On July 25, 1981, Michael Kinsley published an essay in The New Republic called "The Shame of the Democrats." The Democratic Party, the young Kinsley wrote, is viewed "with growing indifference." It is run "by lawyer-operators with no commitment to any particular political values." It is filled "with politicians who will do or say anything for a word or a dollar of support." It represents "a dwindling collection of special interest groups whose interests are less and less those of either the general populus or the tired and poor." In short, Kinsley wrote, "the Democratic Party has collapsed not just politically but morally."
And so began the era of neoliberalism, a movement which, at least temporarily, remade the Democratic Party, redefined American journalism and didn't really die until now.
In the early days, the neoliberals coalesced around two small magazines, The New Republic and The Washington Monthly. They represented, first of all, a change in intellectual tone. While the old liberals could be earnest and self-righteous, the neoliberals were sprightly and lampooning. While the old liberals valued solidarity, the neoliberals loved to argue among themselves, showing off the rhetorical skills many had honed in Harvard dining halls.
On policy matters, the neoliberals were liberal but not too liberal. They rejected interest-group politics and were suspicious of brain-dead unions. They tended to be hawkish on foreign policy, positive about capitalism, reformist when it came to the welfare state, and urbane but not militant on feminism and other social issues.
Never miss a local story.
The neoliberal movement begat politicians like Paul Tsongas, Al Gore (the 1980s and '90s version) and Bill Clinton. It also set the tone for mainstream American journalism. Today, you can't swing an ax in a major American newsroom without hitting six people who used to work at The New Republic or The Washington Monthly. Influenced by their sensibility, many major news organizations became neoliberal institutions, whether they knew it or not.
Neoliberals often have an air of perpetual youthfulness about them, but they are now in their 40s, 50s and even their 60s, and a younger generation of bloggers set off a backlash. If you surf the Web these days, for example, you find that a horde of thousands have declared war on the Time magazine columnist Joe Klein.
Kevin Drum, who is actually older than most bloggers, says the difference is generational. Klein's mindset, he says, was formed in the 1970s and 1980s, but "like most lefty bloggers, I only started following politics in a serious way in the late '90s." Drum says he's reacting to Ken Starr, the Florida ballot fight, the Bush tax cuts, the K Street Project and the war in Iraq.
Drum and his cohort don't want a neoliberal movement that moderates and reforms. They want a Democratic Party that fights. Their tone is much more confrontational. They want to read articles that affirm their anger. They are also further to the left, driven there by Iraq on foreign policy matters and by wage stagnation on economic matters.
For the past few years, The New Republic has tried to keep the neoliberal flame alive, under editors like Peter Beinart. But there is no longer a readership for that. The longtime owner, Marty Peretz, has sold his remaining interests and, starting this month, the magazine will go biweekly.
The new format is partly a response to the Web. The forthcoming issue has a lot of good, long, nonideological reports. (Ryan Lizza has a fascinating piece on Barack Obama's Chicago years.) But it's also a shift leftward. As the new editor, Frank Foer, says, there's a generation gap within the magazine, with young interns further to the left. That's where the future lies. Foer is hiring the Ph.D. neopopulist Thomas Frank to write essays on the presidential campaign. Recent editorials have called for tax increases to finance universal health care. The magazine now habitually calls on Democrats to take bold action on things like the war and global warming, but it's still a little fuzzy on what that bold action should be.
Overall, what's happening is this: The left, which has the momentum, is growing more uniform and coming to look more like its old, pre-neoliberal self. The right is growing more fractious. And many of those who were semiaffiliated with one party or another are drifting off to independent-land. (The Economist, their magazine, now has more than 500,000 U.S. readers - more than all of the major liberal magazines combined.)
Neoliberalism had a good, interesting run - while it lasted.
David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, can be reached at: New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.