Thank God that’s over. I haven’t thought of anything distinctive to say about the strategic and tactical implications of yesterday’s election for the Democratic Party or the Obama administration. My beat, if I have one, is ideology and the ideological implications of this election are painfully obvious. There’s no denying that, among other things, yesterday’s elections were a referendum on, and a repudiation of, doctrinaire liberalism at all levels of government. Obama/Pelosi/Reid liberalism isn’t nearly as popular as liberals had reason to hope after the 2008 election.
Depending on your point of view, that’s either disappointing or encouraging, but it’s not very surprising. Like everyone else, ideologues do their fair share of wishful thinking. So, when they win elections, they’re apt to over-estimate the electoral impact of their favorite ideas. Conservatives felt the sting of the same sort of disappointment liberals are now feeling in 2005, after they’d persuaded themselves that Bush’s reelection was the prelude to an ownership society where people provided for their own health and economic security through health savings and private social security accounts.
Ideologies are complicated constructs encompassing at least three elements held together at more or less durable intellectual joints. Any ideologue worth his salt has: first, a theory about what’s socially and politically desirable that applies across foreseeable socio-political contexts; second, a model about how the political economy actually works or can be made to work with a few well-considered adjustments; and third, a policy agenda that effects the best available compromise between what’s desirable and what’s socially and politically possible.
Reasonable liberals will now be thinking about how to adjust their policy agenda in light of last night’s election returns. Being a steadfast liberal doesn’t mean that, having just walked off one political cliff, you’re resigned to pitching yourself off the next one. Yet no one qualifies as a genuine ideologue in the first place if his core priorities change with the ups and downs of every election cycle. So liberals’ only alternative to ideological suicide is figuring new ways to realize their values, particularly their foundational commitment to economic, social and political equality, under post-election circumstances.
If liberalism’s in intellectual disrepair, it’s because its model of how the political economy works is showing its age. In an economy in which markets do most of the allocative and distributive work, maximizing the well-being of people near the bottom of the economic pyramid requires that liberals find a policy sweet spot that combines the right mix of redistribution and market-driven productivity gains. The sweet spot was a lot bigger during the New Deal, when a liberal administration could enact a program like Social Security without its redistributive effects exacting a noticeable cost in social productivity. It got substantially smaller during the Great Society, when social spending on the War on Poverty (combined with a military budget bloated by the Vietnam War and the arms race) contributed to the stagflation of the 1970s. Now that Social Security and Medicare are fiscally unsustainable in their present form and new redistributive policies have to be financed with borrowed dollars, the sweet spot is getting microscopic.
That means the modern liberal governments need to make much more discriminating policy judgments than ever before. Yet the first two years of the Obama administration showed how spectacularly indiscriminate liberal public decision-making has become. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about how much the stimulus bill really stimulated the economy. But no one with eyes to see or ears to hear can really believe that the people enacting it were even trying to maximize the stimulative bang for the public bucks spent or deny that it was sold to the public through false advertising (remember all those “shovel-ready” infrastructural projects?). ObamaCare emerged from a year-long legislative process with significant policy content that was unknown to virtually all the congressmen voting for it. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, a majority of likely voters wanted it repealed the day it was passed. Who knew that public decision-making could be interminable and rash at the same time?
Can you blame voters who were sympathetic to Obama’s campaign pitch in 2008 for concluding that Democrats aren’t good enough at hitting public policy sweet spots to make them worth aiming for?