Promotional image for Left Behind book review
Left Behind: The Democrats' Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality, by Lily Geismer (PublicAffairs, March 1st, 2022)

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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