In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Neoliberalism in US Politics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals

Political Science Neoliberalism in US Politics
Matthew Dean Hindman, Andrew Noland
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0284


In the waning decades of the 20th century, inequalities of wealth and political influence intensified amid what many scholars recognize as a “New Gilded Age.” Scholars point to manifold reasons for these inequalities, including globalization, the declining strength of organized labor, corporate political activity, a shrinking public sector, and tax reforms favoring the wealthy, to cite only a few. These various drivers of inequality, though, did not arise in isolation; an intelligible governing ethos underlies these various phenomena. This ethos is marked by its promotion of private-sector solutions to collective problems vis-à-vis government-led ones, its deference to markets vis-à-vis coordinated collective action, and its focus on entrepreneurialism and consumerism in nearly all facets of life. These features of contemporary political life all cohere into a concept recognized as “neoliberalism.” Depending on whom you ask, this term either helpfully assigns a logic to the amalgam of political problems confronting governance in the 21st century or, alternatively, serves as yet another hackneyed buzzword du jour. This article takes the former perspective, casting neoliberalism as a useful concept uniting a ranging of phenomena of which scholars of US politics ought to be familiar. This article describes and categorizes scholarship on neoliberalism according to three interrelated definitions of the term. Neoliberalism is: (1) a historical and intellectual trajectory that emerged in response to postwar Keynesianism; (2) a political project designed to foster a business-friendly social and political climate; and (3) an endeavor to transform citizenship itself. This article builds on these three characterizations, outlining the major works that explore and explain how neoliberal principles have impacted US politics, policy, and civic life. Scholarship on neoliberalism is vast and wide-ranging. Most of the works cited throughout this article explicitly note the influence of neoliberalism on one aspect or another of American life. Some works, however, uncover a critical aspect of neoliberalism without explicitly accepting or even mentioning the term itself. Collectively, however, these works will give readers a stronger grasp on what neoliberalism is and how the trends and principles associated with it have taken root within US politics and society.

General Overviews

Readers looking to understand neoliberalism and neoliberalization as they relate to US politics ought to begin by learning how the term is defined and how it circulates within academic discourse. The term is widely used among scholars and critical theorists on the left who reject the intellectual and political underpinnings of capitalism’s recent developments in the Anglo-American sphere and beyond. Harvey 2005 provides perhaps the most widely accepted starting point for understanding neoliberalism’s intellectual and political emergence; indeed, scholars nearly universally cite this work wherever they introduce the term. Readers interested in a shorter—if more polemic—primer from the same renown critical geographer may wish to start with Harvey 2007. Peck 2010 provides a similarly broad-yet-accessible account of neoliberalism’s intellectual and political emergence; its author has also written prolifically on the topic. Readers looking to focus on the distinctly American flavor(s) of neoliberalism may look first to Brown 2006 and Duggan 2003. The former compares and contrasts the types of neoliberalism that had emerged by the early 21st century in both of the U.S.’s major political parties. The latter explores neoliberalism as it relates to American cultural politics. Readers searching for a critique of neoliberalism’s emergence as a term or field of study should look to Venugopal 2015. It offers a rare engagement with the term from an economist who claims that the term is overburdened and overused. Together, these works offer an entryway into the vast array of scholarship on neoliberalism.

  • Brown, Wendy. “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization.” Political Theory 34.6 (2006): 690–714.

    DOI: 10.1177/0090591706293016

    Explores the relationship between neoliberalism and its moralizing cousin “neoconservatism.” Provides a sophisticated account of the ideological ethos that guided the George W. Bush administration.

  • Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Boston: Beacon, 2003.

    Overviews how neoliberalism intersects with what are often cast as “cultural issues” or “identity politics.” Argues that neoliberalism obscures the relationship between different aggrieved groups and identities, making class solidarity—and therefore economic equality—more difficult.

  • Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Widely known as the best book-length overview of the dynamics of neoliberalism to date. Accessible to undergraduates and scholars in all fields. Describes neoliberalism in both a transatlantic and global perspective. Suitable for undergraduate students, graduate students, and scholars alike.

  • Harvey, David. “Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction.” ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 610.1 (2007): 21–44.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716206296780

    Frames neoliberalism as a scheme devoted to restoring upper-class dominance and capital accumulation rather than a utopian project guided by a capitalist intelligentsia. Offers perspective about American state-building abroad, from Chile to Iraq. Isolates four central elements of this broader neoliberal political project: privatization, financialization, management and manipulation of crises, and upward redistribution.

  • Peck, Jamie. Constructions of Neoliberal Reason. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199580576.001.0001

    Focuses both on neoliberalism’s central academic proponents and some of its “out of character moments” and “banal manifestations” in order to portray neoliberalism as a fundamentally constructed project. Suitable for graduate students first coming to understand the term.

  • Venugopal, Rajesh. “Neoliberalism as Concept.” Economy and Society 44.2 (2015): 165–187.

    DOI: 10.1080/03085147.2015.1013356

    Useful for understanding standard critique of the term “neoliberalism.” Argues that the term lacks coherence and is used primarily by non-economists to dismissively cast morally-laden assumptions upon economic theory.

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