Wake up, Democrats: Ideas matter

KENNETH S. BAER and ANDREI CHERNY are the founding editors of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas,

SOMETHING HAPPENS to a political party when it is not just out of power but has had to play on the home field of its opponents for a generation: It loses faith in itself and becomes scared.

Like the 98-pound weakling who lives in fear of the school bully, it will say anything to avoid being stuffed into a gym locker: I don’t really believe in anything! I don’t stand for anything! Please just leave me alone!

That this has become true in the Democratic Party is clear in listening to the worried words of pundits and political professionals who counsel Democrats to avoid offering any vision or direction for the country -- to instead simply wait for voters to so tire of Republican mismanagement that they will turn to more “competent” Democrats to administer a conservative state.


Maureen Dowd, for instance, argued recently that “big ideas” don’t matter -- “what matters,” she wrote, “is the bearer of an idea.” James Carville -- the architect of Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory -- told Newsweek that “the American people are going to be ready for an era of realism. They’ve seen the consequences of having too many ‘big ideas.’ ”

And in these pages, Jonathan Chait cynically dismissed any talk of “vision” or “ideas” and instead argued that Democrats should not formulate a coherent worldview because, for progressives, “everything works on a case-by-case basis.” This ad hoc approach to politics misunderstands the basics of American history and underestimates the power of ideas in shaping it. It may win an odd election here or there in spite of itself, but ultimately, it is a losing strategy for any political party.

Ideas have driven American politics since the founding of the republic. The U.S. was established on grand notions of democracy and freedom that were radical breaks with the entire history of the world to that point. In the 19th century, Jacksonian ideas about opportunity for all, not just the few, were brought to life through the Homestead Act, the transcontinental railroad and the land grant colleges. When industrialization came to remake the face of American life at the turn of the last century, the Progressives rethought how government and society should work to adapt to the new Machine Age and its urban centers. Eventually, these ideas were realized in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and came to define and delimit the debate over government for the rest of the 20th century.

The leaders who brought about these changes did not approach their work on a case-by-case basis, nor did they simply see their jobs as conscientiously administering the machinery of government so that it ran smoothly. Instead, they had ambition and a vision of how the world should work. Although their innovations may seem commonplace now, these visions often represented a radical break from the prevalent dogma of the moment, emerging from outside the accepted bounds of debate.

Ideas have both shaped America’s history as well as transformed its politics. If elections were only about competence, then right about now we’d be dedicating the Michael Dukakis Presidential Library. The fact is that the parties that have won elections over the long term and have been able to build governing majorities are those that have put forward a vision that both inspires the American people and responds to the concerns they face at the time. Certainly, this was true during the New Deal era, when Americans repeatedly chose the often chaotic and unorganized administration of Roosevelt’s Democrats because they responded to the ideas about government and the economy that FDR was offering.

In response, Eisenhower-type Republicans argued that what was needed was a “Modern Republicanism” that promised to administer the New Deal more effectively. Other conservatives argued that unless they offered an alternative vision that would rally Americans to their banner, the Republicans would always be the moon to the Democratic sun: reflecting its light but shining none of its own.


So the bravest conservative thinkers took on the GOP establishment and its most plodding, popular voices. They developed a series of ideas -- supply-side economics, Social Security privatization, faith-based social policy and so on -- that reshaped the American political landscape. It took decades for their ideas to make it into the mainstream, but -- for better or worse -- American politics today is played out on the terrain laid down by these thinkers.

Now, it is progressives that have a choice. Most of the voices inside Washington believe that conservative errors and overreaching -- along with more effective voter targeting and door-knocking by Democrats, more compelling TV ads and new “frames” for old policies -- will yield enough votes so that in a closely divided nation, Democrats might eke out a victory and regain power.

We disagree. Having seen the failure of a generation of conservative ideas on fiscal and foreign policy, Americans are ready to listen to an alternative. Now is the moment for Democrats to offer a set of breakthrough ideas that will create a governing majority for a generation. But this will happen only if they are willing to be more than the railroad conductor making sure the trains run on time, and instead put America on a new and different track.