OPEN UNIVERSITY MARCH 13, 2007
By David Greenberg
TNR's makeover led David Brooks to lament the alleged death of neoliberalism. Back at TNR, Jonathan Chait and Jonathan Cohn and Mickey Kaus (a present-at-the-creation neoliberal) have replied. Here's my take.
It's reductive to define neoliberalism as a more centrist form of liberalism, although it is that. It's also reductive to define neoliberalism as a movement critical of liberalism, although it's that, too. These qualities don't define neoliberalism because there are many schools of thought that are a step to the right of, or that are critical of, mainstream liberalism. But those qualities aren't unique to neoliberalism. (Note to European readers: I know that neoliberal in the European context has a very different meaning--but then, so does liberal. In the U.S. no one would describe Reagan or Thatcher as neoliberal.)
Neoliberalism was a movement within liberalism that sought to adapt the New Deal vision for a post-industrial economy. Its leading lights among politicians included elected officials such as Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, Michael Dukakis, Bruce Babbitt and Paul Tsongas. It journalistic centers were, as Brooks noted, the Washington Monthly under Charlie Peters and The New Republic under Michael Kinsley--though I should add that Kinsley's TNR was too unpredictable and diverse to ever be a house organ for the movement. (TNR ran, for example, a devastating review by Arthur M. Schlesinger of Hart's book A New Democracy in June 1983.) And neoliberalism was applied to the ideas of economic thinkers such as Lester Thurow, Robert Reich, and even Felix Rohatyn.
Not all of these people agreed on everything, of course, and within neoliberalism there were differences over industrial policy, trade, and other issues. (Mickey Kaus, a neoliberal, doesn't seem to agree with Reich on anything--although maybe he'd argue that Reich left neoliberalism for paleoliberalism long ago.) Still, several elements made neoliberalism a coherent movement in the 1980s. One was generational. Neoliberalism was in some sense a stage in the development of the 1960s New Left, via the New Politics movement, and it shared the earlier campaign's self-conscious generational rebelliousness, including its parricidal thrusts against New Deal liberalism. "We are not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys," declared Hart, scorning a giant of midcentury liberalism. Most of neoliberalism's champions were Baby Boomers.
More important to neoliberalism, however, was its focus on political economy, with a reformist bent. Reacting to the stagflation of the 1970s, neolibs concluded that the assumptions underpinning the New Deal and Great Society no longer held. They emphasized the ways that the economy would soon change with globalization. The nationally rooted, industrial manufacturing economy of the mid-20th century was yielding to a post-industrial framework centered on the high-tech, information, and service sectors. Democrats thus could no longer rely on Keynesian growth policies, full employment, support for unions, and taxes on corporations and the rich to satisfy the needs of a growing middle-class base. Neoliberals emphasized cultivating growth more than redistributing it and prescribed a new gospel of efficiency. Technology in particular enchanted them, earning neoliberals the nickname "Atari Democrats."
I don't think it's accurate to put Bill Clinton's thought into the neoliberal category. Clinton's brilliance--and also the source of many of his problems--was his effort to blend three quite different strands of liberal thought: a) neoliberalism; b) DLC-style moves toward social conservatism (which purebred neolibs such as Tsongas, his 1992 rival, definitely did not share); and c) good old-fashioned economic populism. I would say that neoliberalism in effect died as a distinctive movement in 1992, when it was absorbed into Clintonism. And thus neoliberalism lives on in many of the widely accepted positions of the Democratic party.
For what it's worthI've never personally identified as a neoliberal, just as a liberal. But I do think that without the neolib rebellion against the mainstream thinking of the Democratic party in the 1980s, liberalism would be poorer today.
I recommend Randall Rothenberg, The Neoliberals: Creation of the New American Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984); and Charles Peters and Phillip Keisling, eds., A New Road for America: The Neoliberal Movement. (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1985). The first is a bit of a gloss and the second a collection of papers, but both will illuminate this question more than a bunch of blog posts.