Our March issue weighed in on the term neoliberalism and whether or not it is a useful category for activist scholars. Neoliberalism, according to our several contributors, is an all-encompassing system that manifests itself in the Democratic Party’s assault on the welfare state, in the continued battering of public education, and in the inability of professional scholars to impact the way Americans view and interact with history. I believe that the issue’s five essays provide us with valuable insight as to how we should move forward in crafting a well-balanced assault on both Trumpism and glacially-paced liberal reform, but I also believe several important questions remain.
Neoliberalism, as our columnist Eric Morgenson defines it, is a system predicated on the belief that the free market is the best solution to economic and social inequalities. Defenders of this order maintain that a strong state is useful in protecting constitutional rights and promoting political equality, but that the state should not interfere in the growth of private industry. Morgenson rightly points out that a conservative “neoliberal” strain existed in the southern wing of the Democratic Party prior to the Clinton White House. He also does well in situating the Clintons in a global trend that abandoned social democratic principles in favor of a system that cut wealth redistribution models and further criminalized the resulting black market economy.
Still, perhaps more can be gained by looking at intra-Democratic rivalries over time, especially following Nixon’s 1968 election—when the Republicans first successfully implemented the now infamous “Southern Strategy.” How, for instance, does the 1972 Democratic primary figure into our understanding of neoliberalism? That primary race featured bitter competition between establishment Democrats (and former presidential contenders) Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie, Southern Dixiecrat insurgent George Wallace, the first black congresswoman in US history Shirley Chisholm, and the staunchly anti-war George McGovern. McGovern won the primary (perhaps thanks to a failed attempt on Wallace’s life that left him paralyzed), but his platform—which I believe remains the most progressive in American history, despite the claims of contemporary pundits—fractured the party. Although McGovern backed down on his supporters’ call for guaranteed LGBT rights (which was rephrased in the platform as “the right to be different”), softened his plank mandating a woman’s right to choose (which was rephrased as “family planning services”), and neglected to attach an exact amount to his call for a national minimum income (some called for minimum payments of $6,500 or close to $40,000 today), many Party stalwarts bolted the convention, taking the AFL-CIO with them. It is also worth noting, briefly, that no one twisted McGovern’s arm into adopting stricter penalties for drug dealers.
Four years later, the Democratic primary went to Jimmy Carter, an evangelical Christian and the poster child for a middle of the road Democrat. Indeed, during the 1972 campaign, Carter backed most of the platform proposed by Wallace, including an end to forced desegregation of public schools and a constitutional amendment calling for school prayer, and called a merging of the two factions a “formidable coalition.” Was this the first triumph of neoliberalism? His platform was proudly moderate: the Carter campaign called for full-employment but through a vague combination of the Federal Reserve, a balanced budget, and block grants to states. Carter carried most of the states east of the Mississippi—North and South—largely because of his Christian background and the Watergate scandal. Still, his election ponders the varieties of conservative liberalism and how they compare to contemporary neoliberalism. Things change over time, but by how much?
Perhaps it really doesn’t matter what we call conservative Democrats. Perhaps our duty as historians and as scholars is to take a larger role in public life, disrupting “fake news” and building a vibrant left. This is Eric Medlin’s claim. Medlin reminded us all that serious scholars were much closer to seats of power in decades not so long ago. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Hofstadter, he writes, were not afraid to step into the political realm and “educate the public” into a more active citizenry.
Still, Hofstadter’s and Schlesinger’s idea of public engagement was clearly partisan and specifically sympathetic to what they would refer to as the “Vital Center,” or the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Both historians agreed that good governance and technocratic rationalization of capitalism would ward of totalitarianism on the left and right. It is unclear just how much either historian actually reached “the people.” Hofstadter in particular spent his career haranguing the dangers of grassroots movements. He penned his well-known essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” still a popular read for many hoping for an easy answer to Trumpism, to denounce Goldwater supporters as lunatics. Hofstadter described poor, aggrieved, and uneducated people whose misguided moral absolutism ran constant from the anti-masons in the early 1800s, through the Populists, and on to Joe McCarthy.
Hofstadter was right about a few things: many Populists did subscribe to an unfortunately popular belief that “European” (read Jewish) bankers controlled American finance, and McCarthy supporters often did espouse grand theories of communist control of the federal bureaucracy—though it is worth noting that they were right about Alger Hiss and liberals did refuse to admit it. But Hofstadter painted every movement spawned by angry people from the bottom up with the same color of alarm. And while he may have acknowledged the finer points that divided these movements, he didn’t think they were very important as none of them could not be reasoned with by sensible people. “Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable,” he wrote, “and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise.”
Hofstadter felt that way about politics during his own time. He was no C. Wright Mills, a sociologist who called on the youth of the world to dislodge the “power elite” and may have coined the term New Left. When students at his institutional home at Columbia threatened to occupy more buildings until their demands for better housing and, among other things, an increase in women’s and “Afro American” studies courses, Hofstadter called on the university to “defend itself.” He was no friend of radical change.
It seems uncontroversial to say that the war against “neoliberalism” will be won in the classroom. Indeed, almost every piece received last month dealt with education. Aside from Medlin and Morgenson, Ryan McIlhenny wrote on the burdens of over administration in higher ed and Rebecca Brenner discussed Senator Ben Sasse’s obscure remarks that education results in perpetual adolescence. Our assistant editor, Lauren Angel, also interviewed Malissa Blevins-Lowe, a West Virginian teacher who had enough of near constant budget cuts. All note the dire straights of contemporary learning. If neoliberalism does exist, then it exists most in the education sector. There is no credible doubt that the push toward a business model of education has gutted public schooling and ballooned the cost of private universities. Furthermore, rather than making college more affordable, the federal government has simply increased access to loans, aiding and abetting the current crisis of affordability.
This problem is equally attributable to Democrats and Republicans. At the middle and high school level, both parties push for standards-based testing that drain federal funding from impoverished school districts and few have been proactive on supporting teachers unions and shoring up financial supports for public schools in light of increasing charterization. It is worth remembering that the now widely derided No Child Left Behind Act, attributed to George W. Bush, passed easily with bipartisan support. At the college level, tenure-track positions are drying up in favor of contingent, adjunct, and graduate labor. These trends are certainly distinctive from the past.
Neoliberalism is an incredibly complex system of political economy and there are many more questions to answer. Still, as the contributors all brought up this month, historians have an important role in deconstructing an abusive market system. Conservative economic policies, no matter which party takes ownership of them, are dangerous to the vast majority of Americans looking to improve their livelihoods. I think that every historian can agree that our role is to continue to produce history that addresses difficult questions and to produce this work in as large a variety as possible. Perhaps most importantly, we need to teach. Not only in the classroom, but in town meetings, in local newspapers and media outlets, and where ever we encounter people who want to make a difference.
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