[Neoliberal] now refers to liberals generally, and it is applied by their left-wing critics. The word is now ubiquitous, popping up in almost any socialist polemic against the Democratic Party or the center-left.
…The ubiquitous epithet is intended to separate its target — liberals — from the values they claim to espouse. By relabeling self-identified liberals as “neoliberals,” their critics on the left accuse them of betraying the historic liberal cause.
…Its basic claim is that, from the New Deal through the Great Society, the Democratic Party espoused a set of values defined by, or at the very least consistent with, social democracy or socialism. Then, starting in the 1970s, a coterie of neoliberal elites hijacked the party and redirected its course toward a brand of social liberalism targeted to elites and hostile to the interests of the poor and the working class.
…In reality, the Democratic Party had essentially the same fraught relationship with the left during its supposed golden New Deal era that it does today. The left dismissed the Great Society as “corporate liberalism,” a phrase that connoted in the 1960s almost exactly what “neoliberalism” does today.
…The tradition of progressives flaying Democratic presidents for betraying the spirit of the New Deal goes all the way back to the New Deal itself. Even the sainted Franklin Roosevelt vacillated between expansionary fiscal policy and austerity, and between attacking corporate power and encouraging monopoly. The cause of liberalizing international trade, which left-wing critics have treated as a corporate-friendly Clinton innovation, is one Roosevelt not only supported consistently but basically invented.
…The widespread notion that “neoliberals” have captured the modern Democratic party and broken from its historic mission plays upon nostalgia for a bygone era, when the real thing was messier and more compromised than the sanitized historical memory.
…Progressives are correct in their belief that something has changed for the worse in American politics. Larger forces in American life have stalled the seemingly unstoppable progressive momentum of the postwar period. Rising international competition made business owners more ruthless, civil rights spawned a 40-year white backlash against government, and anti-government extremists captured the Republican Party, destroying the bipartisan basis for progressive legislation that had once allowed Eisenhower to expand Social Security and Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency.
All this forced Democrats more frequently into a defensive posture. Bill Clinton tried but failed to create universal health coverage, eked out modest tax increases on the rich, and fought off the “Republican revolution” by defending Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment, crown jewels of the Great Society.
Barack Obama’s far more sweeping reforms still could not win any support from a radicalized opposition. It is seductive to attribute these frustrations to the tactical mistakes or devious betrayals of party leaders. But it is the political climate that has grown more hostile to Democratic Party economic liberalism. The party’s ideological orientation has barely changed.
…The sudden ubiquity of the term in American politics — at least among left-wing elites — owes itself to two new developments. First, the Bernie Sanders campaign has inspired a new movement to remake the Democratic Party as a social-democratic labor party. Left-wing activists need a label for their opponents.
…Whereas the prefix had once softened the term it modified — the neoconservatives were once seen as the intellectually evolved wing of the right, in contrast to the Buchananite knuckle-draggers — by the end of Bush’s term, it became an intensifier. A neoconservative was a conservative, but an even scarier one.
And so the term neoliberal frames the political debate in a way that perfectly suits the messaging needs of left-wing critics of liberalism. The uselessness of “neoliberalism” as an analytic tool is the very thing that makes it useful as a factional messaging device for the left. The “neoliberalism” rubric implicates the Democratic Party in the rightward drift of American politics that has in reality been caused by the Republican Party’s growing radicalism. It yokes the two parties together into a capitalist Establishment, against which socialism offers the only clear alternative. Obscuring the large gulf between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, Paul Ryan and Barack Obama, is a feature of the term.
“What’s the difference between a cannibal and a liberal?” Johnson joked during his presidency. “A cannibal doesn’t eat his friends.”