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Ideas in Liberal Politics, Part 2

In the previous post on this subject, I used a mostly-wrong comment by Jonah Goldberg as a starting point to riff on the differences between liberals and conservatives in having a sense of their own intellectual traditions. I read another piece last week that I want to comment on, although my comments will be less extensive because the source material is mostly correct, but I have a slightly different take.

A friend called to my attention Peter Levine's blog, and in particular Levine's essay-post, "What's wrong with the left, and what we can do about it,". Levine is an exemplary public scholar, who has written serious books on political philosophy but also devotes himself to more practical questions such as how to involve young people in politics. (I don't know him, although we travel in similar circles.)

I recommend reading Levine's essay in full, but here are his basic points and my comments:

1. That "the Left" (defined broadly) should not assume that its disadvantage is merely in money, message discipline and viciousness, and attempt to emulate "the Right" in those categories. I basically agree that there is a profound mistake in looking at the institutions, the tactics, and the tone of the right and treating them as a formula for political success, to be emulated as closely as possible. For example, I have always thought that people who argued, "We need a Heritage Foundation for our side" were ignorant about what the Heritage Foundation actually does and just how effective it is (or, to be frank, it isn't), and also inattentive to the strengths and shortcomings of the existing constellation of liberal and liberal-centrist policy organizations and media operations.

On the other hand, you do need money to develop a message and get it across to people, and you do need to respond to attacks and critiques as they come along. Too often, the lag between a Bush or Republican claim and the response has been measured in days, not hours. (The best example: it took two days before any Democrat/liberal was able to criticize Bush's "Mission Accomplished" appearance on an aircraft carrier, and by the time the criticism -- for wasting federal dollars, for dishonesty in explaining why Bush had to land on the carrier -- arrived, it merely gave the photo op another day or two of free time. Fortunately, that stunt backfired of its own accord.) There must be a capacity to respond in the same news cycle to anything that comes up. That's not something that would "damage an already fragile civic culture," as Levine warns. It's just one of the rules of the game in the world of modern media.

2. That "the Left lacks vision...their crisis is intellectual not tactical." True, or as true as such a broad generalization can ever be, but Levine says some things in support of this position that deserve further examination. First, he argues that it was back when Bush seemed most likely to win reelection that "Democrats had the incentive to develop new visions and new directions. They failed to do so." Now, Levine argues, because it seems more likely that Kerry can win merely on Bush's failures and his own better tactics, he will not develop an alternative vision, which will leave him with no mandate except to maintain the New Deal order.

This seems to be a variation on the mythology of the right, in which the darkest moments, particularly the aftermath of Goldwater's defeat in 1964, have been reinterpreted as an era in which their great forefathers (as discussed in my previous post), hiding in their catacombs, designed a philosophy. I'm not sure that theory holds up to scrutiny. It's not how the ideas associated with the New Deal came into being, or Clinton's governing agenda, which was designed after the election and ultimately turned out to have been adapted from Paul Tsongas's. The real possibility of having to govern the country will induce more creativity than the blank slate of futility.

It's also a little unfair to the other candidates. Although Kerry has not yet put forward much of a "new vision or new direction" -- it's certainly not too late -- I would continue to argue that Edwards did -- in a way that will certainly influence the Democratic Party in the future -- and so did Lieberman and Kucinich, whether you agree with either one of them or not, and while Dean's campaign had less substantive content than one would have expected, his stance and tone were an important challenge to Democrats and can be as important as ideas.

[Update: In the first version of this paragraph, I called the Dean campaign "astonishingly vacuous." While I think it was suprising to realize that a campaign that attracted such broad support at first really didn't have much to it besides opposition to the war and excitement about the campaign itself, that phrase went much further than I meant to. I thank Lerxst and other commentors for calling me on it.]

Levine notes that "political candidates are not the only ones who develop new political visions," which is truer than he realizes. In fact, I don't think they can develop them at all. Having worked on a presidential campaign in 2000, I came to the conclusion that the hardest thing to do within a campaign, even an idea-driven campaign, is to develop new ideas, because the field operation, the message-of-the-day, the press, dealing with the candidate's time, etc., consume everyone's energy. The best a campaign can do is to pick up on and promote ideas already developed, and so I see campaigns as the moment where we measure the availability of new ideas in the larger world, and the success of other groups and people in developing the kind of visions and policy blueprints that candidates can use. If the candidates fail to do so, it is at least in part an indication of the failure of the think tanks or other institutions that are supposed to do the job.

Levine goes on:

the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the Left?people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit's Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos?strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don't see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the "blogosphere," I don't know who they are.

At the risk of seeming blog-o-centric, which I'm not, I think in fact there's a lot of deeper thinking in this sphere, and the potential for more. Leaving Kos, whose site is really a campaign news site that's also a platform for a lot of other people, aside, I don't agree that Marshall and Drum are "strictly tactical thinkers": they are exactly what's often missing in the idea-generation process of politics: people with tactical intelligence about politics who also can go deeper on policy and public philosophy. All of us, whether we write blogs or opinion journalism in traditional outlets, face the temptation to jump at every stupid thing we see come out of the administration, and there are so many that every blog journalist can sometimes be the first to catch some outrage and garner some quick notice. I've done it, and it's usually when this weblog gets the most hits and trackbacks. To use a phrase that Bush might have used once, it's like "swatting flies" instead of maintaining the discipline to really construct an alternative vision. But there are a lot of flies, they're big and they bite. I take from Levine the point that we should try to maintain that discipline, and also to acknowledge blogs like Matthew Yglesias's or Crooked Timber, among others, that go well beyond the day-to-day fly-swatting.

We also all struggle with the fact that, as much as we may understand that we need an alternative liberal philosophy, all the theorizing is for nothing if we don't change the underlying conditions of government. If we don't restore some revenues for the public sector, we will wind up in less than two decades with a deficit equal to 10% of GDP, and at that point, no way to save the economy except to pare tje public sphere back to its bare essentials. If we don't stop the progression toward federal courts packed with judges determined to return to pre-New Deal jurisprudence, there will be as little opportunity for new visions as FDR had in his first years. And if we cannot bring an end to American unilateralism, we will soon live in a world so hostile that we have virtually no ability to influence cross-border concerns such as air, water, labor, security. Changing these circumstances are preconditions for any fresh vision of national possibilities, and the first step toward changing these circumstances is to change administrations.

Back to the blog issue: on the whole, I think good blogs by smart people have the capacity to put the process of debate and development of ideas on a much faster track. Imagine the old days when an interesting article might appear in a quarterly such as The Public Interest or the older American Prospect, it would circulate, letters would appear in the next issue a few months later, others would respond, the author would reply and strengthen her ideas, then a more prominent figure might give a speech based on the idea, a member of Congress might draft the idea into legislation, a foundation might fund a demonstration project and then an evaluation. Months and then years would pass. Some, not all, of this knowledge production can be done so much more quickly now, and blogs, together with online platforms associated with traditional media, think tanks, or independent projects like opendemocracy.net make up the new marketplace of ideas, now speeded up like every other marketplace: the ebay of ideas.

3. That liberals/Democrats are the real conservatives, and good for them. This is Levine's most provocative and subtle point.

Today's progressives are not only conservative about New Deal institutions. They are eager to conserve natural ecosystems and minority cultures (especially poor, indigenous ones). They are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. They are also more resistant to scientific innovation: witness their response to genetically engineered crops. They have adopted traditional conservative priorities by objecting to federal power in the areas of law enforcement (the USA Patriot Act) and education (No Child Left Behind). And they are the biggest defenders of institutions, such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that promote the high culture of the past.

This isn't quite right -- for example, it's currently the right that resists scientific innovation or independence; what progressives are more likely to object to is the rapid commercialization of technologies such as genetic engineering before the health and environmental implications are fully understood. (Wow, there's a probably whole essay here in how the Enlightenment pairing of scientific progress with rapid development of market capitalism has essentially been undone by this group of radicals. But that's for another day, and probably another writer.) Mostly Levine's point is correct. And Levine could make his point more strongly by discussing the deficit, where once again, liberals will find themselves in the position of restoring fiscal sanity, whether they like it or not.

4. That this "Left-Conservatism" is not enough of an agenda to win elections. Here Levine gets very close to an issue that I've tried to deal with a lot, although he gets at it in a different way. Levine sees paralyzing contradictions in this conservatism, and I agree. I think the problem is not the conservatism so much as the fact that liberals don't own up to it. Despite all evidence, we operate on the assumption that those who call themselves conservatives advocate modest ambitions, a limited government, and open markets. In contrast, liberals think they are offering compassion, greater spending, bigger government. The Bush agenda of short-term spending and long-term starvation has left Democrats disoriented. There's no kid we can point to who's not getting her school lunch because of Bush -- although there will be before long. As I've argued before, Democrats haven't been slick enough about breaking the tackle, and moving the occupy the space that the other side has left open. For example, the creative response to a $550-billion piece-of-crap Medicare prescription drug bill is not a $1 trillion alternative, as the House Democrats proposed. It is a $300 billion alternative that's structured to be far more effective and generous to individuals. It's the challenge of getting beyond the politics of "more," and finding a way to embrace what is conservative in the best sense about our vision and recast it as a more forward-looking and less reactive set of ideas.

These are Levine's macro-comments, and then he gets into some specific suggestions for the substance of a liberal vision, which are good. I have some comments on those as well, but I'll cut this post off right here and respond to the rest of his brief and eloquent essay soon.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 16, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

"the Left lacks vision...their crisis is intellectual not tactical."

This is nonsense. The political process does not require that every election include an entirely different set of governing principles and policies. The challenge the left faces, as does any other party, is to articulate and communicate the animating governing principles underlying its candidate, and the policies it seeks to implement to put those principles into practice. There is an abundance of left organizations doing the hard work of transforming these principles into policies--the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the Economic Policy Institute, Gene Sperling at Brookings—and the challenge for the left is to make the case to the public why these principles and policies should be the publics principles and policies. Full employment, sound fiscal and monetary policy that benefits everyone and not merely the rich, effective education reforms that extend good schools to very neighborhood, foreign and developmental policies that make, not alienate, allies, and a health care system that serves everyone are all policy proscriptions that put the left’s animating principles into practice and they are not new or different. Smart, committed leftists have worked on these issues and have sound, rational policies implement if given a chance. This is not so much marketing as effective communications. The Clinton campaign was able to do this, Gore was not, and the Kerry campaign has not yet. But this notion of new and different is wrong—it is right and sound that has to be sold.

We need to junk the advertising paradigm--the NEW detergent is better than the one you are currently using even though it is really the same--and go back to a honest, truthful, converstation with the public about principles and policies and trust that we can convince enough of them to their rightness that we will be given a chance to implement.

Posted by: dmh | Apr 16, 2004 9:02:15 AM

I'd lobby hard to put Brad DeLong (http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/) in the camp of liberal blogs that sometime go deep on policy or philosophy issues. When he puts up his latest thoughts on the impact of outsourcing or on macro policy, it's often fresh and different from the CW. And when it's pure Clinton neo-liberalims, well, that doesn't mean it's wrong.

Posted by: cw | Apr 16, 2004 11:00:12 AM

I'd lobby hard to put Brad DeLong (http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/) in the camp of liberal blogs that sometime go deep on policy or philosophy issues. When he puts up his latest thoughts on the impact of outsourcing or on macro policy, it's often fresh and different from the CW. And when it's pure Clinton neo-liberalism, well, that doesn't mean it's wrong.

Posted by: cw | Apr 16, 2004 11:00:31 AM

The blogsphere is an assymetrical force in the war of ideas. It can swarm a subject, attack it from all sides, then disappear into the web from whence it came. Harnessed well, that energy and speed and force of attack could be worth far more than a Heritage Institute or two. And it is certainly more in keeping with the histroical cacaphony of the Democratic Party, except now it can also directly connect the debate to fundraising. Powerful stuff.

Posted by: ccobb | Apr 16, 2004 11:36:02 AM

Mark,

Vision is about many things; one of them is information management and media operations. You know, the first amendment has to do with media. Bloggers, though not necessarily partisan bloggers, have considered the deeper implications of low information costs much more intensively than any liberal pundit I can think of.

The enlightenment was substantially about process; introspective bloggers think about the implications of blogging and digital organizing. This is why the 'emptiness' of Dean's campaign, which you see as meaning a lack of a policy apparatus, is so tonally flawed. Yes, his policies weren't great, but then, policy isn't the problem. Process is.

The conservative vision is largely a matter of turning back the Enlightenment by politicizing levers of governance along Medieval lines; the progressive vision, out of which policies spring, is largely a matter of creating open systems to enforce Enlightenment processes on American culture.

Posted by: Matt Stoller | Apr 16, 2004 3:47:09 PM

What happened to yesterday's comments from Lerxst, me, and others? If you are going to delete comments, it would be well to acknowledge that you have done so (or are going to do so). Most bloggers only delete trolls or abusive posts -- more than that stifles conversation. Entirely up to you, of course.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Apr 16, 2004 6:35:04 PM

Oh, I'm really sorry -- I didn't delete any comments! I revised the post -- specifically in response to Lerxst's comments and another, as noted -- and instead of posting an edited version, it came up as a whole new post (I was playing with a different posting tool), and so I deleted the original post without realizing that I was taking all the comments with it!

Sorry, sorry. I don't think I can salvage them, but I'll look. I've never deleted a comment, and so far I don't have enough trolls or abusive posts to feel any reason to.

/Mark

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | Apr 17, 2004 12:28:56 AM

Not a problem --- my comments don't make much sense in light of your revised post, and for sure aren't worthy of retrieval efforts. Just relieved to hear it was uninentional.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster | Apr 17, 2004 11:38:12 AM

I think it's interesting that there are comments on your comment to Levine's post here, but none (so far) on Levine's post on his blog itself.

At any rate, I can't agree with anything that says that we shouldn't be vicious because it will destroy what's left of our civic culture. Our civic culture is a sham, and should be destroyed. Those who argue that we should preserve it are using the same argument as those who say that we shouldn't push to unionize Wal-Mart because that might make Wal-Mart go away.

Posted by: Rich Puchalsky | Apr 17, 2004 1:47:13 PM

I think it would be perhaps more accurate to frame the civic culture thing as a change in civic culture, not a destruction of it. We can't not have a civic culture (in the way that we could not have a Wal-Mart). The question is whether we have a civic culture characterized by an engaged and deliberative electorate, or one characterized by disillusionment and naked displays of power. Trying to out-nasty the Republicans moves us toward the latter. (Though perhaps an argument could be made that we're stuck in a local minimum, and we have to move toward the nasty side first, in order to destroy the Republican machine, before we can move all the way back over to the deliberative side.)

Posted by: Stentor | Apr 17, 2004 4:54:57 PM

I've been thinking about this a lot recently. I just watched the DVD of "The Commanding Heights", a 6-hour PBS supplement to the book by the same name.

The basic outline of this piece was to contrast central planning government, from the Marxist-Leninism of the Soviet Union to the Keynesian socialim of pre-Thatcher Britain, with the free market ideas proposed by Hayek. The piece then looked at the growth and problems of globalism from the Keynes vs. Hayek lens.

Ultimately, of course, the anti-regulation, pro-free market Hayek theory tends to come off a lot better than the Keynesian central planning socialism.

For the purposes of this discussion though, one can categorize the American political struggle as the Keynesian liberal vs the Hayek conservatives. And for most of the 20th century, this might have been a good categorization.

But with Clinton in the 90's, it seems as if the Democrats through in the towel on this issue. Many Democrats hated themselves for doing it, but they ultimately determined that the downsides of markets were on balance better than the downsides of central planning for the most part. In other words, on one of the most major differences between the two parties, the Democrats blinked and agreed with the Republicans.

Looking at things this way, one can see why the Republican conservatives tend to have a more centralized, coherent vision than Democrats. Republicans are working from a playbook that's existed for 30-40 yrs or more. Large blocks of the Democratic party think it was a mistake to throw in the towel and want to return to pre-Clinton Democratic economic parties.

OK, so let's assume that this is an accurate (if highly over-simplified) way of looking at the source of the 'vision problem' of the liberal movement. What should a new liberal strategy look like?

Well, at its core, a political vision comes back to the role of government. Republicans and conservatives have a very clear view on the roles of government. Democrats don't. What would a good liberal view of government might look like?

Well, here's one idea. Given that liberals and conservatives now agree (for the most part) that markets are the best way to allocate resources. A liberal vision on the role of government could have the following points.

Markets, when operating correctly, are the best way to allocate resources among the citizenry. (Insure the blessing of liberty.)
Prevent the corruption of the markets. (Establishing justice and insuring domestic tranquility) Free markets are very efficient as long as the playing field remains level. However, one problem with markets is that the 'winners' often want to retain the rewards of their winning without competing. This is anti-thetical to free markets. The Government needs to be the referee here and make sure that the winners only continue to win if their products, policies, etc. is better.

More importantly, the Government must prevent winners from using anti-market practices (collusion, bribery, secrecy, lying, etc.) from corrupting the market.

Prepare the citizens for competition in the global market and have the institutions in place to keep them competitive in the global market. (Promote the General Welfare) Our country can only continue to be competitive with other countries if we continue to have a well-educated, flexible, hard-working, innovative, and creative workforce. In fact, over the last 80 years, the countries with the most influence in the world have been those that dedicate the largest resources to their military. In the global marketplace of the future, the countries with the most influence may be those that dedicate the largest resources to the education of the citizenry. Furthermore, countries must find ways to keep their citizens healthy and working.

Build a foreign policy which allows us to compete equally with other countries in the world, and to move competition for international influence from the military realm to the economic realm as much as possible. (Provide for the Common Defense.)


This vision would tend to develop policies that would obviously be more liberal than our conservatives. Furthermore, it provides a better choice than the conservative 'small government' movement in a pro-market framerwork.

Well, these are just some initial thoughts and ramblings that haven't been well thought out. Thanks for provoking them.

Kilroy Was Here

Posted by: Kilroy Was Here | Apr 17, 2004 5:00:03 PM

I think the problem is not the conservatism so much as the fact that liberals don't own up to it.

I've described myself as a conservative socialist for over thirty years. I've seen Atrios, Drum, Yglesias, and Kos describe themselves as either conservative or centrist. The liberals you are refering to must be the Greens, etc., who whould just confuse things if they refered to themselves as conservative. Besides, there is a certain pride to claiming the title "Liberal" even if you aren't quite.

Posted by: Fabius | Apr 19, 2004 12:25:14 PM

Good post Mark.

I'd like to make an argument for Steve Gilliard's News Blog as a more likely place for hard and useful political thought than the several blogs you mentioned.

His recent post on who is right and wrong about the war reminds me of all of the accessible critical thinking that Steve Gilliard has done on Iraq. Figuring out when and how to wage war is the best measure of political ideas possible. Gilliard and his commenters have had an ongoing analysis of how we are losing and why we will lose in Iraq. It's an analysis based on evidence and common sense rather than faith or patriotic assumptions. It's one of the best examples of idea discussion on left blogs out there.

The pro-war liberals ignored american history in Vietnam, ignored present facts and signed on to an essentially neo-colonial venture. If there is any basic idea the left can accept it should be that essentially racist crusades to reform regions in our image are doomed to failure.

Posted by: thief | Apr 19, 2004 3:51:28 PM

Mark - you point to global warming research when you say that "it's currently the right that resists scientific innovation or independence", and you could point to stem cell or cloning research as well. However, the left is incredibly hostile to certain kinds of research as well. While only the looney left is against weapons research, nuclear research of any kind is difficult to do in the US, and research into issues surrounding race and IQ are nearly impossible to do without funding which is truly independent of government sources.

Contrariwise, while the right is generally more favorable to bringing research to market, as you state, it is much less so in certain areas, like contraceptive technology.

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