R.I.P Neoliberalism? (Cont’d)

R.I.P. NEOLIBERALISM? (CONT’D)….There’s been a lively debate, on and off line, about David Brooks’s column on Sunday asserting that neoliberalism, as a political-intellectual movement, is dead. As the editor of the magazine that coined the term (at least the American version of it) I suppose I should weigh in.

If by “neoliberalism” we mean the tendency of center-left Democratic intellectuals to spend lots of time and energy attacking those further to the left, I’d say the movement is, like the hero in the The Princess Bride, mostly dead. That is, it could, under the right circumstances, stir back to life, but for now, the movement ain’t moving.

There are two main reasons for this. First and foremost is the conservative takeover of Washington. Personally, as a longtime self-identified neoliberal, I’ve been more interested over the last six years in figuring out how the new conservative machine works and how to fight against it than in getting into pissing matches with my friends on the left over whether federal job retraining programs are a false god. That’s the real reason that the Monthly seems more liberal, more sympatico with the American Prospect, than it used to — though it’s also true that I’ve moved a bit more to the left on a few issues, like unionism and entitlement programs.

Second, as Kevin and Matt and Jon Cohn have rightly noted, neoliberals have achieved much of what they set out to achieve. Of course, there never was a totally agreed-upon neoliberal agenda, or even a unified worldview. The cerebral contrarianism of the Michael Kinsley-influenced New Republic subtly differed from the earnest, crusading neoliberalism championed by the Monthly’s founder Charlie Peters. Both were quite distinct from the aggressive south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line centrism of the DLC. And neither had much to do with the neocon-friendly editorial line espoused by the New Republic from about the time Andrew Sullivan became editor to about when Frank Foer took charge.

Still, back in the day, most neolib-New Dem types I knew shared one main goal: to remove the thorns in the paw of the American body politic that made voters furious at the federal government, so that government could once again play an activist, progressive role in American life.

This was not the most glorious or fun kind work, but it’s what I spent most of my career as a journalist prior to 2001 doing, and it’s what Bill Clinton spent most of his presidency doing. Ending “welfare as we know it” by replacing AFDC with a system that encourages and rewards work. Dealing with crime by spreading the gospel of community policing through the COPS program. Tearing down high-rise public housing — the embodiment of what many Americans thought of as disastrous big government liberalism — and placing residents in less uniformly poor neighborhoods. Ending Washington’s deficit-spending habit and creating the first budget surplus in memory. Turning once-dysfunctional agencies like the VA and FEMA into adept and effective enterprises, thus showing that government bureaucracies can, under the right management and philosophy, be made to serve the public well. Fashioning, in Bosnia and Kosovo, a model for deploying US military force in concert with allies to address security and human rights threats, thus giving liberal government its first, if modest, war-fighting successes in almost half a century.

No, these achievements didn’t stop the conservative takeover of Washington — though they might have had Al Gore chosen to run on them. And yes, the Bush administration has undone or squandered much of what Clinton achieved. But that’s not something conservatives can now brag about. And whatever bold future may soon be in store for liberalism, it wouldn’t be possible without these neoliberal achievements. (I am a neoliberal so that my son can be a liberal.) At the very least, one does not hear liberal critics of neoliberalism arguing that we should bring back AFDC, or build more high-rise public housing, or get all those community police off the street.

Neoliberalism, then, has a very proud past. But does it have a future? I’ll address that in a subsequent post.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.