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.

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."