Art by Sarah Mazzetti

The New Old Liberals

Neoliberalism had become a slur. A group of very online young politicos set out to change that.

June 10, 2024

On a Thursday evening in April, Jeremiah Johnson—a writer, podcaster, and political consultant—cracked a beer and settled in to host a two-hour Twitch stream on the “bad tweets” of the day. Behind him were two posters, one from an old political campaign that read “steer clear of the populist tides,” the other commemorating a Carly Rae Jepsen concert. Johnson—who is thirty-seven, with short red hair and fair skin that recall a baby-faced Mark Zuckerberg—is a founder of the Center for New Liberalism (CNL), a political group aiming to provide a home for Zoomer, Gen Z, and millennial voters who feel alienated by the Democratic Party’s progressive tilt. Johnson started CNL with his friend Colin Mortimer in 2020, attempting to forge a “cultural countermovement to political extremism,” as Johnson put it. They hoped to thwart the socialist left’s online dominance; mostly through Reddit posts, tweets, and memes, and to a lesser extent newsletters and podcasts, they aimed to make the term “neoliberalism,” against all odds, cool.

The night’s Twitch stream was an official CNL event. While a colleague fiddled with the tech, Johnson greeted everyone following along, about three hundred people. He recognized some of their usernames from the old days, when what is now the CNL community convened primarily on the r/neoliberal Reddit page, where the very online gravitated to discuss, troll, and meme the economic debates of the day. (A sidebar on the page summarizes its approach to neoliberalism as “free trade, open borders, taco trucks on every corner” and beckons, “Join the deep state.”) It was there that Johnson and Mortimer met; they were tapped to serve as volunteer moderators. (Johnson’s Reddit username is “MrDannyOcean.” Mortimer’s is “AuthorityRespecter.”) At the start, they called their group the Neoliberal Project. Why did they change the name, a member of the Twitch audience wanted to know. “Neoliberal” is a great word to use “when what you want to do is get in fights on the internet,” Johnson replied, but it turned out to be less great for recruiting congresspeople to your cause. (Later, Johnson told me, of the “neoliberal” moniker, “It’s the whole postmodern thing—you’re always steeped in irony, but you also kind of mean it.”) 

Johnson has spent years looking for lols in online political discourse. On his Substack, Infinite Scroll, he documents the latest trends on social media and lampoons what he views as misguided leftist stances; he also peppers in cultural commentary on Drake v. Kendrick and incels v. Taylor Swift. A recent post invoked Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation to critique those who claim to hold Democratic values but refuse to vote for President Joe Biden in the upcoming election because of his failure to stop the war in Gaza. Johnson joined Reddit in 2011, as a statistics master’s student at the University of Georgia, and later gained attention and followers on the r/neoliberal forum. In 2020, he welcomed new participants to the thread, which today has more than a hundred and sixty thousand members, placing it in the top 1 percent of all Reddit communities. “There are rumors we are paid shills sent by George Soros,” Johnson posted, “which I can neither confirm nor deny.” (CNL has not received funding from Open Society Foundations.) The Reddit page was and is awash in memes about trade, Democratic politics, and economic trends. One from 2018 shows a bride frowning beside her groom on their wedding day, next to a doctored image of her grinning beside Ben Bernanke, the free-market-loving former chair of the Federal Reserve. Influential voices in US economic policy have followed the page. Matt Darling, a prominent analyst at a think tank called the Niskanen Center, was a regular; the writer Matt Yglesias was a frequent topic of conversation, one of four “neoliberal avengers” to the community, alongside Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, and the gamer Steven Bonnell. 

They are Biden’s fighters in the meme trenches, doing what they can to make his brand of politics trendy again.

Eventually, the Reddit crowd migrated to Twitter, where Johnson and Mortimer created the @ne0liberal feed, which quickly exploded. In the summer of 2018, the guys began running the Neoliberal Project, a startup that was something of a think tank meets political action group. There was a podcast, hosted by Johnson, which has received more than a million downloads. They worked on a volunteer basis and covered their operating costs by way of Patreon contributions and revenue from an online store, which sells stickers that read “Upzone the Gayborhood” and “Turn Golf Courses into Housing.” In 2020, the Neoliberal Project became part of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), an established Democratic think tank in Washington and a longtime player in centrist politics; Mortimer and Johnson became the first full-time employees. The name change, to the staid Center for New Liberalism, came six months later; the @ne0liberal handle was eventually dropped in favor of @CNLiberalism. The group’s new identity may have given it the patina of authority, but altered little about its ethos and online presence. In recent weeks, @CNLiberalism has lightly trolled Columbia’s student protesters, commended Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez for contributing to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the first time (“The establishment always wins”), and hyped what CNL only somewhat jokingly views as its core constituency: “wine moms and brunching neoliberals remain undefeated.” 

On social media, CNL supporters identify themselves with a globe emoji in their bios, a direct response to the red rose favored by socialists, and symbolizing globalism in all its forms. At the group’s headquarters—a back corner of PPI, in downtown DC—there is a custom six-foot globe wall fixture that lights up in neon blue. For the Twitch event, Tobin Stone, the group’s twenty-two-year-old community and communications manager, streamed from the office, the globe illuminating him from behind. He pulled up the first “bad tweet” of the night: an image of a vandalized parking meter in Oakland labeled with a sticker reading “Parking tickets are a war tactic the state uses against the working class.” 

Stickers for sale in the CNL online store

Johnson rolled his eyes. “This is exactly the kind of faux activism that you see on the left, where the most influential thing you can do is destroy a small piece of public property, prevent the system from working, and make an ineffective statement that will make everyone hate you,” he said. “I’m not sure you could embody the spirit of internet leftism better than that.” The far left, he lamented, had “a kink for misusing words.” Johnson proceeded to tell the Twitch streamers a story about how he “took SBF’s money”—that is, Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX paid to fly him and a handful of other nonprofit founders to a group house in the Bahamas to network with one another. He ran through tweets about car insurance conspiracy theories and “DoorDash discourse.” 

The audience followed along happily, many of them card-carrying CNL members, of whom there are eleven thousand, from chapters around the world. There are actual cards; on the back, you’ll find a list of the views they espouse: a robust social safety net, criminal justice reform, a carbon tax. They are unabashed capitalists who are pro-immigration and -globalization. They hate the word “revolution.” They idolize the US Federal Reserve and NATO. They love Joe Biden and Colorado’s Michael Bennet; Stone told me, “We’re Hillary Clinton Democrats, basically.” They are, for the most part, white, well-educated young men. “We think the most good we can do for liberalism as a concept is help Democrats get elected, and also making sure that Democrats remain committed to liberalism and not some other ism,” Johnson told me. Micah Erfan, a college senior and the head of CNL’s Houston chapter, put it more directly: “We’re DSA if they were good.” They are Biden’s fighters in the meme trenches, doing what they can to make his brand of politics trendy again, using the language of the internet to tell their peers that capitalism isn’t so bad, the system isn’t broken, and we should all, as a CNL sticker proclaims, “embrace the decadent opulence of modern capitalism.”  

Ask a New Liberal what they stand for and you will get a broad and occasionally conflicting set of responses. Mortimer, who runs CNL operations from Washington, described the group as “pragmatic Democrats” who want to achieve “progressive goals but without a revolution.” As a disaffected Bernie Sanders supporter, Mortimer underscored that the group might share many of the aspirations of the far left but differ on how to get there. “When you run on revolutionary goals, you can’t then say, ‘Oh, the Senate is not letting me do my revolution,’” he told me. CNL members may use terms such as “moderate” and “centrist” as shorthand, but they take pains to emphasize that they are neither moderates nor centrists. “I always take a little bit of issue with the word ‘moderate,’” Johnson said. “‘Moderate’ kind of implies that you don’t believe in anything, you’re just a weaker, limp-wristed version of somebody else.” On a handful of subjects—housing, trade, and immigration chief among them—it is true that neither his views nor the organization’s are particularly moderate: they want to get rid of zoning that blocks residential construction, increase foreign trade, and overhaul border policy to throw open the nation’s doors to immigrants. “My allegiance, such as it exists, is to the idea of liberalism,” Johnson said.

Yet CNL is full of people who are indeed centrists and moderates and neoliberals. “All we did was change a letter and add a space,” as Mortimer put it. In a 2020 Reddit AMA, he wrote that the word “neoliberal” was “excellent branding” and “a perfect word for our movement,” because of its legacy of being used to “stand against growing populism.” Historically, efforts to rethink liberalism have followed episodes of profound rupture. Quinn Slobodian, a professor at Boston University, traces the origins of neoliberalism to the political and economic vacuum that followed World War I, when the global economy had to be rapidly rebuilt and whole populations adjusted to the new experience of self-government. In the UK, reformist politicians of the 1890s advocated a “new liberalism” that would provide pensions, workers’ compensation, and other labor protections. The liberalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt took shape in the aftermath of the Great Depression; this version of liberalism built something like a welfare state in the US and helped usher in a rash of new economic and political rights for citizens. In the sixties and seventies, a generation of intellectuals pushed for a more muscular liberalism that could provide a compelling alternative to communist power. These “Cold War Liberals,” as the historian Samuel Moyn calls them, abandoned the redistributive and social-minded policies that their predecessors had embraced, replacing them with a far grimmer vision. “Where earlier liberals had come to accept democratization, if cautiously and often grudgingly, Cold War liberals abhorred mass politics—including mass democracy,” he writes in his recent book Liberalism Against Itself. The economic vision that we call “neoliberalism” today was a product of that Cold War moment, its emphasis on globalization and privatization propped up by new international arrangements such as the World Trade Organization, the European Union, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Two NAFTA stickers are available for purchase in CNL’s online store.) 

“Anyone with a keyboard can have a publication and reach now . . . There are many ways in which this trend has been bad, but it is the reality.”

Today, Johnson, Mortimer, and their fellow travelers are presiding over yet another recalibration of the term. “Liberalism has reinvented itself over time—to be a liberal today is not the same thing as it was to be a liberal in 1860, or 1940,” Johnson said. “Looking at the current age, where there’s rightist threats to democracy and a resurgent socialist movement, I see a need for another reinvigoration of liberalism.” He embraced “neoliberal” at a moment when the term had become something of a slur, shorthand for describing how the engines of capitalism, the demand for continuous economic growth, accelerating trade, and open markets, had not only brought the world to the brink of climate catastrophe, but also sanctioned decades of wars under its broad banner, generating immense wealth for some while impoverishing billions of others. In a recent piece for Francis Fukuyama’s American Purpose, Johnson summarized this way of blaming the free market for the world’s problems as “ugh, capitalism,” arguing that its exponents fail to consider that the problems they articulate can be best addressed under the very economic system they claim to despise. In his view, that posture has been fed by online discourse, where merely mentioning the word “capitalism,” he argues, is “a reliable way to give any statement that oomph, that hit of seriousness.” In the essay, which was originally published on his Substack, Johnson lampoons New Yorkers, specifically, for blaming capitalism for all their problems: “There is no subject so banal on the Internet that a Brooklynite has not tied it to ‘overthrowing capitalism.’” 

Online and on the CNL podcast, Johnson assumes an unabashedly sarcastic and accessibly collegiate tone, dismissing leftist talking points without pausing to take a breath. “The reaction when AOC does a 🤪cRaZy tHiNg 🤪 like ‘help get Democrats elected’ is basically to expel her from the movement,” he tweeted the other day. “These people are incurable freaks.” Recent podcast episodes have included conversations about credit card points, the opioid crisis, climate doomerism, abortion rights, and Puerto Rico’s bid for statehood. The format is similar to the Ezra Klein Show, with guests joining him for hourlong conversations about their areas of expertise; like Klein, Johnson occasionally hosts “mailbag” episodes in which he responds to listener questions. In a recent episode, he took issue with leftist panic about the impacts of climate change in the US, arguing that people who live in the Global South will truly face a cataclysm, while those in the US and much of Europe will be largely insulated from its worst effects. (The climate crisis is among the reasons why CNL favors immigration reform.)  

As a media endeavor, Johnson and his colleagues trade in forms that have proved effective for young, very online people on the progressive left—while dunking on them, to advance moderate political stances. “Jeremiah kind of joked an ideology into existence,” Yglesias told me. Stone, who joined CNL after working for Bennet’s Senate campaign, is now a formidable player in the meme-ification of US politics, having created several of the viral “Dark Brandon” memes that depict Biden shooting lasers from his eyes. The meme, which casts the president as a political superhero, provided Democrats with a canny response to the right-wing “Let’s Go Brandon” chant; it has since been adopted by the Biden campaign and has been shared by the official White House account. 

“Anyone with a keyboard can have a publication and reach now,” Mortimer told me. “I think CNL is a response to this reality. There are many ways in which this trend has been bad, but it is the reality, so it has to be the prerogative of liberals, the center-left, and others to move beyond old elite-driven models of persuasion to grassroots-driven change.” I asked whether he thought that memes once limited to the nerdy confines of Reddit might have a role in shaping the outcome of the election. “I don’t think it is really about ‘memes’ in the common-use sense of the word,” he replied, “but rather memetic cultural diffusion that has become ubiquitous in the digital age. How do we communicate ideas and positions in this new system? That is the core question that CNL is trying to solve in order to achieve its mission.”

In 2019, Yglesias won the highest honor that CNL doles out: he was crowned “Chief Neoliberal Shill of the Year,” the winner of the annual “Neoliberal Shill Bracket.” The patently ridiculous contest pits the top X users in the CNL orbit—economists, policy wonks, elected officials, pundits, students, and the like—against each other. It can be taken quite seriously by participants. Some make campaign posters to encourage people to vote for them. Others go so far as to buy votes. (Whenever vote rigging is discovered, a matchup is redone.) Participants in the bracket are selected by CNL staff and then go head-to-head until a winner is pronounced. (The idea for the shill bracket came from a CNL member who, in 2018, messaged Mortimer suggesting that the organization run a March bracket. Others might have interpreted the suggestion as a request for a March Madness pool. Mortimer was more imaginative.) 

Yglesias, who is not a card-carrying member of CNL, said that winning the title of Neoliberal Shill of the Year was “truly the honor of a lifetime.” The economics blogger Noah Smith, who won the inaugural contest, in 2018, wrote on X that although “it was sort of a joke,” shouldering the mantle of Chief Neoliberal Shill made him reappraise what the word actually meant. A proper neoliberal manifesto, he argued, was one that viewed “free trade and globalization, along with strong welfare states in rich countries, as the best way to make the world more prosperous and more equal at the same time.” But his own politics did not neatly align with how the word was being used colloquially: “While I’m not really a neoliberal, it was OK being the Neoliberal Shill for a while. It’s a valuable perspective, and I hope it sticks around.” Maia Mindel, a twenty-five-year-old macroeconomics consultant and blogger who lives in Buenos Aires, won the title in 2022. She told me that she doesn’t really like the word but that the experience of joining the CNL community, first on Reddit and then in real life, had been transformative. (She met her girlfriend at the award party.)

Mortimer and Johnson were surprised by how much the shill bracket took off. “This is a funny stupid contest that means nothing,” Mortimer told me. But he was proud of its political footprint: “At least on the margins, it changed housing policy in Colorado,” he claimed. In 2020 Emily Hamilton, a housing policy analyst, was matched against Jared Polis, the governor of Colorado. In a bid for shill votes, Hamilton pushed Polis to roll back policies that restricted housing construction in his state. Polis responded gamely, “Get those policies to my desk and I’ll sign ’em!” Four years later, he did. Johnson told me that the shill bracket “has been discussed in the halls of the White House.” (Two participants, the economists Martha Gimble and Ernie Tedeschi, served on Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers and had to clear their participation in the bracket with the communications team.)

Stickers for sale in the CNL online store

The shill bracket is one of the few holdovers from the early, anarchic years of the neoliberal renaissance, a time when the Democrats were not in power and when supporting fairly mild economic policies could pass as a radical cause. Their purpose is now less clear. The New Liberals are most legible when they have something to push back against, be it the antidemocratic stance of the far right or the socialist predilection of the far left. But if they started out as a “memetic response to the DSA,” as Yglesias put it, today “they’re in an awkward position, because Biden won.” Alix Ollivier, a twenty-seven-year-old video game developer, until recently headed up the LA chapter; he let his membership lapse after CNL seemed to move away from what he called its “progressive libertarian” origin to embrace more moderate policy stances. Whereas members of the CNL orbit once openly favored open borders, for instance, both Mortimer and Johnson emphasized that they do not ascribe to this view. CNL has also been reticent when it comes to criticizing Biden; the group has not yet said anything critical of the administration’s response to Israel’s war in Gaza. (On his Substack, Johnson has written, “Palestinians are being killed but it’s not a genocide, Biden’s administration is very much trying to rein in Israel, etc.”) 

As CNL has gone mainstream, so has its modus operandi. Since 2023, it has been a 501(c)(4) organization funded by a political action committee called New Democracy, which is run by Lindsay Lewis, the executive director of PPI and a longtime Democratic operative. Johnson, Mortimer, and three of their colleagues are on staff; they often consult with the organization’s experts on policy matters. The close coexistence of the groups is a testament to the fluidity of the American political vocabulary. PPI was founded in 1989, when calling someone “liberal” meant labeling them as a cultural radical, and “progressive” suggested a steadier, more centrist view. Back then, the term “neoliberal” had not yet taken on its grim overtones, and merely described the economic order that was supposed to usher in the final triumph of liberal democracy. Today’s New Liberals essentially argue that they are finishing the job. 

The leaders of CNL are as familiar as anyone with the volatile politics of virality; ideas recede and recirculate, their context removed, their history forgotten, their future precarious. “We think a lot about how online we are,” Johnson told me recently. “The culture war starts online and filters out into the real world, and it’s important to be a part of that. At the same time, we’re trying to move a lot of our people offline and get them involved in real-world politics, organizing, and activism.” 

In a recent piece, Johnson wrote that pro-Palestinian campus protesters—on the forefront of leftist activism—were so “fully captured by the doom loop of social media virality” that they prioritized “chaos” over results: “The point is to show how much protestors care, to communicate their anger, to ‘raise awareness,’ to go viral.” Last year, CNL hired Matti Miranda, a Democratic strategist, to help develop its own presence, and she has been getting members up to speed about the nuts and bolts of organizing. But if CNL favors outcomes over notoriety, it turns out that, in the realm of political media, the distinction isn’t always clear: “Our job is to say We exist, it’s okay to be a moderate, it’s okay to be center-left, it’s okay to be normal,” Miranda said. “Right now, it’s just about building awareness.” 

Moderation is a tough market sell, and CNL has struggled to match the successful attention-grabbing strategies of the progressive left.

Miranda has spent time traveling to Democratic junkets to spread the word about the New Liberals. Mostly, she speaks with local chapters—there are fifty-five—teaching members how to sit “at the big-kids’ table,” as she put it. The DC, New York, and San Francisco CNL chapters are the largest; the group has a small presence in rapidly growing metro areas such as Phoenix, Columbus, Huntsville, and Denver. (It also has active chapters in London and Toronto.) “Our chapters provide a place for people to go where they won’t get yelled at for not supporting crazy stuff,” Stone said. The founders of the Huntsville CNL chapter were profiled in the Alabama Political Reporter in December for their goal of eliminating homelessness in the city by 2026; the Boston and Denver chapter leads have likewise appeared in their local press. But moderation is a tough market sell, and CNL has struggled to match the successful attention-grabbing strategies of the progressive left.

In March, Miranda ushered some thirty members of the DC chapter into PPI’s office for a political-strategy session. To one side of the room, an American flag had been rolled up and stored underneath a cupboard; in the front, a PowerPoint slide advertised the group’s upcoming events: a Tim Kaine campaign kickoff, a YIMBY happy hour, a transportation expo. Almost all the attendees were between twenty and thirty years old; the atmosphere felt like a high school student government meeting repotted in a shiny corporate conference room. 

The DC chapter lead, a twenty-five-year-old engineer named Karl Nielsen, ran through upcoming local ballot measures and elections that the New Liberals were following: they were planning to endorse a measure for ranked-choice voting in the city, because “it’s a great way to get moderates elected and that’s why we like it.” (The Democratic Party had come out against the measure.) Nielsen discussed upcoming electoral races in Maryland and Virginia, giving quick synopses of the candidates and their stances. It was the first time I had heard “progressive” used as a bad word and “moderate” as a good one among people under thirty. The group was animated about the House campaign of twenty-seven-year-old Joe Vogel, of Maryland, because, as someone put it, “he’s not like a young hippie Gen Z–er—he’s done the work.” Vogel, the group noted, had the support of the Democratic establishment: he had interned for Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and been endorsed by Cory Booker. Someone chimed in, “Joe could be our AOC, our Maxwell Frost figure.” (In mid-May, Vogel lost the Democratic primary by some four thousand votes.)

At one point, an attendee shyly inquired about whether an endorsement from the DC New Liberals could in fact hurt someone’s campaign. There were laughs in the room. Nielsen smiled. “As a small organization, our endorsement doesn’t carry a lot of weight,” he said. He had begun explaining that they could still help candidates, by sending people to knock on doors on their behalf, when someone interjected—CNL isn’t a dominant force in American politics, but it is an energetic one. A national action summit is set to take place starting June 13. “Our endorsement doesn’t carry a lot of weight,” the member said. “Yet!”

Linda Kinstler is a writer based in Washington, DC. Her work appears in The Atlantic, the New York Times, The Economist, and elsewhere. She is the author of Come to This Court and Cry.