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.