I promise I won’t point to everything Mark Schmitt writes (though that would be no small public service), but I do want to draw attention to this follow-up to the issues covered in this post. It seems both Yglesias and I misunderstood Schmitt in a subtle but telling way.He summarizes thusly:
The call for “an ideology” to me is like saying, “we need a mission statement.” It’s been my experience that you can appoint a committee and spend a lot of time writing your organization’s mission statement and debating the relative priority of “community” or “tolerance,” or you can get back to work.
In other words, starting a long — nay, probably endless — effort to capture progressivism in a single, coherent vision is probably not the best use of our time. Rather, he says, “I see more utility in developing Institutions and Ideas … the kind of organizational structures that can help put together ideas or visions that cut across traditional definitions of issues.”
[W]hat the Reapers refer to as “policy literalism” is a problem in the structure of organizations, of membership and of funding, and it comes with a real price. We tend to see a problem, define it into a particular category of problems, and look for the solution in that category. But very often the solutions to a problem are elsewhere, or are connected. Stagnating wages, for example, might be a problem of labor markets and unionization, but it might also be related to the workings of financial markets, cost-cutting pressures, health care costs, and various other factors. These issues are not neatly separated in people’s lived experience, either. But we don’t have many think tanks, membership organizations, public interest lobbyists or litigators who can afford to look for solutions outside of their own playing field.
What’s needed, then, is not so much a grand vision as the slow, deliberate work of building up a machine like the right has spent the last 35 years building: an interconnected set of think-tanks, media outlets, and advocacy organizations that transcend single-issue politics. Out of this network will come ideas, many of which bridge traditional progressive divides, but the search for a holy “vision” grail will not occupy too much time.
I find this persuasive, but not totally so. While it’s true the there are institutional barriers to intra-progressive cooperation, it’s also true that there are intellectual barriers. Many on the left simply don’t see the connections between their issues (say, environmentalism) and those of other lefties (say, labor). A Big Vision can help illuminate these connections. Big thinking can help people see problems in a new light; it can knock minds out of ruts. And it can, in turn, stimulate the production of the more fine-grained, pragmatic ideas Schmitt is talking about. There’s a place for mission statements, even if there are multiple, competing statements that shift and develop with time.
The left needs Institutions and Ideas, but it also needs Vision.