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November 11, 2004

the "ideas" we need most

There are now several standard views about how progressives should recover from the 2004 election. One approach is to develop "new ideas." That phrase, however, can mean various things, from innovative policy proposals to grand rhetorical statements that might unify the standard laundry list of progressive policies. James Carville and Bob Shrum are seeking a progressive "narrative" to counter the dominant conservative story about America. That sounds like a good thing to me, but I don't believe it will be credible unless progressive candidates can also explain exactly how they will implement their vision. Policy ideas are indispensable.

Let me suggest, however, that we don’t need proposals as much as models. A proposal is something that a professor, a think-tanker, a Member of Congress or a congressional staffer, or a columnist might invent on the way to work. It’s an “idea” in the basic sense. Examples include auctioning the broadcast spectrum to pay for free online material, giving all high school graduates cash, or (from the other side of the aisle) privatizing Social Security. Such ideas can make a difference, although it’s relatively hard to think of progressive proposals that have actually come to pass and achieved their intended goals. I think it’s easier to implement libertarian proposals, because ideas like privatizing or tax-cutting don’t require new institutions or cultural changes. Much more than ideas are needed to create institutions and change cultures.

Indeed, all the great moments of American progressivism have occurred when national leaders have “scaled up” concrete experiments that had first developed at the local or state level. In other words, they haven’t relied on proposals as much as real-life models. For instance, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to interpret the New Deal as the New York State welfare system writ large; and New York State had built its system by expanding settlement house programs that had been pioneered earlier by the likes of Mary Simkhovitch at Greenwich House on the Lower East Side. Simkhovitch and her colleagues had ideas, but they also had concrete experiences.

Greenwich House (like Hull-House in Chicago, or like a good charter school today) was a problem-solving institution embedded in a cultural and social context. It was much more complex than any idea that could be written on a chalkboard. It couldn’t be replicated automatically in other places. Any persuasive analysis of why it was successful would be a long story about many individuals and their overlapping and conflicting goals. But even if Greenwich House couldn’t be cloned and distributed to other communities, it did serve as an inspirational model, an opportunity to develop leaders and learn relatively general lessons, and a node in a politically powerful network. Whereas ideas cannot implement themselves, institutions can grow and spread.

Building experimental institutions is a much slower process than dreaming up new proposals. In the short-term, clever ideas would probably help progressives to win elections. But we don’t have ideas that can actually tackle our deepest problems, such as the lack of satisfactory jobs for high school graduates, our awful incarceration rate, global warming, or the "Red State"/"Blue State" cultural divide. If national policies are to address such problems, they must be built on concrete experiences and networks of citizens. That’s why I think that short-term electoral defeats—and victories—are much less important than most people believe. Long-term, patient, self-critical, participatory experimentation is the road to progressive revival.

The purpose of politics is to address problems, not to win elections. George W. Bush is likely to make some problems worse. Above all, he is likely to undermine further the fiscal condition of the federal government. But John Kerry had no plan or possible mandate to solve our deepest problems. So let's keep our eyes on the real target and not allow ourselves to be distracted by what happened last Tuesday.

Posted by peterlevine at November 11, 2004 11:06 AM


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