Lily Geismer on the Dismal Legacy of the "New Democrats"Historians in the News
tags: Bill Clinton, neoliberalism, Democratic Party, 1990s
On December 21, 2000, shortly before leaving office, President Bill Clinton signed the New Markets Tax Credit Program into law, as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2001. He called it “the most significant effort ever to help hard-pressed communities lift themselves up through private investment and entrepreneurship.” Legacy-defining stuff, in other words. Or, as a new book argues, “a fitting capstone to Clinton’s relentless overselling of what small market–based antipoverty programs could do.”
To build support for the program’s passage, Clinton had gone on a nation-spanning “New Markets” tour of poor places, both urban and rural. Clinton visited Appalachia, South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, Chicago, East Palo Alto, rural North Carolina, and more. For stretches of these tours, he was accompanied by the civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who twice vied for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s with his “Rainbow Coalition” of the urban and rural poor and working class.
This might have looked like a rapprochement: The Democratic Leadership Council, which Clinton led prior to his presidency, had notoriously denied Jackson an invitation to its 1991 conference, and Jackson had long decried the organization as the “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” But it was more of a victory lap for the DLC. By 2000, the DLC and Clinton’s vision not just for the Democratic Party but for the economy as a whole had fully won. Jackson, who by this point had opened an office on Wall Street, had reoriented his civil rights activism around trying to get the financial industry to invest in dispossessed communities. The Clintonian project had prevailed. The economy was humming, and the government was running a surplus. The Third Way was riding high.
Except in those places Clinton had decided to visit in the last days of his second term. Jackson later recalled “one of the corporate leaders” beside him on a dais, looking out at the crowd in Pine Ridge, saying, “I’ve always just seen Indian reservations…. Now, I see two supermarkets. I see a car dealership. I see 7,000 people wearing clothes. I see a market.” Where once there had merely been marginalized and impoverished people, now there was a market—that is, the potential for someone else to make a profit off of those people.
The “New Markets” tour was meant to be a sales pitch for an anti-poverty program. The historian Lily Geismer presents it as, instead, a tour of the wreckage of Bill Clinton’s presidency and a window into the blinkered ideology of his broader political movement. Her new book, Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality, should make almost any left-of-center reader retroactively furious about the 1990s and the inability of its architects to foresee the twenty-first century they were creating.