What Neoliberals Believe: Part 2
Expanding on how we define ourselves in this political moment
Hello everyone, it’s Jeremiah. Welcome to my first appearance on Exponents.
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My colleague Colin Mortimer wrote an excellent piece here a few weeks back called What Neoliberals Believe. It’s a discussion of the policy vision that modern neoliberals embrace. As well as it describes the policy preferences of many liberals – free trade, increased immigration, more and denser housing - there are other dimensions to liberalism that also deserve discussion. Policy preferences are only one part of the political philosophy.
In this second edition of What Neoliberals Believe, I’d like to expand beyond specific policies and talk about what neoliberals believe about politics itself. What are our core political and philosophical values? How do neoliberals approach modern politics? What do neoliberals believe about the current political landscape?
As with Colin’s original essay, this piece is primarily focused on the United States. I believe much of the analysis holds true for neoliberals in other countries but leave the application to our international friends.
Neoliberals are liberals first. To be a neoliberal is to ground your understanding of political philosophy within the broad tradition of liberalism. Neoliberals don’t need to agree with every concept from every liberal philosopher, but they accept that the core principles of political liberalism like democratic representation, equality before the law, the market economy, the open society, and the freedoms of speech, association, the press, religion, etc., are paramount for our society.
Core principles and institutions come before policy. We recognize and strongly believe in the value of stable, inclusive institutions. Things like democratic norms, the rule of law, human rights, etc., are more important than individual policy victories. Neoliberals would not throw away the core principles of liberalism or degrade our inclusive institutions for short-term policy gains.
Liberalism is a Big Tent. Neoliberals are willing to work with all kinds of liberals – libertarians, conservative liberals, classical liberals, mainstream liberals, fellow neoliberals, progressive liberals, social democrats, etc. Progressive liberals and social democrats can gain valuable insight from listening to libertarian-leaning liberals, and likewise, libertarians can learn a great deal from listening to progressives. Liberalism has many variations and working inclusively with all these groups promotes a thriving democracy.
Neoliberals are pragmatists. Despite having radical policy ideas in many areas like housing, immigration, trade, etc., neoliberals embrace incremental progress towards those goals. Neoliberals are pragmatists and accept the political reality that you can’t have full and instant victories on many policies. Neoliberals know that incremental gains add up over time and that many of the most important political and policy victories took decades to come to fruition.
The most important political divide is liberal vs. illiberal. In past eras, the US political divide largely existed between liberals – conservative liberals battled with progressive liberals, for instance. Today, the most important battle lines in US politics are between liberals and those who wish to tear liberalism down. While there are important differences across the liberal spectrum, these debates pale in comparison to the differences between liberals and illiberal political groups.
Illiberalism and extremism are rising. On both the left and the right, there is an increasing willingness to abandon liberal norms, degrade institutions, and engage in illiberal tactics. On the left, this happens with a desire for revolution, for state socialism, and for the end of free markets. On the right it appears as nakedly authoritarian nationalism, bordering on fascism.
Right-wing illiberalism is an existential threat. While illiberalism is rising on both the left and the right, the situations are not of the same magnitude. Right-wing authoritarianism is now the mainstream position within right-leaning politics and is an existential threat to American democracy. It threatens the core foundations of our republic, and this morally bankrupt authoritarianism has almost completely taken over the Republican party. Defeating right-wing illiberalism must come before virtually any other political goal.
Liberalism is still the best path forward. The political challenges we face today are different than the challenges we faced in previous eras, but liberalism is still the best way to address those challenges. Liberalism's strength comes from its flexibility, its ability to adapt to face massive challenges. Classical liberalism was a revolt against unjust power held by the land-owning gentry. 20th-century neoliberalism was a reaction against rising fascism and totalitarian socialism. 21st-century neoliberalism can evolve to fit the challenges we face today – such as the strains from globalization, the dangers of climate change, and rising inequality – because that’s what liberalism has always done.