Neoliberalism, Or Who Cares What David Brooks Says About Liberals?

While I discussed liberals today from the context of similarities to and differences from libertarians, the liberal blogosphere is spending the day discussing liberalism from the context of the ideas of David Brooks. I initially didn’t bother commenting on his column from yesterday, considering that David Brooks is hardly the one whose definitions of liberal groups are very meaningful, but it is getting harder to ignore this column with all the attention being paid to it. Brooks wrote:

On policy matters, the neoliberals were liberal but not too liberal. They rejected interest-group politics and were suspicious of brain-dead unions. They tended to be hawkish on foreign policy, positive about capitalism, reformist when it came to the welfare state, and urbane but not militant on feminism and other social issues.The neoliberal movement begat politicians like Paul Tsongas, Al Gore (the 1980s and ’90s version) and Bill Clinton. It also set the tone for mainstream American journalism. Today, you can’t swing an ax in a major American newsroom without hitting six people who used to work at The New Republic or The Washington Monthly. Influenced by their sensibility, many major news organizations became neoliberal institutions, whether they knew it or not…

Kevin Drum, who is actually older than most bloggers, says the difference is generational. Klein’s mind-set, he says, was formed in the 1970s and 1980s, but “like most lefty bloggers, I only started following politics in a serious way in the late ’90s.” Drum says he’s reacting to Ken Starr, the Florida ballot fight, the Bush tax cuts, the K Street Project and the war in Iraq.

Drum and his cohort don’t want a neoliberal movement that moderates and reforms. They want a Democratic Party that fights. Their tone is much more confrontational. They want to read articles that affirm their anger. They are also further to the left, driven there by Iraq on foreign policy matters and by wage stagnation on economic matters…

Over all, what’s happening is this: The left, which has the momentum, is growing more uniform and coming to look more like its old, pre-neoliberal self. The right is growing more fractious. And many of those who were semiaffiliated with one party or another are drifting off to independent-land. (The Economist, their magazine, now has over 500,000 American readers – more than all the major liberal magazines combined.)

Neoliberalism had a good, interesting run – while it lasted.

It is not that neoliberalism has vanished, but that the differences of opinion in the 1990’s differ from those of today. The neoliberal ideas such as rejecting interest group politics, support of a market economy, and fiscal responsibility have become the mainstream views among liberals.

The war has also redefined what is moderate versus more extreme liberalism, or at least it did until opposition to the war became the majority view in this country. The DLC lost influence among liberals for its support for the war, but many people initially associated with the DLC have moved on, while retaining other aspects of neoliberalism. Howard Dean, for example, was transformed from a moderate DLC Governor to someone viewed as more liberal due to his views on the war, but he still retains his fiscal conservativism.

Perhaps what Brooks really objects to is the change in attitude. Under Clinton Republicans controlled Congress and compromise appeared to be the best solution. However, Republicans showed no interest in compromise or bipartisan government. This leaves liberals as having no choice but to be more confrontational compared to the right.

More posts on David Brooks

Further discussion of this column from Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Steve Benen, Joe Klein, Ben Adler, Jonathan Cohn, and Ezra Klein.

Update: Still further discussion from Roger Smith (who linked back here at Huffington Post), Paul Glastis, and The American Street

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