March 30, 2005

Ideas first, charisma last.

On the NYT op-ed page, Former Senator Bill Bradley tries to figure out what the Democratic Party can do to rebuild itself. He bases his idea on a plan Lewis Powell (who went on to become a Supreme Court Justice) devised for the Republican Party, after the Goldwater defeat in 1964. Powell's design led to the construction of a "pyramid."At the base are large donors, who fund the conservative research centers at the next level. Above them are the political strategists who take and deploy the ideas produced in the centers. Next are the partisan news media through which the strategists work. Finally, at the top, is the President.
Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.

It is not quite the "right wing conspiracy" that Hillary Clinton described, but it is an impressive organization built consciously, carefully and single-mindedly. The Ann Coulters and Grover Norquists don't want to be candidates for anything or cabinet officers for anyone. They know their roles and execute them because they're paid well and believe, I think, in what they're saying. True, there's lots of money involved, but the money makes a difference because it goes toward reinforcing a structure that is already stable.
The Democrats, on the other hand, have a completely unstable, inverted pyramid. The point is at the bottom, and the whole party structure needs to balance on the strength of the one charismatic character who is able to win the Presidency. When he's gone, they're back to nothing.
There is no clearly identifiable funding base for Democratic policy organizations, and in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas. Campaigns don't start thinking about a Democratic brand until halfway through the election year, by which time winning the daily news cycle takes precedence over building a consistent message. The closest that Democrats get to a brand is a catchy slogan....

Candidates don't risk talking about big ideas because the ideas have never been sufficiently tested. Instead they usually wind up arguing about minor issues and express few deep convictions. ...

If Democrats are serious about preparing for the next election or the next election after that, some influential Democrats will have to resist entrusting their dreams to individual candidates and instead make a commitment to build a stable pyramid from the base up. It will take at least a decade's commitment, and it won't come cheap. But there really is no other choice.
Very well put -- by a man with a fancy educational background who once ran for President and wiped out early, because of a woeful lack of charisma. He's right, though, isn't he?

Is it a mystery that academics tend to vote for the Democratic candidate, despite this lack of coherent ideas? Academics are -- I'm thinking -- a lot less interested in elaborately structured ideologies than nonacademics imagine. Perhaps intellectuals are more comfortable with freewheeling, pragmatic politics than the average citizen. But Bradley is still right: the Democrats should develop a coherent ideology in order to speak persuasively to that average citizen, who longs for ideas that make sense. And plenty of academics would freewheelingly and pragmatically enjoy raking in lots of money while they produce the necessary structure of ideas.

UPDATE: Gerry Daly has a different perspective on the Bradley piece.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here's another perspective, from Tigerhawk (who reveals that he went to law school with Ann Coulter).

No comments: