- REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo
- Zach Silk is the president of Civic Ventures and a recurring cohost on the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast.
- In a discussion with James Kwak, author of “Take Back Our Party: Restoring the Democratic Legacy,” Silk supports the argument that neoliberalism has degraded the Democratic Party.
- The definition of modern neoliberalism has been debated, but it’s actually a concept that’s been around for almost 40 years.
- For more on this topic, listen to the latest episode of “Pitchfork Economics.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The word “neoliberal” has become a favored pejorative in the years since the 2016 presidential election – an insult that people love to hurl at each other on Twitter. Like many buzzy insults, the majority of the people using the word “neoliberal” can’t agree on a definition of the term. The closest consensus, if you were to survey left-wing Twitter, would probably be something close to “a Democrat who is a Republican in disguise.”
That’s an imprecise definition, and our current political moment requires us to use precision in our language. Many people don’t realize that modern American neoliberalism has been around for almost 40 years, and that it was presented as a redemption for the Democratic Party after the doldrums of the Carter administration and the great political success of Ronald Reagan.
In fact, editor and author Charles Peters published an editorial called “A Neo-Liberal’s Manifesto” way back in the September 5, 1982 issue of The Washington Post that clearly laid out the concept and policies behind neoliberalism. The political arguments that Peters laid out in the piece some 37 years ago could just as easily have tumbled out of the mouths of a few Democratic presidential candidates on a debate stage two weeks ago.
- Courtesy of Zach Silk
The idea of a proud neoliberal is almost inconceivable in the year 2020, but three decades ago, Peters was an outright neoliberal evangelist. He defines the cause clearly: “We still believe in liberty and justice and a fair chance 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.”
That definition of neoliberalism – policy designed to favor markets, big business, and efficiency – has proven to be remarkably resilient over the last 40 years. You could use it to define the presidencies of both Bill Clinton (who slashed welfare while allowing tech companies to swallow the public consciousness in an entirely deregulated atmosphere) and Barack Obama (who said parts of his Affordable Care Act essentially originated from a conservative think tank). The Democratic Party’s embrace of neoliberalism caused an economic rightward lurch that benefited the wealthy and powerful and came at the expense of working-class Americans. The coalition of working people, farmers, and progressive crusaders that led to durable Democractic majorities in states and Congress throughout the second half of the 1900s fell apart. By moving to the right on economics, the party lost its way and lost its status as the party of the people.
As Iowa Democrats prepare to caucus and the candidates engage in an intense primary debate about the kind of party it wants to be, it’s important to assess that history of neoliberalism with clear eyes and weigh the price that this rightward shift has taken on the nation. In this week’s episode of “Pitchfork Economics,” Nick Hanauer and Paul Constant talk with author James Kwak about his new book, “Take Back Our Party: Restoring the Democratic Legacy,” which he published serially in The American Prospect last month.
For too long, Kwak argues in “Take Back Our Party,” Democratic leaders have eroded union power; sided with big business on wage suppression, deregulation, and tax cuts; and failed to enact the big, bold policies that once put political power in the hands of the American working class. The massive income inequality that has grown over the last four decades is the direct consequence of the philosophy laid out by Peters and his fellow neoliberals, and their failure to keep the true economic job creators – the middle class – at the center of the economy.
Kwak argues that the Democratic Party is the single most important political party in the world right now. He rushed his book to publication because he believes the 2020 presidential election might be the inflection point in which the western world decides between a continuation of the stable democracy that supported most of the growth of the 20th century or a descent into chaotic populism and uncertainty. If the Democratic Party adheres to that neoliberal tradition begun 40 years ago, Kwak believes, all could be lost. But if Iowa Democrats remember who their party has traditionally served, and which values truly matter to the American worker, voters will happily and overwhelmingly return to the party of the people.