The Neoliberal Order Is Over. What Comes Next? (with Gary Gerstle)
May 4, 2023
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Gary Gerstle [clip]: For a political order to triumph, it often involves a long march through the institutions of government, through the institutions of civil society. It’s not something that can happen overnight. And it’s very important for progressive and left forces to gear themselves for a longer struggle.
Felicia Wong: What is a political order?
Michael Tomasky: What can history tell us about how they change?
Felicia: What ideologies are fighting for dominance today?
Michael: And, most intriguingly, what does an era of political disorder look like?
Felicia: I’m Felicia Wong, President and CEO of The Roosevelt Institute.
Michael: I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.
Felicia: And this is season two of How to Save a Country—our podcast about the people and ideas behind the progressive vision for America. So Michael, we’ve never talked about it quite like this before, but what you and I believe in, what we’re pushing for on this show, what we’re pushing for in real life, it really is a new political order.
Michael: That’s right. One that would hopefully leave the neoliberal order in the dust.
Felicia: You’re a journalist, I run a think tank, and, from our various perspectives, we’ve both argued for a Washington, D.C., that does a couple of things really differently. We want a politics that reigns in capitalism, really actively builds an economy that provides for our economic needs and our social needs, and we want a politics that protects and expands our constitutional rights.
Michael: Part of the idea is that if the government really does take care of people’s needs, economic needs, and social needs, then hopefully people will respond with a more positive attitude toward government by voting for the candidates who promote those kinds of programs and policies. Then before you know it, you’re entering a new political order.
Felicia: That is why I’m really excited to talk to today’s guest, Gary Gerstle. Gary’s recent book is one that really speaks to both of us, because it’s called The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order. His earlier book is called The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order. Both of these, and of course Gary’s whole career, are about the idea that there are stages in our political history that have a lot of power.
Gary Gerstle [clip]: I, along with my co-editor of a previous book, Steve Fraser, introduced the concept. It was our effort to rethink time in American politics. Not everything that happens in American politics can be understood in two-, four-, and six-year election cycles. There are certain developments that rise and fall over a long period of time. Our introduction of the concept of political order was an effort to understand processes, especially having to do with political economy that cannot be understood within short, brief, electoral cycles.
Michael: Right, he defines a political order as a set of norms—a set of ideas that virtually everybody in Washington and in many cases, beyond, agrees to. Those norms form the foundation of political discourse, and of policy making.
Felicia: What he says that I think is so important is that a political order has taken hold when both sides of the aisle and both political parties essentially agree on things so fundamentally that they refuse to challenge some basic ideas. Because if politicians say those things or promote those things that are out of bounds, it would really get them in trouble with voters. Voters would say they’re too radical or too out of touch.
Michael: Yeah, that’s right.
Felicia: Take capitalism, for example. The question is: Should we let capitalism rip, just have at it, or should we use government power to contain it? Once politicians on both sides more or less agree to that question, then we have a political order. Or, to take another example: Should government affirmatively include people whom the laws in the past have treated as second-class previously, whether it’s Black Americans, indigenous Americans, women. Again, once people on both sides of the aisle more or less agree to the answer of that question, then we have a political order.
Michael: Yeah. I think it’s important, the order in which you discuss those things, and I think it’s correct too. It starts with economics. Everything starts with economics. Who has power…
Felicia: Such a materialist, Michael!
Felicia: I agree with you.
Michael: This is one thing Karl Marx was correct about, economics is base, everything else is super structure. So it starts with economics but then once you’ve altered economic arrangements, power arrangements in society, then it begins to bleed into other areas, equality, social justice questions. So once you’ve hit both of those, then you’re working on a new political order anyway. That’s what Gary’s going to talk about. Gary is a celebrated historian, the Paul Mellon Professor of American History at the University of Cambridge. This topic is something that he’s been thinking about all his career.
Felicia: He’s going to walk us through two of the biggest political orders of the last hundred years: the New Deal, and neoliberalism.
Michael: Maybe we’ll talk a little bit about the political order of today too.
Felicia: Right, we are really in the middle of a struggle, even a pitched battle for what the next political order’s going to look like.
Michael: I think that’s pretty obvious given the chaos that we see around us and the division and the polarization. We are smack in the middle of an intense fight for what the next political order’s going to be.
Felicia: So let’s take a trip back to the 1930s to learn about the political order that was just emerging then…
[1930S RADIO MUSIC]
Felicia: I want to start by setting the table a little bit and taking us back to the 1930s. The Great Depression takes hold in America. The stock market has crashed and, as a result, FDR is elected in 1932. He takes office in 1933 and then, in very short order, rolls out a really stunning set of government initiatives. The American people start to see jobs programs, they start to see public works. They start to see new financial regulations, actually, those happen very early in Roosevelt’s term, and ultimately they see things like Social Security. And the overall effect is pretty radical. It’s a remaking of the relationship between American citizens and their government. FDR starts to call this in his campaign slogan, but ultimately it became so popular. This is what everybody calls it: “the New Deal.” Gary, talk to us about the New Deal and how it went from a political movement to a political order.
Gary: The New Deal movement was powerful in the 1930s and ’40s, but I don’t think it became a political order until the early ’50s when the first Republican president in 20 years was elected. This was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was elected in 1952.
RADIO ANNOUNCER [clip]: “We like Ike” was his campaign slogan and what a campaign approved to be! It was a fierce political battle that the great soldier was now called upon a fight. So after many years of democratic rule, America has a Republican president.
Gary: And the question was when the Republicans came back into power in the early ’50s, were they going to acquiesce to the principles of the New Deal, which called for a strong state to restrain capitalism, and reform capitalism in the public interest? Or were they going to dismantle the New Deal and substitute for it a traditional form of Republican politics: free markets, small states, so on and so forth. The significance of the Eisenhower presidency is that he acquiesces to the principles of the New Deal. It’s at that point that the New Deal movement became a political order. What that meant was that all the major players in American politics felt they had to subscribe to the core economic principles of the New Deal, the most important of which was a strong state, willing and able to reform direct-managed capitalism in the public interest.
Michael: Was there a speech where Eisenhower said “I am a Keynesian”?
Gary: No, but there is a moment when he is reforming the tax code—this I take to be his public declaration of fealty to the New Deal. The highest marginal tax rates coming out of the ’40s were 91 percent on the highest income group. It’s an unimaginable number in America today that—
Michael: Oh yeah.
Gary: —the highest marginal tax rate would reach that level.
Felicia: It is amazing, that tax rate.
Gary: Completely amazing.
Felicia: And just to explain it quickly, for our listeners who might not think all the time about marginal tax rates, and certainly would be surprised by a 91 percent rate, what that means is that people who earn above a certain very high level, of course, they pay 91 cents on the dollar back to the government. So that’s what we’re talking about here. But anyway, back to President Eisenhower.
Gary: When he comes to reform the tax code, the question is, is he going to adhere to this level? Or is he going to eliminate it, roll it back, as many congressional Republicans in the ’40s have been wanting to do? And he acquiesces to it.
Felicia: Was there a lot of opposition? Or was this not even a debate? How did that go?
Gary: There was debate, but there was not a robust opposition to that. They did sneak in some concessions to Republicans concerned about high taxes, certain things that you could write off from your taxes to reduce the level of your income. That begins the granting of concessions and loopholes within the tax code. There is some backsliding in that way to moderate the effects of this, but he subscribes and endorses this tax code, and he says, we have to do this for two reasons. One is we are engaged in a global fight against communism and we need a tremendously strong military establishment. The only way to fund that is with high taxes, and it’s appropriate that those who have more money should contribute more money. But he also says that the state is capable of doing very good things and the state from the New Deal era has been giving people a good life and we should improve on that.
Eisenhower [clip]: No one would like a tax cut more than I would, and I’m quite sure that the United States people want a tax cut as soon as it can be done. And I’m certain also of this, that the American people also know what kind of standards they want in national security, the safety of their country in the amounts invested for peace, and in the amounts invested for, you might say, raising or meeting the human requirements of our own people at home.
Gary: Milton Friedman, one of the architects of neoliberalism, says, “We are all Keynesians now.” And it’s assumed that Friedman was the creator of that aphorism, but actually it was Henry Hazlitt in 1955, who says in a morose vein, “We are all Keynesians now.” And this is absolutely terrible.
Felicia: I assume Friedman was also a little bit morose when he said that.
Gary: Yes. He was, but he was such a cheery guy that he was able to cheer himself up. This to me is a sign of the power of an order. It doesn’t prevent critics from criticizing the political order, but it makes them very hard to be heard.
Felicia: Part of Eisenhower’s motivation was his understanding that the United States was in a battle, a war with communism—a Cold War, obviously, but this ideological battle with communism. Part of what you’re suggesting is that political economic order can actually be driven by international forces. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Gary: Yes. I ask a series of counterfactuals in the book—what if? What about if there had been no Cold War? Would the New Deal movement have become a political order? If the Cold War had not existed, what might have happened after World War II would’ve been similar to what happened after World War I, where a progressive state that was established during war time was rolled back, where tax rates were rolled back, and big government agencies were abolished. There were a lot of Republicans who wanted to do this. Their leader was Robert Taft, who was seen as being the standard-bearer of the Republican Party in the late ’40s. What destabilizes that wing of the party is the Cold War and the threat of communism. The threat of communism was perceived as being so dangerous that politicians were seen as needing to take extraordinary steps to thwart all its triumph.
Felicia: Even like a 90 percent tax rate.
Gary: Absolutely. What made communism so dangerous was the theory of totalitarianism, which turned out to be wrong, but it was believed. And the theory of totalitarianism said that communism was a new kind of dictatorship that was so powerful and so overwhelming that it could not be resisted. Once a communist regime was established, it could never be overthrown. So the Cold War and the threat that communists were perceived or posed to America, to capitalism, to the world, compelled Eisenhower to compromise and acquiesce in ways that he might not otherwise have done. It also compelled and inclined American capitalists, industrialists to compromise with their labor opponents in ways that they might not otherwise have done. Absent the threat of communism, American capital, which has always been one of the most aggressive formations of capital in the history of capitalism, would not have compromised with the working class.
Michael: So the ’30s teaches us how a political movement becomes a political order. Let’s go ahead now and move forward in time to the ’70s to see how the New Deal order broke down.
Michael: Gary, one really interesting point that you make is that, for an order to establish itself, it has to take over the other side—the other side has to have no answers to that order. It becomes totalizing and it becomes something that crosses the political spectrum. What was it about liberalism in the ’70s that made it susceptible to being swallowed up, so to say, by neoliberalism?
Gary: I would focus on two elements of the story. One was internal divisions within the Democratic Party that opened fissures within the New Deal coalition that became too wide to breach. The two issues that divided Democrats really powerfully were race and Vietnam. The New Deal was a very progressive movement, but it would not have succeeded as a political movement or a political order without the support of the white segregationist South, which was then a bastion of the Democratic Party. LBJ and the Great Society compel the Democratic Party to take on the race issue—this arouses fury in the white segregationist South and prompts a splitting of that constituency from the Democratic Party to the party in which that constituency now resides, which is the Republican Party. Vietnam becomes a huge issue as well, and so the New Deal order is fraying from within. Then the profound alteration in the global economy that occurs in the ’70s makes the Keynesian toolkit not useful enough. It doesn’t have the answers to stagflation and what was going on in the ’70s was a profound alteration in the international economy. Part of the willingness of the capitalist class in America to compromise in the ’40s and ’50s is that it had no international challengers to compete with it. It could afford a certain level of generosity, and that generosity becomes much harder to extend in the ’70s when suddenly Japan and Germany and other countries have become serious economic competitors to the U.S. Also it’s a moment of readjustment between the global south and the global north. It’s a moment where the global south begins to claim for themselves the resources that lie in their countries. I was thinking of especially petroleum in the Middle East. And so the flexibility, the resources of international capital are changing so dramatically that the toolkit that had sufficed to guide prosperity in America is no longer working. The serious recession of the ’70s is steep. Basic manufacturing industries are being hollowed out. This is a moment when people are looking at liberalism and saying, “It’s no longer working. We have to look elsewhere for solutions.”
Felicia: So really what I’m hearing is, at this point, America’s at a real crossroads.
Michael: Yeah, and a big one too. After World War II, as we all know, America became the top industrial powerhouse in the world. By the ’70s, that was changing.
Felicia Wong: Recession, inflation… That’ll do it.
Michael: OPEC crisis. So Gary, how did liberalism respond to all of this? It was a pretty tough situation to be in.
Gary: The ’70s are a transitional moment in this regard. The Democratic Party is looking for solutions, and they split internally over what to do. One group is grounded in the labor movement, and comes to be represented by Ted Kennedy at a late date, which is to double down on New Deal principles: “We can do this, give labor a greater voice, become more serious about industrial policy.” This effort to double down on the New Deal formulas that had worked so well is quite serious in the ’70s, and many of us believed that it was going to triumph. But there was the other side, the side represented by Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter in his campaign—he’s a southern governor of Georgia, he’s suspicious of large states, he likes markets—is the one who begins to say, “We need to shrink the size of the federal government. This major effort, launched by the New Deal to have the state manage the economy in the public interest, let’s be frank about this: It’s no longer working. Let us release the creative energies of capital. Let us begin deregulating.”
Jimmy Carter [clip]: When I was elected governor, I went in office not as a politician, although I don’t apologize for the word, but as a former businessman, an engineer, a planner, a scientist. We abolished 278 state agencies and we established a simple, effective, efficient, economical structure of government that not only saved a tremendous amount of money, but also let the people understand what was going on.
Gary: He is the one, a Democrat as president, who undertakes what is going to become the major economic project of both parties over the next 20 years, which is deregulating the economy, transportation, trucking, and the airline industry. And he also begins to advance—it’s going to take a long time to bring this to maturity—the beginnings of deregulating the telecommunications industry. Taking down AT&T as a public utility and as a monopoly established in the public interest. That process begins in the ’70s. So Carter represents that wing of the party, and he doesn’t necessarily triumph in the ’70s, but he sets up a platform that Ronald Reagan and the Republicans are going to enhance, widen, build much stronger, and that is going to facilitate the Reagan revolution of the ’80s.
Ronald Reagan [clip]: We forgot, or just overlooked the fact that government, any government, has a built-in tendency to grow. Now we all had a hand in looking to government for benefits as if government had some source of revenue other than our earnings, many, if not most of the things we thought of or that government offered to us seemed attractive. In the years following the second World War, it was easy, for a while at least, to overlook the price tag.
Gary: And the traditional Democrats who want to double down on the new deal were quite strong. Many of them thought that they were going to win. So it was not, I would say, pre-ordained, although you could say that the deeper forces in the international economy were perhaps pushing the U.S. toward a deregulatory regime.
Felicia: I want to just go back to what you said about the two destabilizing social forces essentially in the late ’60s and early ’70s: race and Vietnam. I wonder what you think about a third force that was also, of course, roiling American politics at that time, and that was the sexual revolution and gender politics, women’s lib. How do you think of that as a driver of what ultimately became Reaganesque neoliberal order?
Gary: I think it’s a very important part of that story. For me, race is a shorthand for liberation movements of the ’60s. The civil rights movement, of course, was about race, but it was successful in universalizing the message of freedom and equality for all individuals. And one also sees this very powerfully in the rebirth of feminism. This is an important part of the ferment and the political agitation of this moment. It also divides the Democratic Party between a constituency that is deeply indebted to the concept of the male breadwinner at the head of a patriarchal—
Felicia Wong: The Fordist wage.
Gary: —Fordist wage. The head of a patriarchal family and the New Deal was built on this foundation. The idea that a male worker had to have a wage large enough to keep his wife at home and have her doing what was most important for women to do in this conception of political order which was to sustain the man in his endeavors and to raise the next generation of citizens. Feminism forwards the argument very powerfully that women should have the same opportunities in the world of work as men have. And this idea of equality between men and women—which then leads to very interesting thinking and rethinking about how people are to live and how households should be constructed and to what degree the traditional households should be privileged and to what degree other forms of intimate family life should be accorded the same rights and opportunities as that traditional patriarchal household—divides the Democratic Party very deeply, as race divides the Democratic Party very deeply. This is an important contributing factor to the crackup of the New Deal order. By “crack up” here, I mean the important constituencies of the New Deal order beginning to say, “This is not for us. We are going to look for other political solutions.” And here it’s not simply the white South that is getting off the New Deal bandwagon. It’s the urban ethnic constituency in the North, the children and grandchildren of southern and eastern European immigrants who had formed the urban core of the northern wing of the Democratic Party. Many of these people are attached to traditional notions of womanhood, traditional notions of family construction, and are deeply uneasy about the liberation movements in all its permutations.
Michael: The ’70s shows us how the New Deal order breaks down, weakens, and how neoliberalism takes up that space. I think the ’90s are when neoliberalism really accelerates.
Michael: I think it’s worth talking specifically about Clinton here. He’s an interesting case study because I worry that, as we move out of the neoliberal era, liberals have made him a bit of a fall man. You described Clinton as the quintessential neoliberal president and you list a number of things he did that fulfill that characterization. And they’re all correct but I would say that he wasn’t just relentlessly a neoliberal stooge. His record is more mixed than that. His first budget raised taxes on the rich. It increased spending. It had some stimulus spending in it, not very big by our standards today, but it did. He stood the line on domestic spending, he risked the government shutdown. He made some public investments that I think still stand up. If we just toss Clinton overboard, we’re tossing overboard, also, some pretty good results. Yes inequality raged during the Clinton years, but you’re tossing overboard 23 million jobs, the highest increase in median household income in the entire postwar era, and other good economic indicators that Democrats ought to be bragging about today, not distancing themselves from.
Gary: I think Clinton did what he could in what was a very hostile environment to traditional notions of liberalism or traditional notions of the New Deal.
Michael Tomasky: Right.
Gary: I don’t deny that he did some good things, but I also think that if one takes the longer view, his role in unleashing the animal spirits of capitalism, freeing it from constraint and regulation were quite extraordinary, especially for a democratic president. He didn’t design Nafta, but he was a Nafta enthusiast—he’s the one who secures the treaty that is going to push it through. Evidence is beginning to emerge now that the disillusionment within the traditional ranks of the Democrats, especially organized labor, with this move toward a hemispheric free market, was a moment of deep despair and anger and may have further impelled this constituency to leave the Democrats, and pursue other possibilities. Then of course, the deregulation of Wall Street, a rather stunning development for a Democratic administration to preside over. So I don’t deny the achievements of the Clinton era that you point to. I’m also not looking to point fingers and to say Clinton was a bad man. I’m very aware of the way in which his choices were constrained by the moment. And again to come back to Felicia’s earlier point about the importance of international events in shaping domestic politics, the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the final destruction of communism as an ideal was immense for the left. Clinton obviously didn’t bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union or the collapse of communism as an ideal, but the euphoria that enveloped the capitalist West as a result of that moment of collapse, 1989 to 1991, and the leverage that it thus denied the remaining left in American society for having some very powerful voice in American politics, set the stage for Clinton in terms of what was possible in the ’90s. The other element that I think is important to stress is the techno utopianism of that moment—
Gary: —how powerful that was.
Felicia: I remember, I’m from Sunnyvale California, I was there in the ’90s.
Michael: Yeah. Everybody thought, of course this technology is going to make democracy invincible.
Felicia: Yeah, but think back as to if the Telecommunications Act of 1996 had gone a little bit differently, perhaps that would’ve been true.
Gary: I studied the Telecommunications Act of 1996 quite closely and just found it stunning that, in that debate there was almost no voice except poor Marvin Kitman, columnist for Newsday, saying “unleashing this telecommunications industry, almost completely from government oversight, is not something in the best interests of America.” Considering also that the country had a really robust history of regulating media in the public interest, a really strong conviction that mass media were so important to—not just the economy—but to politics. But also what it meant in terms of the rethinking of the relationship of markets to government control that influenced almost everyone in the ’90s before this moment of techno utopianism was unleashed. Part of the argument for the need for governments is that markets had imperfect information. It was limited, it didn’t arrive in time. Of course, markets weren’t going to work to perfection, because if you don’t have perfect information, you can’t have perfect markets. Well, the belief in the ’90s was that the IT revolution had put perfect information within the grasp of all the economic managers of the economy. So the belief was at the time, even if this seems kind of ridiculous to us now, but it shows the power of ideological moments, many people were saying, as much in the Democratic Party as in the Republican Party, “Yes, markets were once risky and you did need government control. But now with this perfect information and this perfect knowledge, the government has been rendered obsolete. Risk has been eliminated. Markets are perfectible in ways that they have not been perfectible before.”
Felicia Wong: Well, Gary, I actually worked in the Clinton Administration’s Reinventing Government Office, and we all had this idea that information technology, the internet, all of this was going to mean that government could be smaller, more efficient, and almost invisible. When Clinton used to talk about “reinventing government,” he always said that government could get out of the way, it could move away from a big bureaucracy and move to again, being almost invisible. That is pretty different from the way that we think about government, certainly in the Biden era. Anyway, it’s very notable. But in this conversation so far, we’ve talked about how a political order solidifies using the example of the New Deal 1930s. We’ve also talked about how an era falters and another one takes its place, using the example of the ’70s, the ’80s, and then the ’90s. But I want to move us on now to talk about today.
Felicia Wong: I think all of us, you, Michael, and I, agree that we are really living through dissolution. Certainly, we’re living through the dissolution of that neoliberal, small government, invisible government idea. Gary, I think part of your definition of political order is that we would see a set of ideological agreements, cultural beliefs that everyone accepts. So can you talk to us a little bit about the competition for the next political order?
Gary: Well, we are definitely in a moment of disillusion of the existing political order: the neoliberal one. This doesn’t mean that neoliberal ideas are dead. These ideas are still powerful, but they no longer have the unchallenged authority they had during the neoliberal heyday. They no longer command agreement. They are as likely to be challenged and dismissed as they are to be embraced and supported. That’s a clear sign that we are no longer in the political order. I sometimes have a shorthand for describing neoliberalism and how much things have changed. I talk about the four freedoms of neoliberalism. These are not the four freedoms of Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, which were social democratic freedoms. These are: a free movement of people, free movement of goods, free movement of capital, free movement of information. For a neoliberal order to function in a global sense, these freedoms have to be honored and be implemented and guiding the global economy. Each one of them is now being challenged in profound ways. Borders are going up everywhere to prevent the free movement of people. Trump and Sanders made protectionism, let’s call it managed trade rather than protectionism because protectionism is a loaded term, a respectable position in politics, and it is now very, very powerful. The Ukraine War has led to the most serious limitations on the free movement of capital, arguably for much of the post–Cold War era. China and other countries are building their own digital universes meant to have gates that only certain people and certain information will be let through according to the authority of the Chinese government. It’s quite possible that the world of universal free movement of information that we have been imagining naturally resulting from the IT revolution is not going to exist in another 10 or 20 years. We are moving into a different world.
Michael: What kind of world do you think we’re moving into?
Gary: There are three possibilities. First is an extended period of disorder where neither side can establish its hegemony and establish enough support and win enough elections to compel the opposition to get onto its train. We are in a period of disorder now. Extended periods of disorder, I would say, are not good for anybody over the long term because it’s going to lead to frustration, anger, radicalization of sorts that we probably are not going to like. Another possibility is that some kind of authoritarian order triumphs. This is what Trump embodies, and it’s part of a global movement of authoritarian leaders who are using democratic means for authoritarian ends. This is a distinct possibility. This is a very powerful movement in the world right now. The third possibility, which is the ones that you and your listeners are most interested in, is the resuscitation of a progressive political order that rekindles the powerful progressive traditions in American life and harks back to successful elements of the New Deal while also guiding us in new directions, with the ability to take into consideration those issues that the New Deal either ignored or repressed. It ignored the perils of fossil fuel energy and it repressed liberation movements of women, Blacks, and other minorities. The question is, can we imagine a progressive political order of that sort triumphing sometime in the near future?
Felicia: Can we?
Gary: The first thing to be said is that we need a proper time perspective, and we should not think that everything hinges on the next election of 2024. Think of how long it took the New Deal order for the ideas to gel, for them to develop constituencies. Probably a 20 to 30 year period from 1900, 1910, to the 1930s until the triumph occurred. I should ask you, when would you date the beginnings of the progressive reawakening in American politics? I would say it’s the twenty-teens. Beginning with Occupy Wall Street and—
Felicia Wong: Yeah, 2011. Occupy Wall Street.
Gary: —continuing with Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders run for the presidency in 2016. If that is the date, we’re only 10 years into a movement that may take another 10 or 15 years to mature and really execute its work on American society. So developing the right temporal perspective, when can we expect a progressive order to triumph? This is very important, especially for young people to hear, for whom this is their first experience of progressive politics: For a political order to triumph, it often involves a long march through the institutions of government, through the institutions of civil society. It’s not something that can happen overnight. It’s very important for progressive and left forces to gear themselves for a longer struggle.
Michael: Of your three scenarios this show is dedicated to the proposition that your third scenario is going to prevail. So I can’t very well for the record say anything other than that. I do believe it most days, but number two might well prevail, as you say. Authoritarianism is strong, stronger in this country than we prefer it to be, but I want to focus on your first scenario. What will a prolonged period of disorder look like?
Gary: What it looks like is what we’re living through. The Biden administration, which has a lot of ideas for reconstructing the political economy in a progressive way where a robust discussion between the left and the center of the Democratic Party has reemerged in a really valuable and important way, and I believe that the key Democratic Party advances over the last 130 years have happened when the left and center of the Democratic Party have been in this kind of dialogue. It’s not an easy dialogue. It’s often fraught because there are divisions between the center and the left. But when this discussion is going on, this is when the big breakthroughs for progressive forces in America have occurred. And yet, if we look at previous periods, when this discussion between left and center were going on, the Democrats or the presidents in power had huge majorities in Congress, you think of LBJ in the ’60s, or you think of Franklin Roosevelt in the ’30s with his huge majorities in 1932, 1934, and 1936. And here, the dialogue between the left and center of the Democratic Party is going on where everything that they can do is hinging on one Senator Joe Manchin in the Senate. So the question is, how can politics move forward where the pro- and anti-forces regarding progressivism are, in electoral terms, so evenly matched, where margins are so thin. We have to think, well, what about if these razor-thin majorities are characteristic of American politics for the next 10 years? That’s the heart of your question, Michael, right?
Michael Tomasky: Right. Thirty years.
Gary: Well, 30 years is a long time. Also we should not lose the capacity to be surprised and shocked by a set of events that we cannot now anticipate, and one of which is, of course, Putin’s war on Ukraine, which many of us were not really anticipating. These are issues that are not simply going to be decided by domestic politics in the U.S. We are in the process of moving to a different world order, also of which we have not experienced in the last 100 years. Moments of transition from one world order to another are very dangerous times because the major players don’t know the limits of their power. That’s one of the messages of Putin’s overreach in Ukraine. This world order is characterized not by unipolarity, one superpower in the world, nor bipolarity, the Soviet Union and the U.S., but characterized by multipolarity in which the order will be governed by four or five major powers that have some understanding of their privileges, rights, but also their limitations, and figure out how to live with each other in the world in peace. What is the last time when the world was governed by multipolarity? We have no experience with that. We don’t know how to live in that world.
Felicia: No, it’s been 120 years probably.
Gary: And so Michael, it’s not just the domestic situation that we have not experienced before, but we are perhaps moving into an international situation where no one knows the rule book. The rule book has to be written as we live day to day.
Felicia: Gary, I do want to ask you the final question that we ask every guest on this show. Now normally I would ask Gary Gerstle, how would you recommend that we save our country? But given what you just said, maybe I’m going to ask: Gary Gerstle, how would you recommend that we save our world? Your choice. Just the country or the whole planet.
Gary: As a historian, what I try to do is understand the balance between structure and agency. This is going to be an answer to your question, even if it doesn’t sound like it.
Felicia: Any answer that begins with structure versus agency is always a good answer in my book. So keep going.
Gary: Good. Well, we think alike in that way. We are born into or we come into structures that we have not created and that we can’t fully control. None of us are the masters of our universe, politically. But agency is incredibly important. We have to continue to believe that agency makes a difference. Our ability as citizens, and here I’m thinking not so much as individuals, but as groups, as organizers, as people who care about the U.S., its democratic past, present, and future, who care about the fate of the world, it is incumbent upon us to be agents of our own lives and agents of our own politics and agents of democracy if we care about it deeply and do everything we can as citizens to promote the values that we believe in and to work hard to bring about the world that we want to live in. The older readers of my book find the book depressing because they’re my age and they think back to all the extraordinary hope they had in the ’60s and ’70s and they realize the world has not developed as they thought it would. So it’s one depressing tale after another. The young readers of my book find hope in it because they’ve been told that the neoliberal order was so powerful it would never come apart, that there was no future really for left politics. We have seen in the last decade an extraordinary revival of left politics, progressive politics in America. Seeing how much our politics has changed over the last 10 years should give us hope that the politics for the future can be even better.
Michael: I like to be in small demographic subsets. I’m an older optimist, so I’m glad that I’m in a select group.
Felicia: Gary, thank you so much for this incredibly wide-ranging and yet very focused conversation about neoliberalism past, present, and future. Post-neoliberalism. It’s great to have you on the show.
Gary: Thank you. It’s been a privilege talking with you.
Michael: Thank you.
Michael: Well, Felicia, we’ve taken a little trip through time here in this episode, what are your thoughts?
Felicia: We are really living through the dissolution of an order, and that is why we are experiencing such chaos. Because if you understand this moment as the fight for a new political order, then a lot of what we’re seeing in the media and from lawmakers and even some of the real fights that you and I end up having, not with each other although maybe, start to make a lot more sense to me.
Michael: We still need to have that fight with each other about the phrase middle out but anyway.
Felicia: Okay. All right. How about liberal versus progressive? But anyway.
Michael: Yeah, we have plenty to fight about, but what are you referring to here?
Felicia: You know, I think about the conversation we had with Heather McGhee a few weeks ago when she talked about the conservative pushback against teaching the uglier parts of our racial history in schools. At the same time, we’re also seeing these really restrictive bills against people themselves, people in the LGBTQ community. We’re seeing gay panic. Even just a few years ago, media outlets and lawmakers were not constantly discussing drag queens and trans athletes on the news the way we’re seeing today, and, in a lot of ways, that shift has felt very abrupt and confusing to me. But if I think about it as an attempt for the right to really quickly and aggressively establish a new political order via culture war issues, in part because it’s one of the only weapons they have right now anyway, then all of this abrupt shift in media coverage and in conservative rhetoric, it starts to make more sense to me.
Michael: Yeah, and it’s totally in line with something Lily Mason said to us earlier this season. Something that I write about a lot, a lot of us write about a lot, basically that the bottom has just completely fallen out of the right’s economic vision. It’s been exposed as false and hollow and it doesn’t work. All that’s really left for them to campaign is fighting the culture wars. In that world, all they have to do is scour the landscape for anything that looks like it can be labeled an attack on traditional values and they turn it into a talking point or a fundraising pitch. And it works, although whether it works as much as our side generally fears it works. It is an interesting question that we might want to talk about sometime, because it doesn’t work all the time. But it works enough. It certainly works as talking points and fundraising pitches.
Felicia: That’s right, but on the other hand, when you look at what our side really has. Progressives do have an economic argument. It is—of course, I would think this—the data bears it out: This is a strong and good economic argument. When I look at this entire landscape through Gary’s lens of a political order., and when I see some of the really scary or terrible political developments in our general rhetoric, maybe we should see these as signs of weakness in the platform of the other side or even anxiety that they’re experiencing. Maybe that’s some cold comfort or something.
Michael: Yeah. Well, it’s certainly weakness. I don’t know how much anxiety they have on the other side. They seem—
Felicia: Okay. All right. Maybe that’s a bridge too far.
Michael: —they seem to operate without a whole lot of anxiety or self doubt. But I have some good news for you this week, Felicia, if you’re ready.
Felicia: Always up for good news.
Michael: Here we go. Listen to this: Two extremely restrictive anti-abortion bills have failed in Nebraska and South Carolina, which are both Republican-controlled.
Felicia: That is seriously good news.
Michael: Yeah. The Nebraska bill would’ve banned most abortions after six weeks, and the South Carolina bill would have banned abortions period.
Felicia: So wait a minute, in both of these cases, it’s conservatives who failed to enact this restrictive legislation?
Michael: Yeah, it’s Republicans. Not many, but enough. I think one in South Carolina and a handful in Nebraska or maybe it was the other way around who stood up to say, “No, we shouldn’t do this.” So it’s good on a number of levels. It’s good for people in those states who need reproductive healthcare, it’s good for women, and it’s good because it shows that the right wing is starting to splinter a little bit on this issue.
Felicia: Right, and also, Michael, maybe this victory is another opportunity for those of us on the progressive left to to proudly reclaim the word “freedom.”
Michael: Well, who’s been saying that for months now? Felicia, do you remember?
Felicia: Hmm. I do Michael, and it is you.
Michael: It’s true. I have, and now Joe Biden’s saying it. So it’ll catch on and, and history may reward my clairvoyance. But anyway, speaking of the conservative liberal divide, Felicia, next week on the show, we’re going to have somebody who thinks that America has been in many ways, since its inception, essentially two nations.
Felicia: That’s right. We’ll be talking to Mike Podhorzer who has, for a long time, been the political director of the AFL-CIO and is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Mike Podhorzer [clip]: The Blue Nation is essentially an urban nation and the majority of people in the Red Nation live in rural or low density. Really, if you saw this in two different countries in the world, you would not think that there was a reason that they should be the same.
Felicia: How to Save a Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.
Michael: Our script editor is Christina Stella. Our producer is Marcelo Jauregui-Volpe. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzales, and our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.
Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound with other music provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at omidyar.com.
Michael: 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.
The majority of people who participate in or follow US politics focus on four- and six-year election cycles. But certain political and economic developments take place over much longer time scales, as our guest this episode knows well.
Historian Gary Gerstle, author of the recent book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era, calls these longer stages in our political history “political orders”—a concept he created with Steve Fraser (co-editor of a previous book).
Political orders are a new way to conceptualize political time, Gary explains to Michael and Felicia. They are political movements that are able to popularize certain norms and ideas with the general public, and also sway opposing political parties to align with said norms and ideas.
This week, Gary takes Felicia and Michael on a historical journey spanning nearly a century to discuss domestic and international factors that led to the ascension and demise of the New Deal and neoliberal orders.
They also discuss the present, including different possibilities for the next political order. One possibility, Gary explains, is a revived progressive political order—one that “harks back to successful elements of the New Deal while also guiding us in new directions, with the ability to take into consideration those issues that the New Deal either ignored or repressed.”
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.
For more from Gary, check out his books that we mentioned in this episode:
- The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era<
- The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980 (co-edited with Steve Fraser)
You can find a wealth of great ideas and research on Gary’s website, which features his other books, interviews, and pieces for The Guardian and The Nation, among others.
And for more from Roosevelt on what comes after neoliberalism, check out Felicia’s 2020 report: The Emerging Worldview: How New Progressivism Is Moving Beyond Neoliberalism.