Build Back Better Meets the Spooky Season: Zombie Neoliberalism Creeps into the Negotiations

October 21, 2021

After decades of neoliberalism as the dominant political and ideological order, we are at the precipice of a badly needed paradigm shift. We can see bold ideas for changing the structure of our economy and democracy contemplated in the Build Back Better Act, which is built on the foundation of an ascendant worldview that refigures the relationship between the government and markets, in service of a high-care, low-carbon economy.

Yet, as the negotiating process marches on, the legislation is being pushed further and further away from this new framework. “Zombie neoliberalism” is creeping into the debate as policymakers revert back to policies shaped by the decades-old economic consensus that prioritizes freedom from government “interference” over public investment for the common good. This reversion to failed policies is reflexive and will continue to be a danger until public provisioning becomes the norm in our politics and policymaking. Reverting to neoliberal policies risks squandering the best chance we have had in decades to transform our economy and democracy for future generations.

So, how is this “zombie neoliberalism” showing up? 

First, we can see it in the return to means-testing. Negotiators have considered income-based eligibility requirements and work requirements for the child tax credit, as well as means-testing for child care subsidies and for Medicare dental and vision benefits. Imposing restrictions on eligibility both makes it more difficult to deliver widespread services because of the administrative burden and abandons our pursuit of a shared common good.  

Zombie neoliberalism can also be seen in an increasing reliance on markets, rather than the government, to solve key problems. From clean energy and electric vehicle tax credits to a private insurance model for paid leave, the emerging deal turns to opaque and unaccountable private subsidies as a substitute for direct, public intervention. But, as my colleagues Rhiana Gunn-Wright and Kristina Karlsson write, it is the federal government, not the private sector, that “has the coffers, credit, and power to spend at the scale we need and to push unwilling corporate actors to move in the right direction.”

On the revenue side, zombie neoliberalism is leading policymakers to look at taxation merely as a “pay-for” to finance government investments. In doing so, policymakers are shortchanging taxation’s ability to reduce inequality and curb extractive corporate power. Thinking about taxation solely as a revenue source means ceding a range of policy tools to address some of our thorniest societal challenges.

In other areas, too, we see proposed trade-offs that fail to fully consider the ways that government action shapes markets. For instance, reports that negotiators are considering a proposal that funds universal prekindergarten but excludes childcare ignores the evidence that funding only one half of our early childcare system could cause massive disruptions to the childcare sector. Siphoning preschoolers off from center-based care would cause tuition in childcare centers to spike, while the higher salaries of pre-K teachers could lead to a shortage of childcare providers. 

Lastly, zombie neoliberalism’s focus on individualism in the market leads policymakers to downplay or outright ignore the ways that racism and sexism are baked into the economy. Unsurprisingly, programs that seek to explicitly address legacies of race and gender discrimination—like funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, housing, and paid leave—are the first to be cut despite clear evidence that they will help remedy long-standing inequities.


Zombie neoliberalism is more than an economic policy. It is also a governing ideology. And it is here that Democrats have the most ground to gain in beating it back.  

First, we need to make full use of government power. Too often, Democratic policymakers default to the least disruptive deployment of public power. But, we need to disrupt the status quo because it is, frankly, broken. Attempting to tackle our most immediate and pressing challenges using tepid and sparse measures will fail to fully solve our issues, all the while confirming the belief that the government won’t deliver results. Building public confidence in the government can only happen if it delivers. 

Further, programs that are structured as privatized and opaque, rather than public, visible, and democratically accountable are easily captured by corporate interests and, as a result, their economic and political wins are captured, too. To break the cycle, policymakers should more readily default to direct, affirmative deployments of public power—and take the steps needed to make sure government has the capacity to deliver.    

At the same time, we desperately need to reform or replace the institutions and practices that have failed to deliver. More than just apathetic to progress, these institutions reflect centuries of deliberate efforts to protect the status quo of white supremacy. Thus, outcomes that result from proceduralism will never go far enough or fast enough to dismantle it. Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deployed such an institutional approach, consistently bucking the norms and procedures deliberately built to stand in the way of progress. 

Finally, we must standardize the common refrain of the last year: The danger of doing too little is far greater than the danger of doing too much. This is especially true of the climate crisis—a systemic threat to our economic and political system—but also applies to the myriad of challenges we face, from poverty to failing infrastructure to the existential threats to our democracy. 

It is not too late to make this vision a reality. We can show that government can work and make a difference, but that first means government has to work and make a difference. The stakes could not be higher. As President Franklin Roosevelt warned, “Democracy has disappeared in several other great nations—not because the people of those nations disliked democracy, but because they had grown tired of unemployment and insecurity, of seeing their children hungry while they sat helpless in the face of government confusion and government weakness through lack of leadership in government.”

Policymakers who continue to privilege the interests of the donor class above their constituents—on tax policy, or climate policy, or anything else—are validating the cynicism that fuels fascism, proving to Americans their deepest fears are correct and the system is rigged against them. 

There is too much at stake to return to the same playbook that has devastated our democracy, economy, and environment. We should beat back neoliberalism once and for all and unleash our collective power to solve our collective problems. This may be our last chance to do so.