Lily Geismer covers tremendous political, social, and historical ground in Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality. Starting with mindset changes in the post-Carter, Reagan-era Democratic Party, Geismer works through fifty years of policies. Left Behind is a policy wonk’s kind of heaven. Still, she also makes it accessible for the rest of us.

Geismer divides the book into several main policy areas: microenterprise, community development banking, charter schools, Empowerment Zones, and free trade. Woven throughout is whether or not these policies benefit the people in communities “left behind” by the economic and technical advances of the late 20th century.

If Left Behind sounds intense, that’s because it is. However, Geismer makes this detailed and scholarly work into something readable. Packed with information, I highlighted many passages. Skimming was impossible. Instead, I read many paragraphs twice to absorb the full meaning of the text.

Much of Left Behind covers the eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, since his administration embraced the connection between public policy and private funding that Geismer questions throughout the book. But she’s careful to point out that Clinton built on the framework of his fellow “New Democrats.” And also that the Obama administration took the same playbook and ran with it as well.

My conclusions

This is a cautionary tale. It’s not a victory lap, by any means. Geismer repeatedly points out that these policies were a lot of sizzle and not much steak. They talk a good game about empowering people and communities of color. At the same time, the new policies expect no accountability from the private and philanthropic organizations purportedly investing. And ultimately, that combination helped the corporations and foundations considerably more than it helped the actual folks “left behind.”

To me, this is a vital read for everyone with strongly progressive left-leaning political perspectives. Sure, Geismer lays out policy. But reading between the lines, she’s also discussing why Democrats struggle to succeed politically. The actions in Left Behind explain why communities of color don’t trust politicians. The policies discussed are only the most recent failures to deliver on campaign promises. Still, today’s voters remember these are the decisions. I believe that Geismer disproves the free market, campaign trail cliche, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Left Behind probably isn’t for the casual political or recent historical reader. On the other hand, if you’re open to the time investment, then Geismer rewards you with meaningful insights. I’m incredibly glad I persisted and absorbed this book. Its analysis and ideas will stay with me for a long time.

Pair with The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. I thought of this book often while reading Left Behind.


Many thanks to NetGalley, Perseus Books / PublicAffairs, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review. Left Behind debuts on 1 March 2022.