Dianne Feinstein Helped Lead the Democratic Party’s Neoliberal Turn

Dianne Feinstein deserves to be remembered as a representative of the country’s monied interests — and her centrist legacy should be rejected.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who recently passed away aged ninety, at a hearing on June 9, 2021. in Washington, DC. (Stefani Reynolds-Pool / Getty Images)

California senator Dianne Feinstein died yesterday at age ninety, and mainstream media outlets are rushing to eulogize her. She deserves recognition — and it should go without saying that Feinstein’s death is sad for those close to her — but the hymns of praise miss her real significance. Celebrated as a “pragmatist,” Feinstein in fact helped remake the Democratic Party into a political vehicle for the very rich, and relatedly, the military-industrial complex.

Politico describes Feinstein’s mayoralty in San Francisco, from 1978 to 1988, as one of “healing.” While it’s true that she came into office during a crazy period — in 1978, San Francisco’s then-major, George Moscone, was assassinated along with supervisor Harvey Milk by fellow supervisor Dan White — her tenure only inflicted more devastation on the troubled city. As Bay Area leftist journalist Larry Bensky has written, she dutifully advanced the interests of the rich, allowing the real estate industry in particular to add “30 million soulless square feet” of downtown office construction, while neglecting the needs and neighborhoods of the working class.

The New York Times’s obituary calls her “a tough campaigner who sometimes took conservative positions.” Even the left-leaning Mother Jones — which is named after, well, Mother Jones! — got in on the festschrift, labeling Feinstein a “trailblazing Democrat” and citing their own 2017 feature on the senator, which quoted her friend Orville Schell calling her “the last bastion of bridge building in the Senate.”

What the establishment loved about Feinstein is clear from these obituaries: she opposed what elites deem the excesses of the Left. On the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, before Roe v. Wade, she carried out harsh penalties against illegal abortion providers, and in a 2022 interview with New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister, she didn’t seem to regret her actions in the least. As a senator, she supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, catastrophically. Even more horrendous, her husband, Richard Blum, had significant investments in the arms industry, which meant that Feinstein profited personally from the wars she backed — and, therefore, from the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, and Americans.

From 2015 on, the movement around Bernie Sanders gave Feinstein’s centrism a new importance for the ruling class. As the Washington Post put it, “she held down the center of the Democratic Party as it moved swiftly to the left.” She was a leading voice urging Sanders to drop out of the 2016 presidential primary, and publicly fretted ahead of the 2016 Democratic convention that his supporters would unleash riots and chaos, in a repeat of 1968. (Many Democratic elites believe that Richard Nixon won the presidency that year in part because of violent televised confrontations between police and antiwar protesters at the Democratic convention. A government-supported study later pinned the blame for most of the violence on the police, but that did not affect the narrative: liberals have been blaming the Left for the chaos and for Nixon’s election for the last fifty years.)

In recent years Feinstein’s role as centrist disciplinarian took the form, perhaps most notably, of bringing enormous condescension to the climate debate. When a group of children visited Feinstein’s office in 2019 as part of a delegation from the Sunrise Movement, the progressive climate group, demanding that the senator support the Green New Deal, the sweeping blueprint for decarbonizing the economy championed by democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Feinstein had the most bluntly patronizing reaction. “You can take that back to whoever sent you here,” she remarked, implying that the young people were not political actors in their own right. Learning that one of the activists was sixteen, she still dismissed her with a brusque “you didn’t vote for me.” Equally winningly, the senator informed the young people, “I’ve been doing this for thirty years. I know what I’m doing.“ The exchange went viral and served to educate many young people about the depraved indifference of the Senate — and Democratic Party leadership — to the very real threat climate change poses to their futures.

In what seemed a fitting coda to a career spent serving the monied class, Feinstein’s refused to give up her Senate seat to the very end despite the consequences. Because she was no longer able to reliably show up, Feinstein became an obstacle to confirming President Biden’s judicial nominees and counteracting the conservative project of stacking the judicial branch. Her absence also caused the defeat of Biden’s effort to curb pollution from heavy trucks, a measure that would have, over the next couple decades, saved an estimated 18,000 children from developing asthma.

Feinstein deserves credit for evolving on some issues, as all politicians should do. Like most centrist Democrats, she initially opposed but ultimately supported gay marriage. She changed her mind on the death penalty, eventually rejecting it. In one of her more dramatic and significant reversals, she went from an enthusiastic proponent of George Bush’s post–September 11 war on terror measures to one of their most powerful critics; as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she oversaw a 2014 report on the CIA’s horrific torture techniques, and the Obama Administration did not appreciate her honesty.

Those moments were admirable, but Feinstein should be remembered far more for her stalwart advocacy against the Left, and for representing the nation’s worst monied interests. Let’s hope her passing will be seen in retrospect as part of the demise of the centrist, plutocratic politics she espoused, in which socialists and young climate activists are mere irritants and war is just a good investment opportunity.