Thursday, August 12, 2010

Two Views of Neo-Liberalism

I’ve wondered before whether Neo-Liberalism (or “the Third Way”) was ever an authentic expression of liberal ideology or just a cynical exercise in political branding. Matt Welch puts some meat on the bare bones of the second view. He thinks that Neo-Liberalism was always an affectation of politically nimble Democrats determined to win elections under the ideologically uncongenial conditions generated by the Reagan presidency. After Obama’s election, liberals dispensed with their Neo-Liberal pretenses entirely and displayed their real ideological plumage in all its glory:
“Starting with the Reagan landslide in 1984 and ending with John Kerry’s flaccid resistance to George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, liberals and Democrats went through a two-decade cycle of re-examining their previous philosophical and technocratic assumptions, embracing (or at least grudgingly accepting) some key elements of market economics and competition, then backtracking at least partway toward hoary old labor politics. The party’s fortunes in capturing the White House ebbed at the beginning of the economic rethink, flowed at its height, then ebbed again during its final days.

“This 20-year process encompassed many different strains and went by several names—neoliberalism, the Third Way, the New Democrats—but underscoring most of it was a sound judgment that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher effectively destroyed traditional labor politics, a slow-building acknowledgment of the benefits of global trade and industrial privatization, and a nagging suspicion that lefties in the West too often looked like unmanly, unelectable sourpusses. Better to cheerfully embrace the 21st century, á la Clinton and the early Tony Blair, than grumble in your cups about industrial malaise, declining union ranks, and unequal economic outcomes.

“The seeds of the New Democrats’ demise were already flowering by Clinton’s second term, when an increasingly hostile progressive-left flank reacted with fury to gung-ho globalization, elective wars in Yugoslavia, and welfare reform . . .”
I don’t deny that Welch’s account fits the facts pretty well.  But so, I think, does an alternative theory of the rise and fall of Neo-Liberalism which leaves open the possibility that it was a genuine ideology that will rise again.

I’ve speculated before, in connection with the retirement of Evan Bayh, about the generational dynamic in intra-party Democratic politics. You can divide prominent Democratic politicians into three (ideological, but not strictly chronological) generations: Grandparents like Henry Waxman and Chris Dodd who came to Washington in the Watergate era determined to advance the liberal agenda bequeathed by the New Deal and the Great Society; Parents, like the Clintons, who may really subscribe to the Neo-Liberalism they rode to election victories in the 1990s (although they may pretend not to when they're running in Democratic primaries); and Kids with oedipal issues like Howard Dean who’d run out of patience with their triangulating Parents by the 2004 election.

Obama’s election represents the ascendancy of the Kids gripped by an oedipal urge to displace the Parents by joining forces with the Grandparents. That’s the template of Obama’s governing style which favors comprehensive reforms on the model of the New Deal and the Great Society over the less-ambitious reforms of the Clinton-era and depends on Grandparents in the Democratic congressional leadership like Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Waxman and Chris Dodd, to relive their political youth when they're filling in the legislative details. That leaves the Parents like Evan Bayh out of the domestic policy action, especially now that the Parent-in-Chief, Hillary Clinton, is parked on the sidelines in the State Department.

On this generational view, the retooling the Democratic Party will have to undertake in the wake of the approaching mid-terms may give Neo-Liberal Parents the chance to mount a comeback.  It will be interesting to see whether they try.

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