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No Mission Statements, please

Matthew Yglesias wasn't alone in being unsure what my point was in the post on "The Death of Environmentalism." I didn't really have one, except to say that it was an interesting essay that should be read outside of environmentalist circles and then to comment on various points it raised. Matt concluded that what I was really getting at was the need to develop an "ideology."

That's an obvious one-word summation of where I was going when I said that the most interesting part of the essay was the proposal that, instead of trying to force higher mileage standards onto the auto industry through legislation, should instead consider that the cost of retiree health care is the biggest burden on the auto industry, and try to cut a deal: health care for mileage standards. In other words, instead of boxing everything up in categories like Environment, Health, Labor, Women's issues, etc., look across issues for a coherent progressive perspective.

But I chose not to use the word ideology, deliberately. It's not that I don't think having a coherent ideology isn't a good thing. I'm just not quite sure how you get there, or that "we" on the left-of-right don't generally have one. I'm pretty doubtful that Marx and Engels said, "We need an ideology," and then Engels said, "I've got it: Let's start with, 'A spectre is haunting Europe.'" (That's for all of you who think I've never read any Marx.)

The actual process of trying to contrive an ideology tends to run in either of two directions. One inolves trying to state some principles or ideals that would constitute an all-encompassing progressive/liberal ideology, incorporating all the different threads that go into that worldview. The result could be the sixty different topics covered by the House Democrats' shoot-me-now "New Partnership for America's Future," or it could be a more concise formulation such as that suggested by a commentor here, Community, Opportunity, and Responsibility, or cooperation, government is good, etc.. It could also be more specific, such as universal health care, cut the child poverty rate in half, etc. All good ideas, they're great, but they have no edge, they draw no distinction about how to achieve those goals, especially against a form of conservatism that uses liberal ideals such as Leave No Child Behind loosely. I tried my hand at a definition like this a few months ago, and a colleague who read it said, kindly, that it was no better and also no worse than any other such attempt.

The other direction is to try to define an ideology in a sharper, more divisive way that separates it not just from the current right-wing ideology, but potentially from other allies. An anti-corporate ideology, for example, is an appealing approach, with an edge, one that I've heard suggested. But even if that's my ideology, how do I build a majority around it? It would leave out plenty of people who are uncomfortable with the right-wing agenda but not (curren with corporate power; indeed, many might think that massive disinvestment in the public sector, dangerous levels of income inequality, and huge budget deficits leading to future tax increases are bad for corporate America. Or consider the proposal that started this: to develop common ground with the biggest corporations over their problem with health care costs, and bargain to leverage change on auto mileage standards. Adherents of a purely anti-corporate ideology will be in a hard position to make that bargain. On the other hand, an ideology that's more about dynamic capitalism with a safety net or finding a grand bargain with business probably doesn't have the vigor to capture some of the most enthusiastic younger voters and others. In other words, these edgier ideologies are formulas for factions, not for a serious, majoritarian governing party. (We can all be part of factions, though, within a larger, majoritarian party that mutes and blends our factional preferences.)

Rather than a manifesto, or more likely, a long boring argument about a manifesto, I see more utility in developing Institutions and Ideas. By institutions, I mean the kind of organizational structures that can help put together ideas or visions that cut across traditional definitions of issues. As the Reapers (the nickname for the authors of "The Death of Environmentalism") point out, there's no place in our politics for a solution such as a grand bargain on retiree health care/pensions/mileage standards because there's no organization that is in a position to either develop such a solution or bring political power to bear on its behalf. Environmental organizations have to develop and pursue environmental solutions, health organizations pursue health solutions. For the big membership groups, their members joined an environmental group for a reason, and it will always be a great stretch for those groups to devote more than a small fraction of their energy or political capital to a tangential issue, whether it is health care or campaign finance reform. Groups that don't have members are typically funded by foundations, and that's an issue that I'm going to comment on in my next (potentially career-ending) post.

In either case, what 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.

Among think tanks, some progress has been made in the last five years toward national policy organizations that can take a broad cross-issue perspective, notably the Center for American Progress, New America Foundation, Demos, and the Institute for America's Future. We still need more similar progressive institutions at the state level (the right's State Policy Network includes 92 organizations, most much less specialized than the much smaller, less organized number of liberal groups.) The emergence of groups like moveon.org, that not only construct membership in a more transactional way, but also don't try to force them to lock themselves in as environmentalists, civil libertarians, pro-choice, etc., is also a very healthy development.

And by Ideas, I don't mean "fairness" or "everyone should have health care," but more specific ideas that seem plausible to people, that seem fresh enough, that connect the pieces. I won't go into this here, at risk of another overlong post, but the Apollo project discussed by the Reapers is one good example, but hardly the last word.

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.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 14, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

You may be right that trying to find an ideology is about as useful as writing a mission statement. I've never been paid to do either, but I do find for that I like to aim for a certain amount of consistency in my positions. (Perfect ideological consistency is not, of course, possible and we don't need to trot out Emerson to make that point.) I like to be able to articulate why I believe what I do.

And it may be that thinking through the underyling reasons for our policy positions can help us find common ground which will allow us to build coalitions.

Now thinking aloud. Why do I support universal health insurance not tied to employment? Here are a few of my reasons (in no particular order).

1. Privacy. I don't want my employer making decisions about treatment options --even if it's only in the aggregate.

2. The current system favors large employers over small. It makes it harder to start new businesses and discourages people from flexible work arrangements. This affects the dynamism of our economy, because it can be impossible for individuals in many states to buy coverage. This discourages entrepeneuership.

3. Given what we know about genetics it will soon be possible for insurance companies to cherry pick out the healthy patients. People will be afraid to go in for testing or to seek treatment, and this will make the treatments more expensive in the long run. Our current system encourages cost shifting, and this is inefficient when looked at from the perspective of society as a whole.

Now none of this gets to the concern of a large company like General Motors--except that their costs are disproportionately high, because of the inefficiencies of our system.

Of course none of this ties into lower CAFE standards--except on the vague, rather abstract level of positive and negative externalities. It won't get the Sierra Club to join forces with the health care advocacy organizations, and maybe that's your point. So how do we get the environmental organizations to team up with the car companies to demand universal healthcare?


Posted by: Abby | Feb 14, 2005 6:37:04 PM

Abby, it's easy. Environmentalists want nothing more than for American automakers to be unleashed. We want them innovating, catching up with and passing Japanese automakers in the development of hybrid, biodiesel, electric, fuel-cell, and who-knows-what-else vehicles. Right now they are held back by a number of things -- dumb tax policy, markets that haven't gotten hip to the need, and simple fear. But among those things is an anvil tied around the waste of every American company swimming upstream in the face of foreign competition: massive health care costs.

Environmentalists have good reasons to help free American automakers from all those shackles. As Mark said, what seems to be missing is not the ideological rationale but the institutions, groups, coalitions, etc. to advocate for these kinds of cross-issue alliances.

Posted by: Realish | Feb 15, 2005 2:06:13 AM

Actually I think a comprehensive idealogy is exactly what the left is missing. It seems, as Mark pointed out, the left is made up of a series of single issue factions that are constantly at odds with each other. An outside observer might think that the only thing holding democrats together is the belief in taxes as the solution to everything and a hatred for Republicans. (I'm not saying that's the case of course;-). That may work in a three way race or in more urban areas but it really doesn't play well in Peoria.

If the democratic party hopes to re-emerge they are going to have to look long and hard at all the things they believe in, why they believe in them and be able to communicate and back up those beliefs in a way that can pass a majority's common sense test. Unfortunately ideals are pretty black and white things so a party whose most energetic voters see there issue in black and white yet pride themselves in seeing everything else in greys is going to have a hard time coming up with a common thread of guiding principles without either adopting many held by the conservatives they oppose or running completely counter to the principles that this nation was founded on.

While I'm glad I don't have that problem within my own party (again I jest) I do think it's important to have a strong Democratic party in this country. Lets hope they can figure it out.

Posted by: Lloyd | Feb 15, 2005 8:21:51 AM

Realish,

I take your point. Here's my question. If it's so easy, why isn't it happening now? Why hasn't it happened already? Show me the working groups.

Posted by: Abby | Feb 15, 2005 10:13:35 AM

Once upon a time, the great movements that many of us remember did not have single ideologies. They consisted of people of many ideologies who worked together for common objectives, even as they argued bitterly with each other on the plain of ideas.

The civil rights movement of the mid-sixties included people who espoused non-violence as a principle and nonviolence as a tactical necessity. Pragmatists wanted to settle for what they could get; anti-pragmatists, epitomized by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, despaired of the costs of accepting half-loaves of concessions. Some called themselves Marxists and saw the movement as the vanguard for more fundamental changes in the political/economic structure. Others saw themselves as American freedom fighters who understood what they were doing as an extension of the long march toward voting rights for all, and sought inclusion in the existing order as the highest goal.

One could dissect the women's movement, and the early environmental movement, in a similar way.

I'll leave it to others whether are lessons here for the current period.

Posted by: Michael | Feb 15, 2005 4:58:16 PM

Once upon a time, the great movements that many of us remember did not have single ideologies. They consisted of people of many ideologies who worked together for common objectives, even as they argued bitterly with each other on the plain of ideas.

The civil rights movement of the mid-sixties included people who espoused non-violence as a principle and nonviolence as a tactical necessity. Pragmatists wanted to settle for what they could get; anti-pragmatists, epitomized by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, despaired of the costs of accepting half-loaves of concessions. Some called themselves Marxists and saw the movement as the vanguard for more fundamental changes in the political/economic structure. Others saw themselves as American freedom fighters who understood what they were doing as an extension of the long march toward voting rights for all, and sought inclusion in the existing order as the highest goal.

One could dissect the women's movement, and the early environmental movement, in a similar way.

I'll leave it to others whether are lessons here for the current period.

Posted by: Michael | Feb 15, 2005 4:58:19 PM

Michael, you make a very good point about people with disparate views being able to join together and affect a change and I think that is a lesson in and of itself. I would argue though that while movements such as the civil rights movement are different from political parties. Parties need to be guided by a set of principles not driven by a series of movements. Parties are more complex in that they are organized to represent things. Few voters are single issue and rarely, if ever, does a single issue dominate the term of an elected officials office.

In a representative government we vote for people to vote how we would. If all we know about a candidate is that they are for saving the whales or for criminalizing abortion we really don't have any idea how they will vote on mundane issues like education, taxes, heathcare, etc. If we know that someone is a self described "conservative" (a label for classical liberals I'm increasingly uncomfortable with) we have a pretty good idea how they are going to vote just as we would with a self described "liberal" (a label I find even more ironic). With the vast majority of republicans gladly accepting the label of "conservative", voters have an easy time either accepting or rejecting the parties candidates because there idealogy is well known. With few in the democratic party accepting the label of liberal a voter can only guess how they will represent them in things that have nothing to do with whichever particualr movement they ascribe to. Without a clear idealogy voting for a democrat is a grab bag that many are increasingly unwilling to take as the movements the party has come to embody become more and more whacky in their extremes.

Posted by: Lloyd | Feb 16, 2005 6:06:04 AM

As usual, Mark and Michael make excellent points that I think speak to our current situation. The current hype around "framing," for example, misses the more fundamental questions of 1) what compelling ideas we are trying to "frame," and 2) what constellation of actual, on-the-ground political forces are carrying forward the ideas? Absent that, we're left with vague banalities.

Also, I think the discussion about multi-issue vs. single-issue approaches is important. Progressives seem to have come to some understanding (justified, in my opinion) on the limits of single-issue approaches. But any successful movement in history has had a single-issue focus; as Michael suggest, the strength was in connecting to broader, cross-ideology currents to form, as Mark says, the necessary alliances. Or at least that's my take.

Chris
southernstudies.org

Posted by: Chris | Feb 16, 2005 8:49:16 AM

When Marxists spoke of ideology, they were not refering to a list of attributes or plans of *an* ideology, but rather the symbols, mythology, and assumptions that could make those attributes widely accepted -- those things we take for granted. ("The ruling ideas of a society are the ideas of the ruling class," "reproduction of the means of production" through ideological state apparatuses, etc.)

Among the core left and the liberal blogosphere, I believe there are many key assumptions we share when reading any appeal -- a positive government, keeping corporate concern balanced with democratic interests, the persistence of inequality. We also remember different things than conservatives do, like the New Deal instead of the Reagan era, or the persecution of Clinton rather than "Bush hating." These are not proposals that can be listed so much as a history and context for interpreting assertions and events.

The ideological advantage the right has is, in my opinion, marketing. They really have made incredible advances in advertising their message, generating a lot of noise and innuendo and grounding their message firmly into the part of the consciousness many identify with being American.

In developing ideological appeals, the "framing" is just a first step. I don't believe there is some kind of magic code word that, when heard, will make everybody agree with you. You need to form a subrational association. It really comes down to pounding away at it -- thousands of little suits and ties clacking away at typewriters in the basements of clubs and think tanks, far removed from realpolitick compromise, relentlessly insistent, were able to break through the hegemony of middle-of-the-road politics and create the circumstances for their own ascendency. It would be heroic if it weren't so diabolical and retrograde.

Posted by: Ezra | Feb 16, 2005 4:29:28 PM

BTW -- perhaps, as you say, Marx & Engels didn't decide one day they needed an ideology. (I would say Marx incorrectly but effectively denied communism was an ideology.) They did, however, decide one day to write a Manifesto, and that manifesto did shake up the world. But manifestoes are for revolutionaries, and the age of revolutions is over. Or is it?

Posted by: Ezra | Feb 16, 2005 4:36:39 PM