The power of ideas, or rather, the lack thereof
In The New Republic, Jonathan Chait has one of the best essays on politics I’ve read this year. Sadly, it’s a cover story, available only to TNR subscribers.
(Bugmenot will give you a working name and password, but that’s ethically questionable, so of course I’d never advocate it.)
Chait is responding to the notion, which has become conventional wisdom lately, that Republicans are ascendant because they are the "party of new ideas" and the Dems are on the rocks because they’re bereft of new ideas.
It is flattering to elected officials, campaign consultants, policy wonks, and political junkies to think that ideas and policy proposals are the driving forces in American political life. But it’s wrong. Campaign tactics, candidates’ personal charisma, and outside circumstances are what drive elections.
I’ll put some juicy excerpts below the fold, but if you’re interested in politics, it really is worth doing whatever you can — even subscribing to TNR — to read the piece.
The truth is that liberal ideas aren’t getting any circulation because Democrats are out of power, not vice versa. Not long ago, to take an example almost at random, Senate Democrats held a press conference with James Woolsey to unveil an energy-independence agenda. Not a single major newspaper or network covered it. This isn’t because reporters harbor a bias against liberals. It’s because they harbor a bias against ideas that stand no chance of being enacted. And so, the vast majority of the time, the press will simply ignore ideas put forth by the minority party. Or those ideas will simply be dismissed as impractical. Take this passage from a column last month by Newsweek‘s Robert Samuelson:
In floor debate, the Democrats never offered a realistic balanced budget. The closest they came was in the House, where they promised balance by 2012.
Samuelson is, in a certain sense, correct. Any plan that differs substantially from the Republican agenda is unrealistic, because the Republicans would never even consider it. But to mistake this lack of power for a lack of alternate ideas confuses cause and effect.
In a recent Times column, Thomas L. Friedman wrote, "Democrats [are] so clearly out of ideas." Friedman’s ideas? Promoting alternative fuels, "a new New Deal to address the insecurities of the age of globalization," stem-cell research, and action on global warming.
Of course, the above describes the Democratic position almost perfectly. It seems odd, but in fact this sort of thing is quite common: One constantly hears impassioned demands that the Democrats do exactly what they are already doing. Often, this confusion simply reflects the Democrats’ inability to publicize their ideas–or frustration at their inability to win political victories in GOP-dominated Washington. (I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had in which liberal friends ask why the Democratic leaders aren’t simply saying that Bush’s tax cuts are unaffordable and go to the rich, when in fact they are doing so with stultifying repetitiveness.) Sometimes it’s merely a rhetorical device used by pundits to express their own liberal views while appearing nonpartisan.
Alas, this sort of thinking assumes a wildly optimistic level of discernment by voters. Polls consistently show that large swaths of the voting public know very little about the positions taken by candidates.
Both conservatives and liberals talk about the "battle of ideas" as though political success were simply a matter of having one thousand policy entrepreneurs chained to one thousand keyboards.
This conception of U.S. politics 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.