Making markets again

by Henry on June 30, 2005

My “post”:https://crookedtimber.org/2005/06/24/market-making-versus-market-taking-in-politics/ last week about Rick Perlstein’s pamphlet got some “interesting”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_06/006592.php “reactions”:http://www.reachm.com/amstreet/archives/2005/06/26/the-next-big-idea/ (and some “wrongheaded”:http://www.janegalt.net/blog/archives/005369.html ones too). I was particularly taken with Matt Yglesias‘s reworking of Perlstein’s argument and suggestions for how it might be applied. This said, I think Matt is wrong when he claims that the argument over market-making versus market-taking isn’t really an argument between the left and the center of the Democratic party. While there’s no reason _in principle_ that the one set of disagreements should map onto the other, there’s an enormous degree of overlap _in practice_. In internecine battles over policy, New Democrat/DLC types have made hay with the claim that leftwing policies simply don’t sell in the marketplace of American politics. As a result, they tend to exaggerate the extent to which these market rules are a given, and to discount the possibility that they might be changed. A case in point, which I’ve just come across, is this “review”:http://www.ndol.org/ndol_ci.cfm?contentid=253353&kaid=127&subid=171 by Ed Kilgore of Perlstein’s “book on Barry Goldwater”:http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio?inkey=74-0809028581-0 . Kilgore criticizes non-centrists for defying

bq. the commonsense view, based on extensive political experience, that Democrats can best meet the contemporary rightwing challenge by occupying the abandoned political center and peeling off moderate, independent, and even Republican voters.

Kilgore argues that Reagan and his allies won through fortuitous circumstance rather than ideological zeal, and contends that those who believe otherwise are afflicted with a variety of religious messianism

bq. Indeed, the left’s new fascination with the conservative movement, and with politicians like Goldwater and Reagan, can best be understood as reflecting a powerful desire to believe that ultimate success does not require, and may actually prohibit, ideological flexibility, submission to public opinion, or the responsibility to achieve actual results. A period of losing may well precede the day of victory, in this view, and the left’s current leaders may, like Goldwater, never enter the promised land themselves. But someday, if their people remain faithful and refuse compromise with impurity, an Aaron will arise, and redemption will be at hand.

Now, like all caricatures, there’s a little truth to this, but only a little. The “net-roots” whom Kilgore disparages as zealots in fact showed an extraordinary degree of flexibility in embracing a candidate last year whose views they didn’t share, but whom they thought might win. But the problem in Kilgore’s article goes deeper than this. By recasting the debate as one between unrealistic ideological purists (bad) and those who are willing to make political compromises and move towards the center (good), he completely fails to address Perlstein’s underlying argument. Perlstein’s real claim, if I understand it rightly, is that long term political success doesn’t come from adapting your party to a political marketplace in which the enemy has set the rules of competition. It comes from a concerted effort over time to remake those rules yourself. This doesn’t have to be pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. Nor does it have to be something which is antithetical to ND/DLC types’ policy goals. Matt’s suggestion for a new kind of family and childcare politics is a good example of an initiative that could help remake the rules of debate, and that both leftists and centrists could get behind. But it _does_ require people like Ed Kilgore to stop using the current rules of the political marketplace as a stick to beat the heads of leftists, and to start thinking creatively about how those rules might be changed. So far, I’m not seeing much evidence that they want to do this.

{ 14 comments }

1

SomeCallMeTim 06.30.05 at 1:52 pm

I’m not sure it’s fair to say that the DLC/TNR crowd represents the “center” and that the anti-Iraq crowd represents the “left”. Prior to Iraq, a lot of the “left” (Atrios, Krugman, etc.) would have been classed as centrists; MY previously made the point that the only large-scale difference between much of the “left” and much of the “center” is Iraq policy. I don’t know that, for example, opposition to Iraq maps in any particular way to initial trust/distrust of market-made solutions to various problems. It might be more accurate to talk about the “center” (us) and “Democratic Right” (DLC/TNR).

2

abb1 06.30.05 at 3:52 pm

To changing the rules you’d have to change the language and, perhaps, the culture first. In the US ‘socialist’ is a swear word, invading countries is ‘liberation’, idle super-rich are ‘the most productive members of the society’ who ‘create jobs’, etc.

3

Ginger Yellow 06.30.05 at 4:16 pm

“Indeed, the left’s new fascination with the conservative movement, and with politicians like Goldwater and Reagan, can best be understood as reflecting a powerful desire to believe that ultimate success does not require, and may actually prohibit, ideological flexibility, submission to public opinion, or the responsibility to achieve actual results.”

So how does Kilgore explain the left’s new fascination with Karl Rove? Maybe the left’s fascination with Goldwater and Reagan can best be understood as reflecting a powerful desire to understand how we got into this horrific political situation, and how we can get out of it.

4

Ginger Yellow 06.30.05 at 4:18 pm

“Indeed, the left’s new fascination with the conservative movement, and with politicians like Goldwater and Reagan, can best be understood as reflecting a powerful desire to believe that ultimate success does not require, and may actually prohibit, ideological flexibility, submission to public opinion, or the responsibility to achieve actual results.”

So how does Kilgore explain the left’s new fascination with Karl Rove? Maybe the left’s new fascination with the conservative movement, and with politicians like Goldwater and Reagan, can best be understood as reflecting a powerful desire to understand how we got into this horrific political situation (much like the one the Republicans faced pre-Goldwater), and how we can get out of it.

5

y81 06.30.05 at 6:43 pm

For the pedant, the biggest problem with Kilgore’s article is that he seems to have confused Aaron with Joshua. It’s so hard to take the uneducated seriously, though I know that they are often good people.

6

Ben Alpers 06.30.05 at 8:02 pm

Haven’t yet read either Perlstein’s pamphlet or Kilgore’s repost. But I think it’s worth noting that one of the many ways in which the ND/DLC crowd is dishonest is their constant talk about the need to compromise. “New Democrats” tend to talk (especially to progressives) as if they are really quite left, but, sobered by experience, understand that they can only win by moving to the center. In fact, they are convinced centrists and/or conservatives who understand that they cannot sell their ideas on the merits to their party’s grassroots, so they package their ideas in terms of the iron laws of electoral necessity. Unfortunately, the grassroots tends to buy this nonsense. Whatever the electoral possibilities of the actual left, the New Democratic vision of the center keeps losing election after election. There may be reasons to support this vision (though I don’t see them). But easy electoral success is not one of them.

7

Sven 06.30.05 at 11:22 pm

Kilgore et al are seriously misreading the “netroots'” major beef with ND/DLCism. “Compromis[ing] with impurity” may be a issue among some subscribers to The Nation. But Daily Kos or Atrios readers’ chief concern isn’t about ideology as much as cajones.

The most effective charge against Kerry during the campaign wasn’t that he’s a liberal – that was red meat for the Rush Limbaugh crowd. It the was oft-repeated “flip-flopper” label, which was most effective among Kilgore’s precious middle.

8

Nils gilman 06.30.05 at 11:31 pm

Given the tacit agreement on all the major issues that confront our society — the fact that there is de facto major-party consensus on all the big issues that might roil political debate in this country — the real political battle becomes which relatively trivial issues we will choose to debate. And in this respect, the Republicans have made bitches out of the Democrats for the last two electoral cycles.

Quite obviously, the big issues facing the country during the last electoral cycle were (1) the probity of the choice to invade, and the path forward in, Iraq; (2) the massive budget deficit; (3) what to do about entitlements with an aging population. But were these the central issues the two candidates debated?

Rhetorical question.

Karl Rove’s genius is that he knows exactly which political issues are the “right ones” to choose for establishing effective Republican differentiation. Instead, the electoral debate, as played out in the so-called liberal media, focused almost entirely on secondary issues chosen by Rove: gay marriage, Swifties, and “personal character.”

There are two problems here. The first is that the Democrats, under DLC guidance, have utterly failed to differentiate themselves from the Republicans on the major issues of the day. This was why I was disgusted by Kerry, but felt that Dean would have been a good candidate. (Dean was “a choice, not an echo,” as the Goldwater phrase would have it.) The second problem was that insofar as they were going to concede parity on the vital issues of the day, the Democrats also ceded the choice of secondary issues to the Republicans.

The result was all but inevitable, and in retrospect it’s frankly amazing that Kerry got as close as he did.

9

Firebug 07.01.05 at 2:24 am

Kilgore’s premises are wrong. The fact is that, on various economic issues, the public is further left than the Democrats. A large majority of Americans want universal health care. Polls also show that more than 50% of Americans want to be union members. Economic populism is a winning agenda. It’s time to purge the DLC and tell them to go to the Republican party where they belong.

10

dave s 07.01.05 at 4:41 am

All I know is my own experience – that I thought the Dems were the party with good ideas and voted Dem from McGovern through Clinton I, then voted Dole, Bush, Bush. It seems to me that the Dems need to try and find a way to get me back, and the way to do it is through the center (and through making me confident they intend to defend the country) not through going left.

11

abb1 07.01.05 at 6:33 am

McGovern was more to the center than Clinton2, Gore and Kerry?

Is it possible that you have drifted to the right (e.g. by accepted Republican definition of what ‘to defend the country’ means) and are beyond the reach now? And that, I’m afraid, is the whole point here.

12

James Kroeger 07.01.05 at 11:14 am

“…Unfortunately, the only success of any significance that the DLC can point to over the past dozen years was Bill Clinton’s election and re-election. In the end, Bill Clinton’s Presidency was actually a personal achievement, not an achievement of the Democratic Party.”

“Unfortunately, Bill Clinton and his cohort at the DLC are profoundly mistaken in their belief that Clinton’s success was due to his “centrist” positions on the issues. Democrats who tried to run on Clinton’s centrist agenda were regularly swept away by Republican candidates throughout the Clinton Era. The only reason why his centrist positions helped to get him elected is because he was able to deftly take away the ammunition his opponents were depending on to define him in a negative way. By eliminating distinctions between himself and his Republican opponent, he was able to reduce the choice for voters to “Who do you want for your President? Him or me?” With his charm, he was the obvious choice for many. As many have pointed out, the only problem with this approach is that you can only agree with your opponent for tactical reasons so many times before you actually become your opponent.”

“Bill Clinton is a great, great guy. How can anyone not like him? His charm reminds me of the 1980’s, when I would listen to one of Reagan’s State of the Union speeches and say, “You know, he even makes me want to believe what he’s saying, and I know that just everything he just said is 100% wrong.” The comparison to Reagan is apt. I predict that one day historians will agree that Bill Clinton was truly a far greater Political Personality than Ronald Reagan ever was. He was/is every bit the equal of Ronald Reagan when it comes to personal charm, and that is saying a lot. But Bill Clinton was/is also extremely intelligent—in a book-learning sort of way—while Reagan regularly turned to The Reader’s Digest for incisive analysis of the issues. There is no doubt in my mind that Bill Clinton would have easily trounced Ronald Reagan if they had been matched up against each other at the same time. Charming & Intelligent vs. Charming & Amiable Dunce.”

Beware of the DLC.

13

Anthony 07.01.05 at 12:51 pm

Sven has a very good point about the “flip-flopper” label sticking rather too well to Kerry; and Nils is correct that Rove’s genius consists of choosing the issues which resonate the most with the voting public in a way which tilts them Republican.

I don’t entirely believe Firebug’s analysis, because polls which show that the majority of Americans want national health insurance generally don’t ask about the costs or other options, and how those issues affect people’s opinions. Those are issues which the Republicans would bring up if a Democrat proposed National Health.

The “making markets” paradigm would require a moderately liberal Democrat to vigorously put forward a generally coherent vision of liberalism, set forth in terms which the middle-of-the-road voter can identify with. It would help if such a Democratic candidate could successfully portray the Republicans as weak on some significant issue, and create a perception that the Republicans didn’t have coherent principles, but rather a laundry-list of issues and interests all grabbing for a share of the pie.

Middle-of-the-road voters can be swayed to vote quite a ways from the political center, if the argument is presented in ways which match some of the usually conflicting values which those voters hold. The Republicans have been far better at that than the Democrats, except on a few issues (like same-sex marriage) where they’re losing ground on the issue.

The Democrats might be able to do it, but there isn’t a candidate in 2008 who can do it, unless Edwards does a lot better this time around. It may also not be the Democrats’ time yet. The liberal ideological consensus was the dominant ideological paradigm from 1932 to 1980; in that time, except for Goldwater, conservatives were oppositional rather than advancing an alternative ideological vision. The Democrats today are oppositional, with a few exceptions. The question is whether Howard Dean is the Barry Goldwater or the Robert Welch of the Democrats.

14

abb1 07.01.05 at 1:18 pm

Universal healthcare – in 1993, before the ‘great universal healthcare’ debate started, 70% wanted universal healthcare. A couple of months later, when the dust settled, it was under 50%. Thank you Bob, Viagra-man. Anything (OK, almost anything) can be demagogued to appear the opposite of what it is – if you have enough money and audacity. And they have both.

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