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US Party politics: In search of big ideas

A friend of mine, a political science professor, forwarded an interesting editorial by the NYT's David Brooks, A House Divided, and Strong, as a follow up to our conversations about my earlier post on Investing in Intellectual Infrastructure.

As we've already established here, the thing is not to emulate the conservative pyramid structure, but to learn from it. Yet many, it appears, have learned the wrong things. To be fair, the metaphor of pyramid is a bit misleading. It's not a lock-step monolithic structure designed with the single-minded purpose of servicing the White House's messaging needs. Rather it's more organic and messy than that, with the bottom layers being relatively self-directed and independent -- and often feuding as Brooks points out. The success factor has not been in their cosy consensus, but in the vibrancy of their debates which have been going on for years: "...neocons arguing with theocons, the old right with the new right, internationalists versus isolationists, supply siders versus fiscal conservatives. The major conservative magazines - The Weekly Standard, National Review, Reason, The American Conservative, The National Interest, Commentary - agree on almost nothing."

The process is thus more like a group of similar species competing and cooperating for keystone dominance in a particular territory. Turns out this is a fruitful environment to develop, gestate and hone big and compelling ideas that stick. It doesn't matter that they are inconsistent at this lower level; that's the job of political operators like Rove to filter, select and frame as these varying ideas and agendas present themselves.

Being out of government for a long time also had an important galvanizing and freeing impact on the big idea creation process for the conservatives. It forced them to return to their intellectual forebears for direction and reexamine core assumptions about their public philosophy. As Brooks argues:

That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement's views about human nature and society are true.

Liberals have not had a comparable public philosophy debate. A year ago I called the head of a prominent liberal think tank to ask him who his favorite philosopher was. If I'd asked about health care, he could have given me four hours of brilliant conversation, but on this subject he stumbled and said he'd call me back. He never did.

Liberals are less conscious of public philosophy because modern liberalism was formed in government, not away from it. In addition, liberal theorists are more influenced by post-modernism, multiculturalism, relativism, value pluralism and all the other influences that dissuade one from relying heavily on dead white guys. As a result, liberals are good at talking about rights, but not as good at talking about a universal order.

If I were a liberal, which I used to be, I wouldn't want message
discipline. I'd take this opportunity to have a big debate about the
things Thomas Paine, Herbert Croly, Isaiah Berlin, R. H. Tawney and John
Dewey were writing about. I'd argue about human nature and the American
character. In disunity there is strength.

My friend believes that the Democrats need to spend more time in the wilderness to develop these big ideas. In the meantime, what I want to know is what other thinkers would you include in that list?

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Bravo! Best idea I've heard in a long time. I would go further and say not only does it not matter if things are inconsistent, its actually an advantage. Having an argument is a really good way to present an idea. It gets people passionately involved. As long as people fight honourably, it is a kind of pageantry, a kind of political WWF. It's *fun*.

I reckon we could have a real rip-snorter between the old school liberals and the geek faction for one.

Topics... How about the nature of truth? An old favourite. I'm sick of post-modern relativism. There is an ultimate reality damnit, and your opinion counts for nothing. Some things we collectively hold to be self-evident, the rest we infer from observation. ... Kinda relevant with the conservatives now also living in a reality of their own choosing.

Hmm... Jared Diamond. Peter Singer. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. And Henry George was recently recommended to me by an old warrior.

Posted by: Paul Harrison on 6 Apr 05

A return to political philosophy, at least among some members of the Democratic party, would be welcomed as a response to the poll-driven Presidential candidacies of Al Gore and John Kerry. Let's pull Machiavelli off our list of philosophers; we've got too many tacticians and not enough philosopher-thinkers in the party.

We've got to add John Rawls (and, by extension, Immanuel Kant) to the list. If the list needs to stay short, make the list ONLY Rawls!

Key Rawlsian themes: The justice of social redistribution and investment in the public sphere. And toleration.

Thomas Jefferson wrote quite a number of relevant tracts, but let's focus on one Key Jeffersonian theme: In the essay on "usufruct," how protecting the natural environment preserves value across generations. Let's put aside for the moment his personal failings (and those of everyone on the list) and dig deeply into ideas that can help Democrats.

John Stuart Mill. Whoa -- isn't he on the Republican's list? Yes, but notice how his conception of liberty is short and succinct and takes up about 10 pages of "On Liberty." The rest of the book is spent laying out all the exceptions that allow us to understand why we need a government. And how the community comes together. It's all very interesting if read closely. Key Millian themes: Personal liberty and the harm principle.

Ditto for Adam Smith -- beyond the "invisible hand" are a great number of conditions for what government should/must do. Key Smithian themes: Foundations, foundations, foundations. Infrastructure, rules, and foundations for society.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi -- Check out their speeches for translating deeply-held philosophical principles into actionable political principles.

This list could, ideally, be MUCH longer. But I'll end with a Postscript: Isaiah Berlin (even if only that one essay, "Two Conceptions of Liberty" or whatever it is) probably deserves a second mention. And philosophical ideas need augmentation with spiritual/artistic muses. Bill Clinton picked Maya Angelou as an inaugural participant for a good reason. Who better depicts the value of liberal ideas through her work?

Posted by: J. P. Gownder on 6 Apr 05

Wow - one post about Thomas Friedman on Worldchanging, and then one about David Brooks. Not what I'd expect to see here.

Mr. Brooks main "helpful suggestion" is that Democrats shouldn't be bothering about getting back into power -- they should instead be debating old philosophers for the next 30 years.

My helpful suggestion is to ignore disingenuous Republicans like Mr. Brooks and keep working with the ideas like the ones being explored at Worldchanging.

I'll chime in later with some ideas that specifically address our political system, but I think we would be wise to ignore pundits like Brooks and Friedman.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 6 Apr 05

How about Bukminster Fuller?

Posted by: jim moore on 6 Apr 05


I hear what you're saying, but it's never wise to ignore the strategy and tactics of the opposition. Indeed, part of the problem has been a superficial understanding of how the conservative system works. While I would love a more updated, less zero sum phrase than "know thy enemy", it's still relevant today.

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 6 Apr 05

You've got to be kidding me. In the first place, Democrats have been debating these ideas and others for years, and have been arguing nonstop for as long as I've been paying attention, which is about thirty years now.

Brooks is wrong about the birth of liberalism "in government"; he's wrong about where the strength of conservatism comes from, and the power dynamics within the movement (he doesn't discuss racial and religious extremism, which is exceedingly dishonest of him). All in all, his column is utterly disingenuous, and I'm really shocked that anyone would dream of taking it seriously. The "hives vs packs" argument that made the rounds of the Internets a few weeks ago - which I suspect Brooks is cribbing from - was equally questionable, but far more lucid.

For alternative analyses of Brooks' column, please see here and here.

Posted by: Phila on 6 Apr 05

Great piece. I work at a "prominent liberal think tank" and agree with both you and Brooks.

I'd include the following (all living) thinkers on the list: John Kenneth Galbraith, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty, Amartya Sen, William Julius Wilson, Ronald Dworkin, Cass Sunstein, and many more. And folks like Kevin Mattson, Alan Wolfe, E.J. Dionne all have good recent books out that the heads of all prominent liberal think tanks should read.

Posted by: Shawn Fremstad on 6 Apr 05

Anyway, if you want a list of philosophers and sociologists worth reading...I'd suggest Benjamin Constant, Jurgen Habermas, Pierre Bourdieu, Simone Weil, Richard Rorty, and Paul Feyerabend, for starters. If it's arguments people want, most of these people's views are eminently debatable.

Of course, many people on the Left have already read some or all of these writers. That's where they got things like the "values pluralism" Brooks mentions, a stance which Brooks seems to think couldn't possibly have come from reading philosophy. In other words, his definition of "philosopher" is artificially limited to people like Dewey and Paine. Later figures like Rorty or Habermas or Feyerabend don't "count" as philosophers in Brooks' oddball world.

Posted by: Phila on 6 Apr 05

The Democrats have big ideas like, say, energy independence which goes to a core American value of self reliance, but it gets watered down due to what? Fear? Special interests like oil companies that contribute to democrats too? Take the Kerry energy independence plan; I think he wanted to devote 50 billion dollars to it and would increase our use of renewables by 20% by 2020. Get real, saying 20% by 2020 just puts people to sleep. Think about it; we have spent over 200 billion on Iraq! Would it not make sense to be a lot bolder and promote a plan that would spend at least that much and get closer to 100 per cent energy independent by 2020? (i.e. if 50 billion gets us to 20% then 200 billion should get us to using 80% renewables by 2020. Make it 250 or 300 billion and we are at 100%. And whether we could really get there for 300 billion is not the point, the point is the democrats need to get serious and be bold. They need to say engergy independence and mean it. Bush is talking about engery independence, but that just means drilling for more oil that we do not have enough of to make a difference. The democrats need to call Bush on it and produce a serious plan that will capture peoples imaginations. A moon shot for energy independence kind of plan! By the way, put Noam Chomsky on the list.

Posted by: Tavita on 6 Apr 05

I think we've talked before about our political philosophies being based on our views of human nature.

To cut at that from just one angle, I think a lot of the energy, environment, and "worldchanging" debate is about the gap between knowing what is good ... and doing it. Or about how much "lifestyle" we need to change.

I can't help but see this as related:

"The dire problem of obesity puts burden of about $21.7 billion on the California state every year, says a study report laid out on Tuesday.

The report prepared for the California Department of Health Services calculates the effect of physical inactivity and weight gain in the state. It reveals that the employers bear the main expenses, in the form of rising medical care costs, workers' compensation rates and lost productivity."

In one venue we have trouble taking care of ourselves, and in another we have trouble taking care of the wider world. The "fixes" that are nominated usually break pretty cleanly as (conservative) freedom/responisbility or (liberal) group action.

In practice we sort of split the difference - but EPA stickers for our cars really seem to be doing about as much good as nutritional labels for our foods - we have had limited sucess.

Posted by: odograph on 6 Apr 05

Please. There are only two problems here. The first problem is coalescing a coherent set of progressive values/beliefs/principles that will act as an attractor for a winning number of voters. Right now the Dems/left/progressives have neither a common language nor any agreement on overarching principles -only a menu of programs. I believe that a rigorous examination of those programs would uncover some of such a coherent set.

The second problem is communicating that coherent set in a persuasive way - addressing people's fears and hopes in a way that touches their hearts and their minds.

Kerry couldn't do either of these, so he lost. He might have won if he had done either.

Posted by: Douglas Weinfield on 6 Apr 05

Posted by: scottb on 6 Apr 05

Well, I don't know much about sociology and political philosophy, but it seems that a lot of political-economic discourse is in a two-dimensional line running from "Left" to "Right", an argument about the primacy of markets and individual liberty, versus government and collective responsibility. Kind of a dumb argument, since each pole creates the conditions for the other.

If we can add another axis, running from "Constructive" to "Destructive", there's a quadrant. "Left Destructive" includes Pol Pot and Stalin; "Right Destructive" includes Hitler, Mussolini, and ... well, draw your own conclusions. Gandhi was "Left Constructive", in my opinion; perhaps Mother Theresa was an example of "Right Constructive"?

I tend Left, but I'm more interested in Constructive, and happy to learn from and work with anybody pushing in that direction.

If the Democrats can become the party of Constructive, they'll start doing better I think.

Posted by: David Foley on 6 Apr 05

I've seen plenty of feuding among liberals, and clearly Brooks is a little to generous re:conservatives. Does he really think Bush and Delay have read the Rights of Man. Come on!

However, I think what he does point out is that Democrats need to re-establish a bold counter vision to the conservative mania. The Democrats performance on the Schiavo issue was ...PATHETIC!

For the list: Bacon, Locke, Voltaire... Heck lets revisit the whole Enlightenment, which influenced our founding fathers in the first place. Including Paine, Jefferson and Franklin. Of course Jefferson also thought that all Americans(white land-owning males) should own large farms but hey his ideas about "ownership" and how it relates to citizenship might prove relevant to current political discourse.

Posted by: Sine Murray on 7 Apr 05

Why do Democrats worry so much about Republicans? Republicans like Brooks are not trying to help Democrats.

But he has a point about arguments and debates. However, you cannot debate with anyone if you do not agree on fundamentals beforehand. Republicans agree that this is an "us vs. them" world and believe that they should favor "us," the elite and rich.

Contrary to what Republicans and many Democrats are now saying, the Democrats have a fundamental message. It is the same as it has always been. Contrary to Republicans, we believe in a world characterized as "all of us together," and we are eager to help all members of society, not merely the powerful.

All Democrats need to do is debate the details of how to accomplish our goals.

Posted by: Paul Siegel on 7 Apr 05

Having said what needs to be said about Disingenuous Brooks (and Friedman), my belief is that Worldchanging involves transcending party politics. If you buy into such a thing (at least in the US) you're basically set to take a side and battle against roughly half the people. Add to that the preconceptions everyone has about each party, and it's really not worth it, IMO.

Most of my thinking on politics and governance keeps coming back to the idea of Consensus - spelling out things that at least 80% of people can agree on and using that as the basis of moving forward. We're far too accustomed to stating our specific plans and ideals, then basically fighting about our differences over the details on which we disagree.

For example, I can certainly buy in to ideas for building coalitions for more energy independence (as a national security strategy) as long as that involves using non-harming renewables and efficiency approaches. When Friedman brings his "geogreen" concept to the table, he also brings nuclear power, which for me is a complete deal breaker -- to me, nuclear power is the pinnacle of insane thinking. So, we end up getting nowhere, because we keep bringing fractious beliefs to the table, along with beliefs that we can have far more consensus on.

That being said, there are fairly powerful interest groups out there with large membership bases (eg, AARP and AAA, each of which has about 40 million members). Those two specifically work from a very basic set of financial incentives - for AARP, primarily discounts for seniors on a broad range of goods and services, and for AAA, their towing service, maps, and discounts as well. They bring millions of people under their organizational umbrella with those incentives that appeal to all of them, then use the political clout of such a broad membership base to push for their more specific political agendas. It's an interesting angle to consider, one which goes beyond two-party thinking.

Another would be an approach of pushing for specific ideas, as Grover Norquist et al do with their "No New Taxes" pledge. They've cobbled together a coalition of interest groups that have a hard line about taxes, then make elected representatives sign on to "no new tax" pledges. If those representatives then choose not to honor their pledges, that coalition of interest groups then either works to shut down that representative by finding a replacement for him or her in the following election, or the threat of that is sufficient to bring them back into line. It's another interesting strategy to consider - a defined issue that a broad coalition can agree on then compel a representative to "pledge" to (or else). It's certainly been effective for Norquist and his coalition, to say the least.

Our two party system thrives on divisiveness. They want people to take sides, form psychological bonds with one side or another. Both of the parties definitely work to fuel cynicism about politics and government, and they also have effectively transcended their roles as public servants to the point of simply being entwined with big money. Unless we're going to "take over" most of the economic institutions (which would take a long time and lots of innovation and hard work to even conceive doing), then in the short- to medium-term we're going to have to think of more creative ways to build consensus and apply focused pressure where it's needed most.

I'd love to continue such a dialog with anyone else who wants to have it, and encourage the hosts of Worldchanging to provide a forum for it. I personally put most of my efforts into creating economic institutions that provide superior options for people as a means of driving positive change, but I also think it's time we start rethinking our assumptions about politics, governance, and how we can best use those as part of an overall notion about what we want from our economies, our nations, and our time.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 7 Apr 05

On things that are generally "worldchanging" - I've been noticing cross-political alliances forming to support them. Maybe I've had an eye out for them. The other article(s) about green neocons are a case in point.

From a pragmatic standpoint, these alliances look like something that wiil work.

They might even form the basis of a new environmentalism, one without the old (poisoned) stereotypes.

Posted by: odograph on 7 Apr 05

What happened to the democratic party?

1 Thier bulk just got old.

a This means many became grandparents and that officialy means you must become a republican( its the law!);/

b This means alot of the most ardent liberals just got old enough that thier youth has just caught up with thier age and they are falling apart. In short they are drooling zombies now. Millions just hit that point where drugs meets age and results in ozzyitise. Most are far worse off then he is.

c This means alot of em are pushing up daisies. Liberals are many things but careful is not part of it. As a result many are either now dead as doornobs or wrecked shells awaiting death.

2 They lost alot of potenial new members when people realized in utter horror that if they too became liberals they might someday look like Moore or any number of other famous UGHHHHHHHHHHHLY liberals. Meanwhile at least if your a republican you know its impossible to look as stupid as bush.

3 Finaly liberal teachers have proven a massively effective force for republican recruitment as anyone who ever lived can tell you teachers may be nice they may be wonderful but no one ever does what they tell you to do because in the end they were nuts enough to want to be teachers...

Now what ideas can you come up with to deal with this? Your base is dieing or turning conservative at a massive rate. You new members are drying up rapidly as they look pissble roll models and run screaming into the night and ideas..... ideas wont fight the fact your ugly old and worn out and are beining to smell like old people...

Posted by: wintermane on 7 Apr 05



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