Count me among those not sold on the idea of a neoliberal America, mainly because I’m not sold on the idea of neoliberalism in the first place. Ben’s fascinating trans-Atlantic genealogy of neoliberalism seems to suggest the problems with the term. It is too intellectually fuzzy and, especially when its European meaning (to borrow from Ben’s analysis) is attached to the United States, it seems too often to presume a bad history. Let me explain. When the European meaning of neoliberalism–roughly, according to Ben, the revival of laissez-faire economics through the Austrian and then Chicago schools of economics–is applied to the United States in the age of Reagan, it seems to suggest Louis Hartz’s analysis of American political history by presuming that liberalism was the dominant tradition of the United States. The narrative seems to be that nineteenth-century liberalism, or classical liberalism, gradual gave way to liberal progressivism and then New Deal liberalism as the dominant political traditions in the United States, before being overcome by Reaganism, which is a return to nineteenth-century liberalism, now called neoliberalism.
Since I’m traveling today, I’ll keep this post brief, but I don’t think that liberalism is, or at least historically was, the dominant political tradition, so I’m not sure that neoliberalism can be a return to it. Hartz’s argument has been extensively critiqued, most notably in the work of Rogers Smith, who argues in his Civic Ideals that the United States has had multiple traditions vying for supremacy. Liberalism, civic republicanism, and what Smith calls ascriptive illiberalism were all present in American political debate and provided friction in the political battles of the ninteeenth century. Of the three, liberalism was rarely the dominant tradition–Smith sees liberalism as responsible for Reconstruction whose influence was as evanescent as the Radical Republicans’ commitment to equal rights. Instead, ascriptive illiberalism, which ascribes characteristics to a person’s race, class, or gender and then presumes that those characteristics make them unfit for participation in the body politic, was the dominant tradition, Smith argues, and constituted American civic ideals for much of the ninteenth century. By contrast, the discussion on this blog seems to presume that liberalism was responsible for nineteenth-century racism, sexism, and classism (usually with imperialism thrown in) as well as its twentieth century off-shoots.
In my own recent book, The Myth of American Religious Freedom, I argue instead that Smith was correct and that American religion often supported the ascriptive illiberalism that characterized the American past. Liberal progressives in the 1920s began challenging this illiberal order, which resulted in a liberal moment in American political history roughly from the 1936 to 1968, after which liberalism fractured and conservatism became ascendant. In my understanding of American political history, we are indeed in danger of going back in time not to some classically liberal past but to the ascriptive illiberalism that characterized the nineteenth century. But perhaps I have misunderstood the term neoliberalism and the historical vision that it conjures, in which case I look forward to being shown where I am wrong.