The “Neos”: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism

As long as we’re defining terms — see Liberal, Neoliberal and Progressive: What Words Mean — here’s a really interesting article by Corey Robin called “When Neoliberalism Was Young: A Lookback on Clintonism before Clinton.”

Now, neoliberalism, of course, can mean a great many things, many of them associated with the right. But one of its meanings—arguably, in the United States, the most historically accurate—is the name that a small group of journalists, intellectuals, and politicians on the left gave to themselves in the late 1970s in order to register their distance from the traditional liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society. The original neoliberals included, among others, Michael Kinsley, Charles Peters, James Fallows, Nicholas Lemann, Bill Bradley, Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart, and Paul Tsongas. Sometimes called “Atari Democrats,” these were the men—and they were almost all men—who helped to remake American liberalism into neoliberalism, culminating in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.

I confess I don’t remember hearing the term “neoliberal” before the Clinton era. This is from “A Neoliberal’s Manifesto” by Charles Peters, published in Washington Monthly, May 1983:

We still believe in liberty and justice for all, in mercy for the afflicted and help for the down and out. But we no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work, we have to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative.

Third Way, anyone? I haven’t read it yet, but I understand that Peters and his Manifesto are called out in Thomas Frank’s new book Listen, Liberal. And not in a good way.

Robin continues,

In the hands of neoliberalism, it became fashionable to pit the interests of the poor not against the power of the wealthy but against the working class that had been made into a middle class by America’s unions. (We still see that kind of talk among today’s Democrats, particularly in debates around free trade, where it is always the unionized worker—never the well paid journalist or economist or corporate CEO—who is expected to make sacrifices on behalf of the global poor. Or among Hillary Clinton supporters, who leverage the interests of African American voters against the interests of white working-class voters, but never against the interests of capital.)

What comes through clearly in Robin’s piece, and also in this 2006 interview of Charles Peters by Ezra Klein (reading between the lines, anyway) is that the main thrust of neoliberalism was and is to throw the working class under the bus in favor of investors and entrepreneurs. The original neoliberals were, above all, anti-union, especially public sector unions. Weirdly, they seemed to think that union members had become too advantaged and were somehow hurting people on the lower rungs of the ladder. But then they also turned around and wanted Social Security to be means tested.

It’s difficult to make sense of what truly drives this contradiction, whereby one liberalism is criticized for supporting only one segment of the population while another liberalism is criticized for supporting all segments, including the poor.

It could be as simple as the belief that government should work on behalf of only the truly disadvantaged, leaving everyone else to the hands of the market. That that turned out to be a disaster for the truly disadvantaged—with no one besides themselves to speak up on behalf of anti-poverty programs, those programs proved all too easy to eliminate, not by a Republican but by a Democrat—seems not to have much troubled the sleep of neoliberalism. Indeed, in the current election, it is Hillary Clinton’s support for the 1994 crime bill rather than the 1996 welfare reform bill that has gotten the most attention, even though she proudly stated in her memoir that she not only supported the 1996 bill but rounded up votes for it.

The neoliberals were and are devoted to an ideal of pragmatism:

Note the disavowal of all conventional ideologies and beliefs, the affirmation of an open-minded pragmatism guided solely by a bracing commitment to what works. It’s a leitmotif of the entire manifesto: Everyone else is blinded by their emotional attachments to the ideas of the past. We, the heroic few, are willing to look upon reality as it is, to take up solutions from any side of the political spectrum, to disavow anything that smacks of ideological rigidity or partisan tribalism.

That Peters wound up embracing solutions in the piece that put him comfortably within the camp of GOP conservatism (he even makes a sop to school prayer) never seemed to disturb his serenity as a self-identified iconoclast. That was part of the neoliberal esprit de corps: a self-styled philosophical promiscuity married to a fairly conventional ideological fidelity.

Robin also discusses another self-identified neoliberal, Marty Peretz, who for many years was owner of The New Republic, another allegedly liberal publication. Robin points out that Peretz’s positions often seemed to be plucked from the Republican Party platform, including his adamant Zionism. Which allows us a nice segue into the other neos, the neoconservatives.

A little appreciated fact about neoconservatives is that the founders of the movement were mostly liberals and Democrats. Yes, liberals and Democrats. New Deal, Cold War Democrats. I understand a few of them were even ex-Trotskyites.

Neoconservatism began in the 1960s and 1970s in part as a reaction to the New Left, particularly the Marxist and antiwar factions of the New Left and the candidacy of George McGovern in 1972. They also opposed Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs even though they were supportive of the older New Deal programs.

Make of that what you will.

The core membership of the original neoconservatives were a group of Jewish intellectuals who worried the U.S. would grow weak on defense, particularly against the threat of Communism. This was not atypical of Cold War liberals. One not-Jewish founding neocon was Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, something of a prototype of the Cold War Democrat. He was a good New Dealer and supporter of unions, civil rights and social welfare programs. He was also pro-military buildup and was a big promoter of military action against Communism, such as the Vietnam War. A number of neocons have cited Scoop Jackson as an influence. These include two of his former Senate aides, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. (See also Andrew O’Hehir’s comparison of Scoop Jackson and Hillary Clinton.)

By the 1980s, most neocons had become Republicans, inspired by the tall-in-the-saddle rhetoric of Ronald Reagan.  And as the threat of Global Communist Domination faded away, the neocons came to be obsessed with the threat of Global Islamic Domination, or something.

How do we define “neoconservative” now? I like this discussion by Jack Hunter in The American Conservative.

The “neocons” believe American greatness is measured by our willingness to be a great power—through vast and virtually unlimited global military involvement. Other nations’ problems invariably become our own because history and fate have designated America the world’s top authority.

Critics say the US cannot afford to be the world’s policeman. Neoconservatives not only say that we can but we must—and that we will cease to be America if we don’t. Writes Boston Globe neoconservative columnist Jeff Jacoby: “Our world needs a policeman. And whether most Americans like it or not, only their indispensable nation is fit for the job.” Neocon intellectual Max Boot says explicitly that the US should be the world’s policeman because we are the best policeman.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) heartily champions the neoconservative view. While virtually every other recognizably Tea Party congressman or senator opposes the Libyan intervention, Rubio believes the world’s top cop should be flashing its Sherriff’s badge more forcefully in Libya—and everywhere else. …

… Rubio’s flowery rhetoric is worth noting because neoconservatism has always been sold through the narrative of America’s “greatness” or “exceptionalism.” This is essentially the Republican Party’s version of the old liberal notion promoted by President Woodrow Wilson that it is America’s mission to “make the world safe for democracy.”

If you think about it, this really is an extension of older, pre-Vietnam liberal ideas about foreign policy. It goes back to the great Teddy Roosevelt, who wanted to make the U.S. a great global power and increase its influence and prestige in the world. It goes back to Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership in World War II. You could argue it has ties to the Truman Doctrine and John F. Kennedy’s attempts to push back Communism.

You could also argue that in neoconservatism the American exceptionalism thing has morphed, or maybe metastasized, into a caricature of itself. Instead of coming from a place of noble intentions, in the neocons it comes from a place of bigotry and fear. I’ve argued in the past that neoconservatism is pro-active isolationism, attempting to use force to spread American hegemony so the world won’t be so scary and foreign. This is nothing like the Roosevelts, or Truman, or JFK. But you could see how those earlier liberal presidents might have inspired it.

If, in the end, it sometimes seems the neolibs and the neocons are as much alike as different, it’s because they are both weeds that grew out of the same pot. so to speak. They both originated on the Left or Center-Left. Both movements were reacting to events in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Both movements moved right and either adapted Republican ideas while remaining in the Democratic Party (the neolibs) or else they just flat-out became Republicans (the neocons).

Somewhere in his seminal work The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr argued that political ideologies shouldn’t be thought of as just lying along one axle, from left to right. It’s more like a circle. Taken to extremes, extreme Left and extreme Right meet each other and end up in totalitarianism.  Similarly, I say that neoconservatism and neoliberalism are not at all polar opposites, but rather like two sides of the same coin. They aren’t identical, but neither are they all that different, and it’s not at all impossible for the same politician to be some of both.

12 thoughts on “The “Neos”: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism

  1. Another nice history lesson, Maha, thanks.

    Thomas Franks. Ahem.

    I don’t know his newest book, but the one that got him his initial exposure, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, left me underwhelmed and sad. Here was a book length rant about working class people voting against their own economic self interest, and the only explanation Franks could muster was some version of the “false consciousness” rigamarole: If only they could see things the way I see them, without all that wingnut propaganda, they’d be all over the progressive agenda. Good Lord, I’ve been hearing some version of that stuff ever since I became political aware in about the late 70s and “false consciousness” was what was supposed to be keeping the masses from realizing that they really needed socialism.

    I do scientific research for a living, and when the data don’t fit my hypothesis, I don’t blame the data. Instead I consider whether the hypothesis was flawed.

    Franks’ hypothesis was flawed. People do not vote simply on the basis of economic considerations. This is so glaringly obvious that I wonder why it has to be pointed out.

    • I don’t always agree with Frank, and it’s been a few years since I read _What’s the Matter With Kansas?_. But I grew up in a blue collar family in southern Missouri, which is politically and demographically pretty close to Kansas. And I thought WtMWK was right on the money. These are my people, and I know my people. Somewhere between the 1950s and the 1980s they stopped voting reasonably sensibly most of the time and became programmed to respond to dog whistles and demagoguery alone. I witnessed this. I remember that it used to be that a reasonably liberal Democrat could get a hearing and a decent amount of votes in the Ozarks, and that for sure is no longer the case. What changed?

      The fact that the GOP has been manipulating people with social and moral issues to vote against their economic self-interest is plainly obvious. I’d have to read the book again to know if I still agree with Frank’s explanation of how this happened, though. However, I don’t remember that he claimed that people vote on the basis of economic considerations alone; of course they don’t. The question is, what causes people to vote AGAINST their own self-interest? Fear and bigotry seem to play a role there.

  2. Great post, maha!

    I’m an old school liberal, I guess.
    No “neo” needs to be attached.
    And it does seem, historically, as though both liberalism and conservatism may both close the political circle, as totalitarians.

    As for Frank’s WtMWK, I’m with him on the GOP using every sort of division in order to conquer: religion, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, etc…

    The people in those areas voted for Democrats for decades, ever since FDR’s New Deal programs put people back to work.
    And Social Security allowed a certain type of person – a white one- to retire with some degree of dignity.
    What broke that decades long devotion?
    I think the first step, was Truman’s integration of the military.
    After that, is was LBJ, and the civil and voting rights act’s, and the expansion of Social Security to “those people.”

    And those traditionally Democratic areas, are now deeply conservative.
    So, yeah, fear and bigotry played some role there – a BIG role!

    Them’s my $0.02 worth!

  3. Message body

    Frankly, I find Frank hard to read. If he had Barbara’s readability, then I would have little complaint. His ideas are well supported, and come from what seems to be a well researched historical perspective.

    Another tough read, Capital in the 21st Century, by the French economist Thomas Piketty, adds much light from a more researched and scientific perspective. That the neoliberals are protectors of capital and capital holders is true, though judging from the decrease in coal trains past my house in the past few years, not a protector of Wyoming coal capital and coal production industry. Neoconservatives, however, seem to resist this change, and redouble climate change denials. So, yes, but not always, do the neoliberals tend to ” throw the working class under the bus in favor of investors and entrepreneurs.” as you so delightfully phrased.

    One of the most amazing and enlightening presentations of data Piketty presents is the change in percentage of capital that is agricultural over the past few centuries. This percentage was almost a hundred percent at the time our county was founded and but one percent in the present day. That political and social change followed or was necessitated is not, in light of such data, at all remarkable. Those who watched Downton Abby might have noted this relationship.

    Yes Kansas and neighbor states do tend to “shoot themselves in the foot” politically as Franks contends. As the old butler in Downton are they not “traditionalists” hanging on to ways more suited to days of a much different capital structure and agricultural environment?

  4. I reckon it’s just a matter of individual taste, but I find Frank quite readable. I’ve only read “Listen, Liberal” and some short, older pieces anthologized in a couple of “Baffler” collections, but I plan to work backwards to “… Kansas?”. “Listen, Liberal” did what I thought to be an excellent job of articulating the dismay with which many of us regard the course of the Democratic Party from Carter through Obama/HRC.

  5. I was there when Fox News became all the conservative rage.

    My cubicle neighbors, moral conservatives all, complained bitterly when some new outfit called News Corporation had bought Fox TV and were airing shows like Married With Children, Ellen Degeneres, The Simpsons… They’d grown up on stuff like Little House on the Prairie and Love Boat. This new liberal morality coming from overseas was going to ruin Americas children golldangit! They promoted letter writing campaigns. Then what became quite obvious (to me) happened. Somewhere in a dark and smoky boardroom it was decided that the (highly successful) edginess of News Corporation products would not be curtailed. Instead, Fox News would be launched to take financial advantage of that large mostly untapped market.

    Thus we had the interesting situation where in ’09 two of News Corporations’s top two earners, Bill O’Reilly and James Cameron, represented two political extremes, and conservatives were condemning one and worshipping the other without much understanding that companies true motive – economic self interest.

    Maybe it’s just a simple thing. Most conservatives are monkey-see monkey-do monkey-fling-poo primates who have a strong unconscious drive to move in the direction in which their tribal authority points, without questioning said leadership’s true motives?

  6. It would take a chronicler of extra-dimensional horrors to correctly describe the Republican Party from 80+ years ago:

    “As for the Republicans — how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy, nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would contravene some vague and mystical ‘American heritage’…) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience? Intellectually, the Republican idea deserves the tolerance and respect one gives to the dead.”

  7. we prefer BrownBackwards

    Oh, man. I’d laugh if I weren’t already crying. My sister-in-law is a public school teacher in Kansas, and unofficial chief chronicler of What Sam Destroyed Today (aka her FB page).

  8. @Bernie – Pardon my omission (heh)… but since I live in Texas, the notion of ridiculing other states’ governors strikes me as unseemly (except in self-defense).

  9. A main reason why Communism failed is that it completely ignored how power works in the human world. Who plays and usually wins those games, how and why it concentrates, who loses out… And along came neoliberalism which made the same mistake. Properly enforced checks and balances against concentrations of power is a good thing, a difficult riddle which I believe progressives are continuously trying to solve.

  10. Seems to me that Peter’s, A Neoliberal Manifesto,is an attempt to distance himself from an extreme portrayal of the Right’s caricature of the stereotypical Kumbaya liberal. What kind of nonsense is it to attribute the idea that all Liberals accept the understanding that a criminal is not responsible for their crimes but, believe that society is responsible for the actions of a criminal. Hence, we need a Neoliberal paradigm?
    Peter’s doesn’t present an honest assessment of a Liberal as his premise for what a Liberal is. According to Peter’s definition of what constitutes a Neoliberal… it appears to me as he’s giving himself a big pat on the back as a reward for his mental prowess and ability to distinguish fact from fiction.. I mean, his humility just jumped off the page at me. I was tempted to sing the “I’m so wonderful” song.
    As for me and my ego…We shall serve the term Liberal. Like Popeye, I am’s what I am’s and proud to be a plain vanilla Liberal.

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