The Democrats Didn’t Just Fail to Defend Social Programs. They Actively Undermined Them.
In the ’80s and ’90s, the Democrats took a jackhammer to education, housing, and social welfare. This isn’t the story of a weak party unable to defend its earlier gains, but a transformed party demolishing them in service of a new neoliberal ideology.
- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
The Trump era inspired a wave of reckonings with the history and trajectory of the Republican Party. The Democratic Party often takes a passive role in these narratives, forever crafting an agenda in response to the actions of a more aggressive, emboldened Republican Party post-Reagan. Amid the erosion of organized labor, the dismantling of social welfare programs, and the deregulation of corporations in the latter half of the twentieth century, Democrats’ failure to defend or repeat their most ambitious projects, like the New Deal or the Great Society, seemingly testifies to their relative powerlessness in the face of Republican governance.
Historian Lily Geismer’s new book Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality is a comprehensive and critical look at the development of the Democratic Party, from the Watergate Babies to the neoliberal turn under Bill Clinton and beyond. In Geismer’s account, the Democratic Party has not simply been playing defense for half a century; instead, Democrats actively undermined New Deal–era social programs as they sought to marketize public goods for maximum efficiency.
Jacobin’s Daniel Denvir sat down with Geismer to discuss how the story of the new right can only be understood alongside the past fifty years of neoliberalization in the Democratic Party. You can listen to the episode here. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
There’s a version of the history of the neoliberalization of the Democratic Party which presents Ronald Reagan’s greatest achievement as Bill Clinton — that it was, in essence, a reaction to the Reagan revolution.
You write, “When Democrats appear in these accounts, they are largely disorganized and weakened, defensively creating policies and electoral strategies in reaction to Republicans.” What do we miss when we don’t take the New Democrats’ political project seriously?
This question launched my thinking about this project. I wanted to go beyond thinking only about the Democratic Party as a weak party that’s in defensive reaction, which doesn’t give much of a road map for understanding current tensions within the party that can’t be explained through that lens. I also think it also lets the Democrats off the hook.
The story has been told, both about Clinton and also about Obama, that everything was done in reaction to the Republicans. This goes to the classic story of triangulation, which is often how the Clinton years are talked about — that Clinton stole the Right’s “best” idea by turning to the market.
I wanted to understand the fundamental intent behind some of the party’s thinking. And I wanted to think about this not just as a strategic reaction to the Republicans but as a genuine ideology — one that was behind many of the policies and the agenda of the Democratic Party from the 1970s to the end of the Clinton administration and beyond.
New Democrats didn’t believe in the right-wing, libertarian ideal of a minimal state so much as they believed in using the state to shape desirable outcomes through the market. What role was government supposed to play in the globalized, unipolar market world of the ’90s?
New Democrats still believed in a place for government, but that government needed to be reinvented. That was actually the name of a book by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. Osborne was affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its think tank, the Progressive Policies Institute. It’s not part of common discussion, but the idea that government needed to be reinvented was hugely influential in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The vision of that book — which the New Democrats, especially Bill Clinton and Al Gore, took on in office — was the idea that the government should act as a catalyst whose purpose was to create linkages between the public and private sectors. More pointedly, the goal was to transfer to the private sector work that was once the responsibility of the public sector.
The idea was that you could turn to the private sector to fulfill traditional liberal goals that were left up to the social welfare state in previous Democratic initiatives, like the Great Society or the New Deal. And at the same time, there was the idea of making government itself more efficient: streamlining bureaucracy and bringing market tools into the actual practices of government in order to use what is conceivably effective about this private sector and make government more effective.
That’s a really critical part. It’s not always about seeing the private sector as a mechanism for profit; it’s about seeing it as a more efficient and effective mechanism for achieving particular traditional liberal ideals.
Faith in markets as a vehicle for social change was not new to the New Democrats, but a fundamental feature of liberalism through much of the twentieth century. You argue that New Democrat ideology grew out of Democratic ideology, rather than being just a Republican-inspired break from what had come before. What were these unexpected New Deal and Great Society roots of a politics that has done so much to undo the legacy of the New Deal and Great Society?
It’s like I always tell my students: the New Deal is really complicated, and it has a lot of dueling components. A critical part of the New Deal was an effort to save and remake capitalism, and to make capitalism work in particular ways. There has always been a market-oriented dimension to liberalism, even in the Progressive Era and onward through the New Deal. Then, the Great Society believed in a particular role for markets, as well as in economic growth as the mechanism to create other kinds of prosperity.
The key difference I see, which I track through the phrase “doing well by doing good,” is that the New Deal and Great Society liberals believed in those as two separate things. They believed that you have the “doing well,” economic growth through various markets. This is traditional Keynesian economic theory. And then you have the “doing good,” the social welfare state as a separate category.
Many of the architects of these kinds of programs understood that you had to have economic growth in order to be able to provide certain parts of the social welfare state. But their idea was that the government would step in when things weren’t working. What I see as critically different about the New Democrat approach is that it tried to combine those two things, the market and the welfare state. It said that the market could do the work that was once done by social welfare.
The classic example of this is welfare reform and welfare-to-work. The idea behind welfare-to-work is that you’re bringing new workers into the labor markets, so the market itself can solve that problem. So you don’t need cash assistance, because you’re going to get that through a job, and that also keeps the economy going, because you have more workers. They describe this as a “win-win,” and that’s how they’re confusing those two functions together.
The New Democrats under Clinton eradicated Glass–Steagall, causing the deregulation or separation of the financial markets. The idea is that competition will create economic growth, and that will be good for Americans. It’s thought about in similar terms as welfare-to-work: doing something that will help people, but doing so in a way that uses the market, as opposed to protecting the average American from the market.
New Democrats, you write, “uniformly provided small or micro-solutions to large structural or macro problems.” How did they go about disparaging macro solutions like the New Deal and the War on Poverty?
This predates Clinton and the New Democrats, and goes back to their earlier iteration, the Watergate Babies or the Atari Democrats of the ’70s. They positioned themselves as new through the idea that they weren’t really against the Republicans. They were more against this older style of Democrat. They often used a straw-man version of New Deal liberalism and especially the Great Society as big bureaucratic programs.
They also focused on economic growth as opposed to redistributive solutions. To that end, they actually overemphasized how redistributive the New Deal and especially the Great Society were. The Great Society was explicitly not a redistributive initiative. Lyndon Johnson was opposed to welfare. It was the idea of not a handout, but a hand up, with all these programs of empowerment.
The New Democrats represented the Great Society and its accomplishments inaccurately. It was actually a lot of small programs. A lot of it was public-private programs turning to nonprofits to do the work. Instead of being fully government-run, it was government-overseen.
In their efforts to critique what the Great Society and War on Poverty were doing and to show that they were new, the New Democrats actually reused many of those older ideas.
What would become the New Democrats burst onto the national political scene with Gary Hart, a Colorado senator who shocked everyone by winning the 1984 Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire.
He was known as the yuppie candidate, a neologism of that era. And he was also known as a leader of a cohort that included Bill Bradley, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Paul Tsongas, and Tim Wirth: a cohort called the Atari Democrats, a name given to them for their emphasis on reorienting Democratic politics toward a high-tech future.
But before they were Atari Democrats, they were the Watergate Babies. And they were all men elected to Congress in the wake of [Richard] Nixon’s impeachment. Who were the Watergate Babies, and how did they become the Atari Democrats?
The Watergate Babies arrived on the scene in the aftermath of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation in the 1974 election. That title is inaccurate in some ways; they weren’t really running against the Republicans. It was more about the older version of the Democratic Party.
The group was mostly white men in their thirties and forties who represented middle-class suburban districts. They ran on an effort to clean up Congress. And they were against the older dynamics of the Democratic Party, especially its focus on bureaucracy, but also its negotiation style — backroom politics.
They also felt the party becoming too beholden to what they called “special interests,” including — although they were evasive about this — groups of people of color and the feminist movement. But they were especially upset about the Democratic Party’s ties to organized labor and felt that this relationship was dragging the party down.
They were particularly opposed to people like Hubert Humphrey and Tip O’Neill. When Gary Hart won his election, he said, “We’re not going to be a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys.” That was a special dig at his relationship to the labor movement.
The other component of their opposition to labor wasn’t just electoral; it was also economic. The Watergate Babies, who would later become the Atari Democrats, understood that the other core thing going on in 1974 was the major recession the country was facing.
As I argue in this book, and as others have argued, that wasn’t just an economic crisis; it was an intellectual crisis in that it proved that the Keynesian model was just not working. You couldn’t balance unemployment and inflation in the ways that Keynes and his acolytes had argued.
We all know the story about how [Friedrich] Hayek, [Milton] Friedman, and the neoliberals responded to that crisis with the ideas that they had laying around.
There was a search for new solutions. This was where Hayek and Friedman got new attention to their ideas.
But the other side of this was the solution of the Watergate Babies, the Atari Democrats, which was slightly different: to turn to new industries, particularly the postindustrial sector. I looked at this in my first book, which was about why Democrats have come to embrace tech. They saw that older manufacturing was on the way out, and that it could be easily outsourced to the Global South.
Instead, the solution to the US economy lay in three sectors: tech, trade, and finance. They started to push this as an economic agenda, and their relentless focus, particularly on the tech industry, is what led to them to be called the Atari Democrats.
Tim Wirth and Gary Hart became big proponents of this, as well as Al Gore and Bill Clinton, who came slightly later. Clinton actually ran for Congress in 1974 and would have been part of the Watergate Babies, but he lost. Then he ran for governor of Arkansas four years later. He was a big believer in the idea that the salvation of Arkansas and of the nation lay in this postindustrial vision.
This history goes back to new politics that emerged from the more reformist edge of the New Left — back, in other words, to the politics of Eugene McCarthy’s failed 1968 antiwar primary candidacy, the McGovern Commission, and George McGovern’s failed 1972 antiwar general election campaign for president.
The Clintons were both involved in the McGovern campaign. Gary Hart was McGovern’s campaign manager. How did the politics of this corner of the New Left lay the groundwork for the neoliberal Third Way? Even in 2016, all the way through 2020, we saw Clinton types pointing to McGovern’s blowout loss to Nixon as the reason why we couldn’t have Bernie [Sanders] be the Democratic nominee.
This argument is brought up time and time again. First of all, there’s often an overselling of how liberal some of those candidates were. There’s a narrative about Mike Dukakis being a liberal that he was not. In some ways, you see that with McGovern, too; he was not quite the lefty that he often gets promoted to be.
One of the reasons that the DLC people began to see Clinton as a viable presidential candidate was because he had these these New Left bona fides. He would be someone whom liberals would get on board with because he was part of the McGovern campaign.
My parents had T-shirts around the inauguration that had him playing the saxophone. That was huge.
My husband and I were recently talking about our oldest pieces of clothing, and he has one of those too, from the 1992 campaign.
The McGovern campaign is really interesting in terms of who was attracted to it. It was a lot of technocratic-type figures who believed in things like transparency, and that’s really what the McGovern Commission reforms were trying to do: to make things work in what they saw as a more effective way.
In some ways, this meant giving voice to different kinds of people. But ultimately, middle-class whites did really well in the McGovern Commission reforms. They gained a lot of power within the system in a way that’s not always recognized.
This legacy of the technocratic dimension of liberalism carried on into the Atari Democrats, who then joined the DLC. There were actually two tributaries to the DLC that would converge. One was the group of Tim Wirth–style people who believed in economic growth through trade and using more market-oriented solutions. The other side, which was in Congress, was moderate Southern Democrats.
What ended up happening? It’s the story of the New Democrats. In the early 1980s, a whole group of people in Congress worked on this. They had an organization called the Committee for Party Effectiveness. They put out a big report about the “road to opportunity,” which talks about the idea of investment. They were critical of the idea of investing in postindustrial sectors of the economy.
They built on a lot of the ideas of postindustrial policy that were advocated by people like Robert Reich and Lester Thurow. They had critical ideas coming forward.
This whole process was guided by a Louisiana Democrat.
Gillis Long was from the famed Louisiana Democrat Long family. Huey [Long] himself broke from his relatives in his support of civil rights. He became the head of the House Democratic Caucus.
In the aftermath of Reagan’s win in 1980, he believed that the party needed to do something new, and that they should do it through the caucus. He brought in Al From, who had been a staffer and was actually working in the [Jimmy] Carter administration, to be his chief of staff.
He had also worked on the War on Poverty.
Yes, he’d worked on the War on Poverty in Mississippi. But he was frustrated by the Carter administration. When he came in, they were thinking about something new to do. They came up with a group called the Committee on Party Effectiveness, trying to come up with a new agenda.
In many ways, Gary Hart’s 1984 campaign became a vessel for this argument. It became a symbol of these ideas. He did actually do quite well. The 1984 Democratic primary was an interesting moment to see the different paths of where the party could have gone.
Hart ultimately loses to Walter Mondale. Jesse Jackson was also a critical player. And then in the Democratic primary, even at the Democratic Convention, when Mondale was going to accept the nomination, this group of Democrats come together — an Atari Democrat wing and a group of Southern moderate Democratic governors who see the key to the Democratic Party’s future in white, moderate, suburban voters, people like Chuck Robb in Virginia. They ultimately decided to come together to form a new organization called the Democratic Leadership Council. They announced the formation right after the 1984 elections, in early 1985. They blame Mondale for everything, and this is the symbol of the failures of the Democratic Party.
Mondale was even more than Hubert Humphrey’s mentor. He was seen as a successor, but he was even closer to organized labor than Humphrey was. To [the DLC], he stood as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the Democrats, a symbol of failure. After he lost in a historic landslide election, his loss only confirmed that the Democratic Party needed to do something different.
That’s where the DLC comes from. Interestingly, in 1988, Atari Democrat Michael Dukakis’s loss to George H. W. Bush didn’t lead to them declaring themselves failures.
As a side note, neither Gary Hart nor Mike Dukakis were members of the DLC. I asked Al From this when I interviewed him. They were very much in line with the group’s thinking. It just had more to do with Democratic Party palace drama that neither of them actually joined it.
They didn’t see themselves as failures after that. They did appropriate some of the narrative of Mike Dukakis: that he was a Massachusetts liberal, and they needed to do something different. But in terms of policy substance, he was aligned with what the DLC and the New Democrats were arguing for.
After the 1984 election, the DLC became the organizational vehicle for the New Democrats, leading to Clinton’s successful presidential campaign in 1992. But throughout the 1980s, the DLC’s rise was energetically resisted from the left by Rainbow Coalition leader and two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, who quite hilariously mocked the DLC as “the Democrats for the leisure class.”
The DLC was also attacked by organized labor, other black Democrats, and plain old establishment liberals. What did that resistance to the DLC look like through the 1980s, up until Clinton won the nomination in ’92?
They faced opposition, and there were further tensions. This is a place where you can see some of these tensions playing out which we see within the Democratic Party today. There actually were active voices of opposition and different strands within the party at this particular moment.
Jesse Jackson was the most vehement, most public opponent. He later called them “the Democrats of the suburban class,” and had all these names accusing them of trying to suburbanize the Democratic Party.
When the DLC formed, they were all white men, particularly white Southern men. Matt Lassiter always tells me not to say that they were all Southern white men, not blaming everything on the South. There were some people from the Midwest and the West —
They decide to make Dick Gephardt their first leader because he would give them a non-Southern vibe. He’s from Missouri.
And a lot of the Atari Dems are from Massachusetts.
And some of the Atari Dems are from Massachusetts. They’re from all over, but because they’re all white men, it gives a particular gloss to their image. They got attacked a lot on that when they first formed; they actually did try to move beyond that, bringing in people of color and some women to try to diversify their image.
But they were very much the white men–dominated image. People have asked me what I was the most surprised by while working on the book. I had always seen the New Democrats as oblivious or ignorant of organized labor — as if it was just not on their radar. What I found writing this book was outright hostility to organized labor. They really tried to marginalize labor’s voice within the Democratic Party, both in terms of its electoral role and its place in terms of policy. The other critical thing about the DLC is that oftentimes they’ve been looked at purely in terms of their political strategy, but they also have a very clear kind of ideological agenda. They were not just trying to win elections. They also wanted to change the ideological tenor of the party.
There were different ways forward that they could have gone. That was where they stood at this particular moment. The 1988 election was interesting in that it was a relatively crowded Democratic primary field. Gary Hart reran; he left in scandal.
Al Gore ran in that election, as did Joe Biden, who was a founding member of the DLC. Ultimately, the DLC decided not to support Biden because they didn’t think he was ideologically pure enough. They found him too much of a maverick and they didn’t think he was adequately in line with their vision.
They supported Al Gore strongly. Both candidates lost. Mike Dukakis won the primary.
It was also Jackson’s second run.
In some ways, Jackson’s second run broadened his vision. And Jackson was putting really progressive ideas on the table.
In the aftermath of the ’88 election, the DLC didn’t change direction totally. But they did issue their own version of an autopsy of the election, written by two political scientists, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck. They called it The New Politics of Evasion. The document goes after the problems of the Democratic Party, asking why they keep losing and what they need to do to win.
It was a fascinating document and set of agendas. They argue that there are two ways that the Democrats can win. They’re exclusively focused on the presidency: what the Democrats need to do is focus on winning presidential elections. That’s their path to being viable.
The DLC also argued that the way for Democrats to win is to go after swing voters, especially voters drifting toward the Republican party: moderate, white, Southern suburbanites, and Reagan Democrat types. The other side of that is to not target nonvoters, which was the Jackson coalition.
The solution was not to try to win over and galvanize grassroots support from people of color or from other kinds of marginalized groups who don’t traditionally vote in elections. It was to win by going after these other voters. This became critical to the strategy of the DLC, but also to the mainstream Democratic Party going forward.
Your book goes a long way to explain why working-class people didn’t just leave the party; they were actively pushed out. And it’s clear that this suicidal philosophy guided Democrats at least all the way through 2016, when Chuck Schumer infamously said, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in Western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia.” Why did these New Democrats want a new base so badly?
They saw it as stability. This guides Schumer’s thinking, too: this is a much more stable category. It aligns with their own ideological agenda.
Whoever wins elections gets to shape policy. You’re shaping policy for your particular constituencies. If you don’t believe in shoring up organized labor more broadly, then that’s not the kind of voter you would go out to get.
They were not overtly racist. It’s just not the kind of agenda to fulfill the expectations you’d need to fulfill if you were trying to win over Jesse Jackson’s base. Jesse Jackson promised broad-scale, redistributive, and universalist programs. That was not part of where the New Democrats were going.
This hurt the Democratic Party. You alienate large-scale groups of people and create a kind of tunnel vision. Focusing on the presidency as the way to gain stability tremendously hurt the Democratic Party.
Look at all those state legislative seats that disappeared under Obama, which the Democratic Party never won back.
This is not to tout the Republicans, but I think they figured this out: you deepen the base. There was no investment in that by the Democratic Party for many years; it’s been a real hindrance, and created some of the party’s homogeneity in various different ways. It’s affected things at a broad-scale level, and continues to create all kinds of cascading consequences. And I think state legislators are critical.
You said that the DLC wasn’t explicitly hostile to older constituencies, like black Democrats, but they got pretty close to making overt racist appeals. The DLC specifically and explicitly snubbed Jackson, and even tried to humiliate him, drawing him out as a foil, you write, as part of their “laser focus on winning the presidency by appealing to white moderates and working-class swing voters who had defected to the Republicans in the previous election cycles.”
The DLC was not subtle. They called for “preventing crime and punishing criminals, not explaining away their behavior” and for “equal opportunity, not equal outcomes,” a reference to affirmative action.
We often think of neoliberalism primarily in economic terms, but what does it reveal that New Democrats’ politics advancing free trade, deregulation, and nonunion high-tech work were accompanied by reactionary appeals and policies on criminal justice, immigration, affirmative action, and the explicit promotion of the heteronormative nuclear family, all alongside brazen confrontations with black leaders, particularly Jesse Jackson?
One component of this is the emphasis on individualism and individual rational behavior in neoliberalism. It demands particular kinds of behavioral responses. That is critical to the New Democrats, especially under Clinton.
Clinton has his own long trajectory, which my book looks at. I’m happy to talk about his relationship to people of color and to poor people, and what he understands as the right solution. I argue that he brings a lot of that to the DLC.
Welfare reform, you write, is basically a thing he brought to the DLC’s table.
They were poking around at welfare, but welfare and education issues were the things that he brought in. My book looks extensively at his focus on microfinance and community development banking, which were the programs that Clinton invested in.
A lot of the ways that those operate — this goes to the punitive criminal justice programs — are about redefining the line between who’s a “good” poor person of color and who’s a “bad” poor person of color. We see this around the “welfare queen” rhetoric.
In the book, I say that Clinton and the Democrats just moved the line. There was a particular kind of poor person of color whom they would celebrate and advocate for, someone who can operate within the structures of market capitalism, and who, as Clinton talked about at various different points, would play by the rules.
If you’re not breaking the rules and you’re doing all these kinds of things, if you also wanted to be a future tech worker or entrepreneur, that was celebrated. But if you were not that person, this system had punitive dimensions. If you think about this as neoliberalism, that does map onto the economic agenda that the New Democrats and the Clinton administration came to advocate for. It worked within what they called the “new economy.”
A lot of people ask what happens after 1994, once Clinton is in office. There’s an idea that Clinton only brought welfare reform to the New Democrats after the reaction to the Republicans.
Right, that it was a reaction to the [Newt] Gingrich Republican revolution of ’94, and Clinton tacking right in response. But in fact, he’d been a big advocate of welfare reform and welfare-to-work from his time as governor in Arkansas.
When you ask the question about what’s missed when you only focus on telling the story in terms of the Right, that’s what’s missed. This was something Clinton had long advocated for. I think that the ’96 law would not have been as punitive if Clinton had had his way, but if you actually look at the 1996 welfare reform law, it’s extraordinarily draconian and shocking to me, even as someone who’s studied this for a long time.
I do think a lot of that did come from the Republicans — the fact that even authorized immigrants wouldn’t receive welfare. I don’t think they would have added the marriage training components had it not been for certain socially conservative Republicans getting their add-on.
This is an example of the role played by triangulation and reaction to Republicans, because it was really the influence of Machiavellian political strategist Dick Morris who was looking for “insurance for Clinton’s reelection campaign against Bob Dole.” Even, you write, “Robert Rubin, the Wall Street treasury secretary who was typically on the right of the administration,” opposed Gingrich’s welfare bill.
It’s not like Clinton was forced into welfare reform. The core ideas of welfare reform were things that Clinton believed in, as well as the ideas of welfare-to-work. He wanted to have more social services than the final bill suggested, but this was critical to his entire persona and worldview. This was a core component of the 1992 election and campaign that he ran on: ending welfare as we know it.
The intent was in some ways different than that of Reagan and the Republicans. But there was all of this targeting of poor people of color in different ways. That, to me, is central to understanding their vision. There’s a variety of different things on crime and on how it gets appropriated that are really important. But that particular moment was a clear dog whistle moment to all of those white moderates, saying that Clinton would not be beholden to “special interests.” He was a new kind of Democrat, one who would not kowtow to the Civil Rights Movement or to people like Jesse Jackson.
In the book, I look at economic development programs. Clinton’s moment with Sister Souljah came right after the ’92 Los Angeles uprising. Half the speech was actually about that. Clinton was going to bring all of these programs to places like South Los Angeles to do economic development. These programs were market-oriented ideas: helping people start businesses, bringing banks and microfinance into places like South Los Angeles.
I argue that these were ways of appealing to white, moderate, suburban voters, because I just don’t think there was any idea that these would be appealing to black voters. It’s part of a similar kind of effort to appeal to a particular kind of voter.
Many black political leaders still decided to endorse Clinton in 1992. Jackson grudgingly did in the end. People like John Lewis were horrified by these statements, but basically said, “This is going to be better for my constituents than having another Republican term.” A lot of people made peace with it from outside the Clinton administration.
By the end of his life, someone like John Lewis seems pretty content with the direction that Bill Clinton took the Democratic Party in.
A variety of people came along on this.
For the New Democrats’ intellectual influences, you refer to MIT economist Lester Thurow and Harvard economist Robert Reich. The latter is somewhat strange to see, given that he has long since been a dissenter from the liberal left against Clintonism. What did Thurow and Reich think was happening to the American economy, and how did they think that American government and the Democratic Party needed to respond?
One caveat is that Reich was not actually an economist. He was a lawyer, and then worked at the [Harvard] Kennedy School of Government. A lot of the people who came into the Clinton administration were not trained economists. Robert Rubin, who would become secretary of the Treasury, had a degree in economics, but not a PhD in economics.
Reich was at the Kennedy School in the late 1970s and wrote a series of books. He became interested in industrial policy, along with Ira Magaziner, who came to be known more as the person for health care. Magaziner became a management consultant. He worked for Boston Consulting Group consulting on a lot of projects in Sweden and Japan. He became really interested in the ideas of industrial policy and the ways that Japan and Sweden were adopting these kinds of policies.
Reich also became interested, as somebody who was immersed in the economy as a policy person. They took away the idea of industrial policy being about shoring up manufacturing industries: instead, it should be about high-tech growth. This also brings in Thurow, who was a key figure in the McGovern campaign on some of McGovern’s more progressive economic policies.
I’ve made many people angry by putting these people in this category, but they did become interested in the ideas of what became globalization. Essentially, their argument is that globalization is inevitable, and that we need to focus on what Thurow calls “sunrise industry,” as opposed to sunset industry.
Car manufacturing, steel, electronics: those are all sunset industries. They can all be sent for cheap labor abroad. But the US needed to focus on investing. That goes to industrial policy in things like high-tech growth and postindustrial growth, which grow economy. Reich thought about this in terms of more knowledge-intensive work and, at various different points, used that in his books on these kinds of topics over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, advocating these policies.
They became the key influential thinkers of the Atari Democrats, at the heart of their economic and policy ideas. Reich, Magaziner, and Clinton were all Rhodes Scholars together. They had a long-standing relationship, but they all stayed in touch during the Clinton years, when Clinton was governor of Arkansas.
Bill Clinton became interested in this because he was twice the governor of Arkansas. He won the gubernatorial election in 1978, lost in 1980, and then was reelected. Arkansas was bleeding out its manufacturing industry, except for Walmart and Perdue Chicken. Companies were closing up their factories in Arkansas, which were mostly in the garment industry, and moving them to Asia.
Arkansas needed economic development, and Clinton became convinced that creating a Silicon Valley model in Arkansas was the solution. I see this as the foundation of the Democratic Party’s relentless focus on worker retraining.
Turn the laid-off miners into coders.
Exactly. There’s constant celebration of worker retraining as a solution to all problems, and then the solution is just like educating people. You then put the money into education. Bill Clinton becomes a strong advocate of this, and Robert Reich is really big on education.
Reich keeps the focus on globalization as inevitable, but then also becomes more interested in infrastructure redevelopment. He’s really important to Clinton’s 1992 campaign, which did have a strong emphasis on investing in infrastructure. Once Clinton appoints him as secretary of labor, he scraps the infrastructure part of it.
Reich’s proposal for infrastructure investment put him into conflict with Goldman Sachs’s executive and Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, who wanted deficit reduction. Initially, you write, “Clinton was dubious of arranging his economic agenda around the desires of bond traders.” And yet he did. Rubin won out, and Reich didn’t get his stimulus or infrastructure spending.
What does the conflict between increased government investment on the one hand and deficit reduction in the other — both, in their own ways, key New Democrat positions — reveal about New Democrat politics? More particularly, what does it reveal that when the theoretical rubber hit the road of governance, this more interventionist line of New Democratic policy advocated by Reich got sidelined by Wall Street interests?
It is revealing of the priorities and the sense of what aspects of the economy you grow. My friend David Stein is working on this question of deficit, and how the fictions around deficit become so critical to what the Democrats understand.
The fear of ballooning deficit spending becomes critical. That’s what Rubin was talking about, but there’s also a question around investment, and an idea of the responsiveness of the markets. Rubin’s idea was that you need to have less of a deficit, because that was scaring bond traders and they needed the bond traders’ investment money.
Part of this idea was that you could then do all the stimulus and investment stuff later. Once the growth was in place, they could do all this other stuff. Growth was the most central idea. The idea of infrastructure spending is about economic growth, too. There’s a way of thinking about how it will help stimulate the economy, but it’s a very different way of going about it.
This sets up the ways in which this early choice of the Clinton presidency made a whole set of trajectories that go on. The Clinton administration and the New Democrats advocated turning to the market to do good and to help poor people — that having economic growth would help poor people, or that they could turn to market tools.
One of the key things that happened over the course of the 1990s, under Ruin, Larry Summers, and other key people who came to set Clinton’s economic agenda, is a remaking of the basic economic infrastructure and policy of the United States. That’s where you get deregulation. One of the things I learned from working on this book was how much the banking in history changed from the beginning of the 1990s to the end of the 1990s. We hear about that, but seeing it play out is very powerful. These industries were rapidly changing.
For example, this purportedly progressive reauthorization or reform of the Community Reinvestment Act is tied up with Glass–Steagall, the infamous banking deregulation bill that paved the way for the 2008 financial crisis.
The Community Reinvestment Act works in various ways. They were also trying to make it more efficient and have it do work that was not necessarily what its architects initially intended for it to do. You couldn’t do interstate banking in a lot of states, and changes to that enable different, new collaborations to come in.
Telecommunications is another one: there was vast deregulation of telecommunications —
These things fundamentally changed the mechanisms and institutions of the economy. You’re making them a lot more unstable. Then you’re turning to those very mechanisms of instability and saying that they’re going to solve the problems of poverty and inequality.
It created a very volatile situation, although that’s not really seen at the end of the Clinton presidency. It became a slow-moving train that crashed a decade later with the financial crisis.
The New Democrats have a future-oriented politics, and this orientation to the future allows Clinton and the Democrats to frame poor people as historical anomalies, market failures to be corrected through market inclusion, obscuring the reality that they are victims of that very same market.
This then facilitates this process of what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor calls “predatory inclusion,” all while foreclosing structural critiques and challenges to that very same system. You write:
The New Democrats treated poverty and other forms of discrimination largely as a market failure. In response, its adherence looked for ways to both bring the market to poor people of color and to integrate them into the capitalist system. Clinton and his allies extended the values of what historians call racial liberalism, the argument that for marginalized groups, especially African-Americans, inclusion in American society in the legal system provided the best means for creating racial equality.
What is racial liberalism? How did racial liberalism and the neoliberal turn in liberal politics shape one another, not only in the ’90s, but also through to today, when we see constant dominant liberal accounts of racism that are so thoroughly dematerialized?
Racial liberalism is a version of color-blind liberalism. It goes back to the idea that racism itself is about inherent flaws in people, not about structures. The way that you solve problems of race is about integrating people into the legal system. This is the core agenda of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement and mainstream civil rights legislation: racism will be solved when you incorporate people into these various mechanisms.
When you look at the New Democrat moment or the post–civil rights moment, all of the big civil rights legislation had already been passed. They looked to other kinds of mechanisms. They were asking the question of why racial inequality still existed. For Clinton’s New Democrats, the solution lay in integrating people into the market. It could solve the problems of racial inequality, but could also address the persistent problems of poverty.
Racial liberalism as a concept is very much individualized. It’s about individual solutions, not structural solutions. The fascinating thing about the market is that in some ways it’s more materialist than the traditional civil rights version, because it’s looking to a market solution, but in a way that’s not actually addressing structural inequities.
One of my problems with this approach is that as a tool, capitalism itself is inherently zero-sum, and inherently creates inequities within itself. You’re trying to solve equality through a system that has inherent inequities within it. That is a critical problem with this approach to thinking about these questions.
It’s also materialist, even if in a twisted way, that New Democrats framed poverty as solvable by transforming poor people into new entrepreneurial subjects. This is all over your book, from the stories you tell about the microenterprise and microcredit programs to welfare reform and public housing.
In the case of welfare reform, Clinton has this line in your book from 1999: “What does it mean to a single mom’s life when she goes to the mailbox in the morning and sees a bank statement instead of a welfare check? What does it mean to a child when he or she can go to school and say, when they ask ‘What does your mother do for a living?’, ‘She owns a beauty shop’?”
There is a materialist undercurrent, not only in terms of what creates racism, but what creates the racialized subjects that, from the New Democrat perspective, almost reasonably elicit racist responses from white people?
There’s the idea of worthy poor people of color and celebrating the entrepreneurial poor. It’s easy to read that and think it’s disingenuous, but Clinton genuinely believed in this. It’s very easy to just dismiss this as a number of different things. But I think he really believed in that idea in a couple of different ways.
One is that he really believed in market-oriented solutions, but he also had a particular vision of their psychological components. I built on this from Jason DeParle’s great book about welfare reform: going back to his own childhood, Clinton believed in this.
There’s a deeply meritocratic view of the story that you just told; they only focus on success stories. Hillary Clinton does a lot of this too, as do many politicians: constantly celebrating the success stories of individuals and telling their narratives. Now we see this a lot; the State of the Union has become a cascade of these stories.
This implicitly stigmatizes people who can’t make it — the woman who starts the beauty parlor and fails. It doesn’t actually address the structural realities of what makes it extraordinarily difficult to start your own business, if you were a poor woman of color in the South Side of Chicago or rural Arkansas.
The Arkansas woman who introduced Clinton at the signing ceremony for welfare reform ended up in serious financial hardship, not long thereafter.
Lillie Harden was next to Clinton in the famous pictures of him signing welfare reform. He brought her; he’d been telling her story since the ’80s. She worked at a supermarket for her son, and this was really important. She fell into hard times because of welfare reform; she was not eligible for any more welfare assistance and then went into substantial debt. That’s a common story for people.
Getting shunted off government assistance and into this low-wage service economy where union power was in terminal decline — that was often pretty bad for women.
Without adding substantial childcare support around it, too. Clinton brought the founder of Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus, to Arkansas in the ’80s, through a complicated set of circumstances that I look at in the book, to start a microfinance program in the Arkansas Delta.
They had the idea that this program would to help people who had lost their jobs to get off welfare. That program fell short in its lack of recognition that it’s very difficult to start your own company. Celebrating entrepreneurship became so central to the ethos of the 1990s and beyond.
I started this book in 2014, very much influenced by the Obama years, which were rife with discussion of entrepreneurship. That’s actually dissipated, but Elon Musk is a critical example of how it’s morphed around different people. We don’t celebrate Mark Zuckerberg any more, culturally, but Elon Musk holds crazy power that is venerated in a slightly different way.
Crypto, too. It’s a similar idea: you can use this in various different ways. It’s disruptive, and it gives you a certain kind of flexibility.
It turned out that what many people want is stability. They want a job with good wages. The other piece of welfare reform is that it launched in the late 1990s, when the economy was really good. People were going into service-oriented work. Working at McDonald’s is really difficult work and not particularly well waged, but those jobs were available. They weren’t always available, and became increasingly more unstable.
It moved people into a profoundly unstable system, a system of poverty.
Especially with the rise of new scheduling technology.
This then gets told as a story about people who don’t succeed — it’s on their individual failure, as opposed to the ways in which it might be a larger flaw within the market economy and the new economy that was being produced.
All of these new mechanisms came into play, and that’s actually where the title of the book comes from: “left behind,” an idea that Clinton and the New Democrats used constantly. They were willing to help those who were left behind by the new economy. This suggests that those people were the anomaly, not the canaries in the coal mine saying that there was something wrong. It says that a true “new economy” or economic system that works would not leave places behind, but would fundamentally address their problems.
The solution to those places becomes bringing in new corporate money, which has its own severe limitations.
How did Clinton’s global vision of the liberal order, one in which the US was spreading free trade and democracy across the globe, relate to his politics of poverty alleviation through market inclusion at home?
They were absolutely intertwined. I just finished teaching a class on Cold War America. We were talking about the globalization of the ’90s, and what it stands for in terms of foreign policy is central to this. The solution is the end of history, triumphalist liberal democracy winning, and that this would be good for everybody; through markets, the US could spread democracy throughout the world.
There’s often this language of: “These things are working hand in hand; we can share the solutions that are working in one place to another.” This happened in microfinance: taking techniques that were working questionably well in Bangladesh, bringing those to the US and vice versa.
The Clinton language of building bridges and tearing down walls is a really sort of central component of this. But globalization itself was creating mass instability in many people’s lives. It was a contributing factor to poverty in the United States and in the Global South.
This language of finding untapped markets is actually a long-standing language that particularly liberals have used to talk about rural areas, like they’re another country. There’s also the idea that the solutions that can work in one place can work somewhere else.
This comes out in the microlending and micro-enterprise part of the story you tell.
This is the idea that you can take something that’s purportedly working in one place and apply it wholesale somewhere else. This also applies to the idea of spreading globalization — that if you have a market, democracy itself will sprout up. That was some of the thinking going on in the ’90s.
As governor of Arkansas, Clinton really wanted to bring in the Grameen Bank to turn poor people into successful entrepreneurs and solve the problem of poverty in Arkansas. But the Grameen Bank didn’t solve poverty in Bangladesh.
There are many debates on the success of microfinance in the Global South. But at the macro level, it didn’t solve the problems of poverty.
It didn’t even solve the micro-problems in Arkansas. They don’t even have success stories in Arkansas, whereas at least there are individual success stories in Bangladesh.
Hillary Clinton was particularly enamored with microcredit and microenterprise as a tool for women’s empowerment. What does this story you tell reveal about this New Democrat brand of feminism, focused so much on individual women’s economic advancement — a brand of feminism that’s palpably here today?
Hillary Clinton promotes microfinance after the health care debacle of the early ’90s. She talked about it in every speech she gave, and she became an even bigger proponent of it than Bill Clinton. She saw it as her platform, but it’s absolutely in line with her particular version of feminism and what feminism can offer, which is this notion of empowerment and choice largely regulated through markets.
It’s also a somewhat paternalistic way of treating poor women in the Global South, needing to save them. That became central to her time as First Lady: saving women throughout the world and giving them rights and freedoms, but not actually fundamental economic tools.
Why was the Left so marginal in the ’90s, and more specifically, what happened to Jesse Jackson? He started off calling the DLC the “Democrats for the Leisure Class,” but he ended up helping Clinton lead the 1999 “New Markets Tour,” when Clinton went around the country with CEOs, visiting places with a lot of poor people and being like, “We’re going to make you not poor by bringing capitalism here.”
At this point, Jackson was praising Clinton for having launched a “war for profits,” a riff on the War on Poverty, of course. And in 1997, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition launched what it called the Wall Street Project, essentially campaigning to make financial firms more diverse, and did that in alliance with major financial firms.
Amid welfare reform, NAFTA, and everything else going on, when I was first getting involved as a teenager in the late ’90s, there wasn’t organized resistance at any meaningful scale. Why?
Clinton gave that speech at the Wall Street Project, which is his big project connecting with Wall Street CEOs.
In some ways, Jesse Jackson is an unreliable figure standing in for the Left. He became a foil. His campaigns in the ’80s are profound. Some of that had to do with Jackson himself, but a large part of it had to do with the campaign infrastructure which understood him as a vessel for pushing progressive policies.
Including activists from the New Communist Movement. The Left was broadly involved.
Jackson was an extraordinarily effective speaker. Similarly, for the people asking why the DLC, which was a small organization, gained a lot of power in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of it had to do with Bill Clinton. They found the right figure in Bill Clinton; he was a really good translator, and was able to put their message into populist language. And he was able to speak to multiple audiences very effectively. That effective translation was critical to the DLC.
What happens to the Left during this time? When I started doing research, that was crucial to me: Where was the organized Left, where was the opposition? Looking at the early 1960s and the Democratic Party and liberalism, there’s lots of contestation, lots of pushback. That friction was not as present during the 1980s and 1990s.
It was there on particular issues. A big issue was sweatshop labor. There was sustained organized opposition around globalization, sweatshops, and trade.
But that wasn’t until the end of the ’90s.
Exactly. It would be interesting to see who else was there and what happened. That issue had the most kinds of people, where the beginnings of a coalition were coming together.
There was actually a lot of opposition to welfare reform. There was Jesse Jackson, but also the head of NOW [National Organization for Women], and a lot of other people outside the White House protesting on welfare reform. I looked at charter schools, and teachers’ unions actually had the biggest percentage of a voice among all constituents in Democratic conventions.
The teachers’ movement was a huge coalition in the Democratic Party. They were the biggest representative of labor. They were a huge Democratic constituency, whom you’d think would be able to leverage the party in various different ways.
And yet they got rolled over on charters, and continued to be rolled over through the Obama administration. Biden is really the first Democratic administration since then to take teachers’ sides on this debate.
Especially after 1994, when the Republicans took office, a lot of groups were scared. They made the bargain that Clinton was better than the Republicans. Clinton came into office after twelve years of Republican control. The view was that he was better than what they would get under Bush. The economy doing well could have played a factor in that, too. There was not the same kind of unified coalition.
Welfare reform got passed a few days before the 1996 convention. All these people were pissed off, like Jackson, like the head of NOW. They all went to the convention, endorsed him, and gave speeches in his favor. That’s true of labor, too. The teachers’ unions made that decision at various points. There was just not the same kind of unified opposition.
The lack of pushback became really important in the establishment of the agenda, especially in Clinton’s second term. The time of the [World Trade Organization] was a moment of sustained opposition from multiple different groups from key Democratic constituencies saying that they didn’t support it. Clinton gave them lip service, as he always did on things about trade, but never took it seriously or created the things that were advocated for.
The DLC was one of the first political organizations to push for charter schools. You write:
There is a wide assumption that Republican politicians and donors who wanted to privatize education were the driving force behind the charter movement. In fact, Republicans were largely late to the game on charters and, through much of the 1990s, promoted school vouchers as their favored form of school choice. The roots of charters lie deeper in the New Democrats’ quest to reinvent the public sector and promote technology-based education as a route toward economic growth.
How did charter schools do so many things at once for the New Democrats: 1) emphasize a reinvention of public education for this new, intensely competitive global economy; 2) perform a Sister Souljah moment on teachers’ unions; and 3) strengthen New Democrat ties to Silicon Valley, between which there was both an ideological convergence and a very convenient economic cash donation relationship?
Charter schools are the quintessential example of reinventing government. They’re run privately, but they’re still under public oversight; that falls in line with the kinds of things that the New Democrats believed in. Their whole purpose was to make schools more efficient and more accountable. They could improve education through the mechanisms of accountability and efficiency, which could be measured in ways that public education was often seen as unable to do.
They also became a way for the Democrats to have a say in the school choice conversation. In the ’80s and ’90s, the Republicans were pushing vouchers as their way. The New Democrats did not fully believe in a voucher model, but they did like the idea of something that would give people more choice and freedom. Charters do that as well.
Through a variety of different factors, the Clinton administration became increasingly close to Silicon Valley. Al Gore made particular overtures. A lot of the main figures in Silicon Valley were very interested in questions of education, as they still sort of are. They have this idea that they need good workers, and the education system is bad. They’re not getting the best workers, and that’s why they have to go to India to get their engineers.
It’s also ideologically validating for them.
I think it goes to meritocratic thinking: Why education? That’s why both the tech industry and mainstream Democrats often tout education. It’s the system in which they succeeded, and they see particular value in that.
It’s key to equal opportunity, though not equal outcomes.
It’s all about opportunity. Through this set of conversations, the tech industry also becomes really interested in charter schools. They like this idea because they also believe in efficiency, but they also like that it’s very disruptive and anti-labor. It’s a way of undercutting the labor movement’s power. It serves all of those functions.
It was never about making a profit. There’s a profit component to the later charter schools, but there were these other ways of bringing the market to bear. It leads to this tightening relationship between Silicon Valley and the Democratic Party that emerged over the course of the 1990s.
There’s an understandable tendency for people to presume that the corporate interest in education reform is the raw profit motive, which it is in some cases, but that’s not the key explanatory variable.
In a few of these programs, like around public housing, there was an effort to make a profit, and for the real estate industry to make a profit. There’s a way of reading the Clinton version of neoliberalism as being all about profit motivation: they’re just trying to make a lot of money. That actually misses some of the other ways they’re trying to work, which are actually more complicated and arguably more insidious. If you just think about it as greed and profit motive, that’s an easier explanation. But this actually worked more insidiously; it wasn’t just about profit.
The fact that something has a key function within the neoliberal, capitalist political economy of a given era or moment does not mean that the program is about the direct, raw profit motive of corporations in that particular sector. Political economy is key here, but not in this reductive way.
Charter schools are a fascinating way to think about that, because they come to undermine public education in a number of different capacities. The roots were laid in the ’90s. The big expansion of charters didn’t happen until around 2010. The Obama administration played a really critical role in the expansion of the charter movement. But the gears were set in motion in the ’90s.
The New Democrats had a major and, unsurprisingly, disastrous impact on public housing. Public housing began as a New Deal program that was curbed in its ambitions, size, scale, and scope. It was curbed early in its development and underwent decades of economic disinvestment and stigmatization.
Then, under Clinton, tens of thousands of poor Americans had to leave public housing under this program called Hope VI, which razed these highly stigmatized high-rises all over the country and replaced them with mixed-income, low-rise developments, but critically, thanks to a law from the ’90s, did not replace them on a one-for-one basis. There was a huge net reduction in Section 9 public housing. You write:
By the time Clinton took office, housing projects like Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes had become, to some, monuments to the failures of the public sector and New Deal liberalism, while to others they were symbols of decades of neglect of the poor by federal and local government. The Hope VI program became a key piece of the New Democrats’ efforts to change the Democratic Party’s image and secure the support of white moderate voters while simultaneously altering the image and function of public housing.
The program sought to simultaneously make poor people into market actors, make distressed urban neighborhoods profitable, and use the tools of the market to make the public sector more efficient in helping low income people.” HUD, as you write in the book, had already shifted in this privatized direction since 1974, with the creation and later expansion of Section Eight vouchers, which made HUD into more of a subsidizer of private landlords than a builder and owner of public housing.
With that in all in mind, what role did the politics and policy of “the end of public housing as we know” it play for Clinton?
It’s similar to the charter school example. There were many different layers to what these programs did for the Democrats and what they symbolized. One key component of this is that, like education, a core liberal-democratic ideal is that it’s the responsibility of government to provide housing. I wanted to understand how these critical things that we think of when we think of what the Democratic Party or liberalism stands for became fundamentally undermined.
Welfare reform is the thing that gets the most attention, and it has been an unbelievable harm, but in many ways, the effects of ending the public housing programs have not gotten the same amount of attention, and have had a hugely negative impact.
Both in the 2008 financial crisis, which was a capitalist crisis rooted in the housing market, and with today’s real estate prices out of control, there is no public option to fall back on for most people.
At the end of the 1990s, the economy was really good. At a macro level, poor people were in a better place. But the reality is that as critical aspects of the social safety net were taken away, people were left open to new types of private market predation. Housing is the critical place to think about that happening.
It’s not just the financial crisis; it’s actually the pandemic, too. So much housing insecurity has been produced in a place like Los Angeles, where the housing crisis is all-encompassing and all around us. The lack of public housing is essentially criminal, and how little it has become is part of the public conversation again.
Housing as an issue is actually coming back on the national political agenda, but there’s been so little attention to doing large-scale public housing buildings. Instead it’s giving more vouchers or doing other kinds of relief, like rent relief. But we need to confront the fact that the federal government has not been building public housing since the 1970s.
I was just looking at a review of this new great book, Thinking Like an Economist. The review is pushing back, and describes the idea that when you think of the failures of liberalism, public housing is always brought up — that the Robert Taylor Homes were a complete failure. That becomes a critical narrative that is still part of our popular conversation; it’s a legacy of this moment.
Public housing fused together all of the different things that the Clinton administration was trying to do. First, it answered the questions of reinventing government, making it more efficient, turning to the public-private partnership as the critical solution. They turned to mixed-income and mixed-use.
The classic example I use in the book is Cabrini–Green in Chicago, which, not coincidentally, was on prime real estate near the Loop. It was made of these huge buildings, which were then torn down. The idea was that people could move back in, or they could have a voucher that they could use in the private market.
There were increasingly narrow categories as to who had access to that public housing.
One strike and you’re out.
One strike and you’re out. It actually combines with the other things we think about when we think about the Clinton administration. One is crime. If you were convicted of a crime or one of your relatives was, you were evicted from public housing, and you could not get a Section 8 voucher.
With welfare reform, you had to hold a job or show that you were going to be able to hold a job. It was a limited number of people who had access to this. But it also didn’t address the fact that many cities did not have the affordable housing necessary for people to be able to use their vouchers. It was based on a vision of a rational actor who would be able to go into various different communities. It acts as though segregation is not a huge aspect of the residential real estate market — that someone could just go in and get an apartment wherever they wanted.
Chicago was a critical place, but this happened all over the place; it reinforced residential segregation in many different places and put people in an incredibly difficult position, unable to find housing.
One other thing to highlight about Hope VI is that the very design principles of new urbanism were anti-modernist and fetishized small-town life. They were hostile to the very built environment of black poor people who lived in cities.
It was a profoundly white middle-class aesthetic. I always call it “new suburbanism.” They had all these ideas built on Jane Jacobs: having front porches, and needing to have particular styles of housing, but it was deeply anti-modern. It was made up of townhouses that were mostly supposed to be attractive to white middle-class people who moved back into the city of Chicago or Seattle.
The other thing about the Clinton housing programs is that in the ’90s, there was a concern that home ownership rates were going down. To make more people homeowners, there was a national home ownership strategy, which was another part of the public-private partnership efforts to loosen various aspects of the housing and mortgage industries, encouraging people to get access to mortgages.
A lot of conservative conspiracy websites blame that for the financial crisis. I don’t think that was true, but it’s indicative of these efforts that created a situation of vulnerability that was borne out in the 2008 financial crisis.
You have an interesting chapter about the huge scandal around apparel sweatshops in the ’90s. Instead of doing anything to regulate apparel production, unsurprisingly, Clinton created the Fair Labor Association, an entity for corporations to self-regulate Third World labor conditions — all, perversely, while intensifying immigration raids at garment factories here in the US.
You write, “The Clinton administration had also been rapidly signing trade agreements with countries with large emerging markets, such as China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa. The exposure of sweatshop abuses at garment and shoe factories around the world challenged the main tenets of these promises.” And as you mentioned earlier, there was the anti-sweatshop movement, and then the larger global justice or anti-corporate globalization movement that exploded in Seattle.
That began to bring the Jackson coalition of the ’80s back together in opposition to Clintonism, in a way that felt earth-shattering for someone who was new to the Left and felt initially that it was a very marginal project. Why do you think that left opposition to Clinton emerged around the issues of globalization in the way that it did? Why do you think that movement failed to sustain itself? Why would it take another decade for a more coherent American left to reemerge in opposition to neoliberalism?
It’s fascinating that the sweatshop movement has fallen out of the popular story. I was a freshman in college in 1999, and this was so central to my coming of age. It was a brewing opposition and a sense of general unfairness that all these things that had been promised by globalization were not succeeding.
The sweatshop movement was an entry point to a much larger set of issues. There had been opposition to trade issues around NAFTA; tenuous coalitions from the environmental movement and labor pushed on that. Labor became more global in its organizing over the course of the 1990s; that helped. But the issue of sweatshops was a tangible way to question what the Clinton administration and the Washington census promised that globalization was doing.
The promise was that it was bringing security to people throughout the Global South, bringing democracy — and those things were not happening. There was the sense that it was creating immense injustice.
The issue of why it didn’t sustain itself has a few parts. One critical component was 9/11, which was a breaking point; it shifted directions. There was a set of people who sustained interest in the question of globalization and continued to devote their lives to it. But a lot of people on the Left turned to the war movement, and that created dissipation.
At the time, 9/11 dominated the news so much that it was very hard to come in and do anything. In the book, I look at how a lot of the critiques became appropriated by the ideas of corporate social responsibility. This emerged in the 2000s — the idea that corporations are a source of good. And that took away some of the power of the movement.
It’s also very hard to organize around changing global economic policies. Challenging trade policies is a really difficult thing to do. That created certain kind of difficulties. What reemerged was Occupy and the Sanders campaign. It’s a triggering of another kind of moment of economic injustice and economic crisis that leads to that kind of thing. And more building occurred, leading to a more sustained coalition that we’ve seen in the last decade. What do you think?
I think 9/11 was really huge. The American left, in the very weak post-Soviet, post-neoliberal-turn form that existed in the late ’90s, sought its electoral expression with good reason but not much success in Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign. What’s the Left supposed to do after Bill Clinton has taken over the Democratic Party?
But then the Nader campaign ended up not achieving its goal of winning 5 percent of the vote to get the Green Party funded at a national level. And then there was 9/11. Then there was the war in Iraq, and a briefly vigorous antiwar movement that collapsed when it failed to stop the war. There was very little movement to stop the invasion of Afghanistan prior to that. Those protests, I recall, were very, very small.
It took the financial crisis — but not just the financial crisis, because the left-populist energy in response to the financial crisis went toward electing a very neoliberal Democrat, Barack Obama, as president. It wasn’t until after the Tea Party, with the emergence of Occupy, that a coherent American left began to emerge. It was a very long decade.
That’s my analysis of it. It’s interesting what happens with Obama’s presidency, and why it did not have more pushback. Some of that was the personal biography component. Similar to the Clinton issue, after having eight years of Bush, people were just really tired of Bush.
Because of Trump, there’s a way of thinking that the Bush years were not that bad. When you really go back and look at it, it was really bad. It’s not that he’s sweet and he paints now.
He still has a higher body count than Trump.
Exactly. There’s been a forgetting of how bad that decade was and what was actually going on. That probably also explains the Obama win, in some ways; he was better than what the Bush administration was doing. During the financial crisis, there were people pushing at various different points — that there needed to be more — but it was such a moment of shock. It led to a lack of sustained opposition to the Obama administration on the financial crisis that didn’t really emerge for a couple of years.
The response was so anemic because he was still captured by the very New Democrat logic that Robert Rubin helped cement in the 1990s, prioritizing deficit reduction.
That’s the approach they took; they went back, and it was all the same. All the same people came back and helped set the policy. There was still the idea that they had to get back to the moment of the Clinton years, using Obama as a vessel to do that.
Another sign of the socialist, anti-capitalist left’s weakness in the aughts, leading up to the 2008 election, was the broader progressive coalescence around Howard Dean’s campaign, which reminds me a lot of McGovern in the sense that Dean was deemed this radical because he was antiwar. But, in fact, he was a pretty down-the-middle liberal.
I’ve been interested in what was going on in the party with the Nader and Dean campaigns, which were quite different. What was happening with Dean, and how transformative was that? He was not as radical as he was presented to be.
One could say the same thing about the Nader campaign, which I was very involved with as a volunteer, by comparing the politics of Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders. Ralph Nader obviously had better policies and a better agenda than Gore or Bush did, but compared to Sanders, he had much more of a good government, anti-corruption discourse, rather than a transformative social-democratic or even socialist vision.
Moving on, with all of these politics around NAFTA, you see forms of American politics that really don’t fit with the mythic retrospective narrative that frames this country as having a normal Democrat-versus-Republican politics that exploded with Trump in 2016. If you look at the politics around trade in particular in the ’90s, you see the emergence of all sorts of weird tendencies that become more and more important in American politics over time.
Sometimes you don’t want to take the lens of the present to go back to the past. But in a way, it was often more complicated. All of those campaigns do show signs of this; there are tendencies in campaigns.
First of all, one truth about the story of the Democrats under Clinton and beyond is that the Republican Party has changed a lot. One of the things that always surprises me, looking at the ’90s, is that there’s actually a fair amount of bipartisan cooperation, especially on things like microenterprise, which Republicans were on board with.
We can think of this as the roots of polarization. But there’s a component of how much the Republican Party has changed over the course of this period, and how important it is to think about and understand that. Trump did not come from nowhere. These politics were very much brewing.
The fairly obvious part, which fits into my book project, is that Clinton’s globalization pissed a lot of people off. That goes to both sides, with Trump’s and Sanders’s campaigns emerging in 2016. The Democratic Party is not providing what it said it would. It has left us behind. It is not fulfilling any of these promises. Here, on two different planes, are people offering to fulfill those things.
That’s how I understand that moment: the reemergence of both the Left and — I don’t even know if you call Trump the Right, but it comes out. It’s both of the ways that people have been made vulnerable by these policies. It created a severe alienation from the Democratic Party that might not have always been clear in the 2000s during the Iraq War, but had definitely become true by 2016.