Recently Princeton University Press had the opportunity to interview Lily Geismer about her book, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party. Read the introduction for free, here.
Why did you write this book?
LG: The answer to that question changed the longer I worked on the project. I set out to add to and complicate the literature of political and urban history. However, the longer I worked on it I realized that my other goal has been to make readers, especially people who engage in knowledge-based work and who live in suburbs, develop a more comprehensive understanding of the role of policies in shaping their lives and choices. Hopefully, it will help all readers think more critically about their political outlook and decisions.
What inspired you to get into your field?
LG: I was always really interested in contemporary politics and policy and questions of inequality in the United States. I realized as an undergraduate that the best way to explore these contemporary questions came from studying recent American history. When I entered graduate school, I did not intend to study these issues in one particular place or at the local level. However, it became clear that my questions about national political realignment, racial inequality, economic restructuring and the contradictions and transformation of American liberalism were best suited to a study of one particular place and picked to focus on Boston where I am from. The more I worked on the project, I came to understand that many of my questions were unconsciously informed by my experience growing up in Boston and were issues that had interested me since I was a kid and thus were what had pushed me toward the study of history in the first place.
What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
LG: The best piece of advice I received while I was writing the book came from Thomas Sugrue who told me to write the book as if the audience was my undergraduate students at the Claremont Colleges and I had to explain the concepts to them. This advice really helped me figure out to make the writing clearer and more accessible. The other advice that proved very influential came from the Author’s note at the beginning of by J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground about the three families he followed through the Boston busing crisis. Lukas explained, “At first, I thought I read clear moral geographies of their intersecting lives, but the more time I spent with them, the harder it became to assign easy labels of guilt or virtue. The realities of urban America when seen through the lives of actual city dwellers, proved far more complicated than I had imagined.” I found myself returning to this statement repeatedly as I sought to make sense of the politics and point of view of the suburban residents I study.
How did you come up with the title or jacket?
LG: The title for the book is a variation on the famous bumper sticker declaring “Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts,” which circulated after George McGovern won only the state of Massachusetts in the 1972 election against Richard Nixon and again around Watergate. I thought it provided a way to capture and explore the dimensions of individualist and exceptionalist attitudes of many people who live in Massachusetts. It also provided a point of departure for me to provide a new examination of the McGovern campaign and show how it was not the failure it is often depicted to be, but a precursor to types of campaigns Democratic candidates would increasingly come to run on in an effort to appeal to suburban knowledge workers.
The design for the book jacket is inspired by a highway sign from Route 128, the high-tech corridor outside of Boston on which the book focuses. I am indebted to the wonderful and creative jacket designer Chris Ferrante at Princeton University Press for the cover design, which far exceeded my expectations. I know that you are not supposed to judge a book by the cover, but, in this case, I hope people will!
What is your next project?
LG: My next project grew out of Don’t Blame Us, especially the final chapter on Michael Dukakis and the Democratic Party’s pursuit of public-private partnerships and high-tech growth and I wanted to look at these questions more at the national level and into the 1990s. Although still at the very early stages, my new project examines the bi-partisan promotion of market-based solutions to problems of social inequality and privatization of public policy from the Great Society to the Clinton Foundation. I am focusing on the network that emerged as individuals and ideas have increasingly moved between government, academia, and business and how this movement connected and contributed to the economic, health care, education, environmental, housing and urban policies that emerged in the Clinton administration as well the development of public-private, non-profit programs like Teach for America; the popularity of microfinance, both in foreign and domestic contexts; and, the decision of college graduates across the political spectrum to seek employment in the private sector and non-government organizations. The project aims to complicate and challenge prevailing ideas about neoliberalism and show how the Democratic Party and its allies both embody and have influenced the pervasiveness of individualist and entrepreneurial-focused ideology in American policy, culture, and society.
What are you reading right now?
LG: One of the best parts of the book’s release has been that it coincided with the publication of books of members of my graduate school cohort and friends in the field, many of which were also published by Princeton University Press. I just finished Andrew Needham’s Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest (Princeton, 2014) and Nathan Connolly’s A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago, 2014). Next up are Leah Wright Rigueur’s The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power (Princeton, 2015) and Kathryn Brownell’s Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (North Carolina, 2014). I have been hearing about these projects for years and it has been so exciting to read them in their finished form.
|Don’t Blame Us:
Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party