The Next Big Thing

THE NEXT BIG THING….For the past couple of weeks I’ve been meaning to comment on Rick Perlstein’s essay “The Stock Ticker and the Super Jumbo” but never quite got around to it. However, since Henry Farrell and Matt Yglesias had some comments of their own about Rick’s essay this weekend, it seems like an opportune time to weigh in. First, though, here’s a nickel version of the arguments so far:

  • Rick Perlstein: Democrats need to quit dicking around with “triangulation” and obsessive short-term poll watching, and instead pick a few big ideas and stick with them through thick and thin. People respect that. The actual nature of the big ideas that will revive the party is left as an exercise for the reader.

  • Henry Farrell: Perlstein is on the right track, but there’s a bigger point to make: Dems don’t just need to pick a few existing issues they can win with, they need to invent some brand new issues that aren’t even on the radar screen right now. In much the same way that no one realized that ring-around-the-collar was a problem until Wisk spent a billion dollars on primetime advertising telling us so, Dems need to invent some brand new problems that nobody even realizes are problems yet ? and then hammer away on them. The nature of these problems is left as an exercise for the reader.

  • Matt Yglesias: Henry Farrell is right: we do need to invent some brand new markets for our political product. And none of this “exercise for the reader” handwaving, either. Here are my choices: (a) economic insecurity and (b) how to combine work and family and not go crazy.

I agree with Rick and Henry. Without trivializing the need for better organization, better messaging, and so forth, I think that big ideas are fundamental to future success. What’s more, I don’t think we’re going to find those big ideas in the economic issues of the past. As Matt points out, America is a really rich country, and while the American middle class may have stagnated over the past 30 years, it’s stagnated at a pretty high income level ? significantly higher than countries like France or Germany, for example. The fact is, Americans just aren’t unhappy enough with their lot in life to inspire a mass movement. (This might change if George Bush sends the economy off a cliff, but I’d rather maintain some optimism on that front.)

For that reason, I suspect Matt’s suggestions aren’t going to cut it ? even though they both sound pretty appealing to me. The issues he points to are genuine, growing problems, but they aren’t really new. I imagine he’ll object to this oversimplification, but he’s fundamentally arguing that America ought to move in the direction of the European social model. I agree that a certain amount of movement in that direction is inevitable, but I’m under no illusions that this is a breathtaking new idea that’s going to take the country by storm.

To which the appropriate reply is: OK, smart guy, so what are the big issues coming down the pike? And there I’m stumped. Issues of economic fairness and personal equality will (and should) remain important underpinnings of liberalism for the foreseeable future, and we need to keep fighting those fights. That’s pretty much the whole point of this blog, after all.

Still, these issues have been fought to death over the past 50 years and aren’t likely to cause any sea changes in public opinion at this point. What’s more, I continue to think that we’ve won about 80% of these battles, which is why they don’t resonate strongly enough to reliably win elections for us any longer. Since the opposite is true for conservatives, who are almost comically bereft of serious new ideas these days, the result is the 50-50 deadlock we’ve found ourselves in for the past decade.

In other words, the next big thing is going to be something completely different from the ideas that have won elections in the past. But I still don’t know what it is.

UPDATE: Over at The American Street, Jeff Alworth has a couple of suggestions. Tony Blair would approve.

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