Best Book of 2022 – Left Behind

24 Aug

By Thomas Ultican 8/24/2022

Lily Geismer has performed a great service to America. The Claremont McKenna College associate professor of history has documented the neoliberal takeover of the Democratic Party in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In her book, Left Behind: The Democrats Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality she demonstrates how Bill Clinton “ultimately did more to sell free-market thinking than even Friedman and his acolytes.” (Left Behind Page 13)

When in the 1970’s, Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, Paul Tsongas, and Tim Wirth arrived on the scene in Washington DC they were dubbed “Watergate Babies.” By the 1980’s Tip O’Neill’s aid Chris Mathews labeled them “Atari Democrats” an illusion to the popular video game company because of their relentless hi-tech focus. Geismer reports,

“Journalist Charles Peters averred that ‘neoliberal’ was a better descriptor. Peters meant it not as a pejorative but as a positive. … Neoliberals, he observed, ‘still believe in liberty and justice and a fair chance for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out,’ but ‘no longer automatically favor unions and big government.’” (Left Behind Pages 17-18) [Emphasis added]

Founding the DLC

In 1984, Lyndon Johnson’s son-in-law Charles Robb was the Democratic Governor of Virginia. He hosted a series of meetings in Washington and Virginia to develop a strategy for going forward. The meetings occurred shortly after Mondale’s huge loss to Ronald Reagan. It was decided they needed a new structure outside of the Democratic Party and Al From was tasked with writing the initial plan.

From’s scheme called for establishing the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to give the party a winning direction. Robb convinced From to become executive director of the nascent organization. From hired Will Marshal to be policy director. Geismer reveals,

“The architects recruited as founding members a lineup of fourteen senators, including Nunn, Chiles and Gore (who had just moved chambers); seventeen representatives, like Wirth, Gephardt, Leon Panetta of California, and Les Aspin of Wisconsin; and ten governors, such as Robb, Babbitt, James Blanchard of Michigan, Richard Lamm of Colorado, and Bill Clinton of Arkansas. … Of the total forty-one inaugural members, there were no women, two were men of color, and only four came from outside the Sunbelt.” (Left Behind Page 45)

Historian Arthur Schlesinger labeled the DLC “a quasi-Reaganite formation” and accused them of “worshiping at the shrine of the free market.”

Union pollster Victor Fingerhut called them “crypto-Republicans.”

Douglas Wilder a black Virginia politician criticized their “demeaning appeal to Southern white males.”

Others called them the “conservative white caucus” or the “southern white boys’ caucus.”

Jesse Jackson said its members “didn’t march in the ‘60s and won’t stand up in the ‘80s.” (Left Behind Pages 46-47)

In 1989, From convinced Bill Clinton to become the chairman of the DLC. That same year the DLC founded the Progressive Policy Institute to be their think tank competing with the Heritage Foundation and the CATO Institute. Today, it still spreads the neoliberal gospel.

The next year, the DLC issued the New Orleans statement which stated the “fundamental mission of the Democratic Party is to expand opportunity, not government.” The statement also claimed that a “free market regulated in the public interest, is the best engine of general prosperity.” (Left Behind Page 107)

At the DLC convention in early 1991, Clinton rejected criticism from people like Jesse Jackson and Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) stating, “choice is not a code word for elitism and racism.” Geismer notes that in his speech, “He then listed off the DLC proposals to address the problems of poverty with programs like childcare vouchers, public school choice, job training programs, and community policing.” (Left Behind Page 127) [Emphasis added]

It was at their 1991 convention that the DLC urged Congress to give President Bush fast track trade authority to negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Democratic establishment had not been warm to the idea and labor strongly objected.

After Clinton won the Democratic nomination, labor unions were in a difficult position. Geismer explained,

“Labor officials and the rank and file both had strong objections with Clinton’s position on free trade and were well aware of the New Democrats’ long-standing hostility toward unions. … Even though union members had gained more than a quarter of the delegate seats at the 1992 Democratic Convention, labor leaders made a conscious decision not to demand that Clinton openly advocate for unions in the platform or to temper his support for free trade. This calculation rested on their sense that Bush was a bigger threat to unions, and the movement should focus their energy on defeating him.” (Left Behind Page 133)

Once elected, Clinton turned away from New Deal liberalism and Johnson’s Great Society. He claimed that by increasing private sector activity in blighted urban areas and providing more credit these communities of poverty would be lifted up. He proposed creating enterprise zones “to create a small-business entrepreneurial economy in every underclass urban area …” (Left Behind Page 144)

Geismer describes a 1996 speech given by Hillary Clinton:

“Hillary Clinton took pains to emphasize the potential of micro-credit not just internationally but in the United States as well. The speech came just as states were implementing the requirements in the 1996 welfare reform act, which fulfilled Bill Clinton’s campaign pledge to ‘end welfare as we know it.’ The law terminated the assistance for women and children in place since the Roosevelt administration and served as a potent symbol of the Clinton administration’s attempt to put a nail in the coffin of New Deal liberalism.” (Left Behind Page 170)

In the fall of 1999, the Clinton administration negotiated with Senator Phil Gram (R-Texas) to end the Glass-Steagall act. This was the culmination of the administration’s support for deregulating the banking industry, which unleashed an historic wave of consolidations. The 2:45 AM deal ended the bank reforms President Roosevelt enacted to insure banks would never again make dangerous deals that led to failure and losing their depositors assets. (Left Behind Pages 309-312)

In retrospect, a good case can be made that the neoliberal agenda has been a disaster. The bank failures of 2008 almost brought down the entire World’s economy. Economic inequality has grown along with the creation of hundreds of billionaires both of which harm democracy. America’s childhood poverty rates are the highest in the developed world and homelessness plagues every moderately large city in America. It truly is “The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality.”

The Attack on Public Education

The philosophy that guides people can also blind them. Neoliberals are so convinced by the magic of markets that they have fallen for the illusion that public education is failing. They are convinced that a business type accountability and market based competition are needed. It seems not to have occurred to them that the foundation for America becoming the economic, scientific and cultural leader of the world is public education. How can they overlook the fact that America’s public education system has produced by far the most Nobel Prize winners in the world? Evidently they believe that since it is not a market based system it must be failing. However, even the conservative publication Education Next just produced a study showing that public education results have been steadily improving for the last 50 years.

Vice President Al Gore was convinced public schools were failing and needed a new direction. During a monthly “Gore-Tech session”, the Vice President asked venture capitalist John Doerr, “If you Silicon Valley types are so smart, why can’t you do something to create new schools?” Doerr who had scored big with investments in Netscape, Amazon and Google, like Gore, was certain public schools required radical change. He wanted “better schools based on Silicon Valley’s principles of accountability, choice and competition.” (Left Behind Pages 233-234)

Two big results came from this conversation. Doerr, a notoriously successful venture capitalist, went home where he was integral to establishing the NewSchools Venture Fund which was one of the first venture philanthropies. It was dedicated to promoting charter schools and education technology. NewSchools collaborated with Reed Hastings and Don Shalvey to create America’s first Charter School Management organization. 

Geismer notes,

“Computer companies had long understood that getting a foothold in the nation’s schools was a potential goldmine. … As the participants at the Gore-Tech sessions took up education reform, the conversation quickly turned to the topic of charter schools, which were a favorite reform tool of the president.” (Left Behind Page 239)

Like other venture capitalists, NewSchools’ founders expect a return on investment. This return would be measured in test score gains rather than dollars. (Left Behind Page 255)

Al From told Clinton that in order to win reelection in 1996 he need to “grab the mantle” of charters and school choice for Democrats. Geismer avers,

“The 1996 State of the Union was most notable for Clinton’s declaration that the ‘era of big government is over.’ Elaborating on the theme, he also dared ‘every state to give all parents the right to choose which public school their children will attend; and to let teachers form new schools with a charter they can keep only if they do a good job.’” (Left Behind Page 244)

Some Parting Notes

Lily Geismer’s book is special. The scholarship is above reproach and she solidified my personal opinion about the neoliberal ideology and its implementation. I hope as many people as possible read this edifying book. It provides profound insight into the source of the stupefying inequality plaguing American society.

The book and this post put the neoliberal faction of the Democratic Party in an extremely bad light. However, it is important to remember that the neoliberal market driven agenda is embraced even more tenaciously by America’s conservative community and they don’t seem concerned about “a fair chance for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out.”

3 Responses to “Best Book of 2022 – Left Behind”

  1. leftcoastteacher September 6, 2022 at 1:25 am #

    Thank you for pointing this book out. I am reading it and receiving a valuable education.

    Liked by 1 person

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  1. Best Book of 2022 – Left Behind — tultican | David R. Taylor - August 25, 2022

    […] Best Book of 2022 – Left Behind — tultican […]

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  2. Tom Ultican: The Best Book of the Year: How Democrats Abandoned Public Schools | Diane Ravitch's blog - August 30, 2022

    […] Ultican is one of the very best chroniclers of the “Destroy Public Education” movement. He was thrilled to discover a new book that explains the origins of the attack on public schools and calls out its founding figures. Lily Geismar’s Left Behind is a book you should read and […]

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