Neoliberalism in the 2016 Election

Posted on October 7, 2016 by


Thousands of people turned out for the democratic caucus at East High School in Denver, Colorado.

“Imagine living under fascism or communism, or earlier, classical liberalism, and not being allowed to acknowledge that particular frame of reference to understand economic and social issues. Imagine living under Stalin and never using the communist framework but focusing only on personality clashes between his lieutenants, or likewise for Hitler or Mussolini or Mao or Franco and their ideological systems! But this curious silence, this looking away from ideology, is exactly what has been happening for a quarter century, since neoliberalism, already under way since the early 1970s, got turbocharged by the Democratic party under the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and Bill Clinton. We live under an ideology that has not been widely named or defined!” – Anis Shivani, Salon

Neoliberalism is a defining feature of our political system. It pervades domestic economic policy and global economic policy, and it carves out income inequality wherever it is instituted. Despite seemingly never-ending differences between the conservative right and the liberal left, both sides operate under the umbrella of neoliberalism, and, unless we can recognize what bipartisan neoliberalism is, we won’t be able to unpack the differences between Clinton and Trump.

What Is Neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism, as an economic theory, is an aggressive pursuit to deregulate and privatize the market, both nationally and internationally. Neoliberalism commodifies everyone and everything in its never-ending attempt to generate capital. It redefines people’s roles solely as producers and reshapes all interactions as economic market transactions. And it’s successful – lots of capital is generated! But we see the repercussions of the neoliberal system today, with wealth accumulating to the elite class and the working class suffering more and more, and so justified unrest and unhappiness has erupted across the working-class – both poor and middle class, of all ethnicities – as this group grapples with feelings of being left behind.

Trump and Clinton

Clinton, Trump pick up big wins

Trump has acknowledged and drawn on this dissatisfaction through the white working class. This a mostly rural group where many jobs have disappeared and funding has increasingly moved to the cities. The Republican Party has mostly ignored this population, and the Democratic Party has reoriented its policies in favor of minorities of color, neglecting the white working class. Unfortunately, Trump has employed racial insults and has disparaged minority groups in an effort to motivate the white working class, thereby ostracizing communities of color from his rallying cry. Trump places the blame for the economic collapse on foreign policy and trade agreements, promising to reorient the country as ‘America First’ and to bring home jobs. Trump’s closed borders and anti-trade positions are backlashes to neoliberalism, but Trump’s economic policies at home remain firmly neoliberal. Trump promises to cut taxes on individuals and businesses, repeal Obamacare and replace it with free market reform, and reduce business regulations. All of these proposals are fiercely neoliberal: they promote individual and corporate freedom through the deregulation and pursuit of the free market.

Ironically, although neoliberalism promotes freedom, privatization, and deregulation, it relies on a strong state to enact this kind of market, and Trump’s plan is no different. Of the tension between the free market and the strong state, Professor David Harvey writes:

“[Neoliberalism’s] theoretical framework is not, as several commentators have pointed out, entirely coherent. The scientific rigour of its neoclassical economics does not sit easily with its political commitment to ideals of individual freedom, nor does its supposed distrust of all state power fit with the need for a strong and if necessary coercive state that will defend the rights of private property, individual liberties, and entrepreneurial freedoms.”  – A Brief History of Neoliberalism

These contradictions leave enough room for neoliberalism to shift between contemporary Republican and Democratic ideology. Nixon and Reagan promoted neoliberalism through the death of Keynesianism, and Bill Clinton, in an effort to revive the Democratic Party , declared his allegiance to neoliberalism with his leadership of the New Democrats. The New Democrats  continued the deregulation of the market, acted ‘tough on crime’, enacted new trade agreements, and discouraged welfare. Bill Clinton expanded the vision of neoliberalism globally, strengthened the state, and gave the market more freedom. This global neoliberalism shaped the Republican presidencies after Bill Clinton, and has gained bipartisan support.


Hillary Clinton’s policies mostly follow that of Bill’s. She was pushed by the progressive left  to accommodate more social policies, but her trade policies and adherence to the global free market remain strong. Those of Hillary Clinton’s policy proposals that do not resemble strong neoliberal policy (taxation policy, debt-free college , etc.) look more like Keynesianism. And a Keynesianism state can exist within a global neoliberal economy. Free market trade can be promoted while the state manages its domestic economy with more regulation.

Is Neoliberalism here to stay?

Neoliberalism has created many of the problems we see today, and, in many ways, is the reason our candidates are promoting many of their policies. Ultimately, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are both deeply invested in the neoliberal economic order. Even though Trump condemns the excesses of global neoliberalism and Clinton criticizes the inequality in domestic neoliberalism, neither candidate recognizes the ideology itself. Neoliberalism is too pervasive for our candidates to face, and until the American public can acknowledge and face neoliberalism, we will have a hard time doing anything to change it.

Posted in: Uncategorized