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NPR's History Podcast 'Throughline' Explains The Influence Of Neoliberalism

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For more than 40 years, one of the biggest influences on American politics has been the ideology known as neoliberalism. It holds that markets not government can solve most of society's problems, and it emphasizes personal responsibility. Neoliberalism has become so pervasive, it's reshaped the kind of relationships ordinary Americans have to their government and to each other. Producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson of NPR's history podcast Throughline has more.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: It's 1992. Republicans have been in the White House for 12 years, first with Ronald Reagan, then George H. W. Bush. This has the Democratic Party looking inward, wondering why they keep losing. They decide that some of their core values and policies, some of them dating back to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal - things like welfare, labor unions and government oversight - are bringing them down. And they want to win.

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LILY GEISMER: Bill Clinton is part of this orbit of Democrats.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This is Lily Geismer, a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College.

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GEISMER: He's the governor of Arkansas. He becomes governor quite young, and he's trying to kind of bring in new solutions.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The Democrats see Clinton as a possible new beginning for them, and so they nominate him with the hopes of leading the party to victory.

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GEISMER: Bill Clinton wins in 1992, wins back a lot of the kind of white moderate suburbanites and white lower-middle-class and working-class voters who've been kind of drifting towards the Republican Party.

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BILL CLINTON: This election is a clarion call for our country to face the challenges of the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the next century...

(CHEERING)

CLINTON: ...To restore growth to our country and opportunity to our people, to empower our own people so that they can take more responsibility for their own lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GEISMER: So many of the bills have the word responsibility in them (laughter) because there's this idea of, like, government will be responsible in some ways. But, like, it's a reciprocal relationship that people have to be responsible for themselves.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: So, like, we'll help you but only up to a point. Then you're on your own, but you'll be better off because you'll be able to make more money that way than living off a government handout. This thinking basically describes Clinton's signature Welfare to Work reform, which pulled the plug on welfare services after two years.

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CLINTON: It gives us a chance we haven't had before to break the cycle of dependency that has existed for millions and millions of our fellow citizens, exiling them from the world of work that gives structure, meaning and dignity to most of our lives.

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GEISMER: Another famous nail in the coffin a New-Deal liberalism passed under Clinton is the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Glass-Steagall was a signature law of the New Deal era, created in direct response to the 1929 stock market crash. The main goal of the act was to not let that ever happen again by severing ties between banking and investing activities. But when key provisions of the law repealed under Clinton to boost the economy, his message was loud and clear.

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CLINTON: The era of big government is over.

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GEISMER: And so you have a Democratic president saying that, and that sounds very similar to what Ronald Reagan was saying.

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RONALD REAGAN: Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.

CLINTON: I say again, the era of big government is over.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: By the 1990s, the Democratic and Republican parties seemed to be moving in lockstep, at least when it came to economic policy. And after Clinton, the next Democratic president would pick up right where he left off.

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BARACK OBAMA: I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America.

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GEISMER: I think in many ways, Obama's policies were a continuation of the kind of Clinton approach. Many of the people who were in the Clinton White House came back under Obama, and many of the programs the Obama administration adopted were very pro-market and particularly pro-Wall Street.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: President Obama was all about the marketplace, whether it came to health care - because the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare is a marketplace for health care - or schools - because like Clinton, he was a huge charter school advocate. And also like Clinton, Obama was all about the hustle.

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OBAMA: We should support everyone who's willing to work and every risk-taker and entrepreneur who aspires to become the next Steve Jobs. Both parties agree on these ideas, so put them in a bill, and get it on my desk this year.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: He made regular visits to Silicon Valley and teased Mark Zuckerberg like an old friend.

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OBAMA: My name is Barack Obama, and I'm the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Republican and Democratic presidents talking about free markets, deregulation, individual responsibility, opportunity - these are all values inspired by this thing we call neoliberalism, a worldview and set of practices that these presidents may not have outright called themselves by but nonetheless has shaped their policies, making these rival political parties look more alike than different. And that's changed our society, our culture. Lily Geismer sees this on college campuses every day, where students are consumed by this idea of entrepreneurship and see the appeal of working for yourself, depending on yourself, even if that means driving for a ride share service like Lyft or Uber.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GEISMER: You're in charge of yourself and that you're your own actor and that there's not this sort of safety net looking out for you and that you're somehow, like, empowered by that experience and, like, setting your own hours. But on the other side of that is that you don't have the kind of typical protections in place, that you have no job security. You have no overtime. You have no health benefits. We're all doing lots of work - and the idea that we're, like, more empowered by it (laughter). But, like, in fact, it's like - it's creating other kinds of precarity and stress.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: The reality is we live in a country that's fully embraced the idea that the market can solve most of our problems. It's part of our national identity. And according to UC Berkeley poly sci professor Wendy Brown, it's creeped into our own personal identities and has gotten inside our own heads.

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WENDY BROWN: You might think, well, I could take a vacation, but that would actually depreciate my chances of being noticed in the following six ways at work or in the dating scene or something like that. And it might depreciate my value in those domains, so this is not the right thing to do. Now, what's happened there? What's happened is that you have a human being who is thinking about everything they do in terms of their human capital value being enhanced or depreciated.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Brown says this way of thinking has been creeping into our society and politics for the past 40 or so years, and it's only recently that she sees us possibly moving in a new direction.

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BROWN: What we see now is a pretty big turn away from economic fundamentals of neoliberalism, and Biden said it explicitly.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My fellow Americans, trickle down - trickle down economics has never worked.

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BROWN: That was the first real shot across the bow against Reaganomics that we have had from a presidential podium in 40 years, and that is a hard turn against neoliberalism. But digging it out of the culture - that's another story.

KELLY: And that story from producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson of the NPR podcast Throughline. You can hear the whole episode wherever you listen to podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.