How the "Third Way" Made Neoliberal Politics Seem InevitableRoundup
tags: Bill Clinton, neoliberalism, political history, political economy, Tony Blair, New Democrats, Third Way
Lily Geismer is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and the author of Left Behind: The Democrats’ Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality.
“Each age has its cliché,” the historian Tony Judt declared in The New York Times in 1998. “Ours is the ‘third way.’” Judt’s pronouncement seems slightly strange from the vantage of 2022, when the “third way” has largely vanished from political discussion, even when it addresses the legacy of the ’90s.
Still, Judt’s comment captured how much the term loomed over everyday political discourse at the turn of the 21st century. It signaled the coming of age of a new generation that yearned to break free from the brittle orthodoxies of the old political order and develop a triangulation (to borrow another term from the ’90s centrist lexicon) of policy and rhetoric. This new formulation could purportedly resist both the laissez-faire orthodoxy of the right and the rigid statism of the left, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the long-standing hostilities of the Cold War. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair euphorically announced, third-way thinking was “not old left or new right, but a new center and center-left governing philosophy for the future.” In the late 1990s, Bill Clinton would join Blair and other European leaders at a series of international retreats that sought to solidify this project and create a new global political consensus.
But even as it gained cachet among this emerging class of centrist-minded visionaries, the third way drew skeptical appraisals from detractors both left and right, who justly assailed its ambiguity and lack of substance. The Economist derisively stated in 1998, “Trying to pin down an exact meaning is like wrestling an inflatable man. If you get a grip on one limb, all the hot air rushes to another.” Jeff Faux of the Economic Policy Institute likewise noted that while “Clinton and Blair are two of the most articulate politicians of the age…their definitions of the third way leave the observer without a clue as to what it means.”
Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss the third way as just another errant fad in a fickle decade. For all its imprecision and shallowness, the third way represented a genuine shift in thinking about the role of government and ideology. It emerged from the efforts of political thinkers and leaders across the West to move beyond the divisions of the Cold War and face the new challenges of globalization and the information age. Through it all, third-way thinkers and leaders insisted that they had also transcended the stingy and regressive neoliberalism of the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions. In reality, the third-way legacy clearly upgraded the policy assumptions of neoliberalism for a new era of information-age capitalism—and many of its central goals, from public-private economic partnerships to the lax regulation of the financial and tech sectors, continue to drive policy-making across the globe.
The third way also proved instrumental to another key post–Cold War undertaking: discrediting and marginalizing movement-based coalitions on the left, stigmatizing them as holdovers from the recently resolved—in capitalism’s favor—postwar clash of ideologies. In many ways, the most lasting legacy of the third way may well be its determination to consign the political left to the dustbin of history, setting the stage for the new millennial age of reaction and crisis.