Lefties: The Death of Neoliberalism Has Been Greatly Exaggerated, Because Neoliberals Won!


My May-issue essay about the new New Republic, in which I lamented the "death" of liberal-on-liberal contrarianism, has triggered a reaction from left-of-center commentators that might be summed up as "That's mostly not true, but if even it was that's just because Democrats fully absorbed so many neoliberal critiques." Here are three representative responses:

Jonathan Chait:


Those magazines once critiqued Democrats from the right, advocating a policy loosely called "neoliberalism," and now stand in general ideological concord. 

Why? I'd say it's because the neoliberal project succeeded in weaning the Democrats of the wrong turn they took during the 1960s and 1970s. The Democrats under Bill Clinton—and Obama, whose domestic policy is crafted almost entirely by Clinton veterans—has internalized the neoliberal critique. 

Welch never entertains this possibility. To a doctrinaire libertarian like Welch, it's self-evidently true that the Democrats are as left wing as ever, and that the lack of a critique from the right by liberal writers proves they have moved left. But the examples he holds up—TNR writers endorsing universal health care, gun control, and updating the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation—disprove his case. TNR and the Monthly always supported those things. 

Ed Kilgore, Washington Monthly:

There is an awful lot of telescoping in Welch's account of brave left-of-center heretics giving way to hacks. His appreciation of WaMo "contrarianism" seems to be confined to the 1970s and 1980s, which ignores the magazine's continuing efforts to "make government work" amidst some wildly varying political and economic circumstances. […] Worst of all, he seems entirely innocent of the endless discussion in center-left circles, continuing through the 1980s and 1990s until the present, about how to promote worthy liberal self-examination without descending into mere "contrarianism," or providing regular material for the opposition.

"are a lot more careful about making their fundamental allegiances clear." |||

One important reason the tone of liberal "heresy" has changed is that the "contrarians" won a lot of battles, from the "reinventing government" movement to a more robust support for private-sector innovation to reforms of the "welfare state" to more regular engagement with actual progressive voters as opposed to self-appointed interest group representatives. An equally important reason, which is entirely missing in Welch's analysis, is what happened on the Right with the gradual triumph of a conservative movement that was more inte rested in destroying the New Deal/Great Society legacy than in reforming it. In Charlie Peters' famous "Neoliberal Manifesto" of 1983, which Welch quotes from selectively, in the founding documents of the Democratic Leadership Council, and in the better contribution of TNR, there was a constant emphasis on maintaining progressive values and commitments but modernizing their means in order to make them more effective in meeting their stated purposes and in maintaining political support for them. The most urgent progressive political task today is surviving the conservative onslaught, so of course "contrarians" are a lot more careful about making their fundamental allegiances clear.

Since no progressive wants to find his or her "critical analysis" turned into Fox News talking points, even those most willing to question this or that element of existing policy or rhetorical practice (say, the reflexive opposition to means-testing of Social Security and Medicare on grounds that universal programs are easier to defend politically) need to constantly re-articulate their values. If that annoys or aggrieves people like Matt Welch, he can blame his friends on the Right.

Matthew Yglesias, Slate:

But the world of policy debates is so much wider and more interesting than that! Is Obama's manufacturing boosterism is a good idea? I say no. Do municipalities over-regulate food trucks? I say yes. Would single-payer health care lead to catastrophically low incomes for American doctors? I say no. Should we try to reduce the level of online copyright infringement to zero? I say no. Do we need more expansionary monetary policy? I say yes. And so it goes. All of these views are, I think, perfectly compatible with being someone who regularly votes for the Democratic Party. But if you held all those same views and also thought legal abortion amounted to the legalized murder of unborn children, they could easily be Republican views. None of them are Barack Obama's views or Mitt Romney's views. I loved The Bankers' New Clothes and so did John Cochrane, even as Cochrane and I have very different opinions about most economic policy matters. And, again, as best I know, neither Harry Reid nor Mitch McConnell is eager to embrace drastically higher capital requirements for banks. But Sherrod Brown is, and so is David Vitter. There's a great big economic policy debate out there that's a lot more interesting than the question of who you should vote for in quadrennial presidential elections.

You can assess their claims in the comments.

In possibly related news, a new Gallup poll shows that twice as many Democrats as Republicans (37 percent vs. 19 percent) answer the question "Please tell me one or two specific thinks you dislike about [your party]" with the word "nothing."

NEXT: No Nudity in New Playboy App for iPhone

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Where would Bill Maher fit in this “death of liberal contrarianism” discussion? Granted, the guy was never as libertarian has he claimed, but they guy had a contrarian streak that still finds the light of day from time to time.

    In fact, if you ask me, Maher’s turn from Clinton-era sorta contrarianism to Obama-era full-on ideologue is the single greatest example of Welch’s thesis.

    1. Maher, like millions of other independents, were driven from ever supporting the GOP by the worst POTUS in history – Bush.

      1. You misspelled “Wilson.”

        1. You must be a Beckerhead. He is the only one that claims that.

          Wilson is consistently put in the top 10 by presidential historians.

          1. You-re quite right – unlike Wilson, Bush got into a disastrous war.

          2. Which means jackshit, since Wilson was a racist warmonger who jailed people for speaking out against WWI. Fuck off, you bootlicking piece of shit.

            1. Jailed socialists while at it. Now, their intellectual descendants are praising Wilson.

            2. Seriously. Where the fuck does Woodrow Wilson get his reputation as a “liberal internationalist”?

              For supporting the League of Nations?

              For getting us into WWI, as opposed to being “isolationist”?

              Neither of those really ought to qualify as great accomplishments in retrospect.

              I suspect people praise Wilson because they vaguely remember reading nice things about him in their high school history textbooks. Not because of any rational analysis of anything he actually did.

            3. I’m trying to object to your terrible manner and vulgar expression…

              but I entirely agree.

          3. You mean the President who produced the three worst years for inflation in American history?

            1. And managed to get over 115,000 Americans killed in 18 months, in a war we had absolutely no business in.

              Which is absolutely staggering, BTW. Especially in a population of only 92M. I can’t even imagine what our society today would do if confronted by such casualty figures.

          4. Government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin. — Woodrow Wilson

            Our government is alive, do you hear? Alive! It has wants and needs and feelings and Shriek just isn’t man enough to satisfy it!

      2. ‘2nd worst POTUS in history – Bush’

        1. The current and previous president are always in either the top 10 or bottom 10 in these surveys.

      3. Well, except that he’s all good with the same policies now that they’re being followed by the other worst POTUS in history – Obama.

    2. I think you may be onto something!

  2. “In possibly related news, a new Gallup poll shows that twice as many Democrats as Republicans (37 percent vs. 19 percent) answer the question “Please tell me one or two specific thinks you dislike about [your party]” with the word “nothing.””

    When Nixon was circling the drain, it was posited that 25% of the public would support a president simply because he held office.
    It’s looking like that number has increased.

    1. Dumbya’s approval rating his an all time low of 19% in 2008.

      (so much for that 25% floor)

      1. You may be right, but I see you’re doing your part to spread the stupid by adding to the 37%

      2. So your defense of his assertion that Democrats are mindless partisans is that Republicans aren’t mindless partisans? Is this some new form of double-reverse tu quoque?

        1. He Vulcan nerve pinched his own neck.

        2. No, I don’t think his defense is really that sophisticated. It’s more like:

          BUT BOOOSH!

  3. …or providing regular material for the opposition.

    First and second rule of liberal introspection club.

    1. What’s funny is that in the Neoliberal Manifesto, which Kilgore accuses me of quoting “selectively” (is there any other kind of quoting, BTW?), there’s a whole section sneering at the “Don’t Say Anything Bad About the Good Guy principle.”

      1. That’s not funny. Illuminating, though.

        1. Sounds like someone should have selectively copied and pasted the entire section.

    2. I thought the first two rules of liberal introspection club were “there is no such thing as liberal introspection club”.

  4. Matt,

    Part of being a hack is not knowing you are one. These guys all think they are perfect reasonable centrists. It is not their fault that reality always lines up perfectly with the far left view.

  5. Neoliberalism, liberal-on-liberal contrarianism, general ideological concord, internalized the neoliberal critique, telescoping, left-of-center heretics, liberal self-examination, manufacturing boosterism.

    No offense Matt, but I think you Chait, Kilgore and Yglesias are only writing to entertain yourselves.

    1. It’s a living!?!

      1. You call that living?

  6. I don’t know if the “neoliberals” won or not but the “liberal” agenda in America has decidedly changed in the last 30 or so years evolving from a confused mashup of Socialism and feel good programs to help the poor to a confused mashup of Fascisim and feel good programs to save the environment.

    1. They don’t hate companies as long as they follow the Prescribed Program.

    2. You’re too stupid to even discuss this with.

      Like some Fox News host calling Warren Buffett a “socialist” – you have been force fed agitprop by simpletons like Glenn Beck.

      1. You’d save people soooooo much time if you just announced flat out that you are retarded.

        1. Yeah, there needs to be an html equivalent of the retard helmet.

          1. Sorry for you wingnuts, but McCarthyism does not win you elections.

            1. That’s rich coming from Woodrow Wilson and Black Bush’s biggest fan. Yes, we know what wins elections. And it wins your approval too.

            2. Why won’t you just say it? Just admit you’re a retard. You’re a big boy now, I know you can do it.

              1. Does he wear a hat, and have a job? Maybe because he brings home the bacon, nobody can tell?

            3. Don’t worry, shriek, there are plenty of ‘tards out there living really kick-ass lives! My first wife was ‘tarded. She’s a pilot now.

      2. I have? I don’t think I’ve ever heard Glenn Beck speak for more than 30 seconds at a time or more than 30 minutes total in my entire life.

        No I arrived at my opinion that the modern day “liberals” (in American political terms) are essentially Fascists quite naturally on my own devices because it is obviously true.

        Now this is not to say they are Nazi’s and technically they aren’t true Fascists either because they do not believe in Nationalism which is a core component of Fascist systems so really we need a new word to describe what they actually are, the combination of Fascist economics with a globalist foreign policy view

        1. Doesn’t Statist pretty much cover that?

      3. You’re too stupid to even discuss this with.

        If it stinks everywhere you go, it’s probably not the rest of the world that has a body odor problem.

  7. Those magazines once critiqued Democrats from the right, advocating a policy loosely called “neoliberalism,” and now stand in general ideological concord.

    Why? I’d say it’s because the neoliberal project succeeded in weaning the Democrats of the wrong turn they took during the 1960s and 1970s.

    I’m pretty sure I didn’t fall down the stairs this morning, but I can make neither head nor tail of this word grouping.

    1. I’m glad it’s not just me, although I would apply that thought to the entire article.

  8. What did win? Free trade, markets, and low capital gains tax rates. We are still the top major country in terms of capital formation and business freedom.

    1. What’s more important: corporate tax rates or due process? We know your answer.

    2. Free trade, markets, and low capital gains tax rates.

      And yet you cheer for the guy that wants greater restrictions on the first two and wants to increase the third despite its negative effect on revenue because fairness. The Republicans suck because of blind adherence to the status quo. The Democrats suck because they push for marginal changes in the wrong direction.

      We are still the top major country in terms of capital formation and business freedom.

      Undoubtedly true for the former on a nominal basis, but doubtful on a per-capita or as a percentage of GDP, though a quick Google search doesn’t reveal much. As for the latter, more like 17.

      1. To be fair to Big O, he is taking steps in the direction of an EU Free Trade Agreement. I know he voted against a few while a Senator, but it appears that was playing party politics as usual. I can’t honestly say he’s against free trade, despite not understanding what makes nations successful trading partners.

        1. The EU FTA will go nowhere. This is either the product of some Clinton-era functionaries on autopilot, or a backdoor effort to force European-style agricultural policy on Americans. Something that the enviro-left-tards probably salivate at the thought of.

  9. Wilson is consistently put in the top 10 by presidential historians.

    Game, set, MATCH!

    1. Gimme out of this cell!

      /Eugene V. Debs

  10. Please, I beg you, stop legitimizing Matt Yglesias’ drivel.

    1. He has to be in on the joke, and just trolling by now, doesn’t he? I mean, his latest manifesto literally argues that the government should just roll the printing presses and print money to give away to poor people in the name of ‘stimulus’. And the commenters are eating it up lauding the economic brillance of it all.

      It’s really funny, very symbolic of how late in the game it is for progressives. They aren’t even pretending that they can fund schemes like “National Guaranteed Minimum Income” through taxes on ‘the rich’ anymore, they are reduced to trying to convince themselves that you can fund it all by magic – print the money, or mint a trillion dollar coin, or report the value of all the nation’s real estate as an asset, thus letting you borrow more, etc. And it will all work, permanently, with no negative consequences, because Stimulus.

  11. It amazes me that the same people who are dancing on the GOP’s demographic grave turn around and justify their refusal to criticize Dem politicians by saying they’re under attack from conservatism.

    1. The same people who are dancing on the GOPs demographic grave want to make free birth control a human right. Wonder what that will do to demographic trends.

  12. The death reports of neo-liberalism are obviously exaggerated. But it’s status as a mindless zombie is patently self-evident.

    The best way for the mindful individual to fight the unwashed neo-liberal masses, is to buy physical gold and silver and wait for their ponzi fiat debt scaffold to come crashing down on top of their empty heads. Libtards be stupid yo!

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.