Former U.S. President Bill Clinton

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton poses for photographs after addressing the nation from the Oval Office in the White House June 10, 1999.

(Photo by Joyce Naltchayan/AFP via Getty Images)

To Save Our Democracy, We Must Transcend Bill Clinton's Legacy

If Democrats are going to be successful in beating back the threat of right-wing nationalism ushered in by Trump, they have to move even more squarely toward the promise of economic security for all Americans that was once central to the party.

Thirty years ago this month, Bill Clinton launched a presidency he claimed, in his inaugural address, would "reinvent America." Clinton was right: he did reinvent America, definitively shifting the Democratic Party away from a politics that saw economic security for American working people as the fundamental task of government, a path that had brought the party decades of political success. The disastrous consequences of that shift, limiting working Americans' expectations about how our political system can improve their lives, are with us to this day. To save our imperiled democracy, we must definitively transcend the political circumstances Clinton brought us.

In the 1930s and 40s, Democrats, led by Franklin D. Roosevelt, won important reforms that democratized the American economy: the right for workers to form unions and collectively bargain, a safety net built on the bulwark of social security, and a highly progressive income tax. In the 1960s, the Lyndon Johnson administration expanded access to healthcare with Medicare and Medicaid and invested billions of federal dollars into an ambitious effort to end poverty.

We should not romanticize the achievements of these years: many of these reforms initially accommodated white supremacy in the south and privileged a male breadwinner model of economic security. Johnson's War on Poverty focused far too much on the supposed deficiencies of African Americans and should have spent more resources employing people directly rather than focusing on job training. Still, Democrats' laser focus on broadening economic security for working Americans gave the party a lock on the majority in Congress for virtually the entire six decades from the Roosevelt realignment in 1933 until 1995 (The GOP held a majority in both chambers from 1947-49 and 1953-55 and in the Senate for six years in the 1980s).

The most lasting legacy of the Clinton administration, thirty years after its beginning, is the growing sense among American workers that Democrats, until very recently, have abandoned the idea that government can make their lives better...

Clinton wasn't the first Democratic President to take the party away from its focus on economic democracy. Jimmy Carter (1977-81) had first begun to move Democrats away from that promise, responding to the economic crisis of the 1970s by pushing to limit government spending, cutting taxes for the wealthy, and deregulating industries to the detriment of workers.

But Clinton, in 1992, put the party on a clear path away from emphasizing economic security for good. By then, the Arkansas governor had been anointed chair of the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC, formed by party elites, was premised on the idea that the best way to win elections was to shrink the social welfare state, expose American workers to the pressures of global capitalism—even if it meant they would lose their jobs—and, above all, promote a powerful narrative I call the education myth: that steering our workers toward the supposed skills they need would be enough to fortify them against diminishing social supports and the growing power of corporations in the labor market.

In 1992, as Clinton put it, workers in the U.S. would excel as long as the nation's political leaders understood one important truth: "Education today is more than the key to climbing the ladder of opportunity. In today's global economy, it is an imperative for our nation." In short, Clinton effectively gave up on trying to use government to ensure working people had good jobs, and instead argued it would be enough to simply push for better education and worker retraining.

Following this logic, perhaps the president's most important policy "achievement" was the administration's efforts to finalize negotiations (begun by President Bush) of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Clinton sought ratification over the objections of organized labor, who rightly saw an existential threat to the economic security of good union manufacturing jobs. In fact, the negotiations so upended American politics that Clinton could only win Congressional approval with Republican votes (indeed, more Republicans voted for it than Democrats).

NAFTA cost Democrats dearly. The outcome of the 1994 mid-terms, ending a long era of mostly Democratic control of Congress, cannot be reduced to one factor, but the millions of union members who sat out the election likely played as much of a role as voters' support for Congressional GOP candidates' reactionary "Contract with America."

Clinton's presidency was pivotal for other reasons, too. The crime bill he signed into law in 1994 played a major role in swelling incarceration rates, disproportionately harming people of color, and a draconian revision to reduce welfare benefits in 1996 doubled the number of Americans living in extreme poverty. During his second term, bills he signed to eliminate the firewall between commercial and investment banking and prevent regulation of credit default swaps would later play a substantial role in causing the economic crisis of 2008.

Economic inequality has expanded dramatically since the 1990s. NAFTA, combined with Clinton's push to liberalize trade policy with China despite its human rights abuses, has cost American workers, especially in a manufacturing sector that typically doesn't require college degrees, millions of jobs. The repercussions of NAFTA, fairly or not, likely hurt his partner Hillary Clinton when she ran for President in 2016: when I knocked doors for her in my hometown of Green Bay, Wisconsin, working-class voters often referenced Bill Clinton's support for NAFTA as a reason they either would not vote or would vote for Donald Trump.

The most lasting legacy of the Clinton administration, thirty years after its beginning, is the growing sense among American workers that Democrats, until very recently, have abandoned the idea that government can make their lives better short of some limited efforts to provide them job skills. Instead, Clinton is perhaps as responsible as any other single person in the UiSi for the faulty notion that education—not global competition or corporations that prevent workers from unionizing and actively work to keep wages down—is responsible for determining access to economic opportunity.

This path led, in part, to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the threats to our democracy that came after that. In 2016, Trump won the votes of 50% of Americans without college degrees (to Hillary Clinton's 43%) while whites without college degrees represented perhaps Trump's most important demographic margin (64-28%). We should not, of course, ignore the racial dimension to those numbers (clearly white non-college graduates flocked to Trump in a way non-graduates of color did not), but we should also note the extent to which Trump increased his support from minority voters from 2016 to 2020.

Though Joe Biden won a narrow victory in the electoral college in 2020 , he only won a handful of the nation's 265 counties with the highest percentage of blue-collar workers. Relying on college-educated voters is not a recipe for long-term success both because that strategy is partially responsible for our nation's political contentiousness, and because, quite simply, the overwhelming majority of American adults don't have a college degree.

There is reason for encouragement under the Biden administration: the bipartisan infrastructure bill was premised in large part on creating good jobs for working people, the National Labor Relations Board has made it easier for workers to unionize, and the Federal Trade Commission has proposed a rule limiting employers' abuse of non-competition agreements, for example.

But if Democrats are going to be successful in beating back the threat of right-wing nationalism ushered in by Trump, they have to move even more squarely toward the promise of economic security for all Americans that was central to the party before Clinton did so much to shift away from it. On the left, we need to fight tooth and nail for programs that will help all working people, like a federal jobs guarantee, and push Democrats across the nation to ensure meaningful labor law reform and truly universal healthcare are at the very top of their agenda. Moving away from the decades of lowered expectations the Clinton era initiated is now more crucial than ever.