The Party of Ideas

Washington is full of people who try to get politicians to adopt their ideas. That's one of the reasons the Prospect was founded, in fact -- to create a forum for progressives to have serious discussions about government and politics, in the hopes that the ideas generated might eventually be translated into policies that solve problems. But it's hard to get politicians' attention -- they're seldom deep thinkers, and they always have more immediate concerns.

I thought about that when I saw Jon Chait note that Rick Perry is now embracing New Deal revisionism, the notion that the start of our problems today wasn't in the 1960s, when government started caring about black people, but rather goes back even further to the 1930s, when government started caring about poor and unemployed people. This is a recent phenomenon, one that can be attributed largely to one person, conservative columnist Amity Shlaes. When Shlaes wrote a book in 2009 arguing that the New Deal made the Depression worse (a view most actual historians find farcical), elite Republicans went nuts. As Jon explained in a review of the book, "The Forgotten Man has been publicly touted by such Republican luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Rudolph Giuliani, Mark Sanford, Jon Kyl, and Mike Pence. Senator John Barrasso was so eager to tout The Forgotten Man that last month he waved around a copy and announced, 'in these economic times, a number of members of the Senate are reading a book called The Forgotten Man, about the history of the Great Depression, as we compare and look for solutions, as we look at a stimulus package.'"

There's really nothing more an ideologically motivated author could ask for. It doesn't always work, of course; a couple of years back, Ann Coulter wrote a book arguing that Joe McCarthy was right, and that idea didn't take hold. But does success like Shlaes' happen on the left? Sometimes. Elizabeth Warren wrote an article in Democracy in 2007 suggesting an agency to protect consumers' rights in the financial world; it now exists, and Warren established it. Sure, Barack Obama read Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, but it's unclear what he learned. And a couple of times in recent years, Democrats have discovered a strategic guru like George Lakoff or Drew Westen whom they hoped would help them achieve electoral success. But what you don't see that often is a progressive who writes a book with a new perspective on history or policy that Democratic politicians literally wave over their heads in public.

Are Republican politicians just more interested in ideas? Not exactly. What they're interested in is big, sweeping ideas. Not technocratic fixes, not proposals for a new agency, but ideas that upend the bases of how we think about politics and what we consider reasonable and insane. Democrats, not so much. It isn't that suddenly everyone is going to change their mind about the New Deal, just because Rick Perry said so. But thinkers on the right seem to have an easier time getting their politicians to adopt their ideas, the nuttier the better. And eventually, a notion that starts off being self-evidently absurd -- cutting taxes raises revenue, government should curtail spending during a recession -- becomes accepted wisdom for one of our two major parties.