Yesterday I objected to Jonathan Chait’s claim that ideas are overrated on the grounds that, contrary to his assertion, it is quite possible to concisely state general but meaningful ends around which Democratic governing philosophy ought to be organized. Today I want to address Chait’s argument that “big ideas” have neither been important in the Republican ascendancy to power nor are likely to be important in reviving Democratic prospects.
Consider the forty-year realignment of the electorate toward the Republican Party. Since the Nixon Administration, the GOP has proposed a number of original and bold policy ideas that have advanced their agenda and shifted the balance of political power:
• The neoconservative confrontational foreign policy toward the Soviet Union
• Welfare reform
• Supply-side fiscal policies
• Block grants to states and cities
• Faith-based service delivery
Democrats generally oppose these policies or their conservative details, but they have been successful electorally.
It is true, as Chait notes, that the Democratic Party has had no shortage of ideas themselves during this period. Many of these ideas have been both good on the merits and successful:
• Environmental protection
• Tax simplification in the mid-eighties
• Deficit reduction in the nineties
• Work supports such as the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit
• Reinventing government
• Incremental health care coverage expansions
What is striking is how many of these policies tend toward the incremental and moderate. The fact of the matter is that those are the types of policies that have produced success for the Party. Consider an analogous list of unsuccessful proposals or unpopular policies:
• Universal health care
• Federal support for smaller class sizes or more teachers, national education standards
• More money for housing, job training, and unemployment
• Affirmative action and busing
• Greater international cooperation and strengthening the United Nations (though this has grown more popular over time and will likely continue to)
• Stronger regulation of business and greater worker protection
• Strategic industrial policy
• Maintaining or raising taxes on the wealthy
The point is not that these are bad ideas, just that they have failed to resonate politically or have proven enormously difficult to advance. Republicans have succeeded not because their ideas have been somehow more creative, beneficial, or up to the task. They have succeeded because popular preferences are more sympathetic to them.
Recognizing that ideological disadvantage faced by Democrats precedes tactical and candidate weakness – rather than attributing under-performance to tactics and candidates themselves – leads to a rather different prescription for reviving Democratic prospects. It points to the importance of new ideas that address electoral weaknesses while staying true to progressive principles.
For starters, the Party needs to develop a tighter over-arching vision about what it stands for. I argued yesterday that an emphasis on equal opportunity and security would be particularly effective. Democrats also should adjust their priorities, devoting more attention, for instance, to national security. Some counterproductive (and arguably non-progressive) stances and policies ought to be downplayed or even jettisoned. We also need to think about electorally viable ways to find the money to pay for programs we wish to create or expand.
In addition, the Party must propose new means of achieving long-standing policy goals. For example, many Democrats have a knee-jerk reaction to voucher-type programs such as those sometimes proposed for elementary and secondary education, social security, and Medicare. On the other hand, progressives support food stamps and Section 8 housing, which are essentially voucher programs. It is not the case that vouchers are simply always preferable to provision by the state, but there is a lot of gray here. One can propose education voucher programs limited to public institutions, for instance.
Finally, the party needs to develop new ideas for new problems. Terrorism is obviously the most important of these. Economic insecurity may also be such an issue, and the advance of biotechnology will dramatically transform debates over opportunity and values.
Ideas matter, though not in isolation from voter preferences. The story of the past forty years is one of economic, geopolitical, and social change favoring Republicans, producing a realignment that was abetted by unpopular Democratic ideas and some popular Republican ones. Democrats need not change dramatically – recent elections have, of course, been remarkably close. But new ideas that are consistent with progressives’ core values can help win over more voters and shift the electoral map decisively in the Democrats’ favor.
First of all, I completely agree with you that ideas are absolutely essential to the Democratic Party and to the progressive project. And I’m with you 100% that as a party we need to figure out what we stand for – or at least pick something we believe in and not run away from it when we’re attacked by the other side. But I’m not sure I totally buy into your argument that some of the Democratic ideas of the last 40 years have been unsuccessful because they’re electorally unpopular. I’m not debating (although it is debatable) whether they’re electorally unpopular. But I’m not sure that that’s entirely relevant.
If we base our ideas in what is already popular with the public then we’ve already lost to the Republicans. It’s our job to take big ideas to the people and sell them properly.
A lot of very important ideas in the past have been unpopular, but when they’ve succeeded it’s been because they’ve been pushed through by leaders who have brought the public to them on the issues.
To me, ideas like deficit reduction and reinventing government are important and have their place – they shouldn’t be neglected – but they’re not the kind of ideas that America needs to overcome the problems we are already dealing with and the even more serious problems that await us in the future. To me, things like deficit reduction and reinventing government pursued by the post-soul Clinton administration were really just treading water because they didn’t have the wherewithal to keep going after the policies and ideas that really mattered.
In any case, when it comes to ideas, I think it is better to introduce and fight for big ideas – the ones that change history – than to lower our aspirations in the cause of short term gain.
And a second point: “security” and “terrorism” seem to be a little vague in your essay. To my ears, the idea that Democrats have “no vision” on these issues is just so much more Republican spin.
What are the facts? According to experts right and left, the world is less safe from terrorism because of Bush’s policies and wars. There were no al-Qaeda in Iraq until the invasion, now internal DoD reports show ~6% of the fighters there are foreign terrorists. Thanks to Bush’s inability to secure Iraq, those terrorists have opportunities not only to kill our soldiers there, but to take possession of say, all those explosives that we failed to secure after the fall of the Saddam regime and infiltrate KBR’s communities of foreign employees and potentially bring those bombs to our shores. That’s just one example, there are dozens more. As for security, well- start with the port situation and go from there. Bush has cut back on monies for our most effective anti-terrorism programs while bloating up budgets for programs (mostly run by unqualified cronies) that have yet to prove they make any difference at all. In short, Bush has offered a lot of talk, and spent a lot of money, for very questionable results at best. Anyone who follows “reality-based” reports on terrorism and security knows this; the only people defending Bush’s policies are those making a lot of money off of them, like KBR (spoiled food for troops) and various “security” firms running around making trouble in Iraq our troops have to go and clean up, often at a cost of lives. I haven’t even mentioned Bush’s cutbacks to the VA programs serving those who’ve served their country- how can that be a plus for him, and why aren’t more Democrats pointing out Bush’s shabby treatment of our vets?
The media is the problem here. Like you, they parrot the line that there are no knowledgable Democrats or leftists out there who can and are formulating effective anti-terrorism strategies. Cough, how many in Bush’s cabinet have actually served, cough? Leaving aside the chickenhawk angle, a simple review of the facts makes the case that even if Democrats “have no plan,” Bush’s plan is one of almost unmitigated failure. Murtha has been to Iraq and my sources say that his words are well received by more troops than the media lets on…enough with the “Swiftboating” of decorated Democratic veterans, we don’t need that line coming from Democrats as well.
Sensible security policies aren’t hard to form at all. Spend money on programs that work. Emphasize diplomacy and multilateralism. Hold agencies and contractors responsible for securing our borders and Iraq accountable. Get Congress to regularly review how our terrorism programs and dollars are being put to work. Hire experts and not cronies to do that work. Essentially, the Democratic “plan” for security should be to do almost everything Bush hasn’t done, or to do the opposite. There are literally thousands of veterans, academics, writers, and diplomats who are just waiting for a chance to be involved, if only some in Washington would pay attention to them.
That was a very interesting post. One quibble: HillaryCare may have “failed” in the legislature, but I honestly believe the time is right for Universal Health Care. Hardly anyone will believe the industry-funded ads about “losing doctor choice” or “higher premiums” after the last decade, in which millions (I’d argue “majority” but don’t have the numbers available right now) have experienced exactly that.
A simple Democratic vision could be: “Give every American the same coverage that members of Congress enjoy currently.” When asked how to pay for it: “Repealing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest and the elimination of Star Wars and (pick some other costly and ineffective DoD program)”
There are all kinds of reasons why health care is a winner. IIRC, lack of it + medical emergency is the #1 reason for bankruptcy in this country. Doctors, nurses, seniors, moms, teachers, even big corporations like GM would probably go for it. Study after study show that countries with universal health care are more productive and more stable economically. It’s already been done at a local level and in some states, with proven results. The only people who stand to lose are the executives currently raking in salaries of hundreds of millions as their companies do things like deny “experimental” life saving procedures for children. Those guys are Bush supporters already, so no loss.
Health care is a winner. Democrats should make it a central issue in this and every election until we have real universal coverage.