The 40-year history of how Democrats chose political convenience over addressing inequality–and how the poor have paid the price.

For decades, the Republican party has been known as the party of the rich: arguing for "business-friendly" policies like deregulation and tax cuts. But as our national and global economy confronts a crisis of inequality, the truth is that Democrats have been unwilling to take risks that would help eliminate poverty.

In this incisive new book, political historian Lily Geismer shows how the Democratic party of the 80s and 90s — particularly during the height of the Clinton years — peddled policy ideas that centered on helping the poor without asking the rich to make any sacrifices: doing well by doing good. Micro-lending became a big business, and private programs to promote democracy and equality abroad grew trendy. But as social programs in the private sector boomed, the structure of the government began to weaken, contributing to a crisis that has now fully arrived.

Geismer makes her case through artful storytelling and a savvy eye, conjuring in meticulous detail the political moments that led to these fateful decisions. We've seen skyrocketing income inequality, huge discrepancies between the haves and have-nots, and growing poverty in America. This is the story of how we got ourselves into this mess, and where we can go from here.

What's Inside

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Praise

Left Behind lucidly conveys how the Clintonian ‘New Democrats’ of the 1990s looked to beat Republicans with market-based policies, but in the end contributed to traumatic losses for all too many and a steep decline in public trust. The struggle underway for the soul of the Democratic Party seems all the more urgent in light of this bracing reassessment.”—Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains and finalist for the National Book Award
Left Behind is a powerful critique of a technocratic, market-driven approach to government that has never lived up to its promise. Geismer shows in painful detail how the Democratic Party of the recent past could have helped the poor—but chose not to fight for them. This is not just history—it’s a map that takes us, inexorably, to the mess we’re still in.”—Stephanie Kelton, New York Times–bestselling author of The Deficit Myth
“Geismer’s outstanding Left Behind addresses a critical breach in our understanding of how the Democratic Party transformed from ‘big government’ liberalism to the champions of privatization. These policy choices have contributed to inequality and social instability, the impacts of which underlie the social unrest and disquietude that roils US society today. A crucial read.”—Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of Race for Profit and finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in History
“Tremendous. This book shows how the ideas of the Clinton-era Democrats emerged historically, setting them up for a clear and convincing debunking. We’re along for the ride with these characters as they become enamored of horrible ideas, with disastrous consequences. This book is an absolute must-read, especially for those who think they already know this story.”—Chenjerai Kumanyika, assistant professor at Rutgers and cohost of the podcast Uncivil
“Framing the story as a tragedy of good intentions gone wrong, Geismer transforms wonky policy matters into an unlikely page-turner. Readers will gain valuable insight into the Clinton presidency and its legacy in today’s distrust between progressives and centrist Democrats.”—Publishers Weekly
“Geismer deftly weaves politics with policy to show how the Democrats reimagined poverty as a market failure… Catnip for policy wonks and political junkies, offering solid lessons for Democrats going forward.”—Kirkus
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