Is The Left Out Of Ideas? By Jane Galt

by John Hawkins | February 23, 2006 9:00 am

That gets batted around every so often, and it (understandably) enrages liberals. And yet, it seems to me that there’s a kernel of truth there. Not in the literal sense: liberals do not vote Green or Democrat just because they like the logos. But the left, as a movement, does not have any very coherent Big Idea that it can sell. The Movement doesn’t agree on much, except that it hates George Bush. Orwell to the contrary, hate does not sell particularly well in American politics.1 Fear . . . now, fear sells. But only if it’s at least quasi-believable, which, to the vast swath of the American public, “George Bush is planning to lynch minorities and put everyone else in illegal detention camps” doesn’t. Fear only works if the majority of American voters believe that whatever they are supposed to fear will happen to them, not some comfortably anonymous nobody in a far-off state.

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.

Kerry tried to gloss over this issue by promising both things, but this promise made no sense, and the American public, who are not quite the drooling morons that frustrated centre-left journalists like to imagine, could tell that it made no sense. He tried to paper over huge differences over Iraq by waffling like mad on whether he was for or against it, which only succeeded in alienating some moderates. Commentators at the time blamed Kerry, and while some of his straddles were pointless, and nonsensical 2, I suspect many more of them were institutional; Kerry was simply unable to take a coherent position on many issues because doing so would alienate one or the other of the party’s major interest groups.

The positions he did take were wonkish, replete with technical detailery designed to obscure the costs or the decidedly modest benefits such programs would produce. 99% of the people who read all of these wonderful plans on his website had already decided to vote for Mr Kerry, and 99% of the rest were journalists like me who had to read them so that we could summarise his campaign platform in 200 words. And I, who have read them, can testify that they were tedious and completely immune to the kind of easy sound-biteization that makes for a good campaign. That left Kerry with “I’ve served in Vietnam, and George Bush sucks weasels!” which was a lot less compelling than it undoubtedly sounded when his campaign advisors were brainstorming it. When he did talk about policy, it came out as “I’m going to do a lot of good stuff. To be sure, I can’t tell you what it is, because that would take too long. But it’ll be good, I promise.” Except for health care, which I suspect sounded to anyone who already has insurance like an expensive boondoggle, his plans were modest tinkering that would, at best, produce largely undetectable results. So, for that matter, were Mr Bush’s tax cuts, which produced modest economic benefits, if any. But tax cuts sounded big. Better pre-K education didn’t.

Democrats have been blaming the candidates: the wooden Gore, the hapless Kerry. But it seems to me that the problem is that the fissures on the left are so deep that it takes a political genius like Clinton, who zeroed in on symbolic wedge issues with the daring precision of a World War II ace, to cover over them long enough to get elected. Neither Gore nor Kerry were particularly good candidates, to be sure, but it’s not like George Bush is a stunning rhetorician or a dazzling political strategist. His main skills (and weaknesses) lie in dogged determination and keen administrative abilities. Yet he defeated Al Gore, who should have walked all over Bush, given that he was running as the incumbent’s successor in the sunset year of America’s longest postwar economic expansion. Kerry couldn’t beat Bush even though the guy had been caught in bed with a naked economic recession, suffered through a subsequent jobless recovery, and got the country into an enormously expensive, and prolonged, conflict in Iraq. Is that really a problem of the candidates, or the party?

The left used to have a Big Idea: The free market doesn’t work, so the government will fix it. The social democrats disagreed with the Socialists and the Scoop Jackson democrats about how much fixing was necessary, but they all agreed on a basic premise, and could sell that simple message to the public. Then, after fifty years or so, people noticed that the government didn’t seem to work any better than the free market . . . worse, actually, in a lot of cases . . . and it was awfully expensive and surly. Conservatives stepped in with their Big Idea: the government screws things up, so let’s leave more stuff up to individuals, which, if nothing else, will be a lot cheaper. Obviously, liberals disagree with this . . . but they have not come up with a Big, Easily Sellable, Idea With Obvious Policy Prescriptions to replace it. Some of them have just kept repeating the old Big Idea, which it seems to me that fewer and fewer people believe, as the US continues to pull ahead of its economic peers. Others have focused on coming up with lots of little ideas . . . but those take up too much time and energy to attract voters. Gore tried to whang up anger against pharmaceutical companies, and Kerry tried to stoke anger against Bush, as replacement. But in politics, there’s just no replacement for the Big Idea.

1 Negative ads work, of course. But they work by telling the audience something specific about the opposing candidate that they did not previously know (often because it is not true). Few candidates get elected on the platform of “My opponent is a big, fat poopyhead”–not even when that opponent is James Earl Carter.

2 My favourite moment in the debates came at the “town hall” style one, where Kerry told a pro-life questioner that while he personally agreed with her that abortion was murder, he couldn’t legislate his morality. Pro-choice readers should substitute the words “lynching” for “abortion” and see if this position would overcome their reluctance to vote for a Dixiecrat 3.

3 No, I am not comparing abortion to lynching. I’m simply pointing out that if you think abortion is murder, being told that someone agrees with you that it is murder–i.e., the deliberate taking of a human life, but has no plans to do anything about it because that would be “legislating his personal morality” is unlikely to endear him to you as a candidate.

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