SWM ISO BIG IDEAS. Andrei Cherny and Ken Baer's latest op-ed on the power of ideas makes me want to bang my head against a wall -- which isn't a new idea, but an old one that should probably be implemented more often. Responding to the handful of pundits who are finally tired of the new ideas meme and have pointed out its vapidity, they write that the Democratic Party is "listening to the worried words of pundits and political professionals who counsel Democrats to avoid offering any vision or direction for the country � to instead simply wait for voters to so tire of Republican mismanagement that they will turn to more "competent" Democrats to administer a conservative state."
Ah yes, because the nation's chattering class has been so quick to honor the Democratic Party's lack of grand concepts. Head, meet wall. Cherny and Baer go on to retell a version of American history wherein "the bravest conservative thinkers took on the GOP establishment and its most plodding, popular voices. They developed a series of ideas � supply-side economics, Social Security privatization, faith-based social policy and so on � that reshaped the American political landscape. It took decades for their ideas to make it into the mainstream, but � for better or worse � American politics today is played out on the terrain laid down by these thinkers." It's as if the Southern realignment never happened, or was really about some entitlement state rider tucked away in the Civil Rights Act.
But let's talk about these big ideas: Social Security privatization made precisely one sustained appearance on the national stage, during which it chewed up a seemingly invincible second termer's still-gleaming mandate. I'm not really sure what faith-based social policy is, but assuming it's grants to religious organizations for charity work, it qualifies neither as a big idea nor as a debate setter. And yeah, I guess supply-side economics wielded some power, but I'd prefer if Democrats hewed to economic theories that stuck reality rather than tried to conjure up some fresh paradigm just for the sake of it.
And that's what worries me about Big Ideas: their order. It's not that Cherny or Baer have some massive concept they want to explain to the masses. I read the first issue of their journal, and was genuinely surprised by how big the ideas weren't. Rather, they're seeking their Big Idea. But ideas have consequences, and relentlessly searching for one large enough to inspire you may lead you to hastily adopt one that'll damage you. Particularly if you don't have a specific problem you're looking to solve, but rather a perceived intellectual gap you're looking to fill. It's policy as aesthetics, and that's worrisome. If Cherny or Baer could identify the problems today's ossified thinking is incapable of addressing, I'd understand their frustrations. But though they deride being "the railroad conductor making sure the trains run on time," I'd prefer a guy who knows the train schedule to one demanding I accept suborbital space travel as the only salve for my commuting woes.
Update: To be clear, I want to separate my critique of their op-ed from a critique of their journal. I think liberals need places to seriously float, discuss, and theorize over thorny policy problems and experimental ideas. What I don't think they need is an obsessive search for Big Ideas without a clear vision of what those ideas are meant to address.
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