Tuesday, November 16, 2004In the most recent contribution to the "message problem" discussion, Kevin Drum suggests that the Democrats have 2 difficulties in presenting their political vision: 1) liberals have already succeeded at their main goals and are just playing defense, and 2) the Republican attempt to repeal those liberal reforms are too incremental and obfuscated for us to run against.
I think that Kevin's (Is it too familiar to refer to someone you don't know as Kevin?) second point is absolutely correct. To highlight his point, he makes the useful analogy that a party needs to be able to present its narrative in the time it takes to have a conversation in an elevator. Citing James Carville, Kevin says Democrats have a litany, not a story. I think the solution here is argue for core values, for a broader set of objectives for the country- not just a list of programs. That stuff puts people to sleep.
I think the reason for our managerial focus is because we are playing on the political defensive. When you propose a policy you have to persuade people to support it, and you usually do so by articulating the moral justification for it. Since we don't have a real agenda, all we do is respond negatively to what the right proposes. Republicans have responded to this strategic dynamic by concealing what they are for, by not presenting an easy target. Instead all they enunciate are their general principles, which people like, and retroactively claim that people support their policies. We have responded by whining a lot. No wonder people think we don't stand for anything.
Kevin's first argument reveals a major problem for us. To think that the basic task of liberalism has been fulfilled is to remain trapped in the world of the 1960's. It is to remain trapped by our own failures. To say that liberals are basically done because we put in place all the programs we wanted is to make a cardinal error. There is no enduring liberal legislative program.
Let me explain it this way. The set of policy solutions that was developed in the during the Progressive Era were implemented and largely successful. Similarly, another set of problems confronted the U.S. during the Great Depression, so we crafted a whole bunch of new reforms. They worked well too. Finally, the ideas of the 1960's were designed to solve the problems of the 1960's. They worked fairly well when they got a chance, but the liberal agenda was truncated because of the backlash against the civil rights revolution and the divisions over Vietnam. We have been trying to finish the LBJ/RFK agenda ever since. We got most of it, but we were still waiting for the rest of the anti-poverty program and for national health care. Liberals have been stuck at this point ever since.
Our rigid adherence to a set of programs is responsible for quite a few of a our problems, not least to our reputations as managers rather than visionaries. Liberalism is NOT a set of policy proposals. It is a worldview: liberals are committed to creating a more egalitarian country. We look at whatever set of problems is facing the country and try to find an equitable way to deal with them. And of course the set of problems is always changing. Liberals used to be very good at recognizing this- we would solve one set of problems (or at least take a good stab at it), and then get ready for the next group. But because we didn't complete our old sixties agenda, we got obsessed with it and have neglected the new set of issues that have developed since the 1970's.
So what are these new problems? They mainly have to do with the adjustments to the global economy. Because of growing international trade and the challenges to U.S. economic supremacy, prosperity is no longer a given. Countries also have less leverage in protecting worker rights and the environment. As a consequence, both have come under tremendous pressure. In addition, our democratic institutions have been eroded by social and technological changes as well as sheer neglect.
Liberals have done very little to grapple with these problems. Oh sure, there are lots of good ideas floating around. But they have not been organized into a systematic program with a clear rationale. We just haven't taken any of this stuff seriously enough. And because we have neglected these growing problems, we have for the first time opened the door to the right. The conservatives have filled the vacuum with the only thing they have: the past. They have managed to define the nature and causes of the problems confronting the country because we have been AWOL. In doing so, they are trying to repeal all that we accomplished and they never accepted. If we continue to neglect the new problems facing the country, or if we continue to deal with them in a scattershot way, the right will continue to set the agenda and we will continue to lose.
Articulating a new liberal agenda (and a coherent one) will solve our message problem. We won't just be reacting to what the right does. Instead, we will force the right to respond to us, and return to our proper role as the party of reform and conviction.
Maybe then we can explain what liberalsm means to someone in an elevator.