Thursday, June 30, 2005


The Case Against New Ideas
by Jonathan Chait Post date: 06.30.05
Issue date: 07.11.05
Ideas--the idea of ideas, anyway--have always held a
lofty place in our political culture. But perhaps
never before have they been imbued with such power as
at this particular moment. Since last November,
conservatives have been braying about their victory in
the war of ideas, often with a whiff of Marxian
assurance. "Conservatism is the ideology of the
future," gloated Republican National Committee
Chairman Ken Mehlman. "Republicans are driving the
course of history with new solutions." A GOP
operative, even while conceding President Bush's
recent difficulties, noted that things would be worse
but for the fact that "the Democrats are really brain
dead and have nothing positive to put on the table."

Oddly enough, it's not just conservatives who say
this. Liberals, too, widely attribute their minority
party status to a lack of new ideas. "Feeling
outmatched in the war of ideas," The New York Times
noted last month, "liberal groups have spent years
studying conservative foundations the way Pepsi
studies Coke, searching for trade secrets." Or, as
Washington Monthly Editor-in-Chief Paul Glastris wrote
last December, "[Y]es, there is plenty of blame to go
around, from an admirable but not widely loved
presidential candidate to his stunningly ineffective
strategists. But at this point, it requires a willful
act of self-deception not to see the deeper problem:
conservatives have won the war of ideas." Since the
2004 elections, liberals have earnestly set about
writing manifestos, establishing new think-tanks, and
generally endeavoring to catch up with a conservative
idea machine.

The notion that conservatives are winning politically
because they are winning intellectually has a certain
appeal, particularly for those in the political idea
business. And the aspiration of liberals to sharpen
their thinking is perfectly worthy. As analysis,
though, it's all deeply misguided. The current
ubiquity of such thinking owes itself to the fact that
liberals and conservatives have a shared interest in
promoting it. (Liberals in the spirit of exhortation
and internal reform, conservatives in the spirit of
self-congratulation.) But, more than that, it reflects
a naïveté about the power of new ideas, one that is
deeply rooted in long-standing misconceptions of how
our politics operate.

o begin with, the plain fact is that liberals have
plenty of new ideas. Troll websites of the Center for
American Progress, the Brookings Institution, or the
Century Foundation, and you will find them teeming
with six- and twelve-point plans for any problem you
can imagine: securing loose nuclear weapons, reforming
public education, promoting international trade,
bolstering the military, and so on. They get churned
out by the shelfful providing more material than any
presidential administration could hope to enact.

And these are not merely retreads of old wish lists.
The best liberal ideas take account of new
information. Noting academic findings that most
workers base their savings decisions on simple
inertia, Brookings scholar Peter Orszag and others
have proposed automatic 401(k) enrollment. Yale's
Jacob S. Hacker (writing in The New Republic and
elsewhere) has shown that Americans face growing
fluctuations in their income, and he is working on a
total income security plan.

Indeed, devising earnest new ideas is the very thing
liberals enjoy the most. Accusing them of having no
new ideas is like accusing a member of the Kennedy
family of excessive sobriety: If anything, the actual
problem is just the opposite. Liberals have way too
many new ideas and don't think seriously enough about
prioritizing them. Liberal think tanks have plans for
overhauling health care, slashing the deficit,
creating progressive savings accounts, beefing up
homeland security, and so on. The trouble is that it
would be hard to do all these things at once.

Now, one might point out that liberal intellectuals
have plenty of new ideas, but Democrats in elected
office do not. That, however, isn't true either. In
2004, John Kerry and John Edwards ran on a program
that was undeniably substantive. They proposed rolling
back a large chunk of Bush's tax cuts and dividing the
proceeds between deficit-reduction and a number of
spending programs, including a fairly innovative
health care plan that involved reimbursing employers
for catastrophic costs. Democrats in Congress do spend
most of their time reacting to an agenda controlled by
Republicans. But they have proposed a higher minimum
wage, terrorism risk insurance for private businesses,
legalizing the importation of prescription drugs, and
reinstituting pay-as-you-go budget rules.

You probably don't remember many of these ideas, if
you ever heard of them in the first place. But don't
feel guilty. There's a perfectly good reason for
ignoring these ideas: They have no chance of being
enacted as long as Republicans control the White House
and Congress. The truth is that liberal ideas aren't
getting any circulation because Democrats are out of
power, not vice versa. Not long ago, to take an
example almost at random, Senate Democrats held a
press conference with James Woolsey to unveil an
energy-independence agenda. Not a single major
newspaper or network covered it. This isn't because
reporters harbor a bias against liberals. It's because
they harbor a bias against ideas that stand no chance
of being enacted. And so, the vast majority of the
time, the press will simply ignore ideas put forth by
the minority party. Or those ideas will simply be
dismissed as impractical. Take this passage from a
column last month by Newsweek's Robert Samuelson:

In floor debate, the Democrats never offered a
realistic balanced budget. The closest they came was
in the House, where they promised balance by 2012.

Samuelson is, in a certain sense, correct. Any plan
that differs substantially from the Republican agenda
is unrealistic, because the Republicans would never
even consider it. But to mistake this lack of power
for a lack of alternate ideas confuses cause and

Indeed, during the first two years of Bill Clinton's
presidency, Democrats had all the positive ideas, and
Republicans found themselves in a position of
reflexive opposition: no health care reform, no
deficit reduction, no crime bill. The Washington Post
asked at the time, "Why are the Republicans, who
generated so many new ideas a decade ago, suddenly
reaching backward on economic issues?" Was this
because Republicans had run out of ideas? No, it was
because they opposed the particular ideas that the
party in power had thrust into the national spotlight.
Once Republicans won control of Congress on a wave of
anti-Clinton anger, it became clear that they had
plenty of specific ideas of their own. (At which point
the public ran screaming back to Clinton.)

Today, Democrats generally oppose change because
"change" means doing things Bush's way. This puts
Democrats in the dilemma of either supporting new
policies that are almost invariably bad--certainly
from a liberal perspective--or appearing wedded to the
status quo. Indeed, Bush has shrewdly exploited this
dilemma. In 2001, Democrats conceded that the
government needed to do something to stimulate
economic growth and forestall a recession. What
resulted was a Republican plan to shift the tax burden
downward and hemorrhage red ink. In 2003, Democrats
advocated added prescription-drug coverage to
Medicare. Bush used the occasion to hand out hundreds
of billions of dollars in giveaways to industry

It's one thing for Democrats to sketch out the sort of
alternatives they would prefer if they ran Washington.
But, as long as Republicans do run Washington--and
certainly as long as Bush sits in the Oval
Office--doing nothing is often going to be the best
available scenario for liberals. Emphasizing the
downside of bad change rather than the upside of
positive change reflects political necessity, not
intellectual failure.

ome of those who excoriate Democrats and liberals for
lacking ideas don't mean, when they say "ideas,"
specific plans of action. They mean something more
abstract--a philosophical schema for governing, which
often amounts to a slogan to describe one's ideology.
It is certainly true that conservatives enjoy a
long-standing edge here. Bush and his supporters have
described their policies with simple
aphorisms--smaller government, for example, or
promoting democracy abroad--that have eluded
Democrats. But Republicans often fail to abide by
their own ideas. While Karl Rove recently asserted,
"We believe in curbing the size of government; they
believe in expanding the size of government,"
government has in fact grown significantly under Bush
after shrinking under his Democratic predecessor. In
this case, the conservative superiority in "ideas"
simply reflects a greater capacity for hypocrisy.

Conservatives recognize the administration's failures
to abide by its professed principles, especially on
the growth of government, but this recognition seems
not to temper their ideological triumphalism. They
seem to spend half their time complaining about Bush's
ideological infidelity and the other half celebrating
their unambiguous victory in the war of ideas. An
example of the latter can be found in a long,
self-congratulatory essay in the May issue of
Commentary, in which former Olin Foundation Director
James Piereson asserts, "[N]ot only has conservatism
risen to prominence in the electoral sphere, but
conservative thought has seized the initiative in the
world of ideas as well."

The conservatives' celebration of their intellectual
triumph is further complicated by their oft-professed
hostility toward intellectuals. They attempt to square
this circle by portraying conservative intellectuals
as merely channeling the authentic popular will.
Irving Kristol famously said the role of conservatives
was "to show the American people that they are right
and the intellectuals are wrong." One imagines
Kristol, Piereson, and other conservative elites
relaxing in working-class bars; listening to the
denizens demand the privatization of Social Security
or complain about the burdens of the estate tax; and
then discovering, to their surprise and glee, that
there were indeed corporations and wealthy individuals
willing to fund the expression of such ideas.

While it has been fashionable to call Republicans the
party of ideas for the last 25 years or so, it is all
the more so now. The best case that can be made for
this label is on foreign policy, where Bush has busily
set out to expand democracy across the globe while
Democrats carp. Yet, even here, there is far less than
meets the eye.

The idea of spreading democracy may be a powerful one,
but we shouldn't forget that it's an ad hoc rationale
for the Iraq war--hastily put forward after Bush's
primary justification, weapons of mass destruction,
fell apart. If Bush believed in democracy-promotion as
a central goal of the war, he didn't trust the public
enough to make that argument (rather than the scary
prospect of Saddam giving weapons to terrorists)
anything more than a footnote to his prewar case. And,
when it comes to those places that pose the greatest
long-term danger, Iran and North Korea, even
conservatives admit the administration is bereft of

Most important, the president (and his party) always
dominate foreign policy thinking. The tools of
statecraft lie in the hands of the executive branch.
Nearly every modern president, however inept his
foreign policy, manages to have a doctrine named after
him. (Remember the Carter Doctrine?) Again, a
comparison with the Clinton years is instructive.
Democrats in the White House talked about a new era of
humanitarian intervention, while Republicans grumbled
sullenly. ("We should not send our troops to stop
ethnic cleansing and genocide outside of our national
strategic interests," insisted George W. Bush.) That
Bush is the one promoting powerful ideas, with
Democrats largely on the sidelines, simply shows the
degree to which control of the White House determines
which party holds the initiative on foreign policy

What other examples exist to support the notion that
conservatives have built an awesome ideas machine? The
one most often invoked is privatizing Social Security.
And, on the surface, it seems like a potent case.
Conservative think tanks have spent years nurturing
the idea of transforming Social Security, partially or
entirely, into a system of individual accounts.
Certainly, the history of privatization attests to the
right's ability to take hold of an idea hopelessly out
of the mainstream and inexorably drive it into the
center of the national debate.

Yet privatization isn't a good idea. By this, I don't
mean that I disagree with the concept of privatizing
Social Security, although I do. What I mean is that
the idea itself is half-baked. After Bush declared his
intention to focus on privatization this year, it soon
became clear that conservatives hadn't thought through
a number of enormous obstacles to their idea's
implementation. For instance, they seem not to have
considered that their optimistic assumptions about the
long-term return to stocks are nearly impossible to
square with their pessimistic assumptions about the
long-term finances of Social Security. Nor did they
figure out how to offset the costs of new accounts,
which caused the administration to propose clawbacks
that could lead to such awkward scenarios as a worker
dying and his dependents owing money to the federal
government. (Don't ask.) And, as Brookings economist
Martin Mayer has noted, mandatory annuities proposed
by Bush would make retirees enormously sensitive to
any changes the Federal Reserve makes to interest
rates just before they retire. The list of similar
problems is distressingly long. The more policy
aficionados study Bush's idea, the more it looks like
something cooked up by a throng of idealistic Ayn
Rand-reading undergraduates fresh from Econ 101.

Privatization also points to another weakness in the
conservative idea machine: its inability to address
the problems of the day. The concept of privatization
has slowly ground forward over 25 years or more,
propelled by an endless stream of conferences, papers,
and articles from conservative think tanks and
magazines. And Bush has sold it as a response to a
looming fiscal disaster. By any objective measure,
though, Social Security is not a major fiscal problem
compared with the deficit or health care. Health care,
in fact, is rapidly bankrupting both the government
and the private sector.

Here the comparison between right and left is
instructive. Liberals are brimming with ideas about
reforming health care and taming the deficit.
Conservatives have little to say about either of these
problems. On the deficit, they are theologically
opposed to raising taxes, and they have learned from
Newt Gingrich that massive spending cuts are political
poison. On health care, controlling costs means
controlling waste, yet much of that waste is income
for interest groups closely aligned with the
Republican Party, such as pharmaceuticals, HMOs, and
insurance companies. The GOP, then, may be the party
of ideas in the sense that its ideas have slowly and
inexorably ground forward over a long period of time
like glaciers over the Ice Age landscape. But, if this
process leaves them unable to confront the actual
problems facing the country, you have to wonder why
this is something liberals ought to emulate.

The point here is not that conservatives want for new
ideas. It's that the question of which ideas hold sway
is a function of which party holds power and what
priorities it has. It is certainly true that
conservatives have devoted more energy to the question
of fundamentally reshaping Social Security. But this
difference has nothing to do with who has more or
better ideas and everything to do with priorities.
Liberals like Columbia University's Jeffrey Sachs have
devoted lots of energy to devising plans to end world
poverty. Liberals have devoted enormous attention to
the problem of global warming, while the Bush
administration insists it will kill any action on the

Is this because conservatives have no ideas, or are
committed to (as Bush recently described Democrats)
"the philosophy of the stop sign, the agenda of the
roadblock"? No, it's because conservatives
philosophically disagree with those ends. These aren't
contests of which side has more or better ideas. These
are ideological battles over resource allocation. When
Democrats regain power, their ideas will again control
the agenda, and Republicans will again find themselves
devoted primarily to the task of resisting change.

iven all this, why does everybody say the right has
won the war of ideas? To answer the question, you must
first understand that different people mean completely
different things when they say that Democrats have no
new ideas. And some of those who call for Democrats to
come up with new ideas don't actually mean that at

One meaning has surfaced from Republicans with
particular frequency during the Social Security
debate. "[T]he only idea offered by Democrats is that
[Bush] abandon his plans to reform Social Security
altogether," lamented Weekly Standard Executive Editor
Fred Barnes last month. "George Bush has been willing
to address a long-term, politically thorny problem,"
observed David Brooks in the Times. "But his
Democratic counterparts are behaving like alienated
junior professors. No productive ideas. No sense of
leadership." In reality, Democrats have explicitly
stated their willingness to address Social Security's
future deficit as long as privatization is off the
table. So, when conservatives decry Democrats' lack of
ideas, they mean a refusal to adopt conservative

Liberal pundits also like to flay Democrats for
lacking positive ideas, but they mean something else
entirely. "If the Democrats had a brain, they'd. ..."
is a familiar mainstay of the op-ed pages and the chat
shows. For instance, Washington Post columnist David
Ignatius argued two months ago, "A sensible Democratic
leadership would gather this very weekend to begin
formulating a plan to address America's looming
economic crises. These party leaders would develop
specific proposals to reduce the trade and budget
deficits that are spooking the financial markets....
They would reject Bush's half-baked plan for private
accounts, but at the same time they would give the
president political cover to do what's necessary to
begin matching future benefits to future revenue."

Just last month, another Post columnist, Steven
Pearlstein, chimed in, "Having railed against them in
vain for the past five years, you'd think Democrats
might try to reframe the issue on tax fairness." In a
recent Times column, Thomas L. Friedman wrote,
"Democrats [are] so clearly out of ideas." Friedman's
ideas? Promoting alternative fuels, "a new New Deal to
address the insecurities of the age of globalization,"
stem-cell research, and action on global warming.

Of course, the above describes the Democratic position
almost perfectly. It seems odd, but in fact this sort
of thing is quite common: One constantly hears
impassioned demands that the Democrats do exactly what
they are already doing. Often, this confusion simply
reflects the Democrats' inability to publicize their
ideas--or frustration at their inability to win
political victories in GOP-dominated Washington. (I
can't tell you how many conversations I've had in
which liberal friends ask why the Democratic leaders
aren't simply saying that Bush's tax cuts are
unaffordable and go to the rich, when in fact they are
doing so with stultifying repetitiveness.) Sometimes
it's merely a rhetorical device used by pundits to
express their own liberal views while appearing

ut the constant invoking of the idea gap isn't
entirely, or even mostly, disingenuous. Lots of
politicians and analysts earnestly believe it. They
believe it because they buy into a set of shared
assumptions, usually unstated, about how U.S. politics
works. The central assumption is that politics
revolves around issues and ideas--rather than things
like personality, tactics, and outside
circumstances--and that the party that wins is the one
that presents a more compelling vision of the future.

Because this interpretation is so widely shared, it is
usually offered as a statement of faith, with little
or no substantiation. Washington Post columnist
Sebastian Mallaby articulated this conviction in a
column last year. "Candidates (and especially
challengers) win elections by offering compelling
visions, and those visions have to be based on real
policies," he wrote. "Clinton won in 1992 not just
because of Carville's slogan, catchy though it may
have been; he won because he was prepared to grapple
publicly with thorny issues, from the sources of
American competitiveness to the pros and cons of
nafta." In June of 2000, U.S. News columnist and
longtime Washington eminence David Gergen wrote,
"There is a good reason why Governor Bush is forging
ahead in this race: He is becoming the candidate of
fresh ideas."

This sort of interpretation is common among
journalists. Up until the day of an election, the
energies of the candidates and their observers revolve
around which side has the stronger turnout operation,
whose ads work more, which candidate hurts himself by
putting the wrong kind of cheese on his cheesesteak
sandwich, and other minutiae. Immediately after the
voting, the locus of analysis switches completely, and
the election is retroactively determined to be a
referendum on the candidates' platforms.

Alas, this sort of thinking assumes a wildly
optimistic level of discernment by voters. Polls
consistently show that large swaths of the voting
public know very little about the positions taken by
candidates. In 2000, the National Annenberg Election
Survey found that just 57 percent of voters knew Al
Gore was more liberal than Bush, 51 percent knew he
was more supportive of gun control, and a mere 46
percent understood that he was more supportive of
abortion rights. "The voting behavior literature,
which is massive, shows that people are not
particularly idea-driven," explains Berkeley political
scientist Nelson Polsby. "They don't know what the
fashions are, with respect to what ideas go with other

Political scientists have shown how factors like
economic performance and the rally-around-the-flag
effect can exert enormous influence over voting
behavior. A recent study in Science magazine was even
more disturbing to those who believe in the power of
ideas. Scientists showed the subjects pairs of
photographs, which turned out to be matched candidates
in Senate and House races. The subjects had to judge
within one second which candidate looked more
competent, on the basis of appearance alone. Their
choice matched the candidate who won an astounding
71.6 percent of the time in Senate races. If you
consider that a decent share of Senate races pit
unknown, underfunded challengers against popular
incumbents in highly partisan states, that is a
remarkably high percentage. Faith in the discernment
of the public is not based on proof, it's premised on,
well, faith.

This idealistic belief in the power of the voters to
judge superior policy ideas has deep roots. Alexis de
Tocqueville noted how it is customary for Americans to
speak flatteringly of the public in the unquestioning
way that Europeans speak flatteringly of their
monarchs. More to the point, it is often in both
sides' interest to think this way. Bill Clinton's 1992
victory has been widely attributed to his bold New
Democrat-populist platform, in contrast with George
H.W. Bush's tired defense of the status quo.

Democrats accede to this interpretation for the
obvious reasons. Republicans accede to it because they
see Bush as an ideological apostate and are therefore
eager to paint his defeat as a consequence of his
infidelity to conservative dogma. But, while Clinton's
innovative platform surely helped him seize the
political center, other factors--a sluggish economy, a
third-party candidate disproportionately hurting Bush,
and Clinton's charisma--surely mattered more.

This idealism retreated somewhat after the 2000
elections. (Given that his opponent received more
votes, it was awkward to paint Bush's triumph as a
consequence of his ideas.) But it has returned in full
force after the 2004 elections. There is plenty of
evidence that the rise in Bush's stature after
September 11, as well as John Kerry's ineptitude as a
candidate, played a decisive role. But both sides have
emphasized instead the role of ideas.

If elections themselves don't hinge on competing
ideas, then at least ideas can shape the long-term
ideological terrain, right? That's the story both
right and left have been telling. In his Commentary
essay, Piereson wrote that, in the immediate postwar
years, American businessmen "did not understand the
link between ideas and political movements, and
therefore did not see the need to mount a sustained
intellectual defense of their own interests." Piereson
does not explain what persuaded them to abandon their
lack of interest and aggressively fund conservative
think tanks and foundations. Liberals--who have
developed a fascination with corporations and the rise
of conservative institutions--have an explanation of
their own. They invest enormous importance in a memo
written by Lewis Powell in 1971, making the case that
corporate America must aggressively defend its

My colleague John B. Judis, though, has a far more
convincing explanation than a memo that changed the
world. In February, he wrote in these pages that
businesses adopted a more aggressive and
self-interested stance because the U.S. economy
changed. In the 25 years after World War II, U.S.
business enjoyed a dominant and cushioned position.
Therefore business leaders could afford to accommodate
unions and reasonable regulations. But, as the rest of
the world eventually caught up, profit margins shrank
and businesses began fighting unions and looking to
Washington to cut their taxes, eliminate regulations,
and institute other changes geared toward their bottom
line. The cultivation of conservative ideas certainly
played a role. But the great shift in U.S. politics
resulted not from the persuasive powers of
conservative intellectuals but dramatic changes in
underlying material conditions.

related assumption is that new ideas are better than
old ones. This meme has gained particular currency
during the Social Security debate. For instance,
conservative privatization advocate Peter Ferrara
dismissed liberal foe Robert Ball as a "well-meaning
gentleman who hasn't had a new idea in 40 years." The
accusation resonates with many liberals. The
Democrats' economic policy, as labor leader Andrew
Stern told Matt Bai of The New York Times Magazine,
"is basically being opposed to Republicans and
protecting the New Deal. It makes me realize how
vibrant the Republicans are in creating
twenty-first-century ideas, and how sad it is that
we're defending 60-year-old ideas."

The elevation of new over old is one of those beliefs
that can only survive as a background assumption,
without any critical scrutiny. Nobody tries to explain
why new is inherently better, because the notion is
obviously ridiculous. Take Social Security, for
instance. Whatever you think of the general virtues of
privatization, the program has actually grown more,
not less, suited to the character of the U.S. economy
over the last several decades. Social Security is
designed to safeguard individuals from various risks.
As the economy has grown significantly riskier, the
need for a program that offers people a risk-free
financial bedrock has grown stronger, and the case for
subjecting the program itself to more market risk has
grown more dubious.

The final cause of the idea-centric view of U.S.
politics is that ideas are sexy. Wealthy donors seem
to be particularly prone to ideophilia. Bai recounts
how Democratic operative Rob Stein showed a now
semi-famous slide presentation detailing the
$300-million-per-year conservative message machine to
venture capitalist Andy Rappaport. "Man," Rappaport
replied, "that's all it took to buy the country?" Both
conservatives and liberals talk about the "battle of
ideas" as though political success were simply a
matter of having one thousand policy entrepreneurs
chained to one thousand keyboards.

This conception of U.S. politics is especially
compelling to intellectuals. It is a vision of a noble
landscape in which philosopher kings hold sway. Each
side has its visionaries, wonks, and pamphleteers,
beavering away to see whose ideological manifestos,
new syntheses, and ten-point plans will prove decisive
in the next election. Writers and thinkers enjoy a
heroic central role in shaping history: We--not grubby
factors like attack ads or the state of the economy or
the candidates' ease before the cameras--hold the
future in our hands. Twenty years ago, Tom Wolfe
appeared before a gathering of conservatives in
Washington and declared that Marxism's appeal lay in
its "implicit secret promise ... of handing power over
to the intellectuals." The promise is not confined to
Marxism. It seems to have seduced everybody.


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