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'The Common Interest' No Answer For Democrats

By Brad Carson

"Practical men," wrote the great John Maynard Keynes, "are usually the slave to some defunct economist." Keynes was no doubt keen to promote the influence of his own discipline, but his comments should not be seen as a mere professional apologia. Rather, Keynes' point is more universal: ideas, not people, matter most. The latter are vital only to the extent they embody or contest the former.

It is worth recalling the wisdom of Keynes as the Democratic Party attempts to define itself for the 2006 and 2008 elections. Democrats, it is said, are in need of a big idea, a storyline if you will, if they ever hope to reclaim a governing majority. You can hear this complaint from conservative commentators, who find hope in it, but also from many progressive writers, who might be expected to resist the meme.

Truth is, there is no shortage of Democratic ideas. From the Center for American Progress to the Democratic Leadership Council, policy proposals spew forth in abundance. No issue, from affirmative action to xenophobia, is being left uncharted by the proliferating network of left-wing think-tanks. Far from ideological bankruptcy, progressives are awash in interesting and provocative legislative proposals.

But there is, indeed, something missing in the Democrats' message: a larger philosophical scheme to explain what the myriad smaller proposals add up to. Even in an age suspicious of grand narratives, this debilitating problem has not gone unnoticed, of course, and a whole intellectual industry has developed to provide this missing master plan. George Lakoff's recent book, "Don't Think Of An Elephant!," received a lot of attention in this category. Lakoff argued the problem was fundamentally rhetorical. Success would be had if only better linguistic frames - Broader Prosperity!, for example, or A Stronger America! - would be utilized by progressives.

Now, Michael Tomasky, editor of The American Prospect, has weighed in, offering his own solution to the Democrats' dilemma in a much-noticed piece entitled "Party In Search Of A Notion." Tomasky adopts a more substantive and contrarian approach than Lakoff. But Tomasky founders on the same shoals that wrecked Lakoff.

Criticizing the last forty years of progressive politics, Tomasky asserts that "the common good" is the answer to the Democrat's intellectual woes. "The common good," he says, was the animating spirit of all the great achievements of the 20th century. Tomasky goes on to say that the common good is the "moral basis of liberal governance - not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity." But, sadly, he concludes, the common good - civic republicanism, more formally -- has lost flavor among Democrats inebriated by, well, diversity and rights and justice and equality and even prosperity and opportunity.

Much of what Tomasky says in "Party In Search Of A Notion" is accurate and even useful. Interest group politics has gotten completely out of hand, and who can doubt that the cult of the unfettered individual could use a little salutary persecution? But, Tomasky, in the end, fails to pull the sword from the philosophical anvil in which the Democratic Party is stuck. A hint of this failure can be found in the fact that, as Tomasky notes, Republicans also like to invoke the "common interest." An idea broad enough to serve Reagan and LBJ just may not be deep enough to serve as a border between the two political parties. A deeper flaw in Tomasky's paean to civic republicanism can be found in his passing reference to Michael Sandel, the influential Harvard professor and small-r republican thinker, who has demonstrated that the great era of civic republicanism was ended by the New Deal and Great Society, the very historical eras most admired by Tomasky.

The "common interest" is fine as a rhetorical ploy. Tomasky's "common good" won't be the Democrats' grand narrative, though. Because, its linguistic utility notwithstanding, the "common good" lacks any real substance and is incapable of doing the important work of prioritizing among (and adjudicating between) competing ideas. In the first 100 days of a new Democratic president, does the "common interest" dictate that we should first do universal health care, welfare reform, or gays in the military? We've been down that road before, and we know the baleful destination already.

The failure of Tomasky is that, like Lakoff, he seems to believe that the problems facing Democrats can be fixed with only a rhetorical shift. "If only we progressive had a Frank Luntz to wordsmith for us," they would seem to say. But the Democrats' problem is far deeper; it is not that they fumble for words, but rather that they have lost their voice.

A coherent political philosophy implies a certain understanding of human nature, of the proper ends of human life. Progressive politics across the world - from Britain's Labour to Germany's SDP to America's Democrats -- has no vision of a better world because these deeply philosophical foundations of left-wing politics have eroded over the last thirty years. Events like stagflation and the fall of the Soviet Union played a role in this, but, so, too, did a line of brilliant thinkers like Hayek, Friedman, Buchanan, Stigler, Lucas, Kydler, Prescott, Merton, Miller, Becker, Simon, and Coase, all of whom received Nobel Prizes for their now-accepted apostasies from left-wing orthodoxy.

Civic republicanism may well provide a new basis for progressive politics, which is, as Tomasky says, mired in stultifying proceduralism. But it will do so by changing more than the Democrats' rhetoric. The civic republicanism that Tomasky invokes will demand a rethinking of church-state relations, criminal procedure, abortion, antitrust law, and nearly every other policy that we associate with today's Democrats. Indeed, civic republicanism demands a rethinking of what human beings actually are and what ends are conducive to human flourishing. But, while much will change, one thing will stay the same: for progressives, any use of civic republicanism must and will be guided by a deep concern for social justice and a veneration of equality, the very principles that Tomasky derides. For it is equality and social justice - the essential progressive values -- that define what the common good really is.

The need for progressive politics is greater than ever. Democrats can find solace in knowing that their problems are not self-inflicted and are present in similar form wherever the Left is to be found. But hope requires Democrats to acknowledge that the solutions will not be found in merely better rhetoric, but in slow-boring through the hard wood of philosophical retrenchment.

Brad Carson is a former Democratic congressman from Oklahoma. Email:

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