With the presidential election less than three months away, how are our nominees doing on climate change? Donald Trump rarely mentions climate. When he does, he mocks it. Hillary Clinton? She’s excited to say that she believes in climate change, while condoning fracking and lauding the deeply flawed Paris agreement. Still, we know that we need Hillary, and we must do everything we can to elect her. Most importantly—our movement must be more powerful than ever to push Hillary into the climate leadership that the earth demands.
How can the climate movement develop the political power to fight effectively?
To glean a few answers, I looked to what I regard as one of the most successful examples of social change in the modern era: the neoliberal coup. Between 1975 and 2008, an ideological movement called “neoliberalism” evolved from fringe theory into the dominant economic paradigm of our age, with great help from the Republican Party, and then, the Democrats as well.
Although the GOP is currently a global symbol of cynicism and desperation, it was not always so. The party apparatus facilitated a massive historical transformation over the course of several decades. The climate movement has no shortage of profound ideas, so my question is: What can the climate movement learn from the Republicans’ neoliberal coup?
FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND
Neoliberalism’s rise is well documented in books like Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste, by Philip Mirowski, and A Brief History of Neoliberalism, by David Harvey. What I share here is merely the surface of an incredible story of social change.
Economist Friedrich Hayek convened the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) in 1947 to develop an economic and social vision that would inoculate society from totalitarianism and collectivism. The idea was to make a decisive break from the state-centric regimes and ideologies of the first half of the 20th century. Hayek’s view held that individual freedom depended on replacing the state with the market as the means of economic coordination. The “invisible hand” of the market, he believed, produced more efficient and effective solutions along with more motivated, competitive, and autonomous people. The new body of theory that elaborated these ideas came to be called neoliberalism.
For decades, neoliberal economists were considered fringe theorists and excluded from Washington’s policy elite. The successes of the New Deal, and later the war effort, persuaded Americans that public institutions could meet shared societal challenges. In 1958, 73 percent of Americans trusted their government.
All that changed in the 1970’s. Stagflation—high unemployment, high inflation, and stagnant growth—gripped the US economy. Keynesian policies did little to alleviate the crisis. Many began to criticize government interventions for compounding the problem. Hayek and his American protégé Milton Friedman won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974 and 1976 respectively, raising the profile and legitimacy of the neoliberal doctrine that had been developing in the shadows for 30 years. Friedman was accepted into the inner circle of policy-oriented economic advisers, and Washington began to turn to his neoliberal frameworks. As Friedman explained, “when the time came that you had to change…there was an alternative ready there to be picked up.”