Do Ideas Matter in Politics?
In politics, ideas really aren’t that important. So says Jonathan Chait of the left leaning The New Republic in a recent essay arguing that Democrats only seem not to have new ideas because they are out of power. And, while the party in power drives the ideas, that party doesn’t gain power because of those ideas.
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.
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 ideas."
“The voters are dumb” is a common argument from the party out of power to explain why they are out of power. And Chait, underneath his compelling writing, seems to be doing little more than reframing such an argument. In his configuration of reality, ideas are just props and candidates win solely on insubstantial things like their facial features and marketing campaigns. That’s very disappointing news to those of us who spend our days talking about ideas. And I have to question if Chait really believes it, given his position as editor of one of the nation’s premier policy and politics magazines
To be fair, Chait makes a number of good points and his piece is worth the read. But, ultimately, it rings hollow. Why? Because history has been driven by ideas, from ancient religions to Greek philosophers to the Enlightenment to Marxism to supply side economics to the modern neo-con foreign policy. It’s nonsensical to think that America, one of the most educated and free societies to ever exist, isn’t influenced by ideas when we select our leaders.
Just saying that surveys show most people have a weak grasp on specific policies isn’t much proof of Chait’s theory because it ignores the role of opinion leaders (PDF) who are motivated by ideas and can influence great numbers of people who trust their judgment. Such surveys also tend to do a poor job of uncovering whether respondents are uniformed across the board or just uninformed about the issues that matter little to them.
I’m not sure what Chait wants readers, particularly Democrat readers, to take away. That Democrats should just keep plugging along and pick more attractive candidates or hope for an economic downturn? That the road to a liberal restoration lies not in the ideas of the movement but in finding better ways to woo an ill-informed and disconnected electorate?
That’s pretty bad advice and if I were Democrats I’d ignore it and focus on the much more common advice that says Democrats need better ideas. Target those opinion leaders. Find an issue and a solution that has some traction and push. Sure, marketing and intangibles are important, but in the end, ideas drive the world. And ideas will be the key to a Democrat resurgence.