Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The nature of politics: Ideas, elections, and the future of the Democratic Party

There's an exceptional piece by Jonathan Chait at TNR on ideas and politics. Unfortunately, it's only available online by subscription. If you don't have a subscription, be sure to go out and buy a copy of the July 11 issue. In the meantime, here's the gist of Chait's lengthy essay:

Ideas -- the idea of ideas, anyway -- have always held a lofty place in our political culture. But perhaps never before have they been imbued with such power as at this particular moment. Since last November, conservatives have been braying about their victory in the war of ideas, often with a whiff of Marxian assurance...

The notion that conservatives are winning politically because they are winning intellectually has a certain appeal, particularly for those in the political idea business. And the aspiration of liberals to sharpen their thinking is perfectly worthy. As analysis, though, it's all deeply misguided. The current ubiquity of such thinking owes itself to the fact that liberals and conservatives have a shared interest in promoting it. (Liberals in the spirit of exhortation and internal reform, conservatives in the spirit of self-congratulation.) But, more than that, it reflects a naïveté about the power of new ideas, one that is deeply rooted in long-standing misconceptions of how our politics operate.

Chait essentially makes the case that, contrary to widespread misconception, "the plain fact is that liberals have plenty of new ideas... Indeed, devising earnest new ideas is the very thing liberals enjoy the most. If anything, the actual problem is just the opposite. Liberals have way too many new ideas and don't think seriously enough about prioritizing them. Liberal think tanks have plans for overhauling health care, slashing the deficit, creating progressive savings accounts, beefing up homeland security, and so on. The trouble is that it would be hard to do all these things at once." Both liberals and Democrats have "ideas," but here's the unavoidable problem in today's Washington: "They have no chance of being enacted as long as Republicans control the White House and Congress. The truth is that liberal ideas aren't getting any circulation because Democrats are out of power, not vice versa." (italics added) More:

Today, Democrats generally oppose change because "change" means doing things Bush's way. This puts Democrats in the dilemma of either supporting new policies that are almost invariably bad -- certainly from a liberal perspective -- or appearing wedded to the status quo...

It's one thing for Democrats to sketch out the sort of alternatives they would prefer if they ran Washington. But, as long as Republicans do run Washington -- and certainly as long as Bush sits in the Oval Office -- doing nothing is often going to be the best available scenario for liberals. Emphasizing the downside of bad change rather than the upside of positive change reflects political necessity, not intellectual failure.

And the pendulum will swing back: "When Democrats regain power, their ideas will again control the agenda, and Republicans will again find themselves devoted primarily to the task of resisting change."


The primacy of ideas is appealing to both parties -- to Republicans for the sake of self-congratulation, to Democrats for the sake of self-flagellation -- as well as to those of us who think about politics and who believe (or at least who want to believe) that there's more to politics than image, messaging, framing, and general manipulation. Yes, we intellectuals are particularly "prone to ideophilia". Here's Chait's conclusion:

This conception of U.S. politics [as driven by ideas] is especially compelling to intellectuals. It is a vision of a noble landscape in which philosopher kings hold sway. Each side has its visionaries, wonks, and pamphleteers, beavering away to see whose ideological manifestos, new syntheses, and ten-point plans will prove decisive in the next election. Writers and thinkers enjoy a heroic central role in shaping history: We--not grubby factors like attack ads or the state of the economy or the candidates' ease before the cameras--hold the future in our hands. Twenty years ago, Tom Wolfe appeared before a gathering of conservatives in Washington and declared that Marxism's appeal lay in its "implicit secret promise ... of handing power over to the intellectuals." The promise is not confined to Marxism. It seems to have seduced everybody.

Indeed it has. If ideas are important, then intellectuals are important, and then I'm important. If ideas aren't important, then why bother thinking about politics, why bother with The Reaction at all? So it goes. I want ideas to be important. And, true enough, Chait doesn't say that they're not. But his take on all the idea-talk in American politics today, with conservatives triumphantly heralding the victory of conservative ideas and liberals desperately searching for ideas to bring them back to power, reminds us that electoral success in the U.S. reflects more a confluence of complex factors than a simple battle of ideas that are presented to the electorate for approval and disapproval. Contrary to current Republican rhetoric, after all, 2004 was not a referendum on Bush's ideas: "There is plenty of evidence that the rise in Bush's stature after September 11, as well as John Kerry's ineptitude as a candidate, played a decisive role." The fact is, whether we like it or not, "things like personality, tactics, and outside circumstances" may be more important in terms of electoral success than a "compelling vision of the future".

Just over a month ago, I wrote a lengthy post on how the Democrats can win again. To a certain extent, Chait's analysis mirrors my own. Democrats have not been losing because they have no ideas or just old ideas or because the Republicans have somehow won the war of ideas. This is what Republicans would have us believe, for it confirms both their sense of self-righteousness and their lust for perpetual power. And this is what some Democrats (and liberals more generally) seem to accept almost without hesitation, so much have they themselves bought into the Republican line. Here's how I put it in my earlier post:

I think that the weaknesses of the Democratic Party have been wildly overplayed. Yes, Bush won two elections he shouldn't have, the Republicans now control both sides of Capitol Hill, and conservative appointees threaten to shift the entire federal judiciary to the right. But look at it this way: Bush barely won in 2000 -- indeed, he may not have won, but that's another problem entirely. He only won because everything broke his way: Gore was a lousy candidate; Nader took important votes away from Gore in key swing states; Bush effectively campaigned as a compassionate conservative, blurring the differences between him and Gore; a relatively peaceful and prosperous country was willing to take a chance on Bush after eight years of Clinton; and, well, there was Florida. If Florida had gone the way it should have, or if Nader had taken himself off the ballot in certain states, or if Bush hadn't campaigned as such a moderate, then Gore would have won. Then Gore would have guided the country through 9/11 and Afghanistan, the Democrats likely would have done well in 2002, the U.S. likely wouldn't be in Iraq, and Republicans would be having this very same conversation about how to refashion themselves in the face of a significant Democratic majority. As it is, Bush won, then capitalized on 9/11 for partisan purposes, leading to a solid Republican showing in 2002.

But -- here's the crucial point: Given all this -- the memories of 9/11, the threat of terrorism (which Bush, as president, was able to manipulate to his own benefit), and the bully pulpit in a time of war, not to mention mass mobilization of evangelical voters -- Bush barely won re-election last year. And although Kerry was a stronger candidate than Gore, he wasn't a great one and never quite managed to find his footing (too much nuance, not enough bluntness). It wasn't as close as 2000, but 2004 was hardly a rousing endorsement of a sitting president. Yes, Democrats can learn something from Karl Rove's campaign strategies and tactics, and Democrats would do well to reconnect to their own base in the same way, but how exactly did Democrats fail?

I'd still like that question answered, for I'm just not sure they have. And if they have failed, it's only because Republicans have more successfully manipulated the democratic process in their favour -- no, I don't mean vote-rigging, I mean practising the art of politics, which Republicans do very well. No matter the conventional wisdom, which is wrong, Democrats have not failed because they have no ideas and conservatives have not won the war of ideas (whatever that even means).

America may be more or less conservative now than it was back before the recent Republican rise -- and certainly the theory of The Right Nation is a compelling one -- but I would still argue, with Chait, that there is more to politics than ideas, and it's precisely with respect to that "more" that Republicans have done so well. They know how to play the game and they know how to win. Democrats need to continue to think about ideas and to offer compelling alternatives to Republican ideas (or whatever passes for Republican ideas), but their success in 2006, 2008, and beyond will depend in large part on non-intellectual factors. I know that's tough for intellectuals to hear, but, if you want my advice, take solace in Plato's Republic. Therein lies the truth about political things -- and a careful reading of that seminal work of political philosophy reveals that there's no philosopher-king to save the day. As we stargaze, and lose ourselves in the wonder of ideas, political life rages on without us, and in spite of us...

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  • Hey, this is Jonathan checking out your blog. I like what you've got going here, and I might link to it.

    Now, about the Chait piece. I have to say that I really believe that progressivism just isn't enough anymore. First, because I believe that it just simply isn't as economically salient as it used to be. But second, because I believe that the people really stand to benefit from progressivism are as civically active as the old poor whites of the progressive era. It would be great if we could get these people more involved, but for the time being we must deal with those that are participating, and deal with issues that they really care about too. We should push progressivism, but it in itself just isn't enough anymore, and any Democrat who is still thinking we can build a governing majority utilizing it, is probably going to be disappointed.

    By Blogger Jonathan, at 11:38 AM  

  • Thanks, Jonathan. E-mail me if and when you link to me, just to let me know.

    I think you may be right about progressivism, but I think we'd have to define our terms before conducting any sort of post mortem. As a moderate Democrat myself, however, I think that the party would be best by attempting to merge centrist politics with liberal principles.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:18 PM  

  • I think Chait is right about a lot of things, but I disagree with his conclusion that ideas don't matter. Voting frequently reflects a visceral reaction by the voter about both the candidates and about the general condition of the country. If a voter feels that a particular candidate is on their side or shares his values, he will often vote for that candidate even if he disagrees with (or is not aware of) the candidate’s specific policies. In that sense, specific policy ideas do not matter that much. Most people do not have the time or desire to immerse themselves in the specifics of policies and instead they use shorthands to decide how to vote. Some of these, as Chait points out, are irrational on their face, such as a candidate’s appearance. Others, however, are not; although less potent than in the past, voters still use party in many cases as a shorthand in place of evaluating a candidate’s specific policy positions.

    But I think that Chait understates the role of ideas because he views them in such narrow terms. Chait describes “ideas” as policy wonk would-- sets of specific policy prescriptions aimed at solving particular problems. But in politics, ideas are best thought of as broad memes of how society does or should operate. These may be very simple (or simplistic depending on one’s point of view) but these kinds of ideas have great resonance with voters. For example, voters responded to Reagan’s general views about the world: (1) society should rely on the market much more than on government; and (2) we need to stand up more aggressively to communism. Obviously, these were, in part, campaign themes, but they also represented real ideas that voters could respond to. And they did respond to them.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:02 PM  

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