Friday, October 8, 2010

Ideological Memory

This poll has John Dingell, of all people, running 4% points behind his Republican opponent. That’s shocking. We don’t normally expect to see a 28-term incumbent in a competitive race against a political nonentity. Dingell’s political troubles point to an anomalous feature of the present political landscape: today’s liberals, self-styled progressives, have longer ideological memories and a much deeper psychological connection with their ideological ancestors than today’s reactionary conservatives. That may go a little way toward explaining liberalism’s recent political troubles.

Recall how, a year ago, Obama prefaced his health care address to a joint session of Congress. He described how, at the beginning of each of the last twenty-seven Congresses, Dingell has resubmitted the health care reform bill that his father drafted and regularly submitted before him when he occupied the same seat. Obama didn’t want us to forget that his own health care proposals were a direct descendent of the elder Dingell’s. It was touching to see the gratified expression of an 83-year-old, serving his 55th year in congress, in a seat that he and his father had occupied for 77 years, contemplating the fulfillment of a 70-year-old political aspiration. That night, Dingell was the living embodiment of ideological memories that still animate the Democratic Party and the progressive movement.

Conservative Republicans have much shorter ideological memories. Granted, when Tea Partiers ramble on about "constitutional conservatism" and goad Republican state attorneys general to file Commerce Clause challenges to ObamaCare, they sound a little like conservative opponents of the New Deal in the 1930s. But today’s conservatives don’t have any vital psychological connection with such remote ideological ancestors. Young and middle-aged conservatives may still occasionally ask: “what would Reagan do?” But they couldn’t care less about what Robert Taft would do. Indeed, when a Rand Paul starts sounding a little too much like Robert Taft, he makes mainstream conservatives nervous. I doubt that John Dingell has ever made Barack Obama nervous.

At the very least, that points to a marketing problem for contemporary liberal Democrats. Imagine a contemporary record producer who has persuaded himself that there’s not just a niche audience, but a mass market, for downloads that sound recognizably like Benny Goodman.


Anonymous said...

I thought I read somewhere that even 1 in 3 democrats opposes ObamaCare. So it's not just conservative Republicans.

Anonymous said...

The people in the Republican base--evangelicals, libertarians, country club Republicans, Tea Party types, etc.--are there because of what they believe. Ideology matters to them. Most people in the democratic base--blacks, latinos, union-members, public service workers, etc.--are there either out of self-interest or as an expression of social identity. Completing the work of the New Deal only matters to liberal intellectuals.