Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality • Lily Geismer • PublicAffairs Books • 2022 • 448 pages • $30
The progressive Democratic politicians first elected in the wake of Watergate in the 1970s, and whose influence peaked in the 1990s, have recently met their “OK, Boomer” moment. Once having gone “Clean for Gene”—cutting their hair and beards to campaign for Vietnam War opponent Senator Eugene McCarthy—and elected to office on promises of honest government and investments in education and health, to many on today’s left they seem hopelessly retrograde, “neoliberal,” clueless about economic power and racial inequities.
Many critical accounts of the generation highlight former Senator Gary Hart’s declaration in his first campaign in 1974 that “we’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys,” or the title of his stump speech that same year, “The End of the New Deal.”
To their sharpest critics, these mostly idealistic, reformist Democrats fall short not only in contrast to traditional liberals of the preceding generation such as Humphrey, but even in comparison to the geriatric, racist congressional committee chairs who had blocked progress for decades. Antitrust activist Matt Stoller, for example, has sought to elevate the reputation of the populist East Texas Congressman Wright Patman, one of three octogenarian committee chairs pushed out by the new generation in 1975. A signatory to the Southern Manifesto and opponent of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Patman should be an unlikely candidate for rehabilitation, but his New Deal roots and lifelong hostility to concentrated economic power undeniably represent an essential thread—connecting people to government by countering the power of the wealthiest—that was lost sometime in the 1970s.
As Democratic candidates continue to bleed support from counties and constituencies who would have the most to gain from their policies, it’s now clear that the transformation of the Democratic Party toward a coalition uneasily weighted toward the relatively affluent and college-credentialed begins with this generational passage in the last third of the twentieth century, and that much has been lost in that shift.
Like any historical episode that seems relevant to current circumstances, this one can be told in many versions, none of them altogether wrong. One is a tale of crude opportunism, in which amoral politicians lost sight of all principle in pursuit of money or power. That’s the version in Brooks Jackson’s still-influential 1988 book, Honest Graft, which revealed how then-House Whip Tony Coelho aligned congressional Democrats with business in a cold-blooded bargain for campaign contributions. In a related version, politicians such as Bill Clinton pandered to white Reagan voters, embracing racist stereotypes about welfare recipients and crime, driven by the obsession of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) with retaining the fragile allegiance of white Southern voters.
Or one can see those Boomer (or pre-Boomer, as in the case of Hart or Joe Biden) Democrats in slightly less cynical terms, as simply swept up in the hegemonic wave of neoliberal ideology traceable to the Mont Pelerin Society and the influence of Milton Friedman, along with the cult of the CEO in the 1980s and a fascination with the economic transformation that new technology might make possible. The nickname “Atari Democrats,” after the early video game company that created the cutting-edge tech of its time, “Pong,” reflects this interpretation.
Another version of the story is perhaps more Freudian. “We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys” was an all-too-obvious rejection of their fathers’ generation and all it represented, much like the similar reaction from younger Millennials and Gen Z, in our time, to older Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi. On one level, it was personal—a figure like Humphrey, born in 1911 and once at the vanguard on civil rights, had come to seem stuffy and compromised. But it was also systemic: Those whose formative experiences came in opposition to the Vietnam War understood, correctly, that the military overreach of the postwar era was inseparable from its domestic aspirations and compromises. They saw government agencies as subject to “regulatory capture,” and as an unaccountable power to be challenged no less than corporations. They saw the Keynesian consensus in economics failing in the context of stagflation and industrial decline in the 1970s. They saw labor unions, especially the AFL-CIO under George Meany and Lane Kirkland, as unresponsive, conservative, and more interested in institutional preservation than in worker power. They weren’t wrong about any of that.
As the final decades of the twentieth century pass from the realm of current events to that of history, a few historians, many young enough to look at the period with fresh eyes, have begun to make sense of this decisive turn. Lily Geismer’s first book, Don’t Blame Us, explored the suburbanization of the Democratic Party in Massachusetts, showing that it wasn’t just conservative or Southern states and politicians where Democrats turned against the older liberal tradition. Her latest, Left Behind (subtitled, misleadingly, The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality), takes a broader scope, beginning with the generation as it fought for “the soul of the party,’’ in a fight that was not ideological so much as “between new and old,’’ in the words of DLCer and longtime Biden adviser Bruce Reed.
Geismer’s subject here is not the characters, but the actual ideas that captivated the late twentieth century Democrats. Because it is a true intellectual history in this sense, it is more useful than other accounts, and also more respectful, without tempering its critique, because it takes these politicians and public intellectuals seriously on their own terms. If you look back at that era and wonder, “What were they thinking?,” the answer is probably here. The most charitable way to see the Boomer Democrats is to assume that they were searching, mostly in good faith, for a new way to connect most Americans to government and to the party that represented supportive government.
Geismer isn’t interested in all the ideas that motivated Democrats in this period. She doesn’t have much to say about student loan reforms or national service, China’s admission to the World Trade Organization (possibly the most politically consequential decision of the decade), NAFTA, or the end of the Cold War. Mostly it’s about the domestic social contract, and policies intended to lift people out of poverty or strengthen low-income communities. In narratives that range from concise summaries to sprawling accounts complete with short biographies of all the key players, she walks through the evolution of microfinance and microenterprise (the idea that community-based institutions making small loans could help individuals escape poverty and boost their neighborhoods through entrepreneurship), welfare reform, the Hope VI housing reforms, policies to help poor people accumulate financial assets, efforts to curb sweatshops, and changes to banking regulations, including the Community Reinvestment Act.
Such a vastly disproportionate portion of the book is devoted to microfinance, from its origins in Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, through the emergence of ShoreBank in Chicago and the effort to export its modest urban success to a rural context in Arkansas, with enthusiastic support from both Clintons, that one suspects the author set out to write a book on that topic alone, before adapting it to the context of Democratic Party history. That would be a fascinating book, but it’s not what the reader of this one expects.
Yoking together all these neoliberal or “market-based” ideas is useful insofar as it enables us to see the common threads among them and how they differ from both the progressive agenda that preceded them and what’s come to the fore more recently. But before getting to that, I should identify a few shortcomings in Geismer’s approach.
First, in her subtitle and often in the book, she describes these ideas as intended to address “inequality,” or sometimes “poverty and inequality.” But that’s not what 1990s Democrats thought they were doing. They thought they were addressing “poverty” alone. Concern about systemic inequality, such as the salary gap within companies, or the vast gulf between the top 1 percent by income and those in the economic middle, wasn’t at the center of public debate until at least the 2000s. It was elevated by the Occupy protests in 2011 and their framing of inequality as between the very richest and the “99 percent,” the rest of us.
The distinction matters, because while poverty is one dimension of inequality, on its own it can be seen as a fixable exception in an otherwise functioning market economy. The Boomer Democrats saw poverty as a “market failure,” Geismer notes, one that could be defined by the percentage of people living below an arbitrary income level and could be fixed by bringing them fully into the market economy. In treating poverty as a well-defined exception, the new Democrats had more in common with those of the 1960s, who worried about “poverty in the midst of plenty,” than they perhaps wanted to admit, and much less in common with today’s progressives, with their interest in deep structural economic reforms and universal benefits.
Second, while Geismer’s early chapters recognize all the various strains of Boomer Democrat, such as those who joined the DLC and those who avoided it, once she gets into the policy narratives at the heart of the story, they are mostly Clinton-centric. But there were Democrats who dissented in part from the ideas in this book, or had more traditional priorities, such as raising the minimum wage. During the 1990s, I worked for a Democratic senator, Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who strongly opposed welfare reform, was skeptical of the tax-cut model of Empowerment Zones, and challenged Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, from the left for the 2000 presidential nomination. But Bradley, elected in 1978, had also earlier been identified as one of the “Atari Democrats” and “neoliberals,” and in the 1990s he was enthusiastic about many of the other ideas in the agenda Geismer explores, such as asset strategies, the idea that Senator Cory Booker has resurrected as “baby bonds.” No less than the Clintons, Hart, Jerry Brown, or Representative Dick Gephardt (his early ally on tax reform), Bradley was a searcher, looking for anything that might seem to promise a new connection between people and government.
Besides members of Congress from this generation who took different approaches, notably the late Senator Paul Wellstone, there were also mayors and governors, as well as nonprofit and movement leaders working in their own way to reduce poverty. While Geismer touches on Reverend Jesse Jackson’s alignment with Clinton on his 1999 “New Markets” tour, reconciling two factions of Democrats from the 1980s, a more nuanced view of the competing traditions within the Democratic coalition at the time would be helpful, though I suspect one would find more consensus than dissent.
Geismer identifies the common thread connecting these policies as that they are “market-based,” or that they focused on “transforming poor women of color into financial actors and integrating them into the mainstream financial system.” That’s true, and certainly reflects the language used by Clinton and others who embraced the aphorism, attributed to Reinventing Government authors David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, that government should “steer, not row”—that is, it should try to nudge things in the right direction, while expecting the private sector to provide the capital and momentum for people to move forward.
But there’s more to it than just that the policies were market-based. After all, most U.S. social policy has always been indirect, fragmented, and market-based: Government doesn’t provide food, for example, but SNAP benefits (formerly Food Stamps) to buy food, or Pell Grants and loans to purchase higher education. Unemployment insurance is designed to keep people attached to the labor market. And if the newer policies had succeeded in giving poor people access to labor markets, financial markets, or the many federally subsidized benefits that multiply savings and assets, it would be hard to object. Recipients of AFDC or TANF, for example, would have been far better off in the labor market, even given the low minimum wage and costs of child care, than with benefits that in many states were, and still are, as low as $260 a month for a family of three—not much more than the two dollars a day per person that is the global standard for absolute destitution, or the equivalent of a full-time wage of about $1.60 an hour.
These programs didn’t fail because they were market-based, but for the particular way in which they interacted with the market economy. Geismer captures it in the title of one section. Most were sold as “win-wins”: That is, they had no redistributive element, little regulatory element, and no attempt to restructure the ground rules between labor and capital. That was the appeal. Microlending and microenterprise, expanding homeownership, and the tax incentives in Empowerment Zones would in theory benefit poor people and business simultaneously. In a complicated account of the reauthorization of the Community Reinvestment Act, Geismer notes that Clinton “made the somewhat dubious case that deregulation offered tools to advance traditional liberal social causes.” Nobody had to be made worse off to make the poorest better off. A charming idea, if it had worked.
Almost none of these “win-wins” worked. And some, such as the push for homeownership, made some of the poorest worse off, particularly those whose homes were foreclosed on during the financial crisis. Poor and working families became a source of new capital for Wall Street, but many did not see the benefits of capital themselves. Empowerment Zones were a dismal failure, but that didn’t stop the Republican Congress in 2017 from reviving the idea under the name Opportunity Zones, while making them a pure tax break for the wealthiest.
There was another category of ideas that perhaps could have worked if they had a redistributive element or real public investment, but that part was allowed to fall away. Geismer tells the story of welfare reform accurately, by starting in 1992 when Clinton embraced Harvard policy scholar David Ellwood’s vision of a program that might include time limits on welfare but would also involve such a sizeable investment in education and training, child care, and health and nutrition services that very few people would actually reach or be cut off by the time limits.
Such a plan essentially gave Clinton permission to embrace time limits and the catchphrase “end welfare as we know it.” But even if Democrats had held Congress in 1994, such a massive investment was unlikely, given the obsession even then with the federal budget deficit, and when Newt Gingrich’s Republicans took control of the House in 1995, rather than investing, they made the program a fixed block grant. Geismer notes that Michael Sherraden, an influential advocate for asset-building strategies, called attention to the many policies that subsidize savings and assets for the middle and upper class, such as the mortgage interest deduction, but that rather than reversing this injustice, he simply called for comparable benefits for all.
Another thing that struck me about these policy ideas was their origin stories and the path that led politicians to embrace them. For the most part, they were experiments or ideas from independent “policy entrepreneurs” such as Yunus, the ShoreBank founders, or Sherraden, who had pioneered them at a relatively small scale. Democratic politicians could spot those innovations, cite their successes, pay a visit, and then call for their expansion.
This wasn’t a particularly new approach to policy design. It’s how a lot of Great Society programs were designed: drawing inspiration from success in one community, calling it a “Model City,” and trying to replicate it everywhere. It’s also a familiar approach to policy in the world of philanthropy, from the Ford Foundation’s “Gray Areas Project” to the more recent efforts to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone—a well-funded program of comprehensive family and educational supports launched by the charismatic policy entrepreneur Geoffrey Canada—in communities across the country.
But most of these innovations didn’t scale. They worked with particular leadership, in the particular circumstances of a place and time. Microlending worked better in Chicago than in Arkansas, for example. And there’s still just one Harlem Children’s Zone.
What then are the alternative paths to find new policies and ideas? One answer is ideas born from broad and energized social movements. That’s what we’ve seen more of in the last few years: The Green New Deal. Single-payer health insurance. Student loan forgiveness. Antitrust enforcement. Reparations. Criminal justice reform. Cannabis legalization. Living wage campaigns. New energy in the labor movement. Sure, some of those ideas are impractical, aspirational, or divisive; but they do have the advantage that they are already at scale, they define social problems and solutions in clear terms of conflict and power, they embrace redistribution and regulation, and they have energized bases of popular support, although those supporters are still too few and are easily frustrated by the grinding compromises of the political process.
These recent developments should remind us that, inadequate as the progressive organizational infrastructure of our moment is, the Boomer Democrats had even less, and in particular, they didn’t have much engagement with real movement politics, even though many of them had come of age in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Jackson’s two presidential campaigns in the 1980s and his Rainbow Coalition had been exceptions, but for the most part, the 1990s were a quiescent decade. There was little organized movement against welfare reform, for example, or the Clinton crime bill. We can fault the Democrats of that era for treating organized labor as a self-interested, ossified special interest, but it would be more accurate to fault them for not recognizing that they needed organized labor to be a more vigorous and ambitious movement and not just a source of campaign contributions and Election Day drivers.
The more vigorous movement politics of our time has its origins in an event near the end of the period covered in this book: the 1999 protests at the WTO meetings in Seattle, “The Battle in Seattle.” Chaotic and violent as the protests were, and disconnected from anything in ordinary electoral or legislative politics (which was the point), Seattle marked the beginning of a focus on the structures that had driven inequality, and not just poverty, in the United States and globally. Geismer is oddly dismissive, arguing, “The Seattle activists did, nevertheless, inadvertently embolden the popularity of corporate social responsibility,” yet another win-win concept that promised capitalism sanitized of its excessive cruelties. But the long-term legacy of Seattle runs through Occupy to debt-relief movements, Bernie Sanders’s campaigns, reinvigoration of labor, the revitalization of old organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America and newer ones, and from there to the movement-driven policies that the Biden administration is struggling to accommodate. The story since the end of this book is one in which movement politics slowly reconnects with the Democratic Party and its agenda.
It’s tempting to end a review like this with a neat symmetry, suggesting that we should not discard the entire legacy of the Boomer Democrats, just as they should not have been so quick to dismiss the generation before them. But I can barely persuade myself of that, and I was there. Perhaps the best that can be said is that the compromised ambitions of the late twentieth century Democrats were, much like the policy successes they embraced, distinct products of their time, place, and circumstance, worth knowing about for historical reasons, but it’s time to leave those ambitions behind.