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The neoliberal order that triumphed in America in the 1990s prized free trade and the free movement of capital, information, and people. It celebrated deregulation as an economic good that resulted when governments could no longer interfere with the operation of markets. It hailed globalization as a win-win position that would enrich the west (the cockpit of neoliberalism) while also bringing an unprecedented level of prosperity to the rest of the world. A remarkable consensus on these creedal principles came to dominate American politics during the heyday of the neoliberal order, binding together Republicans and Democrats and marginalizing dissenting voices to the point where they barely mattered.Somewhat paradoxically, this broad agreement on matters of political economy nurtured two strikingly different moral perspectives, each of them consonant with the commitment to market principles that underlay the neoliberal order. The first perspective was ‘neo-Victorian’, celebrating self-reliance, strong families, and disciplined attitudes toward work, sexuality, and consumption.These values were necessary, this moral perspective argued, to gird individuals against market excess – accumulating debt by buying more than one could afford and indulging appetites for sex, drugs, alcohol, and other whims that free markets could be construed as sanctioning. Since neoliberalism frowned upon government regulation of private behavior, some other institution had to provide it. Neo-Victorianism found that institution in the traditional family – heterosexual, governed by male patriarchs, with women subordinate but in charge of homemaking and childrearing.Such families, guided by faith in God, would inculcate moral virtue in its members and prepare the next generation for the rigors of free market life. Gertrude Himmelfarb, Irving Kristol, George Gilder, and Charles Murray were among the intellectuals guiding this movement, the legions of evangelical Christians mobilized in Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority its mass base.The other moral perspective encouraged by the neoliberal order was cosmopolitan. A world apart from neo-Victorianism, it saw in market freedom an opportunity to fashion a self or identity that was free of tradition, inheritance, and prescribed social roles. In the United States this moral perspective drew energy from liberation movements originating in the new left – black power, feminism, multiculturalism, and gay pride among them.Cosmopolitanism was egalitarian and pluralistic. It rejected the notion that the patriarchal, heterosexual family should be celebrated as the norm. It embraced globalization and the free movement of people, and the transnational links that the neoliberal order had made possible. It valorized the good that would come from diverse peoples meeting each other, sharing their cultures, and developing new and often hybridized ways of living. It celebrated the cultural exchanges and dynamism that increasingly characterized the global cities – London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Toronto, Miami among them – flourishing under the aegis of the neoliberal order.The existence of two such different moral perspectives was both a strength and a weakness for the neoliberal order. The strength lay in the order’s ability to accommodate within a common program of political economy very different constituencies with radically divergent perspectives on moral life. The weakness lay in the fact that the cultural battles between these two constituencies might threaten to erode the hegemony of neoliberal economic principles.The cosmopolitans attacked neo-Victorians for discriminating against gay people, feminists, and immigrants, and for stigmatizing the black poor for their so-called “culture of poverty”. The neo-Victorians attacked the cosmopolitans for tolerating virtually any lifestyle, for excusing what they deemed to be deplorable behavior as an exercise in the toleration of difference, and for showing a higher regard for foreign cultures than for America’s own. The decade of the neoliberal order’s triumph – the 1990s – was also one in which cosmopolitans and neo-Victorians fought each other in a series of battles that became known as the “culture wars”. In fact, a focus on these cultural divisions is the preferred way of writing the political history of these years.Just beneath this cultural polarization, however, lay a fundamental agreement on principles of political economy. This intriguing coexistence of cultural division and economic accord manifested itself in the complex relationship between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. In the media, they were depicted (and depicted themselves) as opposites, sworn to each other’s destruction. Clinton offered himself as the tribune of the new America, one welcoming of racial minorities, feminists, and gays. He was thought to embody the spirit of the 1960s and something of the insurgent, free-spirited character of the new left. Gingrich presented himself as the guardian of an older and “truer” America, one grounded in faith, patriotism, respect for law and order, and family values. Gingrich publicly pledged himself and his party to obstructing Clinton at every turn. Clinton, meanwhile, regarded Gingrich as the unscrupulous leader of a vast right-wing conspiracy to undermine his presidency.Yet, despite their differences and their hatred for each other, these two Washington powerbrokers worked together on neoliberal legislation that would shape America’s political economy for a generation. They both supported the World Trade Organization, which debuted in 1995 to turbocharge a global regime of free trade. Their aides jointly engineered the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which did more than any other piece of legislation in the 1980s and 1990s to free the most dynamic sector of the US economy from government regulation.Major pieces of legislation deregulating the electrical generation industry and Wall Street followed closely in the telecom bill’s wake. Clinton and Gingrich also worked together to pare back the welfare state, sharing a conviction that the tough, disciplining effects of job markets would benefit the poor more than state-subsidized “handouts”. Clinton’s collaboration with Gingrich had facilitated the neoliberal order’s triumph.That order is now on the wane, its once unassailable principles of free trade, free markets, and the free movement of people now disputed on a daily basis. Meanwhile, public attention focuses on yet another chapter in the culture wars, with the American people divided, irredeemably it seems, over vaccination, critical race theory, and whether Donald Trump should be lauded as an American hero or jailed for acts of treason.Yet, beneath the churn, one can detect hints of new common ground on economic matters emerging. Trump and Bernie Sanders have both worked to turn the country away from free trade and toward a protectionist future promising better jobs and higher wages. Senators Josh Hawley and Amy Klobuchar have both been warning the American people about the dangers of concentrated corporate power and the “tyranny of high tech”; and bipartisanship is driving movements in Congress to commit public funds to the nation’s physical infrastructure and to industrial policies deemed vital to economic wellbeing and national security. It is too soon to know whether these incipient collaborative efforts indicate that a new kind of political economy is in fact taking shape and, if it is, whose interests it will serve. But these developments underscore, once again, the importance of looking beyond and beneath the culture wars for clues as to where American politics and society might be heading.
Gary Gerstle is a Guardian US columnist. Excerpted and adapted from The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order: America and the World in the Free Market Era (Oxford University Press, 2022)
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