May 29, 2005

He Gets It (tip to VC)

James Piereson was the Olin Foundation's director for two decades, and he really gets it. The focus of political influence, discourse and evolution is ultimately dictated by ideas. Good ideas, bad ideas, philosophical treatises, persuasive worldviews, gut reactions, the whole collection of different types of ideas play a major, often decisive, role in politics.

Well-defended and well-argued ideas are then immensely powerful in politics. That's what has precipitated, in part, the rise of the right in American politics and the fall of the left. It's not the entirety of politics, but it's a major factor.

The development of libertarian groups like FEE and IHS, as well as political PACS like Cato and (conservative) Heritage have also had a big role. That's so that, in editorials, news shows, political debates and congressional wrangling, your supporters have the arguments, evidence, research and models to win the day.

If a Representative gets into an argument on education, he needs an idea to counter the "teacher's unions and their members should get more money and benefits" strain of arguments. With ideas, that Rep. can turn around and reach for a vouchers proposal from idea-men like Friedman or think-tanks like Cato. The idea alone isn't enough; he needs to have a fairly specific proposal that can be turned into a law, or even that's already written in the form of a bill by the idea people. But then he needs some follow-up support in the form of evidence, research, and general rhetoric.

This is the true currency of political discourse. Influence and connections can make things happen in the short-term, but ideas dominate the larger and longer-term battles. The prevalence of ideas makes the idea-men more important than elected officials in a sense. After all, the hundreds of thousands of local, state and federal officials that support vouchers would be nowhere if Milton Friedman hadn't thought up the idea first.

Perhaps the best way to see it is a battle. The elected officials are the soldiers of varying degrees of power and rank. Without ideas and proposals to use as weapons, they're defenseless, and so it makes sense to get them the best weapons you can - from guys who do nothing but think up good ideas to turn into policy.

The Democrats have a dearth of ideas and philosophy. The American left is not really liberal, not really socialist, not really pacifist, not really isolationist, not really capitalist, not really anything. The only ideology that fits them is a watered-down positivism - the idea that government should step in and try to make things 'better.' A highly underformed type of utiliatianism, to put it another way. Without philosophy, they don't really know what they want the world to look like and hence have few ideas for getting there.

They became this way because they aren't a political party, but rather a shopping list. Unions, black people, latinos, women, everybody wants their particular policy or handout without an overarching philosophy. The biggest unifying mark of the Democrats is that they're not Republicans. That will take them far enough to stay in contention, since there are enough people that don't believe in the ideas Republicans have, but it's dfamned hard to win converts when you are always opposing and never proposing.

Since they have no ideas and represent a collection of divergent, fragmented social interests and anti-Republicans, they don't have a lot of suggestions for things to do should they be elected. In the response to the State of the Union, the only two policy proposals I heard were both unoriginal and stereotypically tax-and-spend. One was a Marshall Plan for America and a NEW GI Bill of Rights - both suffering from depressing unoriginality, a touch of nativism, a fatal dose of non-specificity and largely proposed out of the tax-and-spend heritage of the US left.

These are their ideas? They want to spend more? I'm pretty sure the Democrats already had three Marshall Plans for America: FDR's New Deal, Truman's Square Deal, and LBJ's Great Society.

They have no philosophy, hence no ideas for how to govern. Their idea-men are running on three types of power: 1) recycled FDR-LBJ tripe, despite being largely discredited, 2) a mix of radical, socialist and Bush-hating agenda items that make a big ruckus but are either extremely vague or extremely unworkable, 3) trying to fight against the Democrats to make them more capitalist, more conservative, more Southern, more interventionist or more libertarian. The first two types won't take them anywhere they really want to go, electorally or politically, though the radical brand hoilds the current plurality (see: Dean). The third type will get media play because it might work, but the only ideas that the Democrats as a whole might follow and that might help the party are the ones to make them more capitalist or more interventionist. The Democrats will never be libertarian and their anti-conservatism is too fundamental; by the same token, the adversarial relationship many in SF and LA and NYC hold against Southerners makes a Southern Strategy unlikely.

For now, the interventionist Democrats appear to be widely hated and associated with Bush - a death sentence for most in the left party. They might come back into vogue later, especially with pro-war Hillary running for 2008, but I doubt they'll get very far in the next decade.

The capitalist-leaning Democrats in the New Democrat movement WERE the best bet for making the Democrats more powerful in the idea war. They could've stood for something, even if it was simply a mixed-message, watered-down Republicanism. But having some ideas could bring in people on the positive side while holding the anti-Republicans on the negative side. Clinton did this well, making himself more appealing to the middle class socially and fiscally. The New Democrats are hated by many a radical anti-Bushite, and have been giving up their strongly pro-trade and mildly pro-market views of late. The transition is so sudden that CAFTA is being opposed by New Democratic icons on labor and environmental grounds, despite having substantively similar positions on both as the new Democrat-supported trade deals in the last few years and the last decade (like NAFTA, which New Dems helped pass).

The views of the hesitantly pro-idea Democrats are either unpopular in the left or actively being abandoned - and in most cases, both is true.

Once the Democrats embrace a real philosophy, we'll approach a standstill of their hemorhaging to the right. Then they have to back it up by investing in weapons and ammo - ideas, policy proposals and substantive research. Until that shift from groups to ideas happens on the left, don't be surprised if they lose again in 2006 and beyond.

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