The problem in my mind isn't so much Jonathan Chait's view that "neoliberalism" has been become a catchall insult for people on "the left" who get annoyed at conventional liberals like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, although it certainly is used that way an awful lot these days. Rather it's that the term itself has so many different meanings it's just not a helpful thing to say.
Illustrating the problem recently was a long post by The Roosevelt Institution's Mike Konczal, updated to reflect the whole Coates vs West fight, arguing that "Neoliberalism isn't an empty epithet. It's a real, powerful set of ideas." To begin with I think Konczal kind of reinforces my point about the word being hopelessly vague due to its plethora of meanings when he tells us that it means three pretty different things. He breaks these definitions down as:
- "In political circles, it’s most commonly used to refer to a successful attempt to move the Democratic Party to the center in the aftermath of conservative victories in the 1980s."
- "In economic circles, however, “neoliberalism” is most identified with an elite response to the economic crises of the 1970s...These policies included reduction of top marginal tax rates, the liberalization of trade, privatization of government services, and deregulation.
- "The third meaning of “neoliberalism,” most often used in academic circles, encompasses market supremacy — or the extension of markets or market-like logic to more and more spheres of life."
As Jonathan Chait pointed on on twitter though the second point hardly describes the politics of so called "neoliberals" like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. After all both Obama and Clinton presided over tax rates going up on the rich not down. Bill Clinton did support some deregulation of Wall Street yes, but Obama made tightening regulation of the finance industry a major focus on his presidency. People like Konczal might argue he didn't go far enough, but the Dodd-Frank act was a real thing and certainly no "deregulation." I'm not aware of any major "privatization of government services" going on under either administration either. And sorry but "free trade" has been the mainstream Democratic position for a pretty long time indeed.
So what about the first point? To be blunt the evidence Konczal rolls out to back up the idea that there was, "...a successful attempt to move the Democratic Party to the center in the aftermath of conservative victories in the 1980s" is pretty weak. He cities a number of books and articles by various public intellectuals who wrote about Democratic politics in that era, but there's little evidence theses sorts of articles-takes as we'd call them today-drove policy in the Clinton White House or the 101st Congress. Public intellectuals love to exaggerate the role of their fellow public intellectuals in politics, but someone like Sam Nunn was probably more important to politcs in the early Clinton years than anything Charlie Peters ever wrote.
Likewise Konczal constantly goes back to changes to the 1992 Democratic Party Platform as an example of this "move to the center". But this is pretty weak evidence too. Back when political conventions where actual deliberative events where parties made choices, platforms were an important way for party factions to fight out differences, cut deals, and arrive at consensus. But for a long time now conventions have basically been just four day long infomercials where parties showcase themselves and their nominees to voters. This is why celebrities keep popping up in them, not forge a new policy on international trade or health care reform, but to try and keep things interesting between the boring politicians who want to yammer on about those things.
Moreover if you take a broader look at American politics than one focused on the Clinton White House, obscure articles in policy journals, and convention platforms you see a very different picture. Let's just focus on 1988, a year Knoczal seems to think is key to this "move to the center." In the House you have the Democrats led by Speaker Jim Wright, who was something of a moderate. By year's end he has to resign as is replaced by his more liberal deputy Tom Foley. The Democrats go into the minority after their 1994 shellacking and pick noted longtime friend of organized labor Dick Gephardt as their leader (here's Dick on free trade when he ran president back in 1988, he doesn't sound very "neoliberal" to me) and he's ultimately replaced by Nancy Pelosi, probably the most liberal Speaker in history. That's not a "shift to the center" at all, it's pretty clearly march "to the left" ie a more liberal Democratic Party.
Does Wright represent the crucial shift to "the center" then? Well he was more of a moderate than his predecessor Tip O'Neill, but then again he came to congress in 1955 and his politics were heavily linked to the New Deal. Likewise his tenure as Speaker of the 100th Congress was largely defined by passing big infrastructure bills over Reagan's veto, fending off attempts to cut the non-defense parts of the Federal budget, and working to end some of the Reagan Administration's proxy wars in Central America. That doesn't sound like what Knoczal calls "neoliberalism" at all.
And O'Neill didn't exactly come from a long line of committed liberals either. O'Neill's predecessor was Carl Albert who championed Medicare in Congress, but was something of a moderate who also chaired the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, (which had a platform that did have a plank about full employment in it but also wasn't exactly something liberals look back fondly on). His predecessor as Speaker was John McCormick who was a big fan of the Great Society yes, but was basically forced into retirement by liberals furious at his refusal to confront Johnson over the war in Vietnam and who once killed a bill to provide more Federal aide to schools by demanding it include funding for Catholic schools as well, that doesn't sound that liberal these days. If you want to go back further you get Sam Rayburn who's a good guy in a lot of ways but not exactly high on the list of liberal political heroes today either.
How about the Senate? Well in 1988 you have Mr. Blue Dog Democrat himself in the form of Robert Byrd as majority leader, who replaced by George Mitchell in 1989 in no small part because he was too conservative in the eyes of his more liberal caucus. Mitchell is followed Tom Daschle who is followed by Harry Reid who is in turn followed by Chuck Schumer, all of which are pretty conventional liberals.
And if anything the changes among the Democratic membership in Congress were even bigger than the leadership changes over the years. Reagan was able to get his tax cuts through in no small part because of conservative Democratic representatives from the South who styled themselves as Boll Weevils getting on board, there's pretty much no comparison to them in this day and age. Likewise in the Senate conservative Democrats like Richard Shelby and Ben Nighthorse Campbell quite literally switched parties in the 90's and became Republicans. Sounds like a more liberal Democratic Party to me.
The thing here to remember is that this is about a lot more than Mike Konczal being wrong about the history of the Democratic Party (although I think he pretty much is). Or the the fact that some people on the internet come up with a multitude of definitions for a word and then throw it around as an epithet (although people clearly do that with "neoliberalism"). It's about where the "the left" is going to go during this Age of Trump we are in. A "Unified Theory of the Democratic Party" based on made up never was history and the idea that some liberals (oftentimes it seems like basically all liberals) must be denounced for betrayals that never happened doesn't strike me as a firm foundation to build a functional and effective "left" political movement.
Let's put this another way. Imagine the alternative history where Bill Clinton imploded after the Jennifer Flowers presser in the fall of 1991 (seems to be a scenario folks like Konczal would have liked). Bob Kerrey becomes the Democratic nominee and thus president due to the 1991-92 recession. In this universe does anyone really think the profound forces of global capitalism and technological change that have driven the things Konczal talks about have been abated? Or would Jacobin Magazine on Earth Two be cranking out articles about how Bob Kerrey betrayed liberalism forever after he negotiated a welfare reform package with Newt Gingrich rather than do nothing and risk a bipartisan veto override of a bill he'd had no influence in crafting? If the 1992 Democratic Platform under Kerrey had included a sentence on why full employment is good how different would our political economy really be?
Basically I see two sort of "lefts" when the charges of "neoliberalism" start getting thrown about. One is the "left" of Konczal that might be wrong about things in my view, but at least realizes there's probably a better way to talk about this stuff. As he puts it in his piece, "Whenever I find myself reaching for “neoliberalism,” I look for a different phrase, simply because it will better communicate what I’m trying to convey." This is the "left" that has something valuable to say and might be even be able to offer some constructive criticism for us liberals or the Democratic Party at large.
But there's the other "left" I see when charges of "neoliberalism" start flying. This is the left that tells us there is "no difference" between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, that declares a nomination contest "rigged" every time people disagree with them, that seems to have already written off a possible Kamala Harris presidency, that screams bloody murder when a politician behaves in a political manner, that blames everything bad in politics on liberals, that will never ever take yes for an answer and will always find a reason to justify their own self-destructive actions.
In other words the left politics that take the form of a bitter old man who's own left-wing anti-Obama intellectual allies think jumped the shark a while ago bellowing that once Ta-Nehisi Coates has been destroyed, the road to socialism will be open.
I would prefer the former "left", but when I see charges of "neoliberalism" thrown around I feel like I see a lot of the later. Either way it's not a very helpful term.