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July 05, 2005

The Battle of Ideas Restated

As noted below, I'm going to be a panelist on CP's "Winning the Battle of Ideas" panel. The basic questions, as I got them in e-mail, seem to be:

How do progressives turn the tide and start winning the battle of ideas? To what extent do we need to rethink fundamental priorities, and to what extent is the real challenge to strengthen the message? Which messages and communications strategies should we pursue? What can today’s progressive leaders learn from young people about these challenges?

For those who can't be there, here's my basic answer: we're screwed. For a little while, at least. Who's the last Democrat elected to the presidency? Bill Clinton, ushered in moments after the Soviet Union collapsed and thus in that rarest of electoral instances where foreign policy was largely absent. Before him? Jimmy Carter, a direct consequence of Nixon's lies. Behind him? Johnson, who ripped the party apart in Vietnam, kneecapped Hubert Humphrey, and gave rise to George McGovern.

The story of the Democratic party's ascendance was economic despair, and the tale of its decline has been monsters abroad. The list of great Democratic accomplishments from the past century always includes the New Deal and the Great Society, but rarely mentions World War I or II. When we discuss how to rebuild a progressive majority, we mean a majority for progressive economic reform, hence our reliance on organized labor. Where Republican means low taxes and strong defense, Democrat just means safety net.

Our single-mindedness, however, worked in the 30's and worked in the 60's, there's not a whole lot of working left for it to do. We've got a welfare state. Could it be strengthened? Sure. But with Medicaid and Medicare, employer-based health and government-guaranteed pensions, the safety net's holes aren't letting a majority slip through. If Democrats were really calculating, we'd push through the roughest, most vicious privatization scheme we could taunt Bush into pushing. Thirty years from now, we'd have a guaranteed sweep.

But we don't do that. We shouldn't do that. We wouldn't do that. We defend our gains, but in doing so, we soften the demand for our primary agenda. We make sure the poor, the old, and the young are mostly taken care of, and so the country's most pressing issues of survival come, or at least seem to come, from weaponry lobbed by foreign enemies. And, as it happens, Republicans are more trusted to kill the bomb lobbers, or at least lob a few back.

So Republicans control the issue most Americans believe the most salient. Of course, there's another way to win elections: have an enormously motivated minority group willing to vote in numbers that cancel out larger groups. Republicans have that, too, in the form of the Christian Right.

So here's what Democrats do to win the Battle of Ideas, which really means the battle at the ballot box: recapture the pressing issues, or rev up the fraction on the electorate who sees our agenda as most salient to their lives. That's a much harder task for Democrats than Republicans, the religious right is an organized movement, the uninsured and impoverished are a disempowered mass. The last option, which we thought we'd put into play in the last election, is to run a ticket able to transcend the party's weaknesses and rob Republicans of their primary issues. But Kerry couldn't answer straight on Iraq and he chose a running mate who'd strengthen his domestic appeal, rather than a walking foreign policy like Clark or Biden.

In the end, that's my answer. Convince American's that our priorities are the most pressing, somehow change our priorities without becoming Republican-lite, figure out a way to organize the marginalized mass who our agenda would help, or find candidates able to bring their own foreign policy abilities to the table. This isn't about ideas and it's not about message, it's about the intersection of party strengths and American priorities. And I fear all this talk about innovative programs and framing, though healthy in its way, tends to obscure that. What we need is not a more interesting economic vision, it's a more credible national security image. And I don't see how we get that till we elect a President who competently presides over a crisis.

July 5, 2005 in Democrats, Electoral Politics | Permalink

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Comments

Hm, interesting post. Two things though:

1) Are we really that screwed? Gore won the popular vote in 2000, mind you, and even if he was just riding the economic boom of the late '90s, that proves that Democrats can get obscenely close to winning the presidency without a major economic crisis in tow. Ditto with John Kerry's narrow loss in 2004. I mean, the dude nearly upended a sitting war president. That's not nothing.

2) That "If Democrats were really smart..." line is awful, no offense. If there were the only two choices, I'd much rather have the Democrats continue to lose elections because the GOP is slowly and surely getting dragged left (as has been, to some extent, the case lately) than have the country go seriously to hell just so the Democrats can -- perhaps -- win a presidential election down the road.

Okay, third...

3) You could make the case that Republicans have been just as lucky over the past 30 years at winning the presidency. Nixon nearly lost, after all, and Reagan almost certainly wouldn't have won in '80 without the Desert One fiasco. George H.W. Bush, fine, he seemed to win "fair and square," as they say. But then Bush Jr. in 2000, um, okay, awfully luck. And then his squeaker in 2004 despite being the man who emerged from the rubble in 2004 and throttled Osama with his bare hands. Or whatever. Really, if you're just looking at the presidency (and that seems to be your focus), it's probably a lot of luck. Comes down to how the economy's doing that October anyway or a few other variables that have little to do with winning the message battle.

Sorry, gotta go with four:

4) Taking the very broad view, liberals already are winning the battle of ideas. And have been for the past 50 years. And continue to under George W. Bush. Are there things that suck? Of course, that's why you and I hate Bush. His attacks on labor. Privatization. Still, the man's big domestic policy proposal this term has been a welfare program. And people like Bill Kristol, David Brooks, and freakin' CATO and Heritage are all cheering him on for it. What they have in mind is actually disingenuous and idiotic, but can we just admire the beauty of this?

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Jul 5, 2005 8:48:56 PM

Sweet infant Jesus with chopsticks there are some typos in there. George H.W. Bush was "awfully lucky" not "awfully luck." Bush fils emerged from the rubble in "2001". And so on.

Posted by: Brad Plumer | Jul 5, 2005 8:51:06 PM

The Democrats are smart line is sarcastic -- but point taken, I'll change it to calculating. As for the rest, Gore "won" before 9/11, had a new national security threat not reemerged, Democratic priorities might well remain dominant.

But Carter barely beat Ford, and Reagan probably would have beat him with or without Desert One. As for the ideological stuff, I agree. But by ceding that territory to us (at least to some extent), they got to play where they wanted: on foreign policy. Aside from 1992-2000, we've not played on our strength in a looong time. That means we either need to change our strength our figure out how to make it preeminent.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 5, 2005 9:01:00 PM

I think part of the problem is that there's no consensus among progressives as to what the priorities should be. If I recall correctly, Asheesh Siddique made this point in his writing about the Take Back America conference that was held in June in DC.

http://www.campusprogress.org/page/community/post/siddique/BGz

Posted by: misty mill | Jul 5, 2005 9:37:55 PM

I'd recommend Schlesinger's theory re: cycles of American history, Ezra.

Fact is: every opposition party has been declared dead during a cycle of American history. The GOP was considered dead and bereft of ideas from 1932-1968 (one GOP war hero elected, GOP majorities in Congress rare). The Dems. were considered dead before *that* --- and are considered so now.

The answer to this question, one that faces every opposition party, is that the governing party has to leave the country in such indisputable damage that they are discredited for a generation. Certainly 1932 would qualify. 1968 might, as well (and certainly Carter has been used against the Dems. since 1980, as well). The governing party believes their own b.s. b/c they keep winning with it and aren't able to find their way out of a new problem. As we see in the last year, the modern GOP has become inflexible in their orthodoxy. A tax cut is considered the solution to almost every domestic concern, military force the solution to too many international concerns. Others admire their simplicity -- but we both know it is wrong and it is dangerous.

The question isn't winning the battle of ideas. If what I think and fear is going to happen in the next two years does happen, voters will turn to us.

What we have to be concerned about isn't "can we win", but "what will we do when we win."

And there we should have the debate. Should the US pull out of Iraq? (I think not, others on my side disagree) What does victory look like? What's our strategy for winning the WoT? How can one promote progressive policies with severe fiscal restraints? And, yes, how do we expand entitlements (Soc. Sec/Medicare/health care) with an aging population.

I don't know the answer to those questions (I think we have some on the WoT in particular and that they are very powerful -- oil conservation, stop coddling the Saudis, etc...), but those questions are much more important to us in the long-term than Lakoff's framing exercises or Frank's discussions about Kansas.

Just my thoughts. Hey, what do I know?

Posted by: Chris Rasmussen | Jul 5, 2005 9:59:45 PM

This isn't about ideas and it's not about message, it's about the interplay of party strengths and American priorities.

This strikes me as missing something. It seems to assume that American priorities are a given, when their is evidence from history that priorities are created and shaped by unarticulated or barely observed needs.

The public was not clamoring for Social Security in the 1930's. But there were a lot of seniors living in real poverty, but the information and political apparatus was not paying attention to them.

The American public was not rising up in anger because Europe was starving and unemployed post-WWII. But Europeans needed help, and doing nothing would likely lead to communist revolutions as well, so Truman/Marshall proposed and made work the largest humanitarian and industrial rebuilding operation ever, and saved western Europe for democracy.

The Dem. party strengths have largely been in attending to social, economic, political and international needs - we are the reality party, recall. We go looking for things that are not working or being ignored even though serious problems. We gather facts, analyze alternatives, propose solutions, and make them work through trial and error after being in action.

That role as problem solver has largely lost its way. A new Democratic party need be no more than the old Democratic party, but with the issues and problems of our time and our future.

The message part is essential once a problem is identified and a solution appears at hand. Our current problems with message are often tied to our failure to remember that we are the problem solvers.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 5, 2005 10:06:06 PM

I wish to add something to my concluding sentence:

Jim: The message part is essential once a problem is identified and a solution appears at hand. Our current problems with message are often tied to our failure to remember that we are the problem solvers.

I know that Ezra has deep respect for FDR's speeches, particularly the 1936 reelection speech in Chicago. FDR told the country why Social Security was important and he took down the vocal, well-funded corporate and conservative opponents. That combination of a real problem, an innovative solution, organized political determination, and a powerful message is the kind of thing that will make the Dems successful again.

I do agree with Chris Rasmussen that there is cyclicality in politics, but WE KNOW there are both unsolved problems (Iraq, income inequality, fiscal sanity, etc.) and a clear unwillingness of the Repub. opposition to pay attention to reality - so WE must do it.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 5, 2005 10:17:21 PM

Jim -- That's not true, though. The public was clamoring for Social Security, or, to be more accurate, something larger. I forgot the guy's name, but a physician with an idea for a $700 a month pension created an organization that swelled to 25 million members, multiple plans were offered, Upton Sinclair ran for Gov. of CA on the Ham and Eggs platform, Huey Long had his ideas, etc.

Moreover, social insecurity was the issue of the time. Scores of impoverished elderly made it a pressing need. Folks wanted it, they knew they wanted it, and if they weren't sure exactly what form it'd take, it was no more impressive than a nation complaining about tooth decay being sold toothbrushes.

And the Marshall Plan, though great, got no one elected. The point isn't that wonderful social policies should be excised from the platform, but that the problems our policies address have, in the past few elections, taken a backseat to terrorism. As such, we're not persuasively addressing the main issue Americans are voting on and that, not a mustiness to our ideas, is why we're losing.

And Chris: wholly true and the cyclical nature. And while it does seem that Bush and Co. will soon prove their incompetence by destroying the nation's finances and international standing, I'd really prefer to beat them before that happens...

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 5, 2005 11:59:20 PM

A couple of things; the post seems to imply that the Democratic agenda is mainly relevant to the "unemployed or uninsured", that is, most things are working well and there is "not a whole lot of working left for it to do". ¿Is that true? Unequality, economic insecurity, stagnant salaries, all those things are up. Sure, these issues are not safe "safety net" issues like Social Security, but an effective populist platform could be built around them. The second point is that a good rule of thumb in building a platform would be to think of things that many people would support but Republicans would not be able to. Most Republican pet issues are divisive in that way and it works very well for them.

Posted by: Carlos | Jul 6, 2005 12:19:04 AM

Ezra, I think you're thinking about Dr. Townsend, I believe.

The amount of the pension wasn't 700$/month, as that was a lot more money during the 30s' than it is now.

I believe that he later advocated a plan with 200$/month, and no savings from the pension was to be allowed, it would have to be spent by the end of the month.

Posted by: Laura Bush | Jul 6, 2005 12:54:04 AM

"The uninsured and impoverished are a disempowered mass."

Seems like both a description and a solution if you ask me. Convince the uninsured that life isn't supposed to work that way, even in the USA, and convince a lot of folks that, yes, you are impoverished. Not because you don't work hard, not because you screwed up, but because of who you have been voting for and how they treat you.

I'm tired of trying to convince current voters. I want new voters. I will go out on a limb here and say that if the Dems are serious, voting registration (and, uh, voting), on the same terms and with the same urgency that it happened in the 60s is where it is at. The situations are not identical, but the potential impact on what it means to be a Democrat can't be overooked. Read your history and remember what being a Democrat used to mean in the South. Perhaps we can create a day where folks will remember what it meant to be a Republican in the Midwest, or the South, or other places. The party that oppresses the people it serves will not stand in the face of organized voter turnout.

Or so I hope.

Posted by: abjectfunk | Jul 6, 2005 1:59:23 AM

Looking at the house, the senate and the white house, I know I can only sound like a fool by saying this, but I really don't think the Democratic party is in much trouble at all.

Don't you guys think that at the end of the day, the only thing that actually really matters is the candidate himself? I mean, Bush could have dropped out with Allen Keys talking his place, and they would have lost. He could tattoo "Republican" across his forehead, what difference would it have made?

I think you guys are way too obsessed with the idea of parties..which I guess makes sense seeing how it's part of your job and all. But really, run a guy that people feel understands them and that they feel they can relate to, throw in a few slogans and some decent policy, and you have yourself a winner. Which party that guy belongs to seems almost inconsequential.

Posted by: Mike | Jul 6, 2005 3:12:39 AM

The list of great Democratic accomplishments from the past century always includes the New Deal and the Great Society, but rarely mentions World War I or II.

I'm surprised nobody else jumped on this. There's nothing good to say about Woody Wilson's excellent intervention, but WW II, and the American consensus about containing the USSR, were very much Democratic accomplishments. Which is why the party's decades-long indifference toward foreign policy has been so frustrating. The only reason the GOP's been able to claim some kind of expertise in security issues -- despite absolutely and consistently boneheaded ideas! -- is that so many Dems aren't much interested in what happens beyond our borders.

Posted by: sglover | Jul 6, 2005 9:13:41 AM

"If Democrats were really calculating, we'd push through the roughest, most vicious privatization scheme we could taunt Bush into pushing. Thirty years from now, we'd have a guaranteed sweep."

Yes and the Revolutionary Vanguard, themselves not particularly have suffered a damn thing materially in the interim, will be there to sweep up the reins of power.

This line of thinking is very old, particularly among the hard Left, but also alive and well in the mushier parts of the Green Party. It kind of gushes of middle-class entitlement, the notion that we are going to build a bright new world with us in charge no matter how many Proles have to be sacrificied in the process.

Good enough for Lenin, not good enough for me. Lets put the Progress back in Progressive, not sit back waiting for the inevitable failure of Capitalism.

I know the line was tongue in cheek, but it taps right into the worst instincts of the Left from Marx through Nader with side trips to Sorel. "Let it all go to smash, then we can rebuild". Hey I am fifty, I want my pie in the sky now, or at least after the 2006 midterms, I don't feel like sitting this one out for a decade or two.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Jul 6, 2005 9:53:54 AM

A Democratic message that I would like to see get out there is "The Democratic Party is the Party of Competency". I know this is boring, but I think it can't be stressed enough that the Republican party is incompetent at actual gov't. A lot of Clinton's appeal beyond the charisma was that he knew what he was doing. Democratic ideas are popular. One way to tell that is the way the Republicans cover up their extreme rightwing ideology with popular Democratic themes, i.e. "clear skies", the idea that private accounts will help individuals. Somehow Democrats have to get the idea across that they are behind using gov't to empower individuals and that includes entrepreneural enterprise, rather than corporations and beaurocracy. That there are some things that gov't does better than the market place, health insurance for old people for instance which just isn't profitable because old people are on the down hill side of good health. and so on. Here's an idea, instead of turning over land to developers or stadiums to stimulate economy as in Kelos, lower the barriers to entry, why not encourage small individually owned business that have a real stake in the community and that would make the neighborhood nicer for the people who live there instead of destroying everything they have worked for their whold life long, in lieu of mega businesses to which something like the New London development is just another deal. Is Jane Jacobs out of fashion or what? Why does everything have to new and different? Why can't we just implement the status quo (pre W) with competency?

I could rant on, and on, and on but work beckons.

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