NFOLIBERALISM exists only on an elite axis that runs between Cambridge, New York, and Washington. It is a faddish strain of thinking among Fast Coast eggheads who like to fashion movements that as a concept holds out some promise. Once someone thought up the word neoconservative, neoliberalism was not long in coming, as has been made clear in the pages of the New Republic, the Washington Monthly, the Atlantic and other journals of the cognoscenti. Gurus abound in the likes of Robert Reich, I ester Thurow, and Charles Peters--and there are plenty of politicians who have been ready and willing to take up the "new ideas" cudgel: Sen. Gary W. Hart (D-Colo.). Sen Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.). Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.). And there are, of course, the requisite buzzwords: industrial policy, human capital and military reform are the current faces.
But outside of the editorial offices and lecture halls of the Eastern establishment, it is hard to see the viability of neoliberalism. No one, first of all, has been able to define the philosophy as anything more precise than a worthwhile desire to move beyond the traditional New Deal industrialism of the Democratic Party? And more seriously, the purported neoliberals have yet to show the political muscle--or even the instincts--to turn their ideas into workable policies. These weaknesses have dogged "neoliberalism" since pundits first began using the word in the aftermath of the Carter presidency, and they have yet to be adequately addressed since--problems suggested, perhaps unwittingly, in Randall Rothenberg's The Neoliberals: Creating the New American Politics.
Rothenberg's purpose in this book is to describe the personalities and ideas that have been grouped under the term of neoliberalism--certainly no easy task. Tsongas, the Massachusetts senator who was in early on the idea, has called it "compassionate liberalism," Rothenberg tells us, and Sen. Gary W. Hart (D-Colo.), who has wrung it for all its worth, has dubbed it "Prairie Populist Jeffersonian democracy." A better term is "anything but"--that is, anything but the formulas of the New Deal, from which neoliberals recoil in horror. Despite his deadly earnest attempt, Rothenberg doesn't really help us in the quest for definition. Grouping as disparate politicians as North Carolina's Gov. James Hunt (a conservative in disguise). Timothy Wirth (a high-techie), and former California Gov. Jerry Brown (a flake) under the rubric of neoliberalism only confirms the impression that the label is of use solely to the self-serving cognoscenti.
Rothenberg is merely the latest John Naisbitt apostle scurrying to discover, the latest mega trend. As the term has evolved, it has come to take into account almost every purported new idea under the Democratic Sun. Hence Jim Hunt's intensive efforts on the part of education in his home state of North Carolina are seen as one manifestation of the new philosophy, and James Fallow' 70 work on military reform comes under the classification as well. Facile nomenclature is slung around this book with case, as we learn that neoliberals esteem, among other people and principles: decentralization, investment, microeconomics, Joseph Schumpeter, entrepencurialism, "maneuver warfare," growth, high technology, and hurrah for them, the "national interest."
There is, after slogging through Rothenberg's exhaustive survey of the neoliberal agenda, almost nothing that emerges as characteristic, except perhaps a cautious pragmatism. Anyone who professes the slightest skepticism for traditional' Democratic interest group politics can join the club. Content to spout generalities about, basically, the current generation of new Democratic leaders, Rothenberg fails to articulate a set of first principles for this newism. And so he fails to support one of the principal tenets of his book--that we are dealing with a new American political ideology.
SO WHAT? one can fairly ask, Rothenberg may be over-zealous in promoting neoliberalism as a coherent ideology, but if the idea is good, why knock it? And there are, after all, some pretty good ideas that have emanated from the writers, intellectuals and politicians Rothenberg calls neoliberal. The idea has gotten out--it's hardly a surprise--that maybe the traditional Democratic approaches to things aren't always the best--that there are limits and trade-offs to be made on environmental and economic issues: that entreprencurs aren't all that had and lawyers may be overrated; and that liberals won't shame themselves by showing a little interest in military policy beyond taking the at to the defense budget. Making pragmatism progressive, or vice-versa, is a worthwhile enterprise, no matter the political season.
It's the method of neoliberalism that strikes one not only as muddle-headed, but also a tad naive. Rothenberg writes, correctly, of the frustration of many of the new breed of Democrats with the traditional party dependence on interest groups, i.e. big labor. He notes the explicit appeal--as was amply demonstrated by Gary Hart's presidential pitch--to rise above this sectarian approach to things, to realize that governing does not mean pandering piecemeal to every possible constituency. And he properly makes the comment that all this being said, the call for the "national interest" as opposed to the "special interest" is in itself a political ploy on the part of those he calls neoliberals. "If one thing rings false in all the rhetoric of neoliberalism." Rothenberg writes near the end, "it is that the 'national interest' may be nothing more than than the special interests of the liberal upper middle class."
Rothenberg, unfortunately, does not push his skepticism far enough. In appealing to pragmatism and rising above the special interests, the neoliberals act as if they were the first to dream up some of their schemes to, for example, reform the military or revive growth; their approach often borders on extreme arrogance. The military reformers talk with some merit, about the necessity for liberals to take defense matters more seriously and they exhort the Army to improve cohesion and morale, never bad advice. But they they ignore the long stream of institutional interests in the subject that has been stymied simply by the normal difficulty of getting something changed in the armed forces, not necessarily because of the stupidity writers often impute to the officer corps. In much the same way, economic reformers talk glibly about fostering more cooperation between business labor, and government--an idea going around for quite some time now--but by and large they don't specify how this is going to come about. Instead, they are content to excoriate union leaders for being "short-sighted" and businessmen for being "greedy."
For politicians who pride themselves on being so pragmatic, people like Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, and Timothy Wirth--three of the men Rothenberg discusses at length (he discusses to women)--their failure often to get things done politically is striking, as anyone who remembers the Medfly fiasco in California can attest to. Others of this breed seem more sensible, a Tsongas or a Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). Rothenberg writes of the way similar rhetoric characterizes the neoliberals. That's well enough, but behind this rhetoric there is a distinct lack of the coalition-building and bridge-crossing that makes politics work, a significant irony in light of the renewed call for cooperation among the country's various constituencies. Americans aren't normally fooled by rhetoric--though the Reagan presidency is a notable exception--and they got tired after a while of Hart's beef-less call for a "new generation of leadership."
That campaign was beef-less not so much in its ideas, but in its inability to broaden its appeal to include the constituencies necessary for a Democratic victory in the fall-labor and minorities. The fact of the matter is that there has been a Republican electoral majority out there for nearly two decades now--the sun-beliers, the Bible-beliers, the free-marketers, the right-to-lifers--grouped under the aegis of less government. Thus the Republicans, as Rothenberg points out, have a luxury the Democrats don't--a simplistic unifying theme. The way to fight this is not through trying to invent new-ideologies, but to recognize that there are a host of good ideas in the party, get people to talk about them, and try to work out some compromises--keeping in mind the party's moral obligation to the sick and the poor. The "family of America" theme that New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo struck in his speech to the Democratic Convention was the perfect message to carry to the electorate.
For all the book's weakness Rothenberg must be credited for hi general diligence in outlining without a lot of cheerleading the basic ideas and personalities of most of the new batch of Democratic leaders and intellectuals. But he does get carried away. "Forget about Walter Mondale, ignore John Glenn, put Tip O'Neil out of your mind." Rothenberg froths. "Disregard the Democratic Party as you've known it. Whatever its fortunes in 1984, the old liberalism has already begun a slow, inexorable fate. The future belongs to the neoliberals." The prognosis inaccuracy is overshadowed only by its stupidity as political advice.