Tracing recent political history

Professor Lily Geismer photographed at home, smiling and holding up her latest book, "Left Behind."
August 19, 2022

Prof. Lily Geismer traces recent political history in her new book, Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality, delving into the 1980s and 90s and the rise of the New Democrats and the Clinton era.

Through vivid storytelling, Geismer explores how during the height of the Clinton presidency, Democrats put forth “market-based” policy ideas and private sector solutions—such as microenterprise, charter schools, and Empowerment Zones—to address pressing problems of social and racial inequality.

“They aimed to enlist the private sector to not just line the pockets of large corporations but to also use the resources and techniques of the market to make government more efficient and better able to serve the people,” Geismer writes. She characterizes the ethos as a form of “doing well by doing good.”

With a focus on entrepreneurship and high technology, these young, elite-educated Democrats who promulgated these policy models came to be known as “Atari Democrats,” or “New Democrats.”

Yet Geismer argues that deploying these well-intentioned policy models and attempting to “re-orient” the Democrat “electoral base away from organized labor and the Black working class, and toward affluent knowledge workers and white suburbanites,” ultimately failed to end poverty. In fact, she posits, it contributed to the current crisis in inequality as well as the tensions within the Democratic Party.

Published in March 2022, Left Behind has earned wide praise, with the editors of the New York Times Book Review including it among their “10 Books We Recommend This Week.” Geismer has been busy touring with the book, appearing at the Tucson Book Festival and the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Politics & Prose in Washington, DC, and on the education policy-focused podcast, Have You Heard.

Geismer previously authored the book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, as well as op-eds published in  The New York Times, reviews in the Washington Post, and articles in the New Republic, Dissent, and Jacobin. In 2018, she was the only person from a liberal arts college named as an Andrew Carnegie Fellow by the Carnegie Corporation which recognizes scholarship that offers new perspectives to “the most pressing issues of our times.”

At CMC, Geismer teaches recent political and urban history, and this spring she taught, “Cold War America” and “American Suburbia and Its Consequences.”

We spoke to Geismer about how she adapted her research methods during the pandemic, what influenced the writing of the book, and which lessons she learned exploring the tensions within the Democratic party.

Who is the intended audience for Left Behind? Who are you aiming to reach?

The idea was to do what in publishing is called a “crossover book”—a book that would both speak to academics, but also reach a wider public especially educated readers. The tone is a little bit more accessible than my earlier academic writing, with a focus on stories and narrative, and more emphasis on characters. In some ways, my intended audience are my students and I often write to what they would be interested in.

Another of my goals was to have a book that would influence policymakers since I'm a policy historian at my core. Over the course of working on the book, I talked to several policymakers. I think it has actually really important to understand the sort of historical context, and the origins for a lot of these programs, such as housing and charter schools. And some of the descriptions can get a little wonky, so I tried to tell the story using accessible language and terms.

How did you adapt your research methods during the pandemic? What sorts of challenges did you face?

In large part because of the pandemic, when archives were closed for more than year, I had to to stop going to archives, and I couldn't get archival material. So I started to do interviews with key players, and that really helped me recreate what the experience was like being inside the (Clinton) administration—to accurately convey their experience—and create that experience for the reader to show what it was like. [The process of] doing interviews gave me different insights into how administrations operate, especially at the beginning of an administration—the processes that go into setting policy agendas, for instance—that, even as I've spent my whole career studying politics, political history, and policy, I didn't fully understand until I wrote this book.

Since this is a recent history—and I think too many people don’t even consider it history—that also created challenges as I was doing the historical research for it, because unlike my first book—or if you do a project on the 1920s or 30s—the evidence was kept in historical archives and libraries. For this project, a lot of the materials haven't been archived yet. So, some of the research was piecing together various different elements, using creative sources.

I began working on the book in 2014 and the research brought me all over the country. I went to 12 different archives in various different places, including Arkansas, Mississippi, Chicago, New York, the Bay Area, and the Library of Congress and the National Archives in DC. I was really lucky that a lot of the archival materials were from the Clinton administration, and a lot of the Clinton materials have been digitized.

I’m also profoundly grateful for the support of CMC’s History department and the Dean of Faculty’s office in allowing me the space and the support to work on this book.

What influenced Left Behind? What compelled you to explore this topic?

There were two pieces of it. One was that I had written my first book about the liberals in the Democratic Party, and I became interested how beginning in 1970s and 80s, Democrats like Mike Dukakis, Gary Hart, Al Gore and Bill Clinton were turning towards market-oriented solutions, and I wanted to understand that shift.

But another huge influence was teaching at CMC and having a lot of students who were interested in doing good and wanting to help the world, but saw the private sector as the mechanism for going out and doing that. And so that fascinated me. Where did that mindset come from? So, it actually was really inspired from teaching at CMC.

One of the interesting parts of working on this project has been how much the Democratic Party itself has changed from 2014 to 2022. So, at points working on this book, it felt like it was kind of a moving target. But I think the larger political landscape has shifted and changed a lot in those eight years in which I was working on the project.

How does Left Behind fit into your work as a whole? What themes continue to interest you?

More broadly, through my scholarship I’ve always been really interested in questions about the transformation of liberalism, and the Democratic Party. My first book (Don’t Blame Us) was a study of suburban liberals outside of Boston, and how they represented a reorientation of the Democratic Party, away from sort of urban ethnic union workers, and toward suburban knowledge workers.

The bigger questions I'm thinking about are the Democratic Party's continuities and changes, and the story of liberalism in the Democratic Party since the 1960s. I find the Democratic Party and its tensions endlessly interesting. In my field of 20th century U.S. political history, the story of the Right and the Republican Party has been much more dominant. And with the Democrats, there remains an important hole left to understand, both for the contradictions in its philosophical orientation, but also it in the historical and continued tensions in its electoral coalition.

What projects are you pursuing next?

I have a few ideas. I'm working on an edited volume on the new histories of liberalism. And I've been toying with the idea of doing a project about the Democratic Party, fundraising and campaign finance since the 1960s. However, I’m mostly excited to have [had] some time this summer to get some rest!

Anne Bergman

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