Lily Geismer: The Clinton Legacy is Well-Intentioned FailureHistorians in the News
tags: Bill Clinton, neoliberalism, political history, inequality, Democratic Party, centrism, DLC
In the 1970s, a new kind of Democrat began to appear on the scene. For a while, they went by different names. At first, they were the “Watergate Babies,” a misnomer because their primary opponent was not the Republican Party of Nixon, but their own. Then, as the 1980s came into view, they became the “Atari Democrats.” Young and elite-educated, they promised to make the postindustrial economy grow by encouraging entrepreneurship, investing in the burgeoning tech sector, and giving the market freer rein. Writing in 1982, Charles Peters of the Washington Monthly called them “neoliberals.” In 1984, when they decided to form an organization, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)—following the brief, meteoric rise of one of their own, Colorado Senator Gary Hart, in that year’s Democratic presidential primary—they embraced the label “New Democrats.” They aimed at nothing short of remaking the Democratic Party as it had been constituted for the previous half century: to reorient its electoral base away from organized labor and the Black working class, and toward affluent knowledge workers and white suburbanites; to make “leaner” a welfare state they believed had grown fat and to refashion the role of government in accordance with the logic of the market.
With the nomination and subsequent election of Bill Clinton in 1992, the New Democrats took control of the party, then the White House. Their ascendance to power, and what they did once they obtained it, is the subject of Lily Geismer’s new book, Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. A professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, Geismer tracks Clinton and the DLC’s enthusiastic efforts to apply market-based thinking to the intractable structural problems of US political economy. While the Reagan era had been marked by the demonization of the poor and the figure of the “welfare queen,” under Clinton marginalized people were refigured as potential entrepreneurs and savers. But those who failed to “play by the rules,” as Clinton liked to say, would still be stigmatized and punished. In 1994, Clinton signed the punitive crime bill, sponsored by Joseph R. Biden, that helped give rise to mass incarceration. In 1996, Clinton executed his promise “to end welfare as we know it.”
Clinton and the DLC, Geismer argues, sincerely believed that market-based micro-solutions—like community development banks, microenterprises, empowerment zones, and charter schools—could address macroeconomic problems. They were not cynical, at least not at first, nor were their proposals mere “triangulation” (that coinage, by pollster Dick Morris, became Clinton’s modus operandi as part of his campaign for a second term). Rather, Geismer shows, it was Clinton’s relentless optimism—a product of the 1990s economic boom—that blinded him and the officials in his administration to the inadequacy of their constructive initiatives and the destructiveness of their reforms. Nevertheless, this optimism was contagious. It shaped a new sensibility that ignored any contradiction between the accumulation of exorbitant wealth and the desire “to do good”; it furnished our culture with a new vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, the hucksterism of Silicon Valley, which remains with us today. Combined with the hard limits of political possibility, Geismer says, this conviction that a strong economy would, in the end, sort things out, accounts at least in part for why progressives’ protests of Clinton and the DLC’s program never congealed into a unified coalition that could mount sustained opposition. By the end of the 1990s, even those who had been among Clintonism’s most ardent opponents, like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, joined in celebrating Wall Street and Silicon Valley as partners in a market-based social policy.
I spoke with Lily Geismer about her new book, the electoral and ideological sides of Clintonism, and how the debates of the 1990s seem to live on, three decades later. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JOSHUA LEIFER: The book begins with the rise of the DLC, which at its start, you observe, is very much a group of white male Democrats, mainly from the Sunbelt states. They’re united by a strong distaste for the politics of welfare liberalism, for the New Deal, and especially for the Great Society programs. What specifically is their critique of the postwar Democratic Party, and what accounts for the ambition of their vision for remaking the role of government in American life?
LILY GEISMER: Their view of history is not an accurate one. They claimed, for instance, that the Great Society programs were deeply redistributive, which is not true. In reality, the Democratic Party had given up on truly redistributive politics almost by the end of the 1940s. And yet, their main concern, at the time, is that the party has become too focused on redistributive politics as a means to address poverty and inequality, and that it is not working. They also argue that the Democratic Party has become too beholden to special interest groups—by which they mean organized labor, civil rights organizations, environmental and feminist groups—and that this has limited the party’s electoral success. Then there’s the ideological or intellectual aspect to their critique: that because the party is too beholden to these special interest groups, it has prevented better thinking about how to stimulate economic growth and opportunity. When people look at the DLC, they often focus on their electoral strategy. But the DLC was very much an ideological project; it was very much about ideas. They were trying to sell a vision for changing the direction of both the Democratic Party and US liberalism more broadly, a vision with the idea of a partnership between the private and public sectors at its core.
They’re also deeply worried about the size of government and government inefficiency, which they believe can be addressed through market-oriented thinking. This is critical: One of the things I wanted to do in the book was to think about neoliberalism in a different way, to show that the neoliberalism of the DLC is different from that of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school variant. The DLC approach to market-based reform is that it’s going to make government work better, and that it’s going to help bring people out of poverty. The DLC isn’t just celebrating the greatness of the market, which you see on the right. They are focused on making the market work better, and as a corollary, making government more efficient.
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