Certain politicians within the Democratic Party establishment are crafting an argument against the term neoliberal. It is implied that the term neoliberal is merely an “alt-left” smear word against respected figures of the Democratic Party. “Neoliberalism” however is not a smear word. It is a term describing a policy model that dates back more than a century.
I wrote an article last week criticizing the neoliberal views of MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid. It seemed obvious that the piece would get a few negative comments from centrist Democrats. The backlash, however, was far nastier than could be imagined. Not only was my article labeled a “hit-piece” by certain readers, some accused me of racism and misogyny. Apparently, criticizing the views of an establishment media figure was merely my hate for women of color. Another detraction was based in the very term “neoliberal.” The term is merely a smear and, according to one reader, anyone who uses it “has no idea what they are talking about.”
The term “neoliberal” is rather old. It describes the subscribers of “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism, by most definitions, is a late twentieth century revival of nineteenth century classical liberal economic concepts. Overtime, other layers have been added to the neoliberal cannon. The one shared opinion is a strong central faith in private economic markets. Neoliberals are also willing to conduct foreign interventions on behalf of these markets, under the guise of humanitarianism.
Neoliberal ideology has been classified in political science for at least 30 years. Noam Chomsky wrote a book about it in the 1990s, titled Neoliberalism and the Global Order. Various authors have since tackled the same topic. Chomsky, and others, have argued that neoliberals maintain the veneer of liberalism on social issues. On economic issues, however, neoliberals follow a laissez-faire approach. They believe in the corruption of money in the political system. This is not meant as an ad-hominem. Corruption has been normalized. Buying politicians is so common that neoliberals see it as the natural, and right, order.
It is not a smear to call someone a neoliberal. This label can only be attained by analyzing the stated views of said person. In the case of Joy Ann Reid, my assessment of her as neoliberal was based on her own stated positions. I didn’t choose a random word out of a hat. Reid defends the neoliberal policies of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Therefore, it would be fair to call her a neoliberal. Apparently using an objective political term to summarize a person’s political beliefs is now a hit-piece.
Juxtapose the term neoliberal with “alt-left.” Alt-left is a completely made-up term, heralded by those on the far-right trying to equate groups like Antifa to that of neo-Nazis. Donald Trump has championed the term. Neoliberal politicians and media figures have also used the term alt-left to smear progressives like Bernie Sanders. Alt-left has become a convenient sword and shield for both the right-wing and neoliberal Democrats. While progressives face the real smear tactics, its the neoliberals who play the victim.
Hillary Clinton released a book recently, laying the blame on her loss to Donald Trump on Bernie Sanders among everything else. Hillary claimed to be constrained not to attack Bernie so harshly, while claiming Bernie attacked her viciously and that he promised too much. Hillary described Bernie’s positions as promising Americans a “pony.” While Bernie continues to look forward, fighting for progressive policies in the Senate, Hillary and the neoliberals are looking back to place blame.
One layer of irony is in the idea that progressives smeared Hillary or her supporters. Claiming Hillary couldn’t attack Bernie is farcical. Hillary and her people smeared Bernie up and down. Bernie’s policies were called “pie in the sky,” his followers tarred as misogynist “Bernie Bros,” attacking his socialist views, as well as being labeled an NRA supporter unconcerned about the victims of mass shootings.
Hillary was quite vicious in her attacks. Bernie, however, was not nearly as vicious in respect. There were many opportunities Bernie had to get tough on Hillary, and he refused. Bernie could have, for example, laid into Hillary about her vote on the Bankruptcy Bill in 2002. He did not, valuing the issues over personal attacks.
Neoliberals like Hillary Clinton strongly believe in incrementalism. Issues such as universal college or healthcare are considered too radical for today’s Democrats, unfeasible ideas that “will never come to pass,” as Hillary stated in the 2016 primary. The irony is that politicians like Bernie Sanders were not seen as “radical” in the Democratic Party until about thirty years ago.
After the Reagan years of the 1980s, the Democratic Party establishment believed that moving to the right was the only winning strategy. Democrats had to moderate their progressive stances to compete with Republicans, it was said. Neoliberalism was born again, with Bill Clinton later becoming its standard-bearer. As neoliberalism rose up, the military industrial complex rose with it, while wages and protections for the working class sank. Re-acceptance of classical-liberal economics coupled with foreign interventionism seemed the only winning strategy for Democrats.
Neoliberalism may have been a good tactic in the 1990s, but this is hardly the case today. This is evidenced by last year’s election. This was heralded by the “centrism” of Bill Clinton, and later his wife Hillary. Once the so-called centrist hold of neoliberalism gripped the Democratic Party, people like Bernie Sanders or, say, Ralph Nader, were labeled too radical for the mainstream. Bernie’s views were mainstream before 1980s, yet he is somehow the radical in this situation.
Calling someone a “neoliberal” is far from an ad-hominem smear. It’s a fairly soft-term used to describe what should be more accurately termed “corporate-liberalism.” Neoliberals can view criticism as smears all they like. Such reactions reveal more about their character than anything else. Neoliberals supposedly despise the “purity tests” of progressives. Keep this in mind, however; those who complain about a purity test more than likely could never pass one.