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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Stuck in old times  

In a previous post I mentioned in passing that Democratic foreign policy is stuck in the '70s. That's a bad thing because the policy is mostly bad, not necessarily because it's outdated. Almost all party policies are based in a previous time period, because they worked then, and people tend to keep doing things even after they don't until they're forced to change them, whether by circumstances or by continued failure. (Electoral failure, in this case, more than policy failure, which doesn't seem to have electoral consequences.)

Basically, Democratic economic policy is stuck in the 1930's, their social policy is from the '60s, and their foreign policy is from the '70s. Republican economic policy is from the 1980's, their social policy is from the '50s, and foreign policy is brand new, in the process of being worked out even now (which means that in twenty years it will be dated too, stuck in the '00s.)

The reason party policies get set in something resembling concrete is that they worked, once. They got developed to deal with specific situations and then lingered after circumstances changed because developing new ideas is such hard work. The New Deal really did get us out of the Depression (okay, it was mostly WWII, but FDR got us into that, too), and the party hasn't seen a reason to change its basic economic principles since. Running against Hoover every election is starting to show diminishing returns, but the pain hasn't gotten great enough yet to force a change.

LBJ's Great Society was supposed to be the crown on the New Deal, using the power of government to remake society itself. And it accomplished some wonderful things, especially in the areas of civil rights and in establishing anti-poverty programs (which may have become outdated, incredibly expensive, and self-defeating over the years, but at least they exist). The party imperative is not to rethink the Great Society but to fulfill it, to make sure that everyone gets medical care or food and shelter or a hand up or societal recognition and respect.

The foreign policy of the '70s was a great victory for the anti-war protesters. (For America, not so much.) Pulling out of Vietnam, pulling back from meddling in other people's business, emphasizing human rights, downsizing the military and tasking it with peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions, placing faith in treaties and arms control agreements and international organizations, not trusting in America's unexamined goodness ... When there's not a war on, as there wasn't in the '90s, and as many insist there really isn't today, this can be an attractive policy program.


Republican economic policy, on the other hand, is based in Reagan's small-government/lower-taxes model of the 1980s, which replaced the Wall Street/Main Street boosterism of the '20s (and which many Democrats still use to characterize the GOP. They would: their '30s model beats the '20s every time.) The small government part seems to have gotten lost, but the emphasis on tax cuts remains. And this model not only wins elections, it keeps the economy stimulated. Even with blips upward under Bush I and Clinton (corrected by Bush II), marginal rates have remained low enough to encourage entrepreneurial wealth-creation and significant productivity increases. There's certainly a threat of deficits if spending remains high, but in economic terms the policy works, in the short and medium term. It also works politically, consistently beating the other guy's Fordist '30s plan.

Republican social policy is still rooted in the 1950's. Often characterized as
conformist and stultifying (especially by Democrats with their updated '60s policy model), the '50s actually saw some major social changes, in which the GOP slowly embraced the fruits of New Deal policies. The creation of the suburbs, the new GOP base, began with VA housing for returning vets (and the Eisenhower interstate system). Likewise the shift from manufacturing to services, as GI Bill-educated men increasingly worked in offices rather than factories. Families were large and central to social life. If you were included, it wasn't a bad life – but not everybody was. Jim Crow still existed, although the black underclass didn't, yet. Nor did feminism, except in embryo.

Republican foreign policy is currently in the process of development. There are lots of ideas floating around, but it remains to be seen how things work out on the ground in Iraq and elsewhere. What works will stick, and most of what doesn't will (hopefully) be reworked or discarded. Right now the outlines seem to be a mobile military with a smaller footprint, aggressive intervention in failed or toxic states, widespread (if half-hearted) democracy-promotion, ad hoc coalitions with an Anglospheric bias, and diplomacy running parallel to military action rather than taking sequential turns. But it's actively engaged in the world of today, which makes the Democrats' thirty-year-old narrative sound out-of-touch and irrelevant.


What this means in practical terms is that parties try to emphasize the areas where their policies are more recent than the other guy's. Republicans have been running on economic policy and taxes since Reagan, because the Democratic alternative always presumes we're one business cycle away from another Depression. Similarly, Democrats who want to be in favor of something (rather than simply anti-Bush, or anti-Republican in general) tend to run on social policy and civil rights, because while their ideas may be forty years old, that's still better than the GOP's fifty.

What the Democrats need to do (assuming they wish to survive as the primary alternative in an electoral duopoly) is get some new ideas. They haven't upgraded any of their policies in over thirty years, and that last one was a bit of a kludge. (The GOP has updated 2 of 3 in that time.)

First up - since the oldest - should probably be economic policy. Things have changed a lot since 1933, and their economics should begin to reflect that. The Fordist model needs to be replaced by a globalized post-industrial perspective, where “shipping jobs overseas” often benefits consumers here at home and third-world sweatshops are usually a step up from subsistence farming, just as they once were here. Healthcare and pensions shouldn't be tied either to a job or a one-size-fits-all government program. Transit shouldn't be mass but customizable – and so should energy use and sources. The central figure in the new economy isn't the wage slave but the prosumer.

Social policy is the one category where Democrats have a competitive product, and even that's getting creaky. Affirmative action has hardened into an entitlement program for middle-class blacks and white women, while the underclass falls farther behind. The welfare reform Clinton campaigned on had to be passed almost entirely with votes from the right. Hispanics now outnumber blacks. Research indicates that children of single mothers (a major part of the party base) do less well in life. Major tweaking is in order.

Foreign policy is a very dicey situation, precisely because the '70s policy which is relatively unpopular with the electorate is self-defining for the boomer progressives who are an increasingly important part of the party base. It might be necessary to keep it in order to keep them, which makes updating the other two legs more critical. If not, the most voter-friendly solution might be the bipartisan Me-too stance that Republicans adopted in the '40s and '50s until someone figures out how to put a positive Democratic spin on the Bush doctrine.

What the Republicans need to do is update their social policy, the one area where Democrats are more nearly contemporary than they are. A good start might be Ross Douthat and Salam Reihan's Sam's Club Republicans. The focus should be inclusive and family-friendly, recognizing that parents need all the help and support they can get with medical care, work flexibility, education, and protecting their children (and their marriage) from popular culture. Bonus points if there's a way to reframe abortion and gay marriage as society-impacting family issues rather than as individual civil rights, or to replace the affirmative action spoils system with actual help for the disadvantaged, or to make conservation a conservative value again.

If the Republicans act first, the Democrats can get used to spending a long time as a minority party again, or even to their dissolution (intraparty fights grow more vicious as the stakes grow smaller). If the Democrats act first, the Republican majority may not solidify for another decade or two, if at all.

Ideas have consequences, long after their moment of currency. So does timing.

posted by Kelly | 8:40 PM link
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