Phone a Friend
Lily Geismer, author of Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality.
Summary: Lily Geismer wrote an incredible book called Left Behind. Unf*ckers who listened to our three part series on the Clinton years are familiar with it and know how important it was to framing this series. We had some follow up thoughts and questions for this esteemed author and are thrilled she obliged. Max and Lily have a wide ranging conversation about her book and the long tail effect of Clinton’s brand of neoliberalism in the second installment of Phone a Friend.
Max: Welcome to the second installment of our new periodic Unf*cking series “Phone a Friend,” where we interview authoritative voices, authors and policymakers; and today Unf*ckers know, is very special because we are speaking with Lily Geismer, the author of Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. And as Unf*ckers know, this was one of the primary sources that we used in our three part series on the Clinton years, and it turned out to be an indispensable resource for us.
So Lily is an associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, the prestigious college that’s part of the Claremont system out in California. She researches and teaches about recent political and urban history in the United States with a focus on liberalism and the Democratic Party. She is also the author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party. She’s written for a few tiny publications you might have heard of over the years like I don’t know, The New York Times, WaPo, New Republic, Jacobin, among others. Lily is originally from Massachusetts, but sadly, she abandoned her East Coast roots in favor of a Hollywood lifestyle, Lily Geismer, what is up? It is such an honor to have you on the show.
Lily: Oh, thank you so much. It’s such an honor to be here. And I’m so grateful for that very kind introduction. It sounds like my life is far more glamorous [laughing]. I don’t live in Hollywood.
Max: Well, I’ll tell you, you did the work, you did the hard work, this book was just an unbelievable resource. And our audience knows that because the series and the feedback that we actually got from the series—in particular, the Clinton years, but also the years preceding the Clinton years—got maybe more feedback than almost any other show that we’ve done. I think that that’s fair to say.
Because many of us really have kind of a mistaken impression about the trajectory of the Democratic Party and that inflection point when they sort of left their, I would say their progressive post-Civil Rights era roots and entered into this phase of New Democrats. So, your book to me was revelatory. I know that people are going to find the same thing especially when we talk to you further. But I just wanted to first and foremost, say thank you for doing this.
Lily: Oh, that was really kind of your say, thank you so much. And I should say actually, that was one of my main goals, for my own effort to kind of understand that period, so many things that sort of come into fruition during the Clinton years and then have impacts beyond it. But as a historian of the recent past, and also, I think sort of how journalists think about it, there’s actually a lot of false assumptions about the periods—the post ‘60s period of liberalism and the Democratic Party, and so I wanted to understand it. And I actually learned a lot myself doing the research that challenged some of the assumptions that I’d had going into it. And I’d already written—I wrote another book, as you mentioned, that also dealt with sort of ‘70s and ‘80s. And I even found new things working on this one.
Max: Okay, so let’s talk about your interest in this period, and kind of the motivation for putting this together, because there is no shortage of material on the Clintons, given the scope, and their tenure in their political life. And I can‘t think of a—I really can’t think of another couple that has been so powerful and prominent for so long in our political system. And given the volume of information about them, I imagine it was actually kind of daunting to attempt a book that had a particular purpose. So given your background in liberal political history and urban and suburban areas, what was the question that you were attempting to answer when you were putting this together? What was kind of the spark?
Lily: Well, there were a couple of things. One was I started in some ways working on it as I was finishing my first book, which is about suburban liberals in the suburbs of Boston, and understanding them as a kind of a way that the party, the base and priorities of the Democratic Party shifted from the 1960s to the 1980s. And the last chapter of that book, dealt with Mike Dukakis, who I always joke is like seen as as the kind of biggest loser in American politics, but actually there’s false assumptions about his liberalism. But one thing that really interested me was that he started to—he and a group of Democrats around him, started to really use and embrace of ideas of the market to address kind of traditional liberal values. And so I really want to understand that further, this embrace of kind of using market oriented tools.
And this goes to the Clintons is this idea of like the market’s ability to do good. And that is such a pervasive idea, and it’s so pervasive to the ways in which people think about a variety of different sort of things about government and the economy. I saw it a lot in my own students, and so it was something that I really wanted to understand, how and why the Democratic Party had been the ones who sort of really promoted these ideas.
Another motivation is that there’s often this kind of story about the Democrats and how the Clintons get talked about. And so in that, like the kind of volumes of books that go beyond, I guess, the scandals and those stories, but one of the things is that it’s always sort of a story of being reactionary to Republicans. So there’s a way of either telling it, that kind of it’s exactly the same as Reagan or whoever but also that everything that Clinton and the New Democrats did, was just kind of in reaction to the Republican Party, or they they were trying to win, they were desperate to win. So they did what they could. And so it’s this kind of this story of a very ruthless politician. One of the goals that I wanted to look at and understand was that it wasn’t just kind of reactionary, that this was part of a kind of a much more affirmative agenda, and just understand what that agenda was. So that was my other motivation in working on it.
Max: That’s really interesting. And I think, actually, we’re gonna tease some of that out, because one of the assertions that we made during the series, and that we picked up from your book—but also, we used Nathan J. Robinson’s book Superpredator about the criminal justice system, and a handful of other really good resources that again, stayed away from the more salacious parts of the Clinton years and really just talked about policy initiatives and what was deliberate and what was in response to retaining power—and what I found interesting was, it’s hard to discern whether or not these were really well intentioned true believers, and what they actually thought the potential outcome from these policies would be. And we’re going to tease some of that out as we go.
But before we even get there, I kind of want to go back to that inflection point prior to Clinton having presidential power in his formative years, as governor of Arkansas, and what was happening around him with the Democratic Party—because we’ve received more feedback than maybe ever before, like I said—about something that you did remarkably well, and that was to describe the political circumstances as they were coming out of the Reagan and Bush One era, and in particular 1988, and what was at stake in the Democratic primary.
And you framed this era in a way that I found really illuminating because, especially with respect to the tension between the Jesse Jackson wing of the party, and the burgeoning influence of the New Democrats. Apart from what I found fascinating, which we covered in detail, what stands out to you the most about those years that was perhaps lost, or gained in the shift of momentum within the Democratic Party. Can you talk about that inflection point?
Lily: Yeah. And I think this also goes to the ways the narratives or historical narratives have been told. And so so often, the story of the 1980s is a story about Reagan, and I’m guilty of this, I teach a class called Reagan’s America on the 1980s. So it’s sort of, that’s the dominant story. And I think there’s often been a forgotten story about what was going on with the Democratic Party, and really looking at the fact that these two successive losses [happened] in the presidential race. So first 1984, and then in 1988, and in many ways, what happens in 1988 is actually a result of 1984.
So I think both of these elections are really, really interesting for sort of understanding a party’s intention and could have gone a lot of different directions. And so in some ways, I mean, I don’t want to jump too far ahead, but I actually see really interesting parallels to sort of what’s going on with Democratic Party today. And I think that in many ways, it’s because a lot of these are unresolved. But a big question, I mean, so going into the 1980s, the Democratic Party had—prior to in the period of the ‘50s and ‘60s—really dominated American politics. And I think one of the things that are going on, a huge one is the kind of larger economic transformation in the United States, and a sense that what so much of the Democratic Party’s success had hinged on was an embrace of Keynesian economic policy, and that had broken down by the 1970s.
So the party is looking for what to do. And so in the ‘70s, this goes in a couple of different directions. One is the more traditional, what would have been like the progressive, aspirational parts of the party—embracing things like full employment, extending the social welfare state—that as a solution to the economic problems. The other side was the group of people who become known as the New Democrats, but first are called Watergate babies or Atari Democrats. And they really see the way that you go after private sector growth and bolstering new sectors of the economy as the way to solve the nation’s economic problems. Some of what they see is actually the social welfare state is the problem, and we need to kind of reduce those types of things, and instead, go after building up tech, trade and finance. And that’s the kind of solution.
And so the people who are most associated with this are people like Gary Hart and Tim Wirth. And then Gary Hart runs for president 1984. And that becomes one pathway that the party is going to, and that becomes the people of the New Democrats that really promote these kind of ideas and economic growth. The other thing that they believe is that the labor movement has been a real drag both on the economy and then also on the Democratic Party. And that the Democrats—older generation of Democrats, like people like Tip O’Neill, or Hubert Humphrey, and I’m sorry, this is going too inside baseball on the kind of Democratic Party—
Max: Oh, not at all, not for us.
Lily: But they believe that they were too beholden to both the labor movement and also a bunch of other groups who they called special interests, who is often like people of color and underrepresented groups. So in 1984, there’s this moment of kind of a crossroads because you have Gary Hart, who’s sort of advocating for this, you know, going after the new economy, reducing the traditional social safety net in various different ways and sort of privatizing it, which then I think actually like anticipates some of the stuff that happens under Clinton.
And then the other side that the party—the other choices are Jesse Jackson’s campaign, which actually is a really, sort of leaning into this idea of galvanizing the the non-voters and unrepresented and who were being really hurt in the 1980s under Reagan’s policies. And so he amasses this really impressive constituency and coalition, does quite well in the primaries, eventually loses, and then both of them lose to Walter Mondale, who is a more traditional liberal, has very close ties to AFL-CIO [The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations], although his progressivism is sort of questionable. And that leads the party into this sense of crisis that then creates a vacuum such that the New Democrats, under the Democratic Leadership Council, are formed.
And their idea is that they’re going to reshape both the ideology and also electoral coalition of the party. And the crisis that emerges in the 1988 election is just sort of which way this should go. And it’s really in the aftermath of the 1988 election, after Dukakis loses, that the New Democrats double down on their strategy, which is that you don’t go after non-voters, the people of the Jackson coalition, you don’t try to promote, in many ways, this idea of kind of—one of the tag lines that the New Democrats embrace is, we want to expand opportunity, not government. And that opportunity is created through free markets. And they think that the party’s electoral strategy should be not through non-voters, but through voters who are shifting over the Republican Party. So that is largely people who are known as like the Reagan Democrats, some working class whites, but primarily moderate suburbanites in the sunbelt states. And so that’s what the Democratic Party needs to do in order to gain electoral success. I’m sorry, that was a super long explanation to your question. [Laughing]
Max: No, that’s, that’s what we do. That is absolutely perfect. And so I want to build on that inflection point in that period where they had sort of a crisis of messaging, but also policy in trying to figure out, I guess, who they were going to be when they grew up, again, as the Democratic Party having suffered so many defeats like that. Something that we spend a lot of time talking about on the show is neoliberalism, but in practical terms; because I think now it’s just become such a catch all buzzword, that we’ve actually lost some of the meaning behind it, and what the intention was behind the neoliberal movement, particularly as it relates to economics and justice.
And I think another thing that you do really well in Left Behind, is to describe how the New Democrats were actually more ardent believers in this sort of Chicago School free market ideology than even the Republicans who have sort of used it as a head fake in many ways—they say that they’re free market supporters, but they do more to actually control and sort of manipulate the so called free markets than what had happened under the Clinton-era. So the players that you highlight, and many of whom you just spoke about, what I found in Left Behind is that they really were the true believers.
And so how do you think it came to be that the New Democrats fell so completely for free market ideals? Was it just an opportunistic political gambit for them to reclaim their prominence in the political system? Or was there a true strain of the party that were real believers that this was going to change the world that this is, this is how things were going to shape out?
Lily: Well, there are a couple of things there that are important to break down. So one thing that I tried to argue in the book or sort of think about, and I’ve argued other in other forums too, is that there’s a question of defining this group as neoliberal. And I think you’re right that the term has become so sort of expansive, that it’s kind of lost some of its meaning. So one of things I want to do is be more precise in the usage of it. I think what they do is practice a version of what I call at various different points, a democratic version of neoliberalism. And so in many ways, they’re not like—Bill Clinton was not up late reading Milton Friedman, and in a lot of ways, didn’t agree with certain aspects of the Friedman approach. They do believe in free markets, but they still believe in a role for government. And so that’s a critical difference from the kind of traditional, if you sort of take neoliberalism on high, what it believes in. And so they see government, but they see government as what they call like government as catalyst. And so the role of government is to produce partnerships between the public and private sector and also stimulate the private sector to do work that was once the work of the public sector. And so that does fall in line with neoliberal values, but it’s a slightly different configuration of what is going on.
The other thing is what they’re trying to do, and I do think the question of did they actually believe this, I think they did—is that they believe that you could use the market and use the mechanisms of the market to create goals and outcomes of traditional liberalism and those are questions around creating one of the words of opportunity for people, but also sort of social equality and social goods—that the market—in places where in the assumption that in the ‘60s, the government had failed, and so they there’s often this kind of false assumption about the Great Society—that the market could then do those types of things.
The other thing that they’re very committed to, and I think this does fall in line with certain aspects of neoliberalism—although oftentimes neoliberalism is about limiting government—is they wanted to apply ideas of the market and the private sector to make government more efficient. So it’s actually taking sort of a lot of these tools that are from the private sector, and making the government do them.
Max: That seemed to be Gore’s emphasis, right?
Lily: Gore is huge on that, when he ha[d] his whole, the national performance review, and kind of seeping into the practices of government, all of these kinds of questions of efficiency and various different other things. And I think an actually under studied or under recognized piece, but I think it’s actually really, really important. And you can see all the ways that that language has become like roughshod through a lot of the ways that the Democratic Party from the kind of ‘90s onward talks. And actually earlier, the 80s too.
Max: Well, yeah. For example, it’s like we reduce Gore’s influence during those years down to a punch line of ‘oh, he invented the internet, that guy, right,’ who then hops on a private jet and preaches about climate change. When in reality, what I learned from your book was that well before he was even vice president, he was cozying up to the burgeoning tech sector, he was the one that really brought Silicon Valley into the White House and was more collaborative in terms of their approach and what they could actually do for government. I found that really, really fascinating.
Lily: Yeah, he’s huge on—a lot of the tech stuff does come from him. And which is really important, too. I mean, there’s another thing that’s going on. I’ll say one thing, and I’ll go back, I had another point to go back to, to the question of how it works with markets. One thing that’s really important about Gore’s role, and it’s something that I think about because there’s often this discussion of when you’re a presidential candidate, who you pick as your running mate, and usually what people do is balance the ticket. So it’s like, you’re weak in one place, I’m going to get a candidate who will help me. So we saw that with Biden, it’s happened with Clinton to some degree with Kaine—Hillary Clinton.
I think one thing that is important with what [Bill] Clinton did is he picked another New Democrat. So it really was actually doubling down on the ideas.
Lily: And Gore actually had more national political stature at that point. So he really wanted to form and infuse the administration, I think he did in a lot of ways, a lot of the ideas do come from him, too. But one thing I was going to say, I think it’s also really important to the way that they’re thinking and this goes to the tech sector, too, is that, as I came to understand the philosophy, one thing that they’re trying to do is that they believe [that the] solution to the economic crisis is to grow these particular parts of the economy, like the tech sector. But then the idea is that you could use those techniques and the same sector to solve the other problems of poverty and inequality. And so those are the kind of persistent problems that the Democrats and liberals have wanted to address for a very long time. And it’s been at like the sort of core of liberal Democrat philosophy since the New Deal.
But the idea is that you use very different mechanisms to get there, which is this idea of using the market oriented mechanism. So they’re taking like techniques that come from this other part of what they’re trying to grow through economic growth and applying those to questions of poverty and inequality. And that’s kind of where the fusion lies. But I do think that there’s a genuine belief in the idea that the market can do good. My book looks a lot this philosophy of doing well by doing good. And there is this idea that—and that to me, and I make the point in the book that like, I actually think that people like Clinton and the Clinton-era have been more influential in shaping that idea in the sort of larger American social consciousness than Milton Friedman has. So we associate Milton Friedman with this idea, of like the powers of the market, but in many ways, it’s Clinton and the New Democrats that did that.
Max: Well, and another aspect of markets in general that I think you keyed in on early and then kept as a thematic device throughout the book was this idea of credit and access to credit, which is super important. Because it’s one thing to have a collaborative nature between the public and private sector, but how do you actually ignite that initial spark, and that is through credit. And one of our, I would say one of our most downloaded episodes is an episode titled The Economics of Racism. And we pull from books like The New Jim Crow, The Color of Money, The Color of Law, to walk through a history of deliberate economic disenfranchisement and injustice in the country.
And one of the key areas of economic liberation, I guess, as espoused by the Black church and Black activists and urban development policymakers, was the concept of keeping money within the Black community. But the real upshot that we learned from the research was that it showed that it wasn’t so much keeping money as an absolute value, but access to credit that truly matters in a capitalist system.
So when the concept of micro-lending and credit was adopted by the New Democrats, there’s an argument to be made that they were finally, I would say, on the right track. And yet, you were able to very effectively demonstrate that Clinton’s key programs did very little. They were kind of marginal, in the end. What did you discover in your research that helps explain why Clinton’s credit policies ultimately didn’t succeed to the degree that the New Democrats hoped it would be as a panacea?
Lily: Well, there are a couple of things, and I think it is important that credit plays this, this really complex role. So it’s true. And I think in some ways of understanding, within the Clinton years, understanding connections between markets and race, that were not there prior. But one of the things is that they sort of saw poverty and inequality and structural racism as like a market problem, and also tried to use the market itself to address them.
Lily: So the big issue is like, not addressing the long history that you just laid out and all of those books explain, and instead sort of trying to use what I look at as a microeconomic technique to address what are these really macroeconomic problems. So that’s a huge question of why a lot of the credit programs don’t work. And I think a couple things, and I can get, I can go as the book does—some people argue that I go too deep onto microenterprise, I think it’s really fascinating. And I think it’s a really fascinating example of how a lot of these things operate. One of the other things, when they’re looking at helping people get access to credit—be that microenterprise, be that buying their own home or starting bank accounts—it’s also promoting the idea of those poor people as market actors. Which works in a couple of different ways, but it’s like the solution to poverty is to integrate people into the economy, and the economy is doing really well.
And so that’s the—the book’s title does this, it lets a lot of this language of like, we have to help those people who are being “left behind” by the new economy. And so instead of saying, like, why are those people being left behind? Why is the system that that is being produced and is produced and reproduced, creating these kinds of inequities? Instead, it’s like the solution is to help them get into the system. And so credit is a way of kind of doing that. But I think one of the issues that happens is that you, that’s just not enough to address a long history of structural inequality and an immediate issue. And the other thing that’s happening at the same time these credit programs are being offered is the destruction. There’s already a 20–30 year period of the destruction of the social safety net in the United States. But under Clinton, that becomes even more magnified.
Because it’s this idea of look at all these great things we’re doing with the economy, at the same time, anything that was left of the New Deal social safety net, becomes, in many ways, eviscerated. So that’s also why the credit programs don’t work. I would say a third thing that is really important, and I thought a lot more actually, as I was working on the book, is the way that selling the economy as the solution and the market and all these kind of financial tools, like credit and getting a bank account or doing other kinds of things—at the same time, during the Clinton years, the banking system itself goes through like radical restructuring. So you’re basically promising a system that itself is becoming increasingly unstable. So Clinton financial deregulation works in a lot of different ways, but in ways that are fundamentally restructuring the financial and banking system, such to make it just not a perfectly reliable tool for the kinds of equity and equality that the Clinton administration is promising it can be.
Max: So let’s pull some of these—
Lily: Sorry, [laughing] I just I gave you a lot there.
Max: [Jokingly] If you apologize one more time, Lily Geismer.
Lily: I know. I just realized I’m apologizing a lot. So I’m going to not apologize anymore. [Laughing]
Max: I’m telling you, because you are the expert! And we relied on you. This is exactly what I was hoping for when we contacted you. So—
Lily: A lot of apologies [laughing].
Max: [Laughing] I do want to pull these threads together and help us bridge from economics over to justice, because there’s the other side, obviously. So you do really a remarkable job, and I find that the credit piece and the micro-lending piece as fascinating as you do, I thought that it wasn’t tangential at all, it was core to understanding their economic philosophy. So I really appreciated what you did with Grameen and ShoreBank and those enterprises. But I also think it’s instructive to help us move from economics to justice.
So we’ve often quoted a gentleman named Bernard Harcourt. He’s kind of the lone progressive economist at UChicago, who beautifully describes the evolution of neoliberal thought from Jeremy Bentham, through the physiocrats, to the Mont Pelerin scions like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, like we just talked about. And he describes this sort of terrible alchemy of their visions that hardened into the idea that the only legitimate space that the government can occupy is in either the defense of the nation or of private property. And in saying this, he’s essentially saying that the only place that government should intervene is in matters of war or incarceration.
And what I find fascinating about your descriptions of Clinton’s actions, not the philosophical underpinnings of let’s say the New Democrats or what was evolving at the time, his actions whether it’s, say the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, shrinking the size of government to produce surpluses, the crime bill, punitive welfare, immigration reform and on and on, is that despite his public persona, to me, he’s sort of like the perfect embodiment of this neoliberal concept that the government should only exist in the carceral sphere, and that if it is not sparking public, private enterprises, maybe just as dipping its toe into the economy, it really doesn’t belong there at all. Like, if it can set it off to sail, then it can sail on its own, that it should even get out of after that.
Do you think that is a fair assessment? When we think about Bill Clinton as the person, the politician and this man who really moved the country in a very deliberate direction, you cannot underestimate how much he impacted the last, let’s say 30 years of our political history. Is that a fair characterization of his underlying worldview?
Lily: I mean, I think in some ways, he does have a commitment to helping people and like sees the role of government there to help. So that that is part of what he’s trying to do, and so finding different ways for that to happen, but believes in these kind of market techniques such to get there. So I think there’s often this idea of like the cold, heartless, not believing in helping people at all. And I think that that’s not actually the case. Like I think there is a core to part of Bill Clinton that does believe in helping people. One thing I’ll say is, I think it works in a couple of different way—and it’s not just sort of setting it off to sail, I think there’s still a way that the government has oversight. And that goes to the idea of like in the questions of justice, one of the critical ideological shifts that the New Democrats favor is shifting the Democratic Party’s platform away from a discussion of fairness, to its discussion of opportunity. And that has a very different—I mean, it sounds like it’s not just synonyms, or what my economist colleagues call like, word smithing—actually, there’s a way of thinking about that as a different meaning. And I think that the idea of sort of helping people gain opportunity is you’re doing all these things, and it’s there for people who can access it. And for everyone else, that’s just the way the system works.
So I think that is some of what’s going on. You know, things like the Crime Bill and how they work hand in hand with all of this is the idea—so a lot of it is kind of a redrawing the line of who is deserving and undeserving, which is a long discourse in American politics and government, and especially on the liberal side. And instead, I think one thing that happens is like, you don’t have the kind of hyper-punitive language of the “welfare queens.”
And in the book, I look a lot at this celebration of particular kinds of poor people. Like the poor woman of color, who like starts their own business, or like the charter school student who does really well. In the celebration of those you leave this idea that people who can’t do that are then not playing by the rules. Or, if you do anything wrong, you don’t have access to that. So it’s a kind of a good and bad poor person. And so then I think it is the idea that, like, if you’re not doing the right thing—you’re then subject to these intensive—and I would say it’s not doing the right thing under the strictures of market capitalism, you’re not abiding by your role in the market system.
Max: But there’s a mean—Lily, there’s a mean spiritedness to all of that, that makes me question, really, just I guess how well intentioned these policies really were. Because I think you’re really striking at the heart of—it’s a reframing of pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, or get out of the system, and you’re going to be punished, and you can’t exist within this market based system. Right? It’s hard for me to square this idea that they were all well intentioned policies when they were just so deliberate and then punitive. If you fell outside of the system, it wasn’t just that you weren’t going to have protections, you were punished.
Lily: I agree. And I think there is a component in a lot of these things, like it’s overly aspirational as to the way that this can work. And that’s often I think, what happens when you sort of abide by a market system. And that’s actually true. I think that’s true of like the traditional neoliberals too. Like when I read Hayek, I find it to be like profoundly utopian—
Max: Yeah, absolutely.
Like weirdly aspirational to me. I think it’s often associated with negative and dark thinking. But I find it to be overly utopian, this idea of like—
Max: It’s like, ‘imagine a world with an absence of humans. And now there’s a market.’ Like, right, yeah, okay.
Lily: [Laughing] Exactly. And like everyone is just like rationally working within their own system. So I think there is a component of that. I agree that I think when you look at something like the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, the Sister Souljah moment, which is also like, mean spirited in a lot of ways. And I think that there’s a question like, I interviewed Al From, for the book.
Lily: Who is the founder and executive director of the DLC [Democratic Leadership Council], and he told me that he and Clinton had had a conversation fairly—this was like, a few years ago, they’d just been talking about how upset they were at what happened with the crime bill, and they never would have known that that would have happened. And I just, I don’t buy that. There’s this whole thing too that like, crime was really bad in early 1990s, and like everyone wanted a solution to it. I’ll give them some credit that they might not have been able to see the full consequences of some of these types of things, and I think that that often happens in policymaking. But I do think that there’s a component of it that is incredibly rigid. And I think it could be called mean spirited in a lot of different ways. And so that’s tempered by this aspirational, optimistic language about the market. And I think that’s some of what I see going on.
And I think there’s an interesting thing; I mean, the question around Clinton himself is really fascinating, too, because he was such a good conduit for this, these kinds of policies because of his own kind of ability to talk to different types of circles, his ability to couch things in a particular middle class populism that really, really was effective, so there’s a way that having it told through his voice and his register worked in a way that it might not have had it been another political figure.
So I think the policies played a really critical role—I think you’re right—in fundamentally transforming the United States. But I would say that that’s what they wanted to do.
Lily: Like, it’s not like it was like, oh! I mean that was the idea, [that] we’re going to transform the Democratic Party and transform the country. So that is some of what does happen.
Max: What’s interesting also—and I don’t know if I’m going to frame this the right way—but I want to go back to something that you said before about how much of the policies and legislation themselves were a reaction to what was happening on the Republican side and in response to how Newt Gingrich galvanized the country with Contract for America and all the work that was done with [Frank] Luntz at the time. I think what I began to pull out of your book was, I’m not really sure how to think about what was a response, and what kind of really worked in their favor, because it’s what they wanted anyway.
So I’m thinking about this legislative agenda, and again, in the context of today, as well. So, right now there was this rush, let’s say, to get the inflation Reduction Act and Build Back Better, and all these different policies done before the historically bad first presidential term midterms where they’re going to lose control of the House, and this is just going to repeat and replay all over again.
At the time, we were operating under the same dynamics, except it was even more dramatic. And yet Clinton really lost control of the legislative process pretty early on. And then significantly so for the remainder of his term, and yet, and yet, you’re talking about one of the most profound legislative periods, probably post-LBJ in terms of the size and the scope of the magnitude of the bills that were passed. And it makes me question—so like, under Obama, we got the ACA [American Care Act], and then nothing for six more years. Almost quite literally nothing for six more years, on balance of any substantial legislation that would be considered either progressive or regressive, however you want to frame it.
But under Clinton, it never slowed down. I mean, he worked in lockstep with the Gingrich crowd, pretty much the entire way. So again, it makes me question, I don’t know, how much of this actually played into their worldview of ‘I know, it doesn’t look good, but it’s going to help us because it’s going to help us accomplish our original goals.’ Does that make sense?
Lily: Yeah, totally. And so, I think, I’ll say a few things. Like one of the things that I tried to do in the book, and I think this is also like, within political history, especially in the field I’m in, is there’s just been this dominant story of the Republican Party. And I think that one thing that was one of the arguments I had about the ways that people think about Clinton, because when calling Clinton neoliberal, is sort of still lumping it into the story of conservative ascent.
Max: Fair, yeah.
Lily: So I wanted to understand what’s going on. I think there’s a school of thought that I’ve seen that is this argument that Clinton—and this is another thing I challenge, I don’t say that deliberately, but was a goal—is there’s often this argument, and I’ve gotten this a lot from people, especially I think, I was actually working through an argument about Obama that I also heard about Clinton—which is this idea that like, everything was about the Republicans and these people were actually much more progressive than they realized.
And I always want to say like, it would not have been this social democratic, panacea utopia under Bill Clinton, had there not been the Republican Party. That’s not what his operating vision was. I think the same thing of Obama, like he’s not—if you look at his approach, it’s not even even working within I mean, I think it would have been more progressive, slightly more progressive, than what ended up happening, but he’s not a social democrat.
Max: We get the most emails whenever we call Obama, the best Republican president in recent history, we get a lot of email.
Lily: [Laughing] It’s like, it’s one of those things that I think happens. I do think it’s important to acknowledge that they were not working, like Bill Clinton was not working in like a frictionless world. I mean, he was working with a powerful and increasingly powerful Republican Party. And so that did shape the policies in various different ways. But I think one of the key examples to your point is welfare, because there’s often this argument—and I get this from people—you know, from the Clinton administration, or afterwards, it’s always like, basically, the welfare bill is as punitive as it is, because of the Republicans and Clinton vetoed it twice. He then was facing reelection, he felt like this was—he was told by Dick Morris, that it was insurance for winning if he signed this. And I do think it’s true that a lot of the things—some, I would say a not a lot of the things and the particularly draconian components of the welfare bill would not have been passed, if it had just been the Clinton administration getting what they wanted.
I don’t think they would have had the fact that even authorized immigrants could not have access to welfare, any kind of welfare payment. I think that there would not have been like the things about going to marriage and abstinence training, which was part of like these weird add ons that are in the—if you look, if you read about the welfare bill. But Bill Clinton had believed in welfare to work since the early 1980s. He’d like made his political career as a governor on that. I mean, that was a huge slogan, was to end welfare as we know it, promoting this idea of term limited welfare. There’s a slightly different reason for why he wanted that than the Republicans did, which is important, but I think it’s true that this was a chance to actually get through what he wanted.
I mean, there’s also a way of thinking this was financial deregulation. So if you think of that as another of the like, hallmarks of the Clinton years is the repeal of Glass-Steagall. The Clinton administration Democrats had a philosophy that if you repeal the Glass-Steagall, it would create a more competitive economic system and that would be good for consumers, and that was like their philosophy. That’s a different reason than like, Phil Gramm wanted the financial deregulation passed. But I do think it’s important that it helped them achieve those kinds of things. I do think there’s a place where it is fusion.
And I mean, the other side of it, too, that happens—and this is one thing I thought about a lot, is the period from 1996, or ‘94, actually onward is really fascinating too, because of the lack of pushback on the left. So Bill Clinton was also facing us, it was like, they kind of got—what you’re saying—they got what they wanted on a lot of things they did, but they also didn’t face any sort of substantial opposition on the left, who had this idea that this was as good as we were gonna get, and the Republicans are worse. And so we have to kind of go along with this. And so there’s opposition on particular issues, but there was no unified opposition pushing against this. And I think that actually also played a really important role in the kind of dynamics that occur in the 1990s.
Max: Yeah, and if you think about—and I imagine this comes up when you’re teaching—when you think about how the Clinton years are framed in retrospect now, it’s interesting to me that the Democrats will lift up the Clinton years, purely on the upward mobility range of the economic system that was really, really good for a lot of already pretty well heeled people within the United States, and things just gotten demonstrably better. And we see that with the—it was the most severe rise in inequality in our nation’s history, period, end of story. That’s when it all happened. And then the Republican framing of it, which was to say that it was the biggest liberal, catastrophic giveaway to the—it’s like neither one in our collective consciousness and our retelling of this is true, because neither party can really admit to what was really happening and how it was, and how it failed both sides of the spectrum. It’s like the Clinton years to me just sort of, I guess they sort of emerged as like a dirty little secret that neither party wants to address honestly, as a result of what actually happened. Right?
Lily: Well, and it’s interesting, too, because there’s so much nostalgia for it.
Lily: And that’s the part that like, a lot of that has to do with the fact that the Republicans sort of tried to deny the economy was doing really well. [Laughing]
Lily: And that you know, that this was a moment. But I think the other side is that that’s the democratic story. A lot of the pushback that I get about the book, or from my arguments, are that very argument. Which is that like, overall economic growth was up, you know, if you look at all the numbers. Overall, African Americans were doing better, came out of the 1990s in a better position. So that helps to frame the story, and not thinking about—I don’t just blame Bill Clinton for the 2008 financial crisis. But a lot of what happened in all different sectors, a lot of what happened in 2008—the origins and accelerations of—happened in the Clinton years. And so I think some of that is to create a system that did create growth for some people, but had inequality, but also created a lot of vulnerability, and a lot of instability in a number of different sectors. And that is really the sort of slow burning process that came to a head in 2008.
Max: Yeah and it’s funny, because I think the, again, the framing of these years, and the nostalgia that we have for it is more pervasive among white liberals, because the economy was so successful, and it was succeeding for them. And yes, was it true that African Americans did better during that environment? Only partially so because then the other shoe was about to drop during the housing crisis. And it was because of the financial deregulation that it gave the appearance that Black and Brown people were essentially doing better in this country, because all of a sudden credit was extended to them. So it’s all part of that same story, right?
Lily: Well, it is, and that’s part of the Clinton story. I mean, so instead of saying how they’re going to address questions of racial inequity—and this goes back to your question earlier—is to make people part of the market.
Lily: So housing becomes a huge—so that national homeowner strategy is part of this, of loosening mortgage requirements and getting credit for mortgages and other form of credit to Black and Brown people. And I looked at this actually in the last chapter of the book, of this program at the end of the Clinton years called the New Markets program, which was this idea of sort of selling to companies to understand that you’re going to the Global South to try to do kind of investment and gain markets there. But like, look at this whole market available to you in the U.S.
So like treating the rural and urban poor as a kind of new market to tap, that was literally the idea of the program. It’s not a far leap [laughing] to see that as like profoundly predatory—
Max: [Laughing] Right.
Lily: And just sort of sets up the ways that that then set up understanding particular groups as a market, and as a market to be tapped, that then leads into a lot of the things that you started to see in the 2000s. I mean, the Bush administration really amped that up so that they had their own programs that even intensified it further. So I think it’s not like it’s just all on the Clinton administration. But a lot of that logic then sort of, you see coming to a head there too.
Max: Speaking of the end of the book, what I really enjoyed about that was the symmetry that you fleshed out between a lot of the optics between what Clinton was trying to accomplish and what LBJ and then—prior to that what FDR had accomplished—and looking back at these rural programs that became, let’s say, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) versus micro-lending programs in a super rural part of the country where creating and fostering entrepreneurship really wasn’t the answer to economic development and access into mobility, you know?
Lily: There are actually continuations too of this, assuming that what kinds of approaches will work in rural urban places, and I think that you see this constantly carried on. Also understand that particularities of those places, like they have their own regional economies that work in various different ways. And I should say, actually, Bill Clinton had like a very well developed understanding of the American south, but did apply that logic in very selective ways.
And this idea of not doing I mean, even something with the TVA, it was a highly comprehensive program with a lot of spending. Like Bill Clinton, one of the things I look at is like closing the digital divide and bringing broadband. And so it’s not to say it’s—it is really important to have broadband, like it’s been proven—
Lily: Proven, clearly, it’s important to have reliable access. But that is not going to solve the severe economic problems of large parts of United States.
Max: Right. When you talk about learning from those early days, though—and again, this is just like one giant compliment, but I think you’ve illustrated it so beautifully—talking about Grameen’s success in Bangladesh, is not something that could necessarily be mirrored through ShoreBank, with the same type of model, with the same type of peer-based lending model with very exorbitant rates, even not as exorbitant as Grameen would use, but exorbitant rates and a peer-lending philosophy in a marketplace that had 500 people, as opposed to 500,000 people where you could build in an entrepreneurial model. But these things failed pretty early. He had that data, and yet continued to double down, as you say, even with the New Market strategy towards the end, kind of similar in a lot of respects to this. It’s like he was trying to will this thing to work, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Lily: Yeah, that’s the thing I find so amazing, of like, the repeated belief in those things. And I think that one thing that I see it a lot—not just with Clinton, but Clinton as an example—so one of the the chapters of the book is about Empowerment Zones—
Lily: Which have had all of these iterations, like every administration tried this—
Lily: And it never worked. And I’m like, why does everyone think that like, this is going to be the solution? And I think it’s like, almost like it’s like some sort of word problem out of like a textbook. And that’s actually I think, why people like microfinance so much, I think it’s why my—I don’t mean to disparage the undergrads—but like, why in the sort of 2010 period, they loved microfinance. Cause it sounds like something that’s out of like econ, introduction to microeconomics.
So I think there’s a similar thing with some of those programs. I think the other thing that’s a really important component, the idea of taking something like the poor are the same everywhere. And in Arkansas, one of the things in the Arkansas Delta, like the reason that the economy—so at a place like Pine Bluff, where this was focused, they lost their manufacturing base. And like, one thing that came up from this is the whole thing is based on this idea that all Americans want to be entrepreneurs.
Max: Right. Right.
Lily: And that is like at our core that that’s what you want to do is like, have your own business, be your own boss, all of that kind of logic
Max: When they just wanted the factory jobs to return.
Lily: Yeah, and that’s the thing. I mean, most people actually want the stability that comes from like one of their factory jobs, and want the stability and health care that came from that, than wanted to sort of do the—it’s not just that to do the work—but like there’s a high barrier of entry into those kinds of jobs, and mostly psychologically, like, it’s a very unstable thing. And I think—what I argue in the book and think about is, Clinton was trying to use it in some ways to replace the welfare system. And that didn’t work.
But I think a lot of that actually prefigures the language of the gig economy, which is a similar idea.
Max: Oh, yeah.
Lily: You know, this whole idea of, you’re an entrepreneur, and you’re doing those kind of things, and equating, making these really false equivalencies between like the founder of Uber and an Uber driver. The reality is, most people actually want a stable job. So as much as you can say, it’s great to like, control your own schedule, that’s actually not what a lot of people want. They want like the sort of security of those types of things, and I think that’s been really proven in the last 10 years.
Max: I think a lot of the younger people that I work with have actually demonstrated and shown me that yes, both would be great. If you can. [Laughing]
Lily: [Laughing] Exactly, yeah, I guess that’s true.
Max: I love a stable job, and some flexibility built in.
Lily: I think there’s some flexibility, I’d say that too.
Lily: I was just thinking of that. I mean coming out of the pandemic world—that there are some things that were really nice about not having to arrive at certain times [laughing].
Max: I’ve learned a lot from the younger people that I’ve worked with. And there’s a lot of things that I had to kind of get over as an older person working now, as opposed to the way that they kind of see the world. It doesn’t have to be gig economy. But it doesn’t have to be this either. And I thought that was kind of cool.
Lily: Yeah, I actually think there is some questions around the transformations, and it is true. I see that too, with both younger people and my students, so it’s a been of a good reflection on my own age and my own thinking.
Max: So I don’t want to—I could, I could quite literally go through chapter by chapter, the book, and that’s how absorbed I was in it. One thing that we did not cover, I think I alluded to it toward the end of the series, but one thing we didn’t really cover, because we’re primarily an economics and social justice podcast, is the public education part of what happened.
So, part of the Clinton philosophy, I guess, if we can call it that, is kind of mirrored in this education policy of his terms as well. Can you talk about the rise of school choice under Clinton and kind of what the rationale was in promoting it, how that fits into, I guess, their overall ethos?
Lily: Yeah. And so I think a distillation of all of these different pieces, comes through the school choice, which then emerges as charter schools. And one of the things is like, there’s an assumption that kind of Republicans were the people who were pushing charter schools, because that’s often the kind of association right now.
But what I learned from doing research for the book is that in many ways, it’s the Democratic Leadership Council and the New Democrats and Clinton who were really at the forefront of the charter argument, they actually are the earliest politicians to promote it. And in many ways, they saw it as a kind of important middle ground, it’s actually a really good way to understand their philosophy.
So for those of you don’t know the history of charters, which is often forgotten, it’s sort of not talked about. The original idea actually comes from Albert Shanker, who was the head of the American Federation for teachers, and this very kind of legendary figure. In the 1980s, he starts to advocate for charters as a mechanism that will give more freedom to teachers that they can kind of experiment with new techniques, but do that within the lanes of the public education system. His model for charters actually gave the teachers unions a powerful role in shaping the charter system.
Lily: And the very idea of a charter is that you’re given a charter from your school board, or the state legislature to start your own school. And so the idea behind Shanker’s thinking is that you would experiment and then you can bring those ideas back into the public education system to kind of revolutionize the system. The New Democrats really pick this up on this idea, but come to kind of revise it in various different ways. And at that time, the popular school choice idea was vouchers. And those come from Milton Friedman, who has an idea for early in the early 1960s, that people can have the choice to sort of go wherever you want, and you can use your voucher for a public or private system.
And in the 1980s and early 1990s, actually too—that’s what the Republicans were pushing was this kind of voucherized system—the Democrats, the New Democrats were opposed to that idea. They didn’t like the idea of like, fully privatizing the system. But what was appealing about a charter model was that it was still operating within the public system. So you’re still giving people this choice to go to a different school, but it’s still within the public education system. And the other part of it that they also liked, that goes back to this idea of like injecting market principles or ideas from the private sector into the public sector, is the idea that charters would force the public school system or like public school bureaucracy, to have to compete with the charter school and therefore become better.
So that becomes really appealing and the Clintons promote this. The other thing that people who this also connects to—their larger relationship to Silicon Valley and the tech sector—and actually becomes a really important part of those larger relationships and roles. So one thing that’s important is that the New Democrats themselves long promoted the idea of education, and education is another area that’s kind of a long standing democratic or liberal priority. But the New Democrats and Bill Clinton himself when he was governor of Arkansas really advocated this idea that one of the problems with the American economy is the lack of an educated workforce—
Lily: And so like in a state like, he’s talked to this a lot in the state of Arkansas—so like really saw education and economic development as like intertwined. And this notion of the solution to our economic problems is to have better trained public school students in areas of what we now call STEM. So like in math and science, and various other things. This also becomes really appealing to people in Silicon Valley, who have this whole mantra, like dating to the 1990s, that what’s hurting the U.S. economy or like not making them able to be as successful as they want to be, is they don’t have enough good engineers in the states like California, they’re having to go to like India, to get engineers. And we still, this is still like an ongoing discourse.
So the idea of charters also become really appealing to them. And I think you can see this, right, those ideas actually fit really well with Silicon Valley philosophy. The thing with Silicon Valley that they really like about it is that it’s disruptive, that you’re taking, like an older bureaucratic approach, and you’re disrupting it. So through this combination in the late 1990s and early 2000s, you see this huge expansion of both the Democratic Party’s commitment to charter schools, but filtered to the tech sector who start these foundations. The more famous ones are like the Gates and the Broad foundations, but then also the NewSchools Venture Fund, which is founded by one of the foremost venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, to start these what are called charter management programs, and that’s the kind of chain charter schools that we see.
One thing I also think is really important about the Democratic Party’s promotion, and what they’re talking about, is they don’t want the schools to be for profit—and a lot of them are nonprofits—but the place that the market comes in is much more in the kind of logics of them than that they’re actually going to create kind of a market system. I do think that the other part that’s very appealing to both the New Democrats and to people in Silicon Valley, is that it’s a way to undercut the power of the teachers unions, which is a fascinating conundrum—
Lily: Given that actually, the teachers unions are like one of the most powerful constituencies of the Democratic Party. So we think about the period from the ‘70s, really to the 2000s, as a period of union decline, but actually one of the only unions that was on the rise was teachers unions, and that’s the biggest constituency at both the Democratic conventions of 1992 and 1996. But you see, the Democrats—people like Bill Clinton and Al Gore—prioritizing their relations to Silicon Valley and the tech sector more than they are to the teachers unions.
Max: But as you so expertly note in the book, they made a calculation at some point, I guess, heading into the second term, that you know what, Black Americans are going to vote with us one way or the other. And so we’re just going to have to kind of put them on the shelf right now, quite literally in almost everything that they were approaching, if [they] want to get reelected, because hey, they’re coming with us anyway. It’s this new suburban population, the new educated population, white educated population that we need to bring back into the fold, particularly in suburban areas. Similar to that I imagine the calculus was the same with prospective teachers unions like, well, where are they going?
Lily: Oh, completely. I mean, that’s the interesting thing is like, it happens on lots of different issues. And the reality is like the teachers unions did that, like they didn’t like strongly advocate—in the platforms of 1996, there was a statement about charter schools and like, the teachers unions just decided that like, we’ll just go along with this. And I think that that goes to the thing of like, that’s a huge issue in allowing for some of these things to happen, that the Clinton Administration makes that calculation. And a lot of the constituencies are sort of forced into it to some degree, and they do have a feeling that like, this is better than Newt Gingrich.
Lily: So that goes a long—I mean, where you see it in the book, [it] talks about this is, where you see that fraying is on trade and globalization. So the WTO [World Trade Organization] protests are one place where you see this, like open opposition amongst democratic constituencies like labor and environmental groups and student activists against the Clinton administration.
Max: But a lot of the trade aspects of his administration was almost a fait accompli coming into it as you as you note, with NAFTA [The North American Free Trade Agreement] being kind of really packaged up almost, and really, he just put the bow on. And it was one of the first initiatives that he was able to pull across the finish line, because so much had already been done.
Lily: Yeah, and then just sort of accelerates it, and it’s another area that’s, I mean, there’s some things that have to go through congressional approval, but a lot of that is done without that. I mean, that’s one of the big issues when people are advocating for it, but it’s it, there’s like, no transparency, no accountability and a lot of stuff around, that deal with issues of trade.
Max: Right. So just to wrap up, we’ve been at it for a little while now, you have been extremely generous with your time. But I want to wrap up just sort of in a big picture sense. Last week during our show notes—we do a couple shows a week so we’ll do our core Unf*cking as we call it. And again, I’m sorry for such an ungracious title, but the core Unf*cking and then we’ll do show notes where we kind of discuss it, we incorporate listener feedback and what have you.
And when I boiled down the Clinton years and incorporated a lot of the feedback that we got, I kind of boiled it down to what I consider to be the five most important legislative pieces of that era. Crime Bill, welfare reform, immigration reform as a corollary and as a standalone, Telcomm ‘96—which we did not talk about, but I feel like so much of the shit that we have to live through today is as a direct result of that—and the last being Gramm-Leach-Bliley, which is the repeal of Glass-Steagall.
Now, when you think about these years being so close to it, and having done so much research on it, am I missing any other huge legislative agendas that kind of defined the era and impacted recent history? Is there anything that belongs on that list?
Lily: So two slight points of—just these might be me, just the academic in me having to—
Max: Please, please!
Lily: One is, so for telecommunications, and this is just to plug it for those of you who are interested, Gary Gerstle has a new book called The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order that just came out, and he has a really good discussion of the Telecommunications Act. But I think that that is huge and shaping and reshaping the kind of world that we know.
I think, the immigration, I think that that’s one thing that there’s not a lot of attention to with Bill Clinton, but so much of the punitive immigration policies that come subsequently are the result of the immigration reform. And it’s really fascinating to me, the convergence of these things all happening around the same time. So when you think about them coming through.
And I think a lot of the trade issues are really critical, so that might not be like a legislative arena.
Lily: But, you know, NAFTA is what Clinton always gets associated with, and you’re right, like he was a long standing advocate for it and like an advocate of trade going back to the ‘70s. But I think the subsequent trade policies and the various different ways of the promotion of globalization worked through a lot of the kind of trade agreements that emerged post-NAFTA, are incredibly critical to reshaping the world in which we know it.
I would say another area that the book looks at that is not necessarily sort of boiled down to one bill, is housing. And specially the end of public housing. And that’s a piece of it that I think is so fundamental.
Max: It’s part of the welfare bill and the immigration bill actually, right?
Lily: Yeah, connects to both of them and crime.
Max: And then Glass-Steagall repeal kind of relates to ultimately what’s going to happen with private housing. So they don’t want people in public housing. So they want to move them into private housing. And one of the ways that they were able to do that was to obviously liberalize finance, and get more people into housing. So I think you’re right, I think looking at that as a policy, but not one particular legislative item is a smart way to look at it.
Lily: Yeah. But I mean, I think one of the things, and the book has a chapter on this is t he efforts to kind of end public housing as we know it through things like the HOPE VI Program of shifting away from the big public housing programs.
Max: Yeah, I was actually surprised that Andrew Cuomo was as kind of nice as he was, I guess, back then? You know—
Lily: [Laughing] Oh, maybe I gave him a little bit too much sympathy.
Max: He said some really good, he said, some really nice things back then I’m like, that’s not my governor! I know this guy better than that.
Lily: It was interesting, interviewing people, everyone I interviewed said that he was exactly the same. [Laughing]
Max: [Laughing] Okay.
Lily: [Laughing] So maybe he just was able to temper some of his language a little bit more clearly.
Max: [Laughing] I got it, okay.
Lily: But yeah, I mean it is, like that was one of the people, as I was working on this, as everything sort of unraveled. I mean, it was fascinating to see his—to sort of think about this as his prehistory, and that he was the secretary of HUD [Housing and Urban Development]. But I mean, in so many ways, that’s also his legacy—both Clinton and Cuomo—of this really, the gutting of public housing, and that’s, that’s a long story. I mean, it goes back.
Lily: In LA they haven’t built any new public housing since the ‘50s. I mean, New York is actually like an exception to the rule in some ways, but there’s not a lot of new public housing buildings. And I think that is a huge, I mean, so much of the housing crisis that the United States is experiencing today is a result of many of those kinds of policies. So that’s another area that I think is really important.
Max: Yeah, it’s something I actually want to do, I think we need to do a lot more on it. What’s fascinating to me about it is that they did not get public housing right. I look at it much in the same way as mental health care in the country, sort of institutionalizing people, but not caring for them, or thinking about the next steps and the next chapters. Put them in these houses, don’t take care of the houses, put them into these institutions, don’t take care of the institutions. Don’t think about building that next step or that pathway to actually getting out of the mental institution or getting out of the housing projects. Just like, let’s just put them there.
That was sort of like the old model of it. And then this new shift, and era came along, saying, ‘this isn’t great. These institutions aren’t helping anybody in terms of public health, let’s just release everybody onto the streets.’ But then not thinking about what happens with that, because the “market” will take care of them.
In so many different ways, those are two areas, I don’t think we’ve ever had any good answer to it. And we’re not thinking hard enough about what we have to do as evidenced by the homeless population and as evidenced by the huge mental health crisis that we have in this country.
Lily: Totally, I think, and they are these arenas that, that sort of looking to what has happened in the past—and I think that this idea of like, what the intentions have been of some of the solutions, and so it’s a critical question, But I think, I would if you’re looking for new areas for your show—of that they connect in a lot of different ways to questions of social justice and also to the economy and into markets—especially housing. I mean, so that that’s the interesting question with housing is, it’s a market, it’s a market good in many ways, and which is part of the fundamental problem with it. And the other question with that thing of not getting right, I mean is, this circles back—I sound like, I’m just like, all things back to Clinton [laughing].
Max: Well that’s the point of this, that’s okay!
Lily: My friend just sent me a button from ‘96 with the cross through it—because I like seem to never get—the Clinton, don’t do it—but I need to like move my thinking away from the Clintons. [Laughing] So it’s more for me than like—
Max: [Laughing] You’re, you know, you’re in a very safe place right now, because we’re all about it right now.
Lily: But welfare too. I mean, I think there’s a way that the welfare I mean, the means tested welfare. Part of the issue in 1996—
Lily: Was like— but everyone agreed it wasn’t a good system. And it was a system that was set up to do—it was a small policy during the New Deal of giving aid to women and children that was never expected to serve the function that it did. So part of the thing that happened is like there was this desire for reform.
And that’s the same thing with public housing. Like, it’s not to say that the only way to do public housing is the kind of big, brutalist structures like the Robert Taylor homes or Cabrini-Green, that are like cut off from the rest of the city. Institutionalizing huge numbers of people is not necessarily the solution to a mental health crises, but that doesn’t mean that some government supported program is not a bad idea. So that I think needs to be sort of addressed in all fronts, actually, and it sort of should be at the forefront of our conversations. And I say this coming from California, where all of those things are major problems.
Max: Well, Lily Geismer, you’re my new best friend.
Lily: Oh, thank you. Oh, you’re my new best friend. Thank you for talking to me.
Max: [Laughing] So I just have to say, as we close this out that for as much as we’ve covered today, I want all the Unf*ckers to understand that there’s so much more that we didn’t get to, that you really expertly dissected in this book. So I can’t thank you enough for giving us your time today, but for also writing this book.
So Unf*ckers, if you enjoyed the Clinton series, and you enjoyed this discussion, I promise we still only scratched the surface, and you have to buy this book. So it’s in our Bookshop. Lily, just so you know, we don’t promote Amazon here, so we work with Bookshop.org. So if everybody who wants to get the book can go get it there, that’s great. We’ve got a link to it on unftr.com.
And truly, my special thanks to you Lily for coming on the show. If Unf*ckers, want to follow you and kind of keep tabs on your work. Where can they find you?
Lily: You can find me on Twitter. I do share there, so that’s probably the best place to find me!
Max: We’ll link it in show notes, but what’s your handle?
Lily: It’s @LGeismer.
Max: LGeismer. Not @AllThingsClintonLGeismer?
Lily: [Laughing] Exactly. What is it, um, I’m trying to think of the slogans from the—I always think of the Fleetwood Mac, the Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.
Max: [Laughing] @DontStopThinkingAboutTomorrow?
Lily: [Laughing] Yes.
Max: Good stuff, well thank you again for coming on, it was a great, great pleasure to meet you my new best friend.
Lily: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Max: As always, Unf*cking The Republic is produced by the great and powerful, 99. Our sound engineer and sound design maestro is Manny Faces of Manny Faces Media. All original music was composed by Tom McGovern, and you can find links to everything that you need to know about us at unftr.com.
We’ll catch you this week for show notes, and a brand new, full Unf*cking this weekend. Thanks for hanging around, Unf*ckers.
UNFTR Episode: The Clinton Years (Parts One, Two, and Three)
Nathan J. Robinson: Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America
Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Mehrsa Baradaran: The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap