Final Public Oral Exam: Jacqueline Brandon

Dead Center: The New Democrats and the Transformation of Liberalism
Monday, April 24, 2023, 1:00 pm3:00 pm


Event Description


Kevin Kruse, adviser
Margot Canaday
Julian Zelizer
Andrew Needham, New York University


This dissertation is a history of the New Democrats, a neoliberal bloc that rose to prominence in the Democratic Party between the 1970s and the 1990s. It focuses on the centrist political figures that ushered in a new world of supply-side economics, tough-on-crime policy, stripped-down welfare, and ramped-up militarization. Laying claim to the center was a complex move in these years: the spectrum itself was shifting as the Republican Party became increasingly reactionary, dragging the whole political infrastructure to the right alongside it.

Four case studies comprise the dissertation: the chapters focus on the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM) in the 1970s, The New Republic magazine and the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in the 1980s and 1990s, and Hollywood donors to Bill Clinton’s campaigns in the 1990s, before concluding with an epilogue on the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The actors—politicians and party regulars, journalists and editors, activists and strategists—spent decades hashing out where the party should stand on affirmative action, foreign policy, crime and policing, feminism, electoral reform and campaign finance.

Charting the decline of the midcentury liberalism, historians tend to fix their gaze on partisanship and polarization. Conservative ascendence in electoral politics, media, popular debate, and intellectual institutions has likewise been well documented. Focusing on the extremes at both ends, scholars have neglected the machinations of the middle. This dissertation argues the liberals, too, had their ideological foot soldiers. For progressives, the realm of political possibility constricted in the last decades of the twentieth century.

New Democrats sought both new constituents and new donors. Urban professionals and suburban swing voters supplanted the party’s historic blue-collar base. The actors in this dissertation were united in their conviction that Democrats could finally, at long last, find a way out of the political wilderness of the Nixon and Reagan eras by courting would-be Republican voters. Dead Center is also about moderates’ shifting relationship to the New Left, as the anti- identity politics dogma of the 1970s was supplanted by a politics of recognition and multiculturalism that came to characterize the mainstream of the party by the 1990s.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.


Lee Horinko
Area of Interest
African American
Gender & Sexuality
Intellectual History
Political History
Social History
Urban History
20th Century
United States
Scholarly Series
Dissertation Defense