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“Neoliberalism” and the Democratic Party

President Clinton prepares to sign legislation in the Rose Garden of the White House Thursday, Aug. 22, 1996, overhauling America’s welfare system. Visible, from left, are former welfare recipients Lillie Harden, of Little Rock, Ark., and Janet Ferrel, of West Virginia, Vice President Gore, West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton, Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and former welfare recipient Penelope Howard, of Delaware. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

I found more to agree with in Chait’s big “neoliberalism” essay than Erik apparently did, but I agree that it has some major flaws that undermine its central point. I don’t mean to preempt Erik’s analysis, but since I’ll mostly be on the road tomorrow I thought I’d briefly pinpoint what I agreed with and didn’t. (I’m guessing Erik and I won’t be that far off, but obviously I’ll let him speak for himself. And, hey, at least I don’t study military history!)

Where I agree with Chait:

  • Left critics of the Democratic Party have a bizarre tendency to romanticize the New Deal/Great Society Democratic Party. Even during their brief peaks of progressive legislation, these coalitions were heavily compromised by the fact that the liberal faction of the party needed the support of Southern segregationists and marginal Republicans, respectively. And FDR’s first term and LBJ before the 1966 midterms were anomalous — during most of the period associated with the New Deal Congress was controlled de facto by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats. (The whole Taft-Hartley passing with veto-proof majorities conveniently vanishes from these accounts, although this statute had far more to do with Trump winning than Hillary Clinton’s campaign tactics.)
  • “Neoliberalism” has increasingly become little more than an attempt to win an argument through the use of a pejorative term.
  • Worse than that, the “neoliberal” label is too often used to minimize the massive and growing gulf between the Democratic and Republican parties.

Where I disagree:

  • The term “neoliberal” is at least potentially valuable, describing a fetish for market-based solutions irrespective of the merit. One problem with indiscriminate usage of the “neoliberal” term is that it equates, say, the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of public insurance and much more stringent industry regulations with, say, Rahm Emmanuel’s regime passimOne reason not to conflate “liberalism” with “neoliberalism” is that the latter describes a real thing.
  • Chait is wrong to handwave away the obvious right turn in the Democratic Party in the 80s and 90s. I agree that the party has shifted left in the last decade, and Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievements — the ACA, ARRA, Dodd-Frank — are well within the New Deal/Great Society tradition in terms of both their achievements and compromises. But the four years of unified Democratic control under Carter were bereft of similar achievements, and the Democrats under Clinton failed on the one hand to pass comprehensive healthcare reform on the one hand while Clinton signed multiple conservative bills, including a welfare “reform” bill that if BCRA fails will be the worst welfare-state retrenchment in American history.

TL;DR: the tendency to conflate “liberalism” and “neoliberalism” is bad and irritating, but it’s bad in part because neoliberalism used carefully is a useful description.

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