Over at Asymmetrical Information there’s an interesting piece on the paucity of Big Ideas coming from the left these days:
Conservatives have a few things that pretty much all of them can agree on: the lower taxes are, the better; government programmes and regulations often create more problems than they solve; keep your damn hands off our guns. Pretty much everyone from the Libertarians to James Dobson and Co. can get behind this platform, and sell it to the American public. You can even add “The US military should be able to kick the [expletive deleted] of anyone who threatens us in any way” and keep all but the most hard-core Libertarians. I’m sure there are a couple of other things you could throw in, and still get a platform that is reasonably large, coherent, and agreeable to not only pretty much the entire conservative movement, but a fair number of moderates besides. There are lots–LOTS–of things that the conservatives disagree on, from gay marriage to flag burning. But there are enough that the conservative movement can craft a mission statement and sell it to America.
What’s the liberal Big Idea? Raise taxes? I’d say pretty much all the liberals I know are for that . . . but raising taxes, even “raising taxes on the rich”, is not an ends, but a means, unless you’re the kind of emotional toddler who wants to take other people’s things away just because you can’t have them. And the left (into which I throw moderate Democrats, just as I’ll throw moderate Republicans on the right) does not agree what it wants to do with the taxes it raises. The DLC types (and swing voters) want to close the budget deficit in a (IMHO futile) attempt to build the Clinton legacy. The left-liberals want a big government health care programme, and other sorts of Great Society style social programmes. The far left wants . . . ohhh, a lot of things, but they’re not going to get any of them, so that hardly seems relevant.
She hits on a very important point here. Conservatives disagree on a whole host of issues, but agree on general principles: government should be small, national defense is important, and taxes should be low. You can write it on a notecard. Granted, that is a dramatic oversimplification, and conservatives don’t travel in ideological lockstep like some would claim, but there’s ane element of truth here.
The left doesn’t have big ideas because they’ve become Balkanized by their own form of identity politics. Gays and auto workers have very little in common. African-Americans and Hispanics are as socially conservative as the “theocratic” right. All these groups are united by the thin promise of some government largesse down the road, which is why the closest thing that the Democrats have to a coherent ideology is the belief in bigger and more expansive government.
The problem with that ideology is that the Democrats are dramatically out of step with the movement of society. Look at the changes in society over the past few decades. It used to be that you went to a travel agency to plan a vacation – it was annoying and costly to do it yourself. Now, everyone from Expedia to Travelocity makes it easy for individuals to book flights, hotels, and cars in a few minutes and right from their houses. It used to be that people had to either struggle through complicated tax forms or pay an accountant to do their taxes for them. Now, you can buy a piece of software that can guide you through your taxes in an evening and have your return automatically credited to your bank account. In every aspect of society, things are moving towards the empowerment of the individual over the power of groups.
For all the talk of a “progressive” movement, the “progressives” seem to be a throwback to an older era. As society moves towards further rights for individuals, identity politics are based on group identity over individualism. “Progressive” economics are based on shifting the balance of economic power towards the states – the argument they make is that we should raise taxes to pay for social programs. Fair enough, except that social programs tend not to work, and the left is also trying to wear the mantle of the deficit hawk – those aren’t compatible positions.
One of the reasons for the current political realignment in America is that the policies of the left are contrary to the direction of society. Because of that shift, the left has become increasingly shrill. For all the talk about how Bush is ratcheting up fear, every election cycle we get the same message that Republicans will put Grandma on the street and make Little Timmy eat expired cat food for school lunch. The way in which both John Roberts and Sam Alito were demonized is part and parcel of the left’s M.O. these days – and the way in which no one outside donors to groups like People for the American Way cared is also part and parcel of how effective those attacks have become. The problem with those scare tactics is that they don’t do anything to appeal to an audience who don’t already think that Dick Cheney enjoys a tall glass of puréed puppy in the morning.
Ironically enough, it’s Bush that appears to be illustrating the most why Big Government doesn’t work. If I were a believer in some kind of political “rope-a-dope” in the White House to make the Democrats embrace smaller government I’d say that the plan is working brilliantly. However, I don’t believe that and think that Bush’s “compassionate conservativism” is really just another term for “being a budgetary squish” and that it’s an experiment doomed to failure. It has forced the issue of fiscal sanity towards the forefront of our political culture, but the fact is that as long as the government can run up masses of debt the idea that we can spend our way into smaller government just doesn’t work.
The Bush Administration may be doing a wonderful job of pissing away the GOP’s narrow electoral advantages in advance of the midterms, but in the long run it’s the left that has the most to worry. Elections aren’t won by wonkish policy proposals (Kerry, Gore in 2000) or hatred of the Other Guy (Dean, Gore today). They’re won be an ideology that can reach across party lines and capture the vital center. The left doesn’t have one, and their ideological instincts cut against the grain of American society today. As one commenter wryly notes: “A number of people look at the government and don’t see FDR trying to pull the U.S. out of Depression, they see Patty and Selma at the DMV.” Empowering the state over the individual just doesn’t work in an age when individuals are more empowered than ever before. So long as “progressivism” stands in opposition to individual liberty, it will never be a dominant force in American politics.