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  • Gary Gerstle


This paper argues that the last eighty years of American politics can be understood in terms of the rise and fall of two political orders. The first political order grew out of the New Deal, dominating political life from the 1930s to the 1970s. The history of this order (the New Deal Order) is now well known. The other order, best understood as ‘neoliberal’ in its politics, emerged from the economic and political crises of the 1970s. This paper is one of the first to elucidate the political relationships, ideological character and moral perspective that were central to this neoliberal order's rise and triumph. The paper's narrative unfolds in three acts: the first chronicles the 1980s rise of Ronald Reagan and the laissez-faire Republican party he forced into being; the second shows how the collapse of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s accelerated the globalization of capitalism and elevated neoliberalism's prestige; and the third reveals how a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, facilitated his party's capitulation to neoliberal imperatives. Political orders encourage such capitulation, the paper argues, by universalizing their own ideological principles and making alternative ideologies seem marginal and unworkable. A coda shows how the Great Recession of 2008 fractured America's neoliberal order, diminishing its authority and creating a space in which different kinds of politics, including the right-wing populism of Donald Trump and the left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders, could flourish.



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I wish to thank the Royal Historical Society, and its past and current presidents, Peter Mandler and Margot Finn, for persuading me to go public with my thoughts on American neoliberalism. I also wish to thank Sven Beckert, Steve Fraser, Art Goldhammer, Joel Isaac, Alex Jacobs, Ira Katznelson, Russ Kazal, Michael Kazin, Desmond King, Nelson Lichtenstein, Liz Lunbeck, Lisa McGirr, Jim Sparrow and an anonymous reader for the TRHS for their invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks, finally, to Jonathan Goodwin for his research assistance, to Andrew Spicer for expertly guiding this work from lecture to published paper and to Linda Randall for her copyediting.



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1 The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980, ed. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (Princeton, 1989), xi.

2 Gerstle, Gary, Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government from the Founding to the Present (Princeton, 2015), chs. 7 and 8; Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA, 2014).

3 Eisenhower to Edgar Newton Eisenhower, 8 Nov. 1954, The Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower, xv, The Presidency: The Middle Way (Baltimore, 1970–2001), 1386.

4 Jones, Daniel Stedman, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of a Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, 2014), 221.

5 My interpretation of Eisenhower dissents from the argument offered in Kevin Kruse's recent book, which places Eisenhower at the centre of America's post-war religious revival. Eisenhower did bring new forms of religious observance into government but did not partake of the fervour – or singlemindedness – that characterized the evangelical movement. See Kruse, Kevin M., One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York, 2015). My own view of religion and the public sphere in 1950s America is closer to that of Schultz, Kevin, Tri-Faith America: How Postwar Catholics and Jews Held America to its Protestant Promise (New York, 2011).

6 See Daniel Rodgers, ‘The Uses and Abuses of “Neoliberalism”’, Dissent (Winter 2018),; and the very interesting forum that appeared in response to Rodgers's essay: ‘Debating the Uses and Abuses of “Neoliberalism”: A Forum’, with comments by Julia Ott, Nathan Connolly, Mike Konczal and Timothy Shenk, and a reply by Daniel Rodgers, Dissent, 22 Jan. 2018., both accessed on 31 May 2018.

7 Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations (1776; New York, 1965).

8 See, for example, Sawyer, Stephen W., ‘An American Model for French Liberalism: The State of Exception in Edouard Laboulaye's Constitutional Thought’, Journal of Modern History, 4 (2013), 739–71; Sawyer, Stephen W., Demos Assembled: Democracy and the International Origins of the Modern State, 1840–1880 (Chicago, 2018), ch. 4.

9 See Gerstle, Gary, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, expanded edn, 2017), chs. 1 and 2; Gerstle, Gary, ‘Race and Nation in the Thought and Politics of Woodrow Wilson’, in Reconsidering Woodrow Wilson: Progressivism, Internationalism, War, and Peace, ed. Cooper, John Milton Jr (Washington, DC, and Baltimore, 2008), 93124.

10 Knock, Thomas, To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order (Princeton, 1995); Manela, Erez, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (New York, 2007).

11 On Jobs, see Isaacson, Walter, Steve Jobs (New York, 2013).

12 See, for example, Burgin, Angus, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression (Cambridge, MA, 2015); Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe; The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, ed. Philip Morowski and Dieter Plehwe (Cambridge, MA, 2009); Davies, William, ‘The New Neoliberalism’, New Left Review, 101 (2016),, accessed 1 June 2018; Slobodian, Quinn, The Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Cambridge, MA, 2018); and Brown, Wendy, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution (New York, 2015).

13 On Reagan's early years in politics, see Cannon, Lou, Reagan (New York, 1982); and Iwan Morgan, Reagan: American Icon (2016).

14 Ronald Reagan, ‘A Time for Choosing’ (speech at 1964 Republican Convention, 27 Oct. 1964), in Reagan, Ronald, A Time for Choosing: The Speeches of Ronald Reagan, 1961–1982 (Chicago, 1983), 43, 57.

15 Stein, Judith, How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s (New Haven, 2010); Cowie, Jefferson R., Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (New York, 2010); Jacobs, Meg, Panic at the Pump: The Economic Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s (New York, 2016); Rightward Bound: Making American Conservative in the 1970s, ed. Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer (Cambridge, MA, 2008).

16 Gerstle, Liberty and Coercion, ch. 10.

17 Morgan, Reagan, ch. 5.

18 Wills, Garry, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home (New York, 2000); Silverman, Debora, Selling Culture: Bloomingdale's, Diana Vreeland, and the New Aristocracy of Taste in Reagan's America (New York, 1989); Rogin, Michael, Ronald Reagan, The Movie, and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (Los Angeles, 1988).

19 On James Buchanan, see MacLean, Nancy, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America (New York, 2017).

20 As quoted in Phillips-Fein, Kim, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York, 2008), 245. For another neoliberal manifesto from the era, see Gilder, George, Wealth and Poverty (New York, 1981). See also Mayer, Jane, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right (New York, 2016); MacLean, Democracy in Chains; and Blumenthal, Sidney, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: The Conservative Ascent to Power (New York, 1986).

21 McCartin, Joseph A., Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America (New York, 2011); Lichtenstein, Nelson, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor (Princeton, 2013); Gerstle, Liberty and Coercion, ch. 10; Wilentz, Sean, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (New York, 2008).

22 On the persistence of Democratic party power and politics, see the essays in Zelizer, Julian E., The Revival of Political History (Princeton, 2012).

23 Wilentz, The Age of Reagan.

24 I have not been able to identify the first time I came across the phrase ‘communist century’, though I believe that the writer and historian Theodore Draper introduced me to it. For Draper's views on communism, see his The Roots of American Communism (New York, 1957), and American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period (1960; New York, 1986). Draper was a Trotskyist turned anti-communist.

25 Hobsbawm, Eric, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991 (New York, 1994); Westad, Odd Arne, The Cold War: A World History (New York, 2017); Westad, Odd Arne, The Global Cold War (Cambridge, 2007). On communism in America, see Klehr, Harvey, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (New York, 1985); Cochran, Bert, Labor and Communism: The Conflict that Shaped American Unions (Princeton, 1978); Schrecker, Ellen, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston, MA, 1998).

26 China had already opened itself to the West, a product of the rise of Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s, his repudiation of Maoism and his tentative rapprochement with the US in the 1980s. But the history of China's opening might have taken a different path in the 1990s were it not for the fall of the Soviet Union and, with it, of communist ideology, in 1991. On China's opening to the West and its economic rise, see Christensen, Thomas J., The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York, 2015).

27 On communism's strength in Europe, see Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes; Judt, Tony, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York, 2005).

28 Brinkley, Alan, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York, 1982); Gerstle, Liberty and Coercion, ch. 7.

29 Gerstle, Liberty and Coercion, ch. 8.

30 For important exceptions, see Harvey, David, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York, 2005); and Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System (2016).

31 Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History and the Last Man (1992; New York, 2006).

32 Frank, Thomas, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago, 1998).

33 See Wilentz, The Age of Reagan; and Stiglitz, Joseph E., The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World's Most Prosperous Decade (New York, 2003).

34 Lawrence H. Summers, ‘The Great Liberator’, New York Times, 19 Nov. 2006.

35 For the attack on big city machines by the Great Society's Community Action Program, see Matusow, Allen J., The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s, 1st edn (New York, 1984). On the New Left's contribution to neoliberalism's emergence, see Reuel Schiller, ‘Regulation and the Collapse of the New Deal Order or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Market’, and Paul Sabin, ‘Environmental Law and the End of the New Deal Order’, both in Beyond the New Deal Order, ed. Gary Gerstle, Nelson Lichtenstein and Alice O'Connor (Philadelphia, forthcoming).

36 Geismer, Lily, Don't Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Princeton, 2015).

37 Wilentz, The Age of Reagan, 323–407; George Gilder, whose 1981 book, Wealth and Poverty, had become a neoliberal bible, himself in the 1990s became ever more enamoured of the information technology revolution and the frontiers of market innovation it had put within human grasp. See, for example, Gary Rivlin, ‘The Madness of King George’, Wired, 1 July 2002,, accessed 1 June 2018.

38 Stiglitz, The Roaring Nineties, 91.

39 Steinfels, Peter, The Neoconservatives: The Origins of a Movement: From Dissent to Political Power (1979; New York, 2013); Friedman, Murray, The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy (Cambridge, 2005); The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol, ed. Christopher Demuth and William Kristol (Washington, DC, 1995); Alexander Jacobs, ‘Pessimism and Progress: Left Conservatism in Modern American Political Thought’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 2016).

40 Himmelfarb, Gertrude, The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (New York, 1994), 256.

41 Ibid., 257.

42 Among US historians, the term ‘Victorianism’ is often used as a shorthand for the kind of moral traditionalism that Himmelfarb was espousing. The term is deployed much less in this way by British historians, who now view British society during the long reign of Queen Victoria as composed of cultural and moral tendencies too diverse to be compressed into a morally conservative frame.

43 Hartman, Andrew, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago, 2015); Hughes, Robert, The Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America (New York, 1993). On the evangelical movement itself, see Fitzgerald, Frances, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (New York, 2017).

44 The suspicion of ‘lesser races’ mostly ran underground (the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s rendered the frank expression of such prejudice more problematic than it had previously been) but occasionally it surfaced. See, for example, Herrnstein, Richard J. and Murray, Charles, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York, 1994); and Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003).

45 This shared moral perspective may help solve the mystery of what bewildered Thomas Frank about Kansas, i.e., why the poor of his state seemed so willing to subordinate their class interests to those of the rich. Frank, Thomas, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York, 2004). See also Cooper, Melinda, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (New York, 2017); and Moreton, Bethany, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA, 2009).

46 On Clinton, see Chafe, William H., Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal (New York, 2012); Maraniss, David, First in his Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton (New York, 1995); and Charlotte Jeffries, ‘The Politics of Teenage Female Sexuality in the United States, 1981–2008’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge, 2017).

47 Cohen, Lizabeth, A Consumers Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York, 2003); Frank, The Conquest of Cool.

48 For a sampling of writings on the crash of 2008, and the factors causing it, see Panic! The Story of Modern Financial Insanity, ed. Michael Lewis (New York, 2009).

49 For an early effort by historians to reckon with the Obama presidency, see The Obama Presidency: A First Historical Assessment, ed. Julian E. Zelizer (Princeton, 2017).

50 On the Koch connection, see Mayer, Dark Money; and Jane Mayer, ‘The Danger of President Pence’, New Yorker, 23 Oct. 2017,, accessed 1 June 2018.

I wish to thank the Royal Historical Society, and its past and current presidents, Peter Mandler and Margot Finn, for persuading me to go public with my thoughts on American neoliberalism. I also wish to thank Sven Beckert, Steve Fraser, Art Goldhammer, Joel Isaac, Alex Jacobs, Ira Katznelson, Russ Kazal, Michael Kazin, Desmond King, Nelson Lichtenstein, Liz Lunbeck, Lisa McGirr, Jim Sparrow and an anonymous reader for the TRHS for their invaluable feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks, finally, to Jonathan Goodwin for his research assistance, to Andrew Spicer for expertly guiding this work from lecture to published paper and to Linda Randall for her copyediting.

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Transactions of the Royal Historical Society
  • ISSN: 0080-4401
  • EISSN: 1474-0648
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