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May 26, 2003

the intellectual crisis of the Left

Adam Clymer has an article in today's New York Times about the Democrats' search for a broad and coherent message. The party is a coalition of disparate, often antagonistic interest groups, according to this article—not a movement inspired by coherent principles. The Republican pollster Ed Goeas made the same charge at a public event I attended recently.

Democrats have had this problem for over a century: they used to be a completely incoherent coalition composed of liberals, Northern white ethnics, and Southern segregationists. The New Deal was much criticized for lacking principle and merely representing the aggregation of these groups' demands. From that period until the 1990s, the Democrats consistently held a national majority and controlled the House. This situation prolonged their reliance on coalition politics—for two reasons. First, since they had a majority, their leaders didn't have to develop a broad, coherent agenda to win. Instead, they tended to fight over the spoils of their regular victories. Second, the House (with its 435 independently elected members) teaches and rewards coalition politics, whereas the presidency is usually the source of broad ideas.

In my view, the historic character of Democrats as a coalition party was not a serious impediment until a separate phenomenon developed: the intellectual collapse of the left. Conservatives win elections, I believe, not because they cheat (that is, spend more money, or get more support in the media), nor because they are better than liberals at communicating their message. They win because they have broad, coherent principles, which boil down to this: "Families use their discretionary income to buy things that make them happy, to exercise their freedom, and to enrich their spiritual lives if they so choose. Therefore, we should maximize the aggregate disposable income of American families. Government does not create income and tends to waste it, so its size should be minimized."

The left has a set of cogent criticisms of this position. Contrary to what conservatives say: (a) Government does create wealth by providing necessary public goods such as universal education, research, and transportation. (b) Maximizing aggregate wealth is not an adequate goal, because we can achieve that end by making the rich much richer while leaving the poor where they are—and this does not increase happiness or freedom. (c) We should care about the prosperity of future generations, not about short-term growth, and therefore we should not cut taxes if this will increase the deficit. (d) All wealth circulates through households, but it most of it also passes through corporations. Large firms have great power and are not accountable to citizens unless regulated by the state. (e) Maximizing aggregate wealth is not sustainable, because human consumption degrades the environment. (f) Maximizing aggregate wealth is incompatible with preserving traditional human cultures and cultural diversity. (g) Maximizing disposable income should not be our only goal; we should also be concerned about how safe, available, and rewarding work is. (h) Private goods are not the only important things; nature, science, and art also matter, and they require public support. (i) Unregulated capitalism is not meritocratic: over time, it creates a class of wealthy and lazy heirs.

These are sensible criticisms, but they are somewhat at odds with each other, and each appeals to a different set of Democratic constituencies. Moreover, Democrats cannot conceal their differences by uniting in support of a concrete national policy. Despite their criticisms of conservatism, they do not believe in the traditional mechanisms for generating equity, sustainability, safety, and the other progressive goods. Above all, they do not believe in centralized state bureaucracies. Thus they fight fairly half-heartedly in defense of traditional institutions, from public schools to unions to the EPA, while failing to articulate a coherent, principled message. And this is why they lose. In short, the problem is intellectual-ideological, not merely tactical, and thus it will not disappear soon.

Posted by peterlevine at May 26, 2003 10:56 AM