes, in the spirit of the New Deal: on labor, taxes, finance, banking and investment, corporate responsibility and governance, the environment, infrastructure, education, and health care — a Green New Deal, updated for the new century. And they reflected the anger of many, Bernie in particular. Like the Roosevelts, they know who is oppressing and swindling Americans, and do not fear calling them out. Also, this gives them a story, so much more powerful than a list.

That is why Bernie nearly beat Hillary in 2016, why his following stayed so loyal, why Elizabeth Warren supporters were so enthusiastic. It may be why some Bernie supporters voted for Trump — he promised the return of factories and good jobs, he attacked the treaties powerful corporations used to move factories to Mexico and China. (Needless to say, he did not deliver.)

After the South Carolina primary, Democrats voted for Biden partly because he was familiar and a nice guy (Josh Voorhees said, like comfort food) — not because of his ideas. Also, frightened Democratic leaders convinced voters that Bernie was unelectable because he was a socialist, even worse, an angry socialist. (From that we learn that our leaders have no idea what socialism is.) Republicans (and conservative Democrats) called FDR a socialist in 1936, yet again he won a massive victory.

This year, the Democrats’ primary objective is to beat Trump, to get him out of office ASAP, whatever it takes. They were told that meant choosing Biden over Bernie, so they did. (I only hope they were right about this.)

President Trump will use the same dirty tricks, illegal tactics, repeated incredible lies, and socialism — to cheering throngs, on Fox and social media, against Biden that he used against Hillary. Expect to hear lots about Ukraine and China. (And remember who controls the DOJ this time). Biden does not have the same baggage as Hillary, but he does not have some of her strengths either.

So Vice President Biden needs to think big and bold — he needs to think New Deal — if he wants to win the general election. It has worked for Democrats before.



Caroline Poplin, M.D., J.D.

Poplin graduated from Yale Law School and practiced law with the FDA and the EPA. Currently Of Counsel & Medical Director at Guttman, Buschner, & Brooks PLLC.