Democracy between Neoliberalism and Populism

[This is the text of a talk I presented as part of the Imtiaz Moosa Philosophy and Ethics Speaker Series under the auspices of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls, on Monday, April 17. Long-time readers may notice some repeated material — I apologize. In addition to bringing my thesis on neoliberalism and populism up to date with current events and fleshing out some intuitions about the relationship between populism and online trolling culture, my main goal in this article was to see whether I could advance my position without explicit recourse to the concept of political theology.]

Prelude: “Our Democracy” is in Peril!
It has become a commonplace in American political discourse that “our democracy” is in danger. Again and again, we hear that particular elections or legislative actions could spell the end of democratic self-governance in the US. In Wisconsin, you are certainly no strangers to this type of rhetoric. As I’m sure I don’t need to tell any of you, Wisconsin is one of the most aggressively gerrymandered states in the Union, as the Republican majority has stacked the deck so severely that Democrats would have to clinch a double-digit popular vote victory in order to gain a narrow majority in the legislature. Meanwhile, officials elected in statewide contests that cannot be gerrymandered are sidelined as much as possible, as when Republicans voted in a lame-duck session to simply remove key powers from the executive branch rather than allow the incoming Democratic governor to use them. And now—thanks to the outcome of the most recent election in which the fate of American democracy hung in the balance—the Republicans have lost the state Supreme Court majority that enabled them to rig the system so forcibly in the first place.

I was certainly relieved to hear that election result, but the American public didn’t have much time to rest on its laurels. Within a few days, we heard news that the Republican majority in the Tennessee state legislature was moving to expel three members who joined a protest in favor of gun control. Two out of the three were ultimately kicked out of office, meaning that American democracy is presumably back on the knife’s edge—at least until Democrats in some other state pass a law or win a court case that expands voting rights. Friends of democracy must sadly rest content with such piecemeal victories, since the Democrats failed to take advantage of a rare trifecta to pass nationwide electoral reform. This happened in large part because they could not muster the votes to make the Senate more democratic by abolishing the fillibuster rule. In other words, Democratic senators not only failed to protect our right to vote—they failed to protect their own right to vote.

At this point, I should be clear that I believe free and fair elections are incredibly important—the non-negotiable baseline of a functional society. At the same time, I want to be equally clear that the public debate on this issue is absurd and misleading. This is in part because I am old enough to remember when Donald Trump became president and all the commentary was worrying that American democracy had somehow gone too far. Ignoring the fact that the 2016 Electoral College vote overthrew the result of the popular vote, commentators treated Trump’s inauguration as an expression of the popular will and wondered aloud whether safeguards against the excesses of the voting public might be necessary. Only after Trump’s election denialism culminated in the January 6 attacks on the Capitol did the conventional wisdom decisively shift to viewing Trump as a threat to democracy rather than a sign of the threat posed by too much democracy.

This basic incoherence reflects a failure to ask even the most basic questions about our current dilemma. What do we mean by “our democracy”? Why is democracy valuable? What is leading some political actors to dispute its meaning or value? And why now? To the extent that any answers are attempted, they are normally incredibly superficial. Trump came along and drove everyone crazy. Republicans realized their base was in terminal decline and rigged the system to stay in power. Democrats are cowards. Broadly speaking, all of those things are true, but they don’t get to the heart of the problem.

To truly understand what is going on, I believe we need to turn away from the day-to-day churn of partisan conflict and ask what might initially seem like an overly abstract or philosophical question: what makes political outcomes legitimate? What is it that allows political actors to accept their opponents as wielding power rightfully, even when it produces results they deplore? What topics or issues can be validly disputed, which must be treated as beyond dispute, and who decides where that line should be drawn? At various moments in American history, there was broad consensus among political elites and the voting public on those issues. In other words, everyone basically agreed on the basic legitimacy of the political system in its normal operations. Those moments were more short-lived and rare than we might wish, but they were real. And today, it seems that the only thing political elites and the voting public can agree on is that we are not living in one of those moments and haven’t been for a long time. But even at that level there is a fundamental disagreement. One major party seems to hold out hope that a “return to normal” is not only desirable but inevitable, while the other is increasingly insistent on a decisive break.

And at this point we might ask—a return to what, a break from what? It is here that we pull back the curtain of political punditry to discuss the political-economic system that dare not speak its name: neoliberalism. To briefly define this term, which many people claim to find deeply mysterious, neoliberalism is the political agenda to transform as much of social life as possible on the model of market competition. My contention in this talk is that the contemporary “democratic deficit” is a natural outgrowth of the neoliberal consensus. In order to show that, I will start by giving some background on the history of neoliberalism and its relationship to the values of freedom, democracy, and social hierarchy. With that established, I will try to account for why neoliberalism started to lose legitimacy and how the strange phenomenon known as right-wing populism emerged out of those dynamics. Finally, I will conclude with some brief reflections on possible alternative responses to our ongoing crisis of legitimacy.

Part I: Yes, Neoliberalism is a Thing
A Brief History of Neoliberalism
The ideas behind the neoliberal system were developed in the postwar years by thinkers like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, who posed as “voices in the wilderness” crying out against the excesses of economic planning and the welfare state. After decades of theorizing, they had their chance. Once the postwar order began to buckle under the burden of chronic political conflict, an oil crisis, and persistent stagflation, neoliberal policy began to appear as an attractive alternative.

What began as a series of tentative experiments became a forceful—and broadly popular—agenda under Reagan and Thatcher, who so transformed the political landscape that even their political opponents were forced to accept the neoliberal paradigm. Similar patterns took place across the developed world. When the Soviet bloc fell in the early 90s, the neoliberal vision of capitalism was adopted there as well. Meanwhile, whether through force of arms or the gentler coersion of emergency loans, the neoliberal paradigm, known as the “Washington Consensus,” was imposed upon the developing world. As even Communist China adopted market structures and the remaining socialist holdouts appeared increasingly isolated and impoverished, it appeared that Margaret Thatcher’s infamous dictum had come true: “There is no alternative.” And the result has been a world marked by ever-increasing inequality, accelerating ecological degradation, and perpetual crisis.

In my view, this history should not be controversial. Everyone concedes that there was a major shift in public policy in the developed countries, and particularly in the US and UK, beginning in the late 70s and early 80s. Everyone concedes that the traditional parties of the left have adopted a market-centered agenda. Everyone concedes that a globalized economy has subjected essentially all nations to the same market forces and capitalist norms and that this was a consciously pursued goal by the major powers. Yet the word bothers people, even people who should know better. As many have observed, almost no one self-identifies as a neoliberal. And while I understand that people don’t like to be given a label that they didn’t choose for themselves, I think the problem is deeper—the very act of labeling neoliberalism feels wrong, because to them, neoliberalism isn’t some particular agenda or school of thought. It’s how the world works. It’s how things are. It is simply reality.

And in the 80s and 90s, which were formative years for most of the political and journalistic elite, it really could seem that way. This is where it is helpful to turn to the original neoliberals, who knew that another world was possible—because they were living in it, and they hated it. This alternative order is sometimes called Fordism, in tribute to Henry Ford’s insight that capitalism works better when workers are paid enough to buy the products they’re building. Under this political-economic paradigm, a combination of aggressive taxation of high incomes, high union density, and government subsidies for homeownership had created a broad and growing middle class. Markets were regarded as a valuable tool, but one that needed to be closely monitored and regulated to make sure market outcomes matched up with the public good. Corporations were run with an eye toward balancing the imperatives of profit against the interests of the workers and the broader community, and shareholders were so passive as to be almost vestigial organs—one that the great economist John Maynard Keynes could picture eliminating altogether.

Trapped in this apocalyptic hellscape of peace and prosperity, thinkers like Milton Friedman longed for the days of the long 19th century, when laissez faire capitalism held global sway. Advocates of that system were at the time known as “liberals,” because they advocated liberty in the sense of free markets. In the postwar era, New Deal Democrats had claimed that term as their own—an association that has stuck, so that today “liberal” means basically “whatever the Democrats happen to be doing.” Friedman’s neoliberalism is therefore “liberal” in that classical sense. And it is “neo-“ because the original consensus in favor of classical 19th century liberalism had evaporated by the time Friedman was writing. Hence liberal ideas had to be reasserted under new circumstances, which necessarily required some updating.

For instance, in Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman admits that there is no prospect of returning to the kind of “hard” gold standard that prevailed through much of the 19th century. Though he clearly sees many dangers in the modern practice of central banking, he recognizes that it is here to stay and seeks to shape it in a way that fits with his neoliberal convictions. We could say something similar to his approach to public schooling. He accepts that state responsibility for education is widely taken for granted and advocates changing the way the state carries through on that responsibility. In place of direct provision of education by the state, he proposes a school voucher system that will allow parents to educate their children in the way they see fit. This amounts to de-nationalizing the primary and secondary education sectors, replacing state-run schools with a state-subsidized competitive marketplace. Surely no classical liberal would have invented the school voucher system from scratch. But given the reality that people now expect the state to provide education, the liberal must apply his convictions in a new way—in other words, the classical liberal must become a neo-liberal under the conditions of the postwar consensus.

The shift from classical liberalism to neoliberalism is more than simply a strategic adaptation to a changed reality, however. It also involves a subtle but crucial shift in perspective. The original 19th-century free market system came together as the result of a largely unplanned series of events. It wasn’t simply a matter of the state “getting out of the way” and letting the market do its work—in fact, as Karl Polanyi forcefully demonstrated in his book The Great Transformation, the creation of free markets actually required a great deal of state intervention. At the same time, though, no one had a blueprint they were following. As Friedman’s fellow neoliberal Hayek puts it in “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” the market “evolved without design” (527). By contrast, neoliberals very much did have a blueprint, and the historical experience of the collapse of the 19th-century global free market consensus showed them that there was nothing inevitable or automatic about the market. For the neoliberal, the market has to be built and cultivated and supported—from the highest levels of government down to the convictions of the individual soul.

Neoliberalism and Freedom
In other words, neoliberalism is a conscious project in a way that classical liberalism was not and really could not be. The question that may now arise is why anyone would want to undertake it and why, at least initially, it enjoyed the support of popular majorities in the developed world, where Fordism had long been successful. The answer is that neoliberals presented themselves as champions of freedom. Drawing on a long history of American individualism and paranoia about government power that persisted even into the Fordist age, neoliberals claimed that, comfortable and secure as the American middle-class lifestyle may seem, it was not truly free.

In the view of the early neoliberal theorists, the forces of government regulation and broad-minded corporate management were converging on a kind of conformism and light coersion that would put us, to quote Hayek’s famous book title, on the road to serfdom—in other words, on the road to Soviet-style Communism. According to their vastly simplified vision of the Soviet Union, everyone was an interchangeable cog in the command economy who could be robbed of their livelihood at any moment if they failed to conform. Much the same could of course be said about the everyday worker in an American corporation, with one exception—you can always find another job. This ability to “vote with your feet” and secure your livelihood, to enter into any contract you believe will serve your interests, to buy what you want and enjoy it how you want has always been at the heart of pro-capitalist propaganda. And the reason this propaganda is convincing is that economic freedom is incredibly important and desirable.

Neoliberals take it a step further, though, and claim that market freedom is effectively the only form of freedom. In other words, the freedom that neoliberalism is promising us is not the bold self-assertion of open-ended creativity, but the correct response to market signals. This means that, in effect, the neoliberal system gives us just enough freedom that it can blame us for our own problems if we choose “wrongly,” but not enough freedom to really change our circumstances. The system achieves this by presenting us with forced choices, where we are technically free to choose but feel all but compelled to choose a certain option. A good example of this phenomenon is the student loan crisis in the US. Young people in the US are constantly told that the only way to escape poverty in adulthood is to go to university, and so they are often willing to do whatever it takes to get a degree, including taking out huge loans. And whether they get a good job or not—in fact, whether they finish their course or not—they still have to pay back those loans. After all, they “freely” chose to borrow the money!

In Neoliberalism’s Demons, I argued that the true core of the neoliberal order isn’t any particular policy—like tax cuts, or deregulation, or privatization—but the forced choice. The forced choice is a powerful strategy of legitimation, in that it not only grounds the neoliberal order in our formal consent, but also provides a way for it to answer challenges to its legitimacy. One thing that hurts the legitimacy of the social order is if people are suffering for no good reason—for instance, a college drop-out still paying off their student loans decades later. When confronted with that seemingly pointless suffering, the neoliberal order can answer that the bad outcome was a risk that the individual freely took on when they accepted the loan. Respecting their freedom to fail is more important than making sure everyone enjoys a positive outcome.

And neoliberalism gives us plenty of freedom to fail—in fact, it sometimes seems like it gives us nothing but that. It gives us just enough freedom that it can blame us for our own problems, but not enough freedom to really change our circumstances. More than that, the system gets us to blame ourselves for our problems, to focus on our own choices rather than asking why we only had those choices in the first place. Instead of asking why the state doesn’t provide free universities, borrowers blame themselves for choosing the wrong school or the wrong field of study. And when we blame ourselves, we implicitly endorse the legitimacy of the system, because we acknowledge that the outcome was justified.

Neoliberalism and Democracy
This narrow and in some ways paradoxical view of human freedom clearly puts neoliberalism at odds with democracy, which claims that the popular will is the principle of legitimacy. And neoliberalism has often been happy to do without democratic legitimation entirely—most famously in Pinochet’s Chile, which combined mass torture and “disappearances” with such neoliberal priorities as privatizing public pensions. Within the Western countries, by contrast, it has typically used formal democratic institutions to achieve and maintain hegemony. Indeed, in the US, neoliberal policy enjoyed robust democratic support under Reagan, who defeated the incumbent Jimmy Carter by a margin of nearly 10% and won all but four states in the Electoral College. This popular mandate allowed him to push forward deep structural reforms that would prove very difficult to reverse.

Most of the time, however, and in most Western countries, the neoliberal order has adopted a version of the forced choice in elections. The normal form this takes in the US is that voters are presented with two fundamentally similar candidates, so that voters are more or less forced to endorse some version of neoliberalism—a strategy parodied by a famous Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode where aliens take over both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and, once revealed, taunt the assembled voters that they have no choice but to pick one of the two major party candidates. A riskier strategy is to run a neoliberal candidate and a clearly unacceptable alternative, on the theory that voters will respond appropriately to the blackmail no matter how unappealing they find the mainstream candidate. This strategy was tried unsuccessfully in the 2016 US election—where a strong plurality of Americans did choose “correctly” (i.e., voted for the neoliberal candidate Hillary Clinton over the clearly unfit Donald Trump) but were thwarted by the Electoral College. It was tried again, more successfully, in the 2017 French election, where Emmanuel Macron edged out the right-wing extremist Marine Le Pen. An even more transparent strategy is that frequently seen in referenda around European Union matters in the 1990s and 2000s, which member states felt obligated to keep running over and over until the population finally voted “correctly.” More recently, the EU has used economic blackmail to manipulate both referenda (as in the 2015 referendum on the Greek bailout terms) and to replace unacceptable governments (as when the technocrat Mario Monti was installed in the wake of Silvio Berlusconi in 2011).

How can such anti-democratic stratagems be squared with the neoliberal value of freedom? The answer is simple: to vote against neoliberalism is to vote against freedom itself. Ideally, everyone would recognize their true self-interest and vote correctly on their own, but in our fallen world, sometimes the people must be forced to be free. And in those cases when they act out and choose wrongly, the “good” neoliberal subjects focus all their energy on demonizing those who voted for the incorrect candidate or, even worse, sat out the election entirely—never asking why they were presented with such unappealing options in the first place.

In retrospect, American political norms and institutions provided almost ideal conditions for the installation and maintenance of neoliberalism. At the time Reagan was elected in 1980, the two major American parties remained incoherent—there were still liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats—and bipartisan cooperation was the norm. Therefore, even though Republicans failed to take control of Congress (a feat they would not achieve until the 1994 mid-term elections), Reagan’s resounding popular mandate prompted Congressional Democrats to work together with him on his most important priorities.

This meant that Reagan’s neoliberal agenda was able to quickly replace the declining New Deal model of the postwar era as the bipartisan political consensus. Democrats looking to roll back Reagan’s reforms were marginalized, and Democratic presidential candidates have remained consistently pro-market and pro-business to this day. So profound is the Democrats’ commitment to bipartisanship that Bill Clinton continued to collaborate with Republicans on major legislation even as they were in the process of impeaching him. More recently, Joe Biden eagerly sought an infrastructure bill that could gain the support of the party that regards him as an illegitimate president who stole the election.

The norm of bipartisan collaboration is not merely an arbitrary preference of the political class, as disturbingly committed to it as some individual politicians seem to be. The structure of the federal government—with staggered elections that all but guarantee that neither party can hold onto unified control for long—all but mandates cross-partisan cooperation in order to get anything done in normal times. Sweeping popular mandates are rare, and the changes that get pushed through in those moments tend to be secure simply because of the difficulty of passing legislation absent such a wave. In the 20th century, arguably only Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan were able to convert lopsided victories into significant reforms, leaving subsequent presidents to tinker within the boundaries those transformative presidents set.

Though the federal government gets the most attention, the federal structure of the country—which disperses authority among 50 states and a staggering number of autonomous municipal governments—also proved to be a natural fit for neoliberalism. Those 50 regional units and countless other smaller authorities provide a ready-made field for neoliberal competition, as states and municipalities vie for corporate investment and the jobs that come with them. Drawing potential employers—or, failing that, tourist dollars—has arguably become the primary job of public officials below the federal level. This situation of continual competition for capital and jobs also creates strong incentives against raising taxes. The ease of moving among the states means that higher state taxes could wind up driving away wealthier residents instead of increasing revenue.

In short, one reason that neoliberalism has enjoyed such durable success in the US despite growing popular disenchantment with neoliberal policies is that it was able to take advantage of the anti-democratic structures built into the US Constitution. While the Fordist order had worked to mitigate the effect of those structures and approach a more truly democratic system, Reagan reversed those trends and his Republican successors have even introduced new anti-democratic constraints—most famously the Senate filibuster, which requires a supermajority in order to cut off debate and can therefore be used to prevent legislation from coming up for a vote even if a majority of members support it. While the rule has been on the books for many decades, it only emerged as an obstacle to routine legislation in 2009, amid Republican efforts to hobble the first Black president. Yet Democrats have not only passively acquiesced but often actively supported these anti-democratic moves, which allow them to maintain the neoliberal consensus while telling their increasingly restive left flank that their hands are tied.

Neoliberalism and Social Hierarchy
Again, it is not my intention to descend into partisan punditry. Instead, I am trying to take advantage of our familiarity with the two-party system and idiosyncratic constitutional structures of the US and hold it up as a privileged example of the ways that neoliberalism, once installed, has been able to insulate itself from democratic accountability. Parallel processes, reflecting local conditions and institutions, have happened in all developed nations where the neoliberal policy consensus holds sway. In the parts of the world where simple force could not be relied on, neoliberalism required a popular mandate to get off the ground, but it neither needs nor wants one after it has become established. For the committed neoliberal, the basic structure of the market-based society simply should not be up for a vote, and the most important decisions must be kept away from elected officials—hence the importance of the norm of central bank independence, for instance.

This process, which the historian Quinn Slobodian calls “encasing” market structures to protect them from democratic contestation, has obvious practical benefits in terms of guaranteeing a monopoly on institutional power. But it means that neoliberalism cannot rely on the most widely recognized form of legitimacy in the modern Western world. Of course, democracy isn’t everything. Societies throughout the world have maintained some level of legitimacy without democratic processes, and some even do so today. One method that naturally comes to mind for a heavily capitalist system is to gain legitimacy through prosperity. Keeping the money flowing covers over a multitude of sins. That method worked for most of the 90s, when most people broadly agreed with Bill Clinton’s famous dictum: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Growth in the 90s was neither as strong nor as widely shared as during the postwar boom, but a combination of rising asset prices, debt-fueled consumption, and apparent technological innovation granted the neoliberal order a veneer of effectiveness.

The idea that neoliberalism simply “works” in economic terms is not a sufficient explanation, however. First of all, it doesn’t explain why the program was embraced so enthusiastically at a time when it was untried. The mere promise of economic growth isn’t enough—everyone says that their economic plan will lead to growth! Second, it doesn’t explain why the neoliberal program was initially advanced specifically by conservative parties, who—at least based on their name—might not be expected to embrace a disruptive, untested economic policy program. The answer is that another source of legitimacy was at stake: namely, social hierarchy. People are willing to put up with a lot if they believe that their status—and, importantly, everyone else’s status—is being rated appropriately by the social order. And in the late 60s and early 70s, a lot of that was up for grabs. Women were abandoning their proper role in the house, Black people were refusing to submit to segregation and discrimination, students were thinking non-patriotic thoughts, and everyone was having way too much sex of all the wrong kinds.

As Melinda Cooper shows in her book Family Values, the social disruption of that era provided neoliberals with a crucial opening. I mentioned before that the postwar economic model delivered broadly shared prosperity, but I omitted a crucial caveat—if you were a patriotic white straight American family man. Everyone else was largely excluded from the various subsidies and welfare programs that helped to prop up the white nuclear family at that time, until civil rights legislation threatened to open up those programs to everyone—including even Black unwed mothers! It was at that moment that welfare programs, which had historically excluded Black people and which even today serve white people at a much higher rate, came to be portrayed as a handout solely for Black people. Ronald Reagan was an experienced culture warrior who had made his name as California governor antagonizing the radicals at Berkeley, and his campaign built on that experience. Alongside the sunny “morning in America” was a harsher rhetoric, demonizing Black “welfare queens” who supposedly defrauded the innocent white American public, pumping out babies just to get more welfare checks to finance their fancy Cadillacs and filet mignon.

In this context, leaving everyone to the tender mercies of the market had two perceived benefits. First, it would naturally reinforce existing hierarchies—since you have to have money to make money, the rich get richer, etc., etc. More specifically, removing welfare protections and especially subsidies for college tuition would make children more dependent on their families and hopefully better behaved as a result. Second, all of this would happen seemingly automatically, with no need for direct enforcement. Women’s careers would naturally be held back by childbirth, for instance, and they could fall behind professionally simply by dint of having less work experience, not through active “discrimination.” Credentialism—for instance, demanding college degrees for jobs that do not actually require them—similarly reinforces privilege while maintaining plausible deniability by cutting off access to anyone from an insufficiently privileged background. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, everyone’s place in the social hierarchy would appear to be their own fault, the result of their own actions or merits (or lack thereof).

As Will Davies points out in an important article entitled “The New Neoliberalism,” the next stage of the development of neoliberalism happened when historically center-left parties like the Democrats or UK Labour took up the agenda. Their goal, once in power, was to make the market’s claim to sort people into deserving winners and losers appear to be actually true. With an awareness of historic injustices and systemic discrimination, they sough to “level the playing field” to give every individual—no matter how disadvantaged their background—the opportunity to compete and win.

This approach had some real if modest successes in diversifying the professions, for instance, but it exposed a crucial difference between the two wings of the neoliberal party. By the time of Bill Clinton, there was widespread, almost unquestioned consensus on the need for a market-based society, but there was growing, if often unacknowledged, disagreement on what the market-based society was for. There is perhaps no better symbol of this disagreement than the alternation between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—both social climbers from disadvantaged backgrounds, both the sons of single mothers—and George W. Bush and Donald Trump—both sons of privilege who were literally named after their wealthy and powerful fathers. Where Democrats sought to make sure that privilege within the social hierarchy was really deserved, Republicans viewed diversity-seeking interventions as illegitimate interference with a social hierarchy that was already justified as it stood. (Neither, of course, questioned the need for social hierarchy—that would be Communism or something.)

Part II: Okay, Right-Wing Populism is Arguably Kind of a Thing
We must now confront one of the key terms of contemporary political discourse: populism. As a scholar of neoliberalism who constantly has to put up with false accusations that the term is meaningless, I am more than a little offended by the widespread acceptance of “populism.” There appears to be no clear definition and no attempt to find one. If we start from the position that it identifies the overlap between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, then it means literally nothing, because those two have nothing in common. At its most superficial, it seems to name anyone who is too “extreme”—usually meaning anyone who rejects the neoliberal consensus. But even that is misleading. Sanders really did seek to break with the model of the market-saturated society by providing unconditional support for things like health care and education. Trump, on the other hand, is in deep continuity with the right-wing neoliberal tradition. Hence, perhaps, the fact that Sanders was excluded from institutional power by any means necessary whereas Trump was allowed to take office despite his obvious unfitness and failure to win the popular vote.

This is not to say that Trump does not represent anything new. He does, and the use of a new term is appropriate. Since neo-neoliberalism would be clunky, I will settle for right-wing populism. Broadly speaking, I would say two things distinguish right-wing populism from “classic” neoliberalism: paranoia and trolling. I will address both in turn.

Populism as Paranoia
Strictly speaking, paranoia is nothing new among neoliberals. Friedman and Hayek saw in the postwar economic settlement a conspiracy to impose Soviet-style communism on the unsuspecting masses, and as I have already mentioned, Reagan fomented racist paranoia about Black people supposedly defrauding a welfare system they had only recently been granted access to. What is new is that the right-wing populist confronts a world in which neoliberalism has already won. Nevetheless, he sees much that is lacking. We were supposed to have a utopia of free competition, and yet the wrong people keep on winning—indeed, trauma of traumas, a Black man somehow wound up as president! Clearly someone must be cheating!

The goal then becomes to unrig the system so that it produces the right winners once again. Trump’s deviations from neoliberal best practices should be understood in that light. From the perspective of a committed neoliberal, tarriffs and other barriers to trade are undesirable deviations from the market ideal—the nations should have to compete on an equal footing. The goal, as Slobodian documents, was to reinforce the old colonial hierarchy of nations while maintaining plausible deniability: the colonizer nations would have an unbeatable head-start, and colonized nations could always be told to compete even harder if they wanted to get ahead. Yet Trump looks around at the world and notices that America is not “winning” in proportion to its awesomeness. Hence the neoliberal economic order—which was created and enforced by America—must somehow be cheating the US. Giving the US what seem to be unfair advantages therefore serves to “level the playing field” from the populist perspective.

On the level of international competition, populism is reacting to something baked into “classic” neoliberalism, regardless of which party is in charge. When it comes to the populist approach to the hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality, by contrast, the populist is trying to counter the specifically center-left version of neoliberalism. Within that version of the neoliberal project, the goal was to “level the playing field” by compensating for the effects of historic injustices. Often this took the form of allowing individuals to parlay a disadvantageous social position into some form of preferential treatment. While these measures would do precious little for the communities involved, they did provide some individuals with competitive advantages they otherwise would not have. The hope was that eventually the benefits of greater professional advancement from individuals in disadvantaged groups would produce a situation where the historic injustice had been fully compensated for and everyone could compete “normally” without reference to their group identity.

Obviously that outcome has not occurred, nor is it likely to. That is in part because of relentless right-wing attacks on affirmative action, which has rendered it largely a dead letter in most settings. But it is also in part because of the fundamental mismatch between a systemic problem of discrimination and an individualistic solution of providing certain people with a leg up. Professions and political and corporate elites now really do “look like America,” or at least moreso than they ever have before. But that has resulted in precious little benefit to the communities from whom these talented individuals have been extracted. Predictably enough, the social climbers come to identify more with the power structure that has selected and promoted them than they do with those they left behind.

I don’t begrudge those individuals their success by any means, but this is hardly a revolution or transformative agenda—and obviously that’s the point. The social hierarchy remains largely undisrupted, but now the system has the plausible deniability of being able to point to individual success stories that show the obstacles can be overcome by individuals with enough talent and stick-to-it-iveness.

From the right-wing populist perspective, though, even this minor disruption to the hierarchy is not worth the humiliation of watching people rise above their proper station. Trump’s response to this perceived “problem” was predictably crass—by embracing the Birther conspiracy theory, he hoped to discredit Obama, arguably the greatest beneficiary of center-left meritocratic neoliberalism, as a cheater and a foreign agent. The approach of the new wave of right-wing populists at the state level, such as Ron DeSantis, has been more nuanced. They seek to “solve” historic grievances by erasing all knowledge of them. This is what the bans on so-called “critical race theory” ultimately amount to—a prohibition on teaching about the history of racism at all, even in passing. If no one knows about the history of discrimination, no one can claim to be disadvantaged by it.

Similarly, by removing abortion rights that safeguarded female autonomy and by forbidding the acknowledgment or even discussion of non-normative sexual and gender identities, they deprive women and sexual minorities of the “special treatment” that disrupted the traditional hierarchy with straight men at the top. None of these measures “directly” mandates the dominance of white straight males—they simply remove the supposed “unfair advantages” and assume that the hierarchy will reassert itself automatically, in good neoliberal fashion.

All this helps to clarify the meaning of “populism” in this context. It’s not about popularity—Trump has lost the popular vote twice and never achieved a positive approval rating, and the policies pursued by the state-level populists have inspired widespread revulsion. “Populism” is really about picking and choosing which people matter, whose concerns are valid and whose are special pleading. And this explains their disdain for democracy and alternation in power—if anyone but them wins, the result must be illegitimate, because they’re the only ones who count. If the people insists on voting for the wrong candidates and policies, perhaps the people must be dissolved and replaced with another.

Populism as Trolling
The strategies I have grouped together under the heading of paranoia are not, strictly speaking, new. They are intensified and they are responding to changed circumstances, but they broadly represent a return to the playbook of Ronald Reagan. By contrast, the phenomenon of politics as trolling does seem to me to be more authentically new—though it, too, is an outgrowth of the neoliberal regime.

Here I am inspired by a book called Democracy and Capitalism, written by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in 1986. Those were early days for the neoliberal consensus, and I was struck by how prescient they were about the ultimate outcomes of that system. Noting that the neoliberal regime insulates economic concerns from democratic tampering, Bowles and Gintis predict that citizens will perceive that they have very little ability to influence the course of events in their country. They predict three possible outcomes. First, people could simply give up on democracy and leave everything to the bankers and lawyers. Second, “A vigorous democratic political life might nonetheless survive, nourished by the concerns of the body politic not related to economic matters. Yet it seems probable that many might sense that little was at stake….” (191). Third, a lack of democratic legitimacy would likely increase the amount of coersion necessary to maintain the system, leading to a nationalist authoritarian takeover that would seek to reaffirm traditional hierarchies and sources of authority (193ff.).

Option #2 seems to me to correspond to what we call “the culture wars”—the set of moral and cultural issues that still seem to be up for debate in a world where serious economic transformation is off the table. Those issues were not enough to motivate mass political mobilization in the 90s and early 2000s, but with the rise of social media, more people became much more passionately engaged by such debates. This is the root cause, I believe, of what is sometimes called “political polarization”—people are approaching politics as a weird form of entertainment centered on in-group formation.

On the left, this in-group formation centers on generating a feeling of moral superiority based on talking about things in just the right way and denouncing people for deviating from those verbal formulas (which periodically change). This is what is known as political correctness or wokeness. On the right, in-group formation takes the form of trolling or “triggering the libs”—i.e., intentionally saying offensive things so they can watch liberals sputter in outrage. In principle, triggering the libs should be easy, because liberals—at least the online variety—are genuinely very prickly and easily offended. Yet the failure to engage in any genuine dialogue means that the aspiring provocateurs have very little understanding of what liberals actually care about. The tendency to double-down on offensiveness for its own sake also seems to produce an inexorable slide to the extreme right, leading to people musing about how maybe racism is true, maybe slavery wasn’t that bad, maybe Hitler had a point, etc.

I suspect that much of the conspiracy-mongering has the same strange purpose, as people are attracted to theories that offend liberals or paint them in a bad light as a form of entertainment, rather than a sincere belief. My key example here is Pizzagate, which claimed that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring out of a specific named pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. In the event, precisely one individual showed up to try to rescue the kids—perhaps indicating that no one else sharing posts about this widespread conspiracy theory took it seriously.

All of this could have remained an obnoxious, disturbing, but ultimately not very consequential trend—if Trump had not run for president and if the Electoral College had not delivered him into office. The result of that strange turn of events is that options #2 and #3 are both happening simultaneously, in a kind of quantum superposition. On the one hand, the right-wing populists really are pursuing authoritarian measures to reassert traditional hierarchies, and those measures will ruin lives and livelihoods, hurt people, and even kill people. Everything that is happening is very real and very dangerous. But I somehow don’t believe that they understand it’s real. It all seems to be executed in the style of trolling. It’s as though they’re play-acting as quasi-fascists for the benefit of horrified liberals, perpetually looking over their shoulders to taunt the rest of us: “Triggered much?” What matters isn’t producing results or success, so much as providing entertainment value for a “base” that is increasingly desensitized and needs more and more bigotry and destruction to gain the same thrill—much as one needs to gobble down more and more Doritos to get the same intense sensation from the flavor dust.

Given how unpopular, self-undermining, and willfully destructive the right-wing populist project is, it should be easy to shut it down—if only the Democrats did not believe we were living in Bowles and Gintis’s option #1. That was arguably the case in the 90s, when the leading lights of our increasingly feeble gerontocracy came of age, but somehow none of them are in a position to understand that things have changed. They seem to really believe that if they just wait long enough, the fever will break and we can get down to the bipartisan business of tinkering with the deficit. The result of this denialism is that a dangerous cancer continues to metastatize in our political system.

Epilogue: Toward a Post-Neoliberal World
How long can things go on like this? Probably longer than any of us think. Twice in my adult lifetime, we have experienced crises that should have prompted a total reconception of our political and economic life. Both the Global Financial Crisis and the pandemic were initially viewed as opportunities to break with the neoliberal consensus and create a more livable world. In both cases, the opportunity was decisively missed, and I have to assume the same thing will happen if the right wing fatally overreaches and causes widespread destruction. There is no crisis that can force us to do the right thing or that will automatically lead to positive change.

That’s unfortunate, because the mechanisms for political contestation are, by design, extremely limited in this great and terrible nation of ours. The system of checks and balances on the federal level as well as the bewildering distribution of power among state and local governments already makes it difficult enough to imagine seizing enough institutional power to drive real change. The stranglehold of the two-party system on the means of access to institutional power makes it nearly impossible. In principle, the Democrats should be able to largely exclude the Republicans from power on the federal level and in most of the states, but they clearly prefer to preserve the party duopoly rather than risk an unpredictable rebalancing of electoral forces that may result in the emergence of a more clearly left-wing, anti-market party.

And as for popular protest—the Iraq War protests, Women’s March, and George Floyd protests were each the biggest public protests in history, and none of them resulted in any durable change. More broadly, I have serious questions about whether the right to protest still exists in America, given the excessive response of police forces and the increasing tolerance of vigilante right-wing violence against protestors—such as driving cars into crowds of people, which some Republican state legislatures have tried to explicitly legalize. Meanwhile, Democrats have decisively rejected the “defund the police” agenda, doubling down on state violence as the system loses popular legitimacy. Just as you can’t vote against neoliberalism, you also can’t vote against the police.

On the one hand, a system that has to resort to violence on such a large scale is more or less openly confessing its illegitimacy. If America’s laws and power structures really were based on the consent of the governed, we would not need tens of thousands of heavily armed men and women patrolling the country, empowered to use deadly force at their sole discretion. On the other hand… there are in fact tens of thousands of heavily armed men and women patrolling the country, empowered to use deadly force at their sole discretion.

I’m going to be honest—I don’t know what to do about that. It’s a difficult and frightening thing to think about, especially in the wake of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s highly publicized attempt to fast-track the pardon of a right-wing vigilante who murdered a protestor. In Chicago, we just elected Brandon Johnson, a progressive mayor who wants to break with the pro-cop consensus, and the head of the police union threatened that up to 10% of Chicago police officers would resign in protest if he took office. I worry he may be too hemmed in to deliver on his promises, and more than that, I frankly worry for his personal safety. But even in the best case, he will only be the mayor of one big city in one state in a huge country.

So in terms of short-term tactics, I must admit that I’m at a loss. Maybe it was just never going to be the case that the brutal global hegemon would deliver redemptive politics. But in terms of long-term goals, I feel I’m on better footing. If we want to break with neoliberalism, it seems to me, we need to do the following things. Above all, we need to get out of the vicious cycle of competitive, zero-sum thinking. The endless churn of market-like competition in every area of life wastes our time and effort, saps our emotional resiliency, and divides us from each other. To overcome that, we need to change both our material reality and our habits of thought and action.

On the material level, we need to decommodify as many essential goods as possible. It makes sense to start with things like health care and education, which have traditionally been state responsibilities. We need to go further, though. The epidemic of homelessness and skyrocketing price of housing—along with the fact that instability in the housing market caused the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression—should indicate that leaving a basic condition of life like housing to the market is a bad idea. Proposals to implement universal basic income or other unconditional grants (like child tax credits) arguably decommodify our time and our labor, by decreasing our reliance on the job market for our livelihood. There’s probably even room for direct government production and provision of things like insulin, to permanently eliminate the possibility of price-gouging.

On the level of habits of thought and action, we need to practice democratic deliberation and collaboration more. We are, to be frank, terrible at talking to each other and cooperating to solve problems. Spaces where democratic deliberation and collaboration could take place tend to be moribund and therefore vulnerable to capture by malicious actors—think of what is happening on the level of local school boards, for instance. We need to do better at showing up and putting in the work in the spaces where democracy can still happen, and that will help us to recognize and seize opportunities to create more spaces like that. In the case of a university, for instance, reinvigorating faculty governance or student government could be a place to start. Running for local school boards or simply attending meetings could also help. I’m sure you can think of other opportunities in your local communities.

The crucial thing is that both the material changes and the increased practice in democracy go together and mutually reinforce each other. Why don’t people like the idea of removing things from market control? It’s because they don’t trust democracy. They prefer to let the impersonal mechanism of the market distribute things anonymously rather than trust their fellow citizens to make conscious decisions about who gets what. If people had more experience of democracy, they would trust it more. And if people lived in a world where more essential goods were provided unconditionally, apart from market competition, they would be less stressed out and more willing to experiment.

I don’t know how to get to there from here, and I don’t imagine that running for school board of showing up to a faculty meeting is going to be decisive. But we need to figure it out, because the alternative is a world where we are increasingly at the mercy of malicious trolls who want to ruin our lives for their own entertainment. I’ll admit it, I’m triggered by that. And I can’t help but wonder if the answer is to do them one better and give them something to cry about—to actually live out the egalitarian, anti-market principles they so despise and fear. The bitter irony, though, is that if we succeeded, we would not get to watch them suffer from our triggering behavior. Instead, we would create a better world for all of them, too, a world in which their hateful trolling and violent fantasies would appear as foolish and sad to them as they do to us. As things stand, we cannot convince them or defeat them on their own terms—we must change their lives.

3 thoughts on “Democracy between Neoliberalism and Populism

  1. “It’s how the world works. It’s how things are. It is simply reality.”

    Yes! And this has so far been a perennial characteristic of the American thing, hasn’t it? The unwavering radiance of our heart-felt vision of ourselves, the novus ordo seclorum? Neoliberalism may be a changeling, but the manger for it had been abuilding since year minus one, for “him”, I should say, “the infamy of Crete…the midnight’s enormity…our brother, our darling brother.”

    A couple of flash cuts from a receding galaxy:

    “America has always been the despair of the ideologues. It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one. European observers have long been impressed and bewildered by the failure of the United States to experience the deeply rooted and ardent class conflicts of the Old World and the variety of social ideologies that they produced.” (Hofstadter’s review of Hartz, 1955)

    “The liberals did not worship economic growth merely as a golden calf. They saw in it the possibility of solving social problems with the incremental resources created by growth. That will be done, they hoped, without the social conflict that would be inevitable if those resources had to be found by redistributing existing wealth…’Far greater gains were to be made by fighting to enlarge the size of the economic pie,’ one of President Johnson’s economic advisers wrote, ‘than by pressing proposals to increase equity and efficiency in sharing the pie.'” (Hodgson, “The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus”, 1976)

  2. The problems are well presented. I need a follow-up essay on the topic, “How not to sound like Chicken Little.” In other words, where is the necessary leadership? When one has everything one needs, the last thing you want is change.

Comments are closed.