How ‘Neoliberalism’ Became the Left’s Favorite Insult

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A generation ago, “neoliberalism” was the chosen label of a handful of moderately liberal opinion journalists, centered around Charles Peters, then-editor of the Washington Monthly. Some neoliberals started calling traditional liberals “paleoliberals.” The magazine most closely associated with traditional liberal thinking was The American Prospect, which gave me my first job out of college.

When I started there, I asked one of the editors, Paul Starr, about the still-roiling schism between the neos and the paleos. (I never felt comfortable with either label.) Starr told me he disdained the term because it was “an attempt to win an argument by using an epithet.” What he meant — and I think he was right — was that “paleoliberal” was not a self-identification any of its adherents used, but a term of disparagement. The neolibs were claiming to own the future and consigning their adversaries to the past.

The neoliberalism of the 1980s and 1990s has faded into memory, as its adherents failed to settle on a coherent set of principles other than a general posture of counterintuitive skepticism. (Peters’s new ideological manifesto, We Do Our Part, only mentions neoliberalism once.) But the term has been used to mean different things at different times, and it has returned to American political discourse with a vengeance. Then, as now, it is an attempt to win an argument with an epithet. Only this time, it is neoliberal that is the term of abuse.

And the term neoliberal doesn’t mean a faction of liberals. It 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….

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