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Paul Tsongas Digital Archives

Election to Congress and the Birth of NeoLiberalism

In the post-Watergate election of 1974, an astonishing wave of 75 new freshman Democrats, termed the “Watergate babies,” were elected into the House of Representatives. Among the newly elected were Henry Waxman, Christopher Dodd, Timothy Wirth, Paul Simon, Tom Harkin, Max Baucus, and Paul Tsongas. Several of these new members won seats long held by Republican incumbents, including Tsongas, who became the first Democratic member of Congress from the 5th District of Massachusetts in nearly 90 years. Fewer than half of the freshman members had any previous legislative experience. Two that did, Baucus and Tsongas, were the first to move quickly into the Senate, both winning elections in 1978.

Many in this freshman group credited John Kennedy as their inspiration for public service. A few, such as Dodd and Tsongas, were early Peace Corps volunteers. All were elected as reformers in the wake of Watergate and all were committed to ending the war in Vietnam. They were also all determined to change the Democratic Party and national politics along with it. As William Schneider explains, in one of the numerous studies of this historical shift in American politics, “A new kind of liberal emerged out of this context: unorthodox, reform-minded, iconoclastic, and staunchly independent of Democratic Party tradition.”  What resulted was the neoliberal movement, which, David Brooks argued in 2007, “remade the Democratic Party, redefined American journalism and didn’t really die until now.”

What came to define neoliberalism was the deliberate move away from Democratic liberal ideology with its devotion to traditional interest groups towards more pragmatic approaches to problem solving. A central premise was a commitment to economic solutions through better cooperation between government, business, and labor. In addition, influenced by President Kennedy, neoliberals emphasized national service along with new technologies, education, and research as  better means to providing economic growth and solving social ills than reliance on big government programs, which had become the defining face of liberalism by the 1970s.

“Before there was such a word,” wrote Victor Ferkiss, professor of government at Georgetown, “neoliberalism could have been inaugurated by Senator Paul Tsongas” when he delivered the keynote address to the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) convention on June 14, 1980, a few months before Jimmy Carter lost the Presidential election to Ronald Reagan. In his ADA speech and in op-ed pieces that immediately followed Tsongas warned that liberalism risked “becoming a relic of the 1960’s” unless it “evolves to meet urgent new issues.”  The speech was “the first salvo,” according to an Esquire cover story by Randall Rothenberg, “in the neoliberal’s war for the soul of the Democratic party.”  Numerous editorial responses soon followed from the likes of Arthur Schlesinger, David Broder, Richard Goodwin, and Ellen Goodman. Tsongas had “created a stir,” Rothenberg wrote in his book about neoliberals, “that never really subsided.”