A Neoliberal Education: David Brooks Thinks Neoliberalism Is Dead. Charles Peters Begs to Differ

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IN HIS MARCH 11 COLUMN, David Brooks of the New York Times declared that neoliberalism is dead. The left, Brooks argued, was returning to "its old, pre-neoliberal self." Good riddance, was more or less the swift response from a host of liberal bloggers, such as the American Prospect's Ezra Klein. "Substantively, [neoliberalism] didn't move the country very far forward at all," he wrote on that magazine's blog, TAPPED, associating neoliberalism with Rubinomics and the "glittering vision" of NAFTA's backers. Neoliberalism's lasting legacy, he went on to say, "will be the elevation of counterintuitive argumentation and sardonic detachment in the press corps."

This characterization somewhat dismayed the Washington Monthly's editor in chief, Paul Glastris, because neoliberalism is a subject close to the magazine's historical heart. The term (or at least its American usage) was coined by the magazine's founder, Charles Peters, in the late 1970s, and many of the ideologry's founding disciples were the young editors who worked at the magazine in the 1970s and 1980s, including Taylor Branch, Nicholas Lemann, James Fallows, Mickey Kaus, and Jonathan Alter. Later, Katherine Boo and James Bennet came along, as did Jon Meacham and Jason DeParle. In an effort to persuade the liberal blogosphere that neoliberalism is not, in fact, synonymous with pro-market, K Street-friendly centrism, we republished Peters's 1983 article, "A Neoliberal's Manifesto," online, and asked Ezra Klein to read it. Recently, Klein sat down with Peters in his Washington home to discuss neoliberalism's past, present, and future.

Ezra Klein: This essay, "A Neoliberal's Manifesto," is a much clearer explanation of neoliberalism than I've seen anywhere else. You write, "We no longer automatically favor unions and big government, or oppose the military and big business. Indeed, in our search for solutions that work we've come to distrust all automatic responses, liberal or conservative."

That struck me as one of the real contributions of neoliberalism. But what has happened, at least to some younger folks like me, is that at times this appears to have become not an honest critique, but a positioning device. The idea that it's not about the quality of the argument, but the display: you show honesty by attacking Democrats, you show independence by attacking liberals. At times I think that has been a damaging impulse on our side.

Charles Peters: [Laughing] I understand the way you're feeling. In 2004 Mickey Kaus was savaging Kerry. And I kept telling Mickey, For chrissake man, you're going to reelect a guy who's clearly a monster and an idiot. Mickey was right that a lot was wrong with Kerry. But Kerry was still a lot better than Bush. And of course Mickey ultimately took that position. But by that time anybody who had read the column was thoroughly convinced that Kerry was a jerk.

We don't believe in being different for the sake of being different. We believe in being different when it helps us get to a truth that liberals don't seem to grasp. One thing we said was that we're concerned that just as conservatives become automatically pro-religion, Democrats become automatically embarrassed by religion. I always thought, all these liberals who worship Martin Luther King, what the hell did they think he was? He was a Christian who appealed to Christian values and who sold his movement on Christian values. FDR sold the New Deal on the basis of Christian values. That's a perfect example of what we as neoliberals tried to do. The point about criticizing the teacher's union is not just to bitch about them, but to get decent education for kids who are being deprived of it by incompetent teachers who are protected by the unions.

EK: What do you think about the possibility for an asymmetry in honesty, where you end up having the conservatives and the neoliberals ganging up on mutual enemies?

CP: There's always the danger of that. …