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August 27, 2007

Do Democrats Need 'Big Ideas'?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Ezra Klein, in a post about Matt Bai’s book The Argument, disagrees with the basic premise of the book – that Democrats need “big ideas”:

As a reporter, I focus on policy ideas. And damn it, I’m drowning. Bai seems to think Democrats need a health care plan, but I could show him no fewer than 20 fully-realized plans…same goes for pension planning, trade adjustment plans…

Ezra, I think, is mistaking “good plans” for “big ideas.” They are not the same thing, and that’s precisely the problem we’re facing. We do have a lot of great policy plans that will make a tangible difference in people’s lives. What we don’t have, however, is a narrative, a vision, a framework, a thread, a worldview, even - let’s say it - an ideology (in the non-pejorative sense).

In other words, let’s take Ezra’s set of recommended policies: “universal health care,” “pension planning,” and “trade adjustment plans.” I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t exactly constitute a call-to-arms. What is needed, then, is a way to take these three components, and to meld them together into a story. What is our story? The second question, which relates to foreign policy but which is just as important, is what story do we want to tell the rest of the world? The two questions are interrelated and herein lies a challenge, how do we take two narratives – one on domestic policy and one on foreign policy – and meld them into a broader, overarching narrative, a story not only about who we are, but who we wish to be. In this, we have failed.


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I too think Bai's critique is overblown. The Democratic narrative is forming along a few basic lines and will likely gel as soon as the nominee is chosen:

Democrats are for effective, accountable, government that tackles the problems that individuals alone are not able to: such as the dislocations from globalization and the environment.

Democrats focus on providing the basic tools that everyone needs to lead full productive lives and to be engaged citizens in our democracy.

Instead of going headlong into unnecessary wars that turn the world against us, the Democrats want to wage a smart strategy against international jihadists networks (not the GWOT), that divides our enemies, unifies our allies, and promotes economic development, civil society, and human rights throughout the developing world.

etc. etc.

J.S., neither of the two things you suggested are "narratives."

Fair enough- you want me to turn them into a story?

Once upon a time in the 20th century Democrats passed social welfare reforms to deal with the negative aspects of rapid industrialization. Times have changed and....

Not trying to be sarcastic, but is it really that hard to turn this into a narrative? I think anyone could do it in about 10 minutes. Obama is already doing this on foreign policy, Edwards on domestic issues, etc. I really don't think this is rocket science or particularly troubling. There are new things under the sun, but they're not so new that we need to reinvent the wheel.

Uh, Shadi, I think JS has it down pretty well.
Here's how I would re-phrase it into simple 10-second soundbite form, which is what I think you mean when you say "narrative."
Government's responsibility to is do the things which people cannot do alone. Build bridges, build armies, build police stations, build schools, build societies. Democrats favor findings ways to get things done with government, and giving all of our citizens a fair chance in life.
The flip side of this coin is how to spin it against the Republicans.
Republicans focus on what you shouldn't do: no gay marriage, no taxes for the rich, no medical care, no abortions, no evolution, no help for the helpless. Vote for Republicans if you want the government to collect taxes, squander the money on subsidies for the rich, tell you it can't provide you with necessary services, and then tell you what you can't do with your own life.

A narrative is not the same thing as an ideology or a worldview. A narrative is a story. And a politically powerful narrative is one that movingly connects the individual listener, and the place and time that listener occupies, with the somewhat more figurative place of the political community within the wider world, and time in that community's collective life. The Gettysburg address is such a narrative; it purports to tell us where we are, what is happening, how got to this point and where can we go from here. Here's a guy who totally gets it when it comes to the art of spinning a compelling political narrative.

Frankly, I don't believe the self-styled aficionados of technocratic policy wonkery are quite so clueless and intellectually self-possessed as the pretend to be. It's just more upper-middle class white boy "too cool to be moved" bullshit.

Here are a few inspirational narratives for you:

"We're for the rule of law, unless the president wants to break it."

"We want a more multilateral, less arrogant foreign policy, and Maliki has to go."

"We want to rebuild our alliances, but we reserve the right to kidnap our allies' citizens and torture them on the president's say so."

You can't be inspiring unless you have at least a little courage. Until the Democrats are willing to fight for something -- even things that are popular! -- I don't see how a narrative is going to help us.

Here's a guy who totally gets it when it comes to the art of spinning a compelling political narrative.

When I wrote this, I meant to supply this link:

So "5% less evil" isn't workin' for ya?

Regarding what qualifies as a "narrative" and what doesn't, here are a couple of effective narratives:

1) We were winning in Vietnam, until the liberal media and filthy hippies undermined our morale, and forced us to withdraw, right at the moment that final victory was within our grasp"

2) "Once upon a time, poor people were virtuous and self-reliant, but then the government started giving them handouts and this just made them lazy and dangerous."

I could cite many more, no doubt you could too. But when I try to do the same for the "liberal" side, I draw a blank. I wonder why that is?

Once upon a time, Washington was a place where great men like TR, FDR, and JFK walked. Then along came the ideologues of the GOP, who sought to use government to enrich their friends, and ignore the most needy in society. These mean GOP operatives ignore every informal rule, and despise any and all who stand in their way. Democrats have had trouble catching up to these cheating Republicans, but we're starting to learn how they cheated the system, and now we're going to stop them. Not by cheating in the Republican manner; but with the help of everyday Americans who see the folly of an AG who prefers torture to the rule of law, a FEMA gutted and unable to rescue our citizens, a military bogged down in an unwinnable conflict, billions wasted on war and tax cuts, and dozens of other Republican failures.

I'll keep throwing these out until someone tells me to shut up.

Vietnam: our misguided President lied us into a war, got us caught in a quagmire, and the Republicans took it over, mismanaged it further, used it as an excuse to spy on Americans and subvert the legal system, and were only caught by the intrepid work of dedicated journalists.

I think the reason we might not see liberal narratives, is because it's like a fish trying to see water. The point of a narrative is that it becomes inherent to our worldview, so that it cannot be questioned. Bush and his ilk don't see a narrative around Vietnam, they see the 'truth' that we would have won if it weren't for those meddling liberals. It's truth to them, a false narrative to us.

A similar example is BDS, or Bush derangement syndrome. It's the conservative narrative for why liberals are so mad at Bush. It has nothing to do with his actions, it's just because we're crazy.
Now look at Bill Clinton. Liberals tend to see the attacks on his Presidency as part of an organized attempt to undermine his Presidency by jealous conservatives. That's a narrative. We just don't see it because it's the 'truth.'

What Shadi is talking about may be the subject of Drew Westin's book, discussed here with the author. Here's an excerpt:

He uses example after example to illustrate the Democratic penchant for being really smart but leaving people absolutely cold. Think Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry: smart as hell and yet they lost. He accuses Democrats of having a “dispassionate vision of the mind”, that is, assuming that people carefully and rationally weigh candidates’ policy proposals to determine which will maximize their individual utility. In fact, he argues, voting decisions are driven by a complicated interaction of values, emotions, images, analogies and oratory, in which logic is only a bit player.

All politics is about stories, narratives. We tell a story, then we trot out one of our solutions. The story motivates the solution, not the other way around.

Americans don't vote for parties anymore, and they don't vote for stories either. They vote for people.

There's a level of obtuseness and self-deception in the discussion above that's pretty remarkable given what we know of the last several Presidential elections. In six of them since 1984, Democrats have nominated Bill Clinton twice and really dull, ponderous, boring men four times. To Walter Mondale I think we have to give a pass, as no Democrat would have won in 1984. But all these guys have in common that they satisfied all the organized Democratic groups -- the lawyers, the feminists, the unions -- that they were completely reliable, and then expected that the majority of general election voters who don't take their cues from "the groups" would come around somehow.

Now, 2008 will be a different kind of election. The Republican candidate, whoever he is, will be running against a stronger current than any recent major party candidate. This means that a boring, ponderous, interest group-approved Democratic candidate could actually win, and since Democrats are likely to nominate just such a candidate, again, this is lucky for them. But Democrats are kidding themselves if they think that the reason they lose Presidential elections they should win is because they don't have a narrative, or a story, or enough plans. They'd do just fine if they focused on getting themselves a candidate that people outside "the groups" might want to vote for.

Zathras narrative fails if we start to look at th other side of the equation:
Ford: boring
Reagan: not boring
Bush I: Boring
Dole: Boring
Bush II: Boring
Or do you really want to claim that Bush II has charisma?
No, persons alone can´t be the answer.

There seems to be some confusion here. Most of what people suggested are not actually narratives. Maybe Ill try to clarify what I mean in a future post.

IM, upthread, actually speaks to my point. Ford was not elected to the Presidency and could not win a term in his own right. The elder Bush owed his election to Reagan's coattails. Dole was 73 when he was nominated in 1996 (he would have been a better candidate and probably a better President had the Republicans nominated him instead of Bush in 1988). The younger Bush had many weaknesses as a candidate in 2000, and was presiding over a war in 2004 that even then was plainly not going well.

These were not electoral titans the Democrats had to beat. That they managed to lose as often as they did has a lot to do with their reluctance to accept that a candidate who isn't 100% on board with "the groups" but that the American public might like personally is a lot better than a candidate loved by the groups and disliked by the public. I don't really think the Democrats have learned anything from this experience, but as I suggest above 2008 will find the Republicans in a very weak position, so it may not matter.

Tim makes a good point when he notes that liberal narratives aren't viewed (by us) as "narratives", because we just see them as the truth (e.g. Clinton was impeached by right-wingers who were outraged that they couldn't beat him in an election).

But his other example, "Once upon a time, Washington was a place where great men like TR, FDR, and JFK walked", shows why conservatives have an easier time deliberately constructing a narrative to sell a particular policy.

That's because all narratives require a narrative arc, and the easiest way to get that arc is to build on the "virtuous past, corrupt present" theme. Thus "Government was efficient until Bush and his cronies screwed it up", or "The poor were thrifty and virtuous until welfare made them lazy and dangerous." This sort of narrative naturally comes easier to a conservative who wants to turn back the clock than to a progressive who wants, you know, progress.

But there are ways to turn this theme to a progressive purpose. For example, here's a narrative promoting national health care:

"Once, health care was about helping people, and not about getting rich. Sure, the local doctor was better off than most, but not outrageously so, and most hospitals were local and non-profit. The for-profit hospital chains, the HMO's, and the pharmaceutical companies changed all that, and now we pay considerably more per-person that other countries do, and get less for it. We need to get back to the idea that our health care system should be about providing care to anyone who needs it, and get greed out of the system."

Perhaps then the answer is to formulate progressive narratives which focus on principles (like 'helping people' in your health care example), instead of conservative narratives which focus on specific policies or people.

One aspect of Clinton's positive aspect of presidency which was clearly undone by Bush was his technocratic approach to government. Bush has cronies, Clinton had experts. It might not always have worked in practice with Clinton, but the principle is sound. Perhaps one progressive narrative should be about getting competent people knowledgeable in the areas they are supposed to manage (which would be ironic since this was an original Progressive position at the turn of the century).

Bush ran on a platform of "CEO President" which was clearly a load of bull****, given how he hangs on to subordinates who fail like Rumsfeld and Gonzalez, and his inability to admit mistakes or learn from them. Perhaps a narrative about being willing to admit that one is wrong, or focusing on results, rather than ideology. Would that qualify as a narrative, Shadi?

Framing and narratives are powerful when communicated in context of a national vision.

The Republican Party has repeated, rephrased, paraphrased, and used their vision statement as a communication resource for almost 30 years. The same 8 points. Most Americans are familiar with the Republican vision: small government, less taxes, the endless faith in the strength and ability of the individual to shape a great and powerful country. In this context, tax cuts make sense. Taxes and government are bad and now the narrative makes sense: you, as a individual, can spend your money better than the government can. Context. Framing. Narrative. It just takes a consistent national vision statement -- in this case, the "Republican Oath".

By contrast, the Democratic Party does not have a shared national vision statement. A good percentage of our citizens are not quite sure what the Democratic Party stands for and why. What is the political philosophy? How do Democrats view the role of the government? How do Democrats view national security? What is prosperity? What makes for a vibrant economy?

Democrats tend to frame an issue during a campaign cycle, crisis or policy introduction...and then move on to the next campaign, crisis or policy introduction. This gives the Democrats the appearance of being reactive versus proactive. A vision statement is a proactive statement. For a narrative to be effective, it also must live in context of a vision statement. A positive narrative (narratives can be negative and/or fear-based) benefits from resonance only a party vision can provide.

At this point you are probably thinking: Democrats are too diverse a party to pull together a vision statement. That's an excuse. Democrats have shared values, otherwise they would not be Democrats.

Below is a link to the report mailed to the Democratic Leadership with a 202 word vision statement organized into 11 points. They are the big ideas, the big connections expressed in terms that are applicable both today and 25 years from now. The report was three years in the making and reflects the thoughts and aspirations of grassroots Democrats and concerned Americans from across the country.

The report includes a language/framing chart, applications, brief history, and the proposed vision statement, "Why We Are Democrats".

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