However, the idea that neoliberalism was a variety of liberalism was always fragile, given that neoliberalism embraced the free-market principles that liberals were so wary of. In the early ’80s, Charles Peters, the editor of the Washington Monthly, helped usher in the new flavor of the word, as well as its reception from the left, with his aggressive “A Neo-Liberal’s Manifesto.” Those New Republic writers also brandished their self-appellation as neoliberals, in contrast to the mockingly termed paleoliberals. It furthered the sense of neoliberals as conservatives in sheep's clothing that they also opposed the basic liberal position on race issues—Bill Clinton’s welfare-reform policy, for example, was an outgrowth of neoliberal positions established in the 1980s, heartily espoused by, for example, The New Republic. Overtones, then, took effect—for liberals, “neoliberal” quickly took on the heartless, Hooverian odor that “conservative” already had.
This exemplifies a general process, whereby an old association hovering in the air settles down on a term designed to suppress it. Crippled was once a respectable term, but became so accreted with unsavory, dismissive assumptions that handicapped was brought in as a replacement. However, the same assumptions encrusted that word soon enough, as they also did with the replacement term disabled. Today’s substitutes such as differently abled will certainly suffer the same fate. Until the thoughts being described change, new words intended to teach new perspectives are like the sun on a hazy day, piercing through the clouds only for a spell. The very term that Clinton used, welfare, had once been called home relief more often by ordinary people, but that rapidly became a term of near-abuse. Since the 1990s, cash assistance has become the term of art, in alternation in policy circles with the almost deliberately faceless TANF (pronounced “tannif”), the acronym for Temporary Aid for Needy Families.
Since the Great Recession put the free market in an especially bad light, the new sense of neoliberal as a stain has settled in for good. Those familiar with the term through the writings of Lippmann, Hayek, or Friedman, once treated as “respectable” by many liberals, might now be confused by tart descriptions of neoliberalism such as the immigration activists Elizabeth Martinez and Arnoldo Garcia’s flinty, contemptuous checklist of neoliberal principles, which includes “the rule of the market,” “cutting expenditures for social services,” “deregulation,” “privatization, and “eliminating the concept of ‘the public good’ or ‘community.’”
Despite the liberal component of the word neoliberal, few would recognize much of it that is associated conventionally with liberalism, such that the economist and columnist Oliver Hartwich recently designated neoliberalism a “political swearword.” Today, neoliberal is used to refer to someone who bills themselves as a liberal but promotes ideas that actually inhibit individuals’ well-being. In the 1930s, the neo- in neoliberal meant “new.” But with this new meaning, the neo- prefix takes on a more specific connotation: “fake.”