Review: Lily Geismer's Denunciation of Clintonism Ignores Clear Economic ImprovementHistorians in the News
tags: Bill Clinton, reviews, political history, New Democrats, Democratic Leadership Council, Centrists
David Greenberg is a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University and a Cullman Center fellow at the New York Public Library for 2021-22.
Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality
By Lily Geismer
PublicAffairs. 434 pp. $30
By the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the poverty rate was the lowest in decades. The U.S. economy was enjoying an unprecedented expansion, with unemployment and inflation at 30-year lows. Prosperity was broadly shared. Median family income rose as it hadn’t since the 1960s. Black and Hispanic Americans escaped indigence in record numbers. The bottom fifth of all earners, unlike in the 1980s, saw their incomes climb too.
You won’t find these facts in “Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality,” Lily Geismer’s broadside against Clinton-era economic policy. A historian at Claremont McKenna College and a contributor to Jacobin and Dissent, Geismer wears her Sandersite politics on her sleeve. She wants the Democrats to “stop trying to make the market do good,” “stop trying to fuse the functions of the federal government with the private sector” and adopt a system in which the state alone furnishes generous social services and “well-paying jobs.”
Geismer calls these imperatives “lessons” to take from her book, but they read as assumptions she took to the book. Instead of a dispassionate, scholarly analysis of which Clinton-era policies worked and which failed — and the ledger shows examples on both sides — “Left Behind” offers ideology in the form of history, with scant power to convince anyone not aligned with her politics.
“Left Behind” isn’t the overview of Clinton-era economic policy suggested by its title and flap copy. The book deals mainly with the niche topic of microfinance — the practices, developed by the Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, of giving modest loans to small manufacturers and entrepreneurs in poor regions to help them accrue wealth. These practices caught Clinton’s attention when he was governor of Arkansas, and his White House drew upon them in devising some of its anti-poverty strategies. Geismer argues that these strategies (and related ideas, such as enterprise zones) had only a modest effect on poverty. This is probably the case, but then they constituted only a minor part of Clinton’s agenda, and Geismer strains to position them as central.
Reading “Left Behind,” I wondered if Geismer had planned to write a monograph on microfinance and, perhaps realizing its limited significance or appeal, decided to widen her lens with chapters on housing and education and a through-line about Clintonism’s failure. Whatever the book’s genesis, the result is uneven. The microfinance initiatives get chapter after chapter, while more important policy interventions are dealt with summarily or not at all.
Geismer’s target here isn’t just the Clinton White House but the whole movement within the post-1960s Democratic Party to face up to the economic inadequacy and political unpopularity of certain old-line left-liberal positions. After Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection — the Republicans’ third landslide in four elections — reformers founded the Democratic Leadership Council to rethink party orthodoxies. The DLC was influential in its day, and its story has been well told (see Kenneth Baer’s “Reinventing Democrats”). Geismer uses the DLC backstory chiefly as a way to inflate her critique of Clinton’s microfinance experiments into a more sweeping denunciation of the Democrats’ late-20th-century reorientation.