Power  /  Book Review

What the 1990s Did to America

The Law and Economics movement was one front in the decades-long advance of a revived free-market ideology that became the new American consensus.

Many Republicans who began to repudiate aspects of postwar conservatism did not immediately break with its prevailing economic orthodoxy. Nineties partisans from Newt Gingrich to Dinesh D’Souza continued to support a Reaganite agenda of tax cuts and retrenchment of social programs. It was not until Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign that conservative populists openly denounced free-market conservatives’ plans to cut, say, Social Security. Economic policy is therefore not Hemmer’s main focus.

In contrast, for Lily Geismer, economic policy is the main story of the 1990s—and this isn’t a story about peace and prosperity. While incomes did grow even for the bottom quintile of workers and nearly eight million Americans were lifted out of poverty, Geismer would have us understand that the Democratic Party’s ideological project of orienting liberalism away from the state and toward the market made lopsided, unfair economic gains inevitable. This argument builds on and dramatically expands the scope of a decade of scholarship and commentary on the modern Democratic Party.

Since the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, political commentators and academics alike have described the modern history of the Democratic Party with what I consider to be their “liberal betrayal narrative.” This now-familiar narrative goes roughly as follows: chastened by political setbacks and economic slowdown in the 1970s, a new generation of Democratic leaders sought to distance themselves from the big government of New Deal liberalism, while moving to accommodate the conservative movement’s free-market ideology. By the early 1990s, they were known as New Democrats.

Parts of Left Behind excavate this material, tracing the New Democrats’ evolution from the reform-minded “Watergate babies” elected to Congress in 1974 to 1980s “Atari Democrats” ensorcelled by high technology to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) founded in 1985. One union organizer in the mid-1980s described New Democrats as “crypto-Republicans.” Their foil, in Left Behind, is Reverend Jesse Jackson, the charismatic civil rights activist whose 1984 and 1988 presidential primary campaigns urged Democrats to embrace a multiracial “Rainbow Coalition.” Typically, critics argue that the New Democrats simply betrayed the New Deal by surrendering ideologically to the free-market Right.

Geismer, however, argues that New Democrats’ promotion of market-oriented policies was not a “defensive reaction” to Republicans. Indeed, Left Behind is at its strongest when chronicling, in exacting detail, the shortcomings of specific Clinton-era initiatives such as Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (welfare reform). In Geismer’s account, the lubricious Bill Clinton emerges as not so much the Democratic Eisenhower—accommodating his party to, and sanding the radical edges off, a new consensus—but as the Democratic Reagan: shaping and even leading this new market-oriented consensus. Left Behind is a mirror image of the first histories of postwar conservatism that began to emerge (when else?) in the 1990s. Just as those histories essentially asked how we got to Reagan, historical accounts of the Democrats such as Left Behind ask the question, “How did we get to Clinton?”