Bonus Episode: Who Really Ended the Cold War? with Brad DeLong

February 16, 2023

Did the end of the Cold War extend neoliberalism’s shelf life?

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Michael Tomasky: I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic. 

Felicia Wong: And I’m Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt

Michael Tomasky: And this is How to Save a Country, our podcast on the ideas and the people contributing to a new political vision and a new economic vision for the United States. We connect the economy, democracy, and freedom.

Felicia Wong: Welcome to our last bonus episode before season two kicks off in March. This time we’re playing a clip from our conversation with Michael as a guest along with economic historian Brad DeLong.

Michael Tomasky: Yeah, we talked to Brad about his book, Slouching Towards Utopia, an Economic History of the 20th Century, and one of the arguments he makes in his book is that neoliberalism held on as long as it did because it was perceived as having won the United States the Cold War. And I thought that was pretty fascinating. I would not necessarily have put that together. I thought that was an interesting take. And so we talked about it.

Felicia Wong:  I kind of love the fact that you guys didn’t fully agree on that. So let’s play the clip and listen.

Michael Tomasky:  One assertion you made really jumped out at me as I was reading your book. And that was that – around this very question that we’re discussing right now. Why has neoliberalism managed to hold on beyond its shelf life? And you say the main answer is that they could plausibly have claimed to have won the Cold War? 

That took me by surprise, I thought, huh, now that would not have occurred to me. It’s interesting that he connected those two things. I see them sort of as separate. I mean, partly this is out of a conviction on my part that I’ve had for a long, long time that the Cold War was not really won by Ronald Reagan or by George Bush, or by the United States, or by the West. The Cold War was won by the liberal humanists of the Eastern block who, finally and firmly said “enough,” led by Gyula Horn of Hungary, the Foreign Minister of Hungary, who cut the holes in the fence between Hungary and Austria in the summer of 1989, which really started the exodus.

And then he did other things that were very important. The Berlin Wall fell, and once they lost their satellites, it was only a matter of time. So I believe that very deeply and that’s a concept that’s very important to me. So that’s part of my hesitance at accepting your argument.

I don’t know. I just, I don’t have an experience or recollection of neoliberals making an explicit claim that their specific set of economic policies won the Cold War, as opposed to certain general ideas of free markets and freedom and, you know, which could have taken a conservative or a progressive form.

Do you know what I mean?

Brad Delong:  I would like to say first that as to the history of the end of the Cold War, you are 100% correct. But that didn’t stop Peggy Noonan and everyone else from claiming that Ronald Reagan had won the Cold War by standing tall. And then by proposing “Star Wars,” which bankrupted the USSR. The USSR bankrupted itself and it bankrupted itself because it could not increase its wheat harvest but not because it was spending too much money, you know, on Star Wars. 

Michael Tomasky: Yeah.

Brad Delong: Now I think that you and I, we look at the fall of the really existing socialism and we look at the persistence of neoliberalism, and we think these are completely separate things – that the question of whether we’re going to have a Brezhnevite stagnation as our economic system or the new deal order, you know, that they are completely separate. But if you look even a little bit to our right, you find an awful lot of people who see one big thing. And they call it socialism. And it ranges in tunes from the very, extremely, extremely light pink of Barack Obama’s socialism, which strikes us as a completely absurd thing to say, all the way over to the deep crimson red of Joseph Stalin himself. And that a victory for the West, the good guys in the Cold War, had to carry along with it a strong sense that all socialist ideas were thereby devalued. And so we didn’t need to engage with them anymore.

Michael Tomasky: Yeah.

Brad Delong: And looking back, I mean, I’d say that there are a lot of reasons, mostly having to do with, it’s the interest of the rich to keep neoliberalism going, at least in their short-term interest. But I think that the Cold War reconfigured the political playing field in lots of ways for people who did see a linkage between foreign policy and domestic political arrangements in such a way that it gave it, you know, an extra half-decade or so

Michael Tomasky: Okay, well, there you go. Now since Brad conceded my point, I’ll go ahead and be a generous person and concede his to some extent. 

Felicia Wong: You’re generous, Michael. 

Michael Tomasky: I try and, yeah, I mean, I understand what he’s saying about how neoliberals just sort of created this narrative about how liberal democracy, market democracy defeated, you know, state-run, authoritarianism.

Sure. I agree with that. I guess I’d just make a couple other points. I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that it was real heroes in Eastern Europe, as I said, who won the Cold War. People like Gyula Horn of Hungary, who really made heroic decisions in the summer in the fall of 1989 that set loose a whole chain of events that really got the whole ball rolling. I just think it’s important historically to remember that. 

Then the other thing, I guess I would say, Felicia, is that, you know, it’s important that we think about this stuff, even though it’s to some people, ancient history. But I think it’s important that we think about this stuff because our ideas about this new economic paradigm that we’re trying to argue for don’t apply just to the United States. We want these to apply to the whole, you know, developed world and the whole world, really. it’s kind of like Joe Biden says, you know, he likes to say very frequently, democracies have to prove that they can deliver. And he’s right. And this is very tied to the question of democracy and democratic, small-d, survival. So it’s important that we mount these, you know, global international arguments sometimes.

Felicia Wong: I think that’s right. And you’ve seen both the tension between but also the, you know, inextricable linkage between domestic economics and international economics even recently with the Inflation Reduction Act, right? Because as Team Biden has argued for Made in America, and American Jobs manufacturing in America, invest in America, many Europeans, especially late last year, got quite angry at that. You know, it’s sort of ironic, they’ve been asking Americans to do better on investing in decarbonization for decades. Now that the United States does, Europeans most famously, you know, Emanuel Macron, said the IRA is going to ruin the French economy.  So there is a kind of tension there. But what’s even more interesting is that the European Union since then has begun to talk about their own green industrial policy.

So it’s possible that the United States investment in, you know, decarbonization, solar, wind, electric vehicles, will spur similar public investments in Europe. And you could imagine a kind of virtuous cycle going, but let’s be honest, I think there’s gonna be some bumps along the road. The real point here is the domestic economy and the international economy are absolutely tied, and we’ve gotta pay more attention to that. 

Michael Tomasky: Here, here. 

Felicia Wong: Michael, what I liked about that conversation between you and Brad, and what I’m hoping that we do more of in season two, is that the two of you do not agree, right? He makes this assertion. You say, well, I don’t know, but you try to explore those ideas together. You try to push each other.

Michael Tomasky: Yeah. And I do think we need to do more of that. I think a lot of the first season was just getting these ideas out on the table and getting listeners familiar with the interesting people who are promoting these ideas. And in season two we want to dig a little deeper to show the diversity of thought within the broad progressive movement and where there are ongoing internal debates, ‘cause they’re really interesting.

Felicia Wong: Yeah, well in season two, I also wanna hear more from our listeners about what they agree with and what we’re saying, what they disagree with. I wanna know what they think we should call, quote post-neoliberalism. I know big –  it’s very bad idea to call ourselves by the thing we are not. So I hope we get lots more from our listeners, guest ideas, you know, friendly civil arguments. We’d welcome all of that. So, you know, listeners, please write to us, tweet at us. I’m @FeliciaWongRI . 

Michael Tomasky: And I’m at mTomasky, that’s m-t-o-m-a-s-k-y. And please, yeah, give us uh, any thoughts you have. 

Felicia Wong: Until then, we will see you in season two.

Felicia Wong: How to Save a Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.

Michael Tomasky: Our coordinating producer is Kara Shillenn. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez. Our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.

Felicia Wong: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound. Other music is provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that’s reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at

Michael Tomasky: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve. Learn more at

In our last bonus episode before the launch of season 2, we bring you an unaired clip from a previous episode with economic historian Brad DeLong.

Felicia, Michael, and Brad discuss a point from Brad’s book, Slouching Towards Utopia, about whether neoliberalism persisted as long as it did because of the perception that it won the Cold War for the US. They also discuss the tension between domestic and international economics, particularly in relation to the Inflation Reduction Act, and what listeners can look forward to in season 2 of How to Save a Country.

Presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders.

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