NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, March 27th, 2022

Book Review: Left Behind puts the DLC’s failed track record under a microscope

Lily Geismer’s Left Behind offers an in depth his­to­ry of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty through the final decades of the last cen­tu­ry, recount­ing the emer­gence of the New Democ­rats, who worked to restruc­ture the par­ty and even­tu­al­ly were hand­ed the respon­si­bil­i­ty of gov­ern­ing dur­ing the pres­i­den­cy of Bill Clinton.

Deter­mined to move away from the lega­cy of the New Deal and the Great Soci­ety, the New Democ­rats formed the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil and focused on cre­at­ing “mar­ket based solu­tions” in an attempt to address eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ties and racial inequal­i­ty. These solu­tions proved to be wide­ly inef­fec­tive as well as exclu­sive, empow­er­ing a few while keep­ing far more trapped in poverty.

The DLC believed that focus­ing on microen­ter­prise would be more effec­tive than direct cash assis­tance (using, for exam­ple, small busi­ness loans, like those from the Good Faith Fund). Shore­bank, a bank formed in the south­side of Chica­go, became Clin­ton’s “gold stan­dard” for microenterprise.

The founders of Shore­bank sought to use pri­vate cap­i­tal to rebuild com­mu­ni­ties in Chica­go that had been suf­fer­ing for decades. They con­tend­ed that pro­vid­ing loans that pro­mot­ed self-employ­ment would arguably empow­er the impov­er­ished and cre­ate a “win-win” sit­u­a­tion between large investors and hurt­ing communities.

Bill Clin­ton, who at the time was the gov­er­nor of Arkansas, was so impressed by Shore­bank’s ear­ly suc­cess­es that he sought to adopt sim­i­lar poli­cies in his home state. But ear­ly attempts by Clin­ton to adapt microen­ter­prise poli­cies for use in Arkansas did not yield the results Clin­ton desired for the state’s communities.

Com­ing into the 1992 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the DLC decid­ed the best approach to secure vic­to­ry for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty would be to appeal to white bicon­cep­tu­al swing vot­ers. The DLC worked to pro­mote a “core faith in growth over redis­tri­b­u­tion and finan­cial incen­tives over cash assistance.”

The labor move­ment crit­i­cized this strat­e­gy and argued that unions and low­er income fam­i­lies would suf­fer from the par­ty’s appeal to white swing vot­ers. In the run-up to the elec­tion, the DLC made a con­scious effort to dis­as­so­ci­ate Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates from labor unions and pro­gres­sive leaders.

Left Behind book cover

Left Behind: The Democ­rats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequal­i­ty, by Lily Geis­mer (Pub­li­cAf­fairs, March 1st, 2022)

Clin­ton him­self deliv­ered speech­es in front of the DLC pro­mot­ing these ideas. In a mem­o­rable speech, he called for new laws mak­ing it hard­er to obtain pub­lic assis­tance and tough­en­ing penal­ties for vio­la­tions of crim­i­nal statutes — two pil­lars of his agen­da that he would lat­er call the “New Covenant.”

Con­tin­u­ing his cam­paign agen­da as Pres­i­dent, Clin­ton sought to cre­ate a Shore­bank in every impov­er­ished community.

Before long, the admin­is­tra­tion real­ized the task of cre­at­ing hun­dreds of com­mu­ni­ty invest­ment banks was unachievable.

But Clin­ton still want­ed to estab­lish a way for large scale investors to, “[do] well by doing good.” He attempt­ed to set up both Empow­er­ment Zones and the Com­mu­ni­ty Rein­vest­ment Act, which “were poised to make lit­tle dif­fer­ence in the lives of the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple liv­ing in eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­tressed areas.”

Clin­ton’s agen­da even­tu­al­ly cul­mi­nat­ed in the 1996 Wel­fare Act, “which ful­filled Bill Clinton’s cam­paign to ‘end wel­fare as we know it.’ ”

By cut­ting wel­fare assis­tance and over­es­ti­mat­ing mar­ket based solu­tions, Clin­ton and Repub­li­cans in Con­gress left hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­can fam­i­lies with­out assis­tance or access to cred­it. The idea that turn­ing to mar­kets was the recipe for lift­ing peo­ple out of pover­ty was shown to be a failure.

Apply­ing the same agen­da to pub­lic hous­ing, the Hous­ing Oppor­tu­ni­ties for Peo­ple Every­where (HOPE VI) plan was adopt­ed by the admin­is­tra­tion in order to com­plete­ly restruc­ture the nation’s pub­lic hous­ing sys­tems. In order to make impov­er­ished areas more prof­itable, the plan called for demol­ish­ing pub­lic hous­ing projects to make room for new projects over­seen by pri­vate developers.

This result­ed in thou­sands of peo­ple being dis­placed. The project plan­ners incor­rect­ly and irre­spon­si­bly assumed that peo­ple would find hous­ing else­where. Hous­ing was close­ly tied with “tough on crime” poli­cies by restrict­ing crim­i­nals and their fam­i­lies from access­ing pub­lic hous­ing. The “One Strike You’re Out” pol­i­cy required con­vict­ed felons and their fam­i­lies to be imme­di­ate­ly evicted.

These poli­cies dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact­ed Black communities.

As the incar­cer­a­tion rate of Black peo­ple tripled in the 1990s, Black fam­i­lies were unable to find hous­ing else­where as land­lords con­sis­tent­ly dis­crim­i­nat­ed against the Black com­mu­ni­ty and those using Sec­tion 8 vouchers.

At the same time, pub­lic edu­ca­tion dol­lars began to be increas­ing­ly divert­ed to char­ter schools. Strong protests from unions like NEA and AFT were unsuc­cess­ful in pre­vent­ing elect­ed offi­cials from steer­ing mon­ey into pri­vate­ly run schools that were sup­posed to improve out­comes for stu­dents and reduc­ing inequity, but end­ed up sim­ply drain­ing resources away from pub­lic schools.

Look­ing back on the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion and the New Democ­rats allows read­ers to see just how sig­nif­i­cant­ly these poli­cies shaped the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Left Behind pro­vides a thor­ough exam­i­na­tion of the par­ty’s tra­jec­to­ry from the Great Soci­ety to the twen­ty-first century.

As some­one who was not alive dur­ing the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, I found this book to be par­tic­u­lar­ly cap­ti­vat­ing, often shed­ding light the ori­gin of pol­i­cy posi­tions espoused by promi­nent Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers today.

Geis­mer pro­vides in-depth back­ground on cab­i­net mem­bers and oth­er key par­ty lead­ers, both well known and not so well known.

The inef­fec­tive­ness of the DLC’s poli­cies is dis­cussed in the con­clud­ing chap­ters, where Geis­mer offers dis­heart­en­ing evi­dence that Clin­ton Era “Empow­er­ment Zones” are fac­ing even high­er lev­els of pover­ty today than they were in 1990.

Focus­ing on stok­ing eco­nom­ic growth rather pro­vid­ing assis­tance direct­ly to peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing pover­ty left many Amer­i­cans with lit­tle to no resources dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, a time when eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty con­tin­ued to rise.

Geis­mer per­sua­sive­ly argues the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty must step up and cham­pi­on a more appro­pri­ate bal­ance between the pub­lic and the private.

Left Behind won’t be enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly received in some quar­ters. Writ­ing for The Wash­ing­ton Post, David Green­berg has com­piled a list of what he con­sid­ers to be holes in the book, which you can read here. Tim­o­thy Noah, mean­while, had a much more favor­able take on the book for The New York Times.

Democ­rats need to strength­en the coun­try’s social con­tract in order to prop­er­ly sup­port those who have been left behind. The par­ty began to do that with the Amer­i­can Res­cue Plan last year, but Pres­i­dent Biden’s pro­posed Build Back Bet­ter Act ran smack into West Vir­gini­a’s Joe Manchin in the Unit­ed States Senate.

Reviv­ing part or all of Build Back Bet­ter before the midterms will be of vital impor­tance if the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is to avoid repeat­ing the mis­takes of the past.

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