As the presidential race ramps up (with depressing prematurity), big-picture political thinkers incant the usual litany of pronouncements and chin-scratching over whether such and such an ideological force is dead. Playing the death certificate card is pundit gold, a makework perpetual motion machine for political deepthink, but still worth thinking about for what it says about ideological stagnation in American politics—and a refusal to recognize from what direction the next big change ought to come.
Last week in the New York Times (alas, behind their “Times Select” wall), light-right thinker David Brooks declared “neoliberalism” dead. Neoliberalism was born of a bunch of young writers of a liberal bent in the 1980s, mostly centered around the political journals Washington Monthly and New Republic.
They were disenchanted with hidebound '70s liberalism, were sharp and fun-loving (at least compared to Jimmy Carter and/or Michael Harrington),were not entirely beholden to unions, were willing to be reformist about the welfare state, were OK with the American military, and liked to spar with their partisan comrades further to the left. Michael Kinsley could be considered their philosopher-king, and their spawn filled the mainstream of American journalism as well as inspiring such politicians as Bill Clinton, who might be dimly remembered as the president of the United States through much of the last decade of the previous century.
It might be noted, but wasn’t by Brooks, that Clinton’s most prominent political stances and achievements—welfare reform, failed attempts at rejiggering the health care system, and a clumsily executed, half-assed neo-Wilsonianism—pretty much define the politics of today as well, give or take a domestic war on terror and a new wave of pointless immigration fear.
However, Brooks, reading websites and facing a relentless deadline, declared that neoliberalism is over—mostly because he sees a lot of Dem activists who seem angrier than he remembers Michael Kinsley ever being, and sees global warming and wage stagnation emboldening some Dems to talk tax hikes unashamedly.
I understand op-eds have strict word limits, but a hint of how the policies being actively pursued by leading Democratic politicians are clear violations of the neoliberal consensus would have been in order. (As with much political punditry, a lot of these death-knells-for-ideologies pieces are more about the mirror-world of punditry itself than about policy.) It seems as apt to declare that George Bush (and the Bushism that seems to be dominating the GOP on the foreseeable horizon) is a living representative of neoliberalism as it is to say that neoliberalism is dead.
For example, you could call Bush’s attempt at some Social Security privatization and his recent call for disengaging health insurance tax deductions from employment his “welfare reform” (trying to rationalize and save poorly designed previous government entitlement efforts), his Medicare expansion his version of ClintonCare (both are frightfully expensive, neither takes seriously rethinking from the ground up the federal role in health care), and his Middle East adventurism a Clintonian foreign policy by more extreme means.
As Matt Yglesias argued in response to Brooks, “The most persuasive neoliberal ideas have become conventional wisdom.” As libertarian activist Mike Holmes told me, quoted in my new book on the American libertarian movement, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the American Libertarian Movement, you oughtn’t mistake labels and movements for achievements. People don’t tend to think of themselves as active proponents of anti-monarchist movements, but we’re all anti-monarchist where it counts. Neoliberalism—roughly defined as an intellectual, occasionally skeptical movement designed to rationalize and make workable a generally activist state—rules the roost, across party lines. The differences we see are more about culture and perceived “type” (red v. blue, yawn) or ye olde “politics of personal destruction” than about substantive policy.
But if neoliberalism is dead, can conservatism be far behind in stumbling upon it in the huge corpse pile of Dead Political Ideas? Wilfred McCloy of the University of Tennessee pondered this recently in the pages of Commentary. He surveyed the rats escaping the sinking ship of the right, pre-2006 election, who declared Bush to have killed off true conservatism.
McCloy argued, fairly enough, that whatever the voters were rejecting in 2006, it wasn’t conservatism in the classic post-Goldwater and Reagan sense. He also correctly notes that seriously right-wing soreheads have been decrying the GOP's departure from the conservative verities from week one of the Reagan administration, often for perfectly valid reasons. But they now hearken back to him as a lost golden age of serious conservativism within the Republican Party: Defining Conservatism Down, where out of desperation yesterday’s sellout is today’s idol—mostly because a rush to a neoliberalish center has been the trend in both parties for decades.
Conservatism in America, McCloy cheerfully concluded, always has been, should be, and must be a jumbled mixed bag of confusing and often contradictory premises and actions. This is in fact its strength, as he points to the equally confused jumble of post-New Deal liberalism as a fabulously successful (but bewildering if approached via philosophical first premises) political coalition. To sum up more cynically: Conservatism as actuated by the Republican Party isn’t dying or decaying, spoilsports; it has always been this bad.
Of course, if we were to listen to conservative apostate Michael Lind, in his own August 2006 contribution to the punditry of death knells, anything less for the conservative movement would be suicide, since we have seen, he swears, “the utter and final defeat of the movement that has shaped the politics of the US and other western democracies for several decades: the libertarian counter-revolution.”
Them’s fighting words to this author of a new book on that counterrevolution’s heroes. Suffice it to say, despite Lind’s protestations, the failure of vouchers and social security privatization to have already won the day is by no means a sign that libertarianism in America is over. That said, he’s correct in the short-term sense that a mildly big-government centrism is still both the most dominant, and most dangerous, trend in American politics. That’s why Brooks, lulled to security by the past couple of decades of rough neoliberalism from Bushes and Clintons, can be driven to vapors by scampish loudmouths at Kos or Huffington and think the Jacobins are back at the gate of a Bobo paradise; that’s also why McCloy celebrates a conservatism that refuses to take its libertarian impulses very seriously because it has to command a larger center.
But that centrism has left us with a welfare/warfare state, as represented by an overstretched entitlement state and an overstretched world-straddling military, that’s the greatest long-term threat to the lives and property of American citizens. And the ultimate solutions to those problems will have to come from outside current pundit and political centrism—from libertarian impulses.
We will in the near future need to cut back on unsustainable income redistribution and world-changing—whether or not those pushing the solutions embrace the label, or the full philosophical package, of libertarianism. (One big concession that would be a great first step—a concession for both modern liberals and libertarians—would be to make the welfare state actually and really just a welfare state, not a giant, confusing, horribly expensive batch of roundrobin cash transfers between and among generations and classes.)
It is a mistake to conflate the fortunes of an ideology and its adherents. Neoliberals by that name may be dead; neoliberalism reigns. Conservatism (especially minus libertarianism) may be out of ideas, but still commands enormous armies of dedicated voters—more than any other self-identified ideology. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the “right wing” as a movement has succeeded pretty well without its core ideas or interesting contributions triumphing.
On the other hand, especially when viewed in the long term since World War II, distinctly libertarian ideas about free markets and social freedom have made enormous strides without, say, Reason magazine becoming the best-selling political journal in the land, or the American public widely embracing the label. As libertarian hero Milton Friedman recognized, libertarians have to provide the set of ideas, solutions, and worldviews that show a way out of the crises that government creates. When political pundits sing of the death of whatever ideology, they are often just stretching for a bold thesis. But they are also, however dimly, seeing that the ideologies that defined American politics for the past 60 years have created crises that their own premises cannot solve.
Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.