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April 25, 2006
New Ideas Same As The Old Ideas

There are really no new ideas in politics, no new grand themes -- only a replay of older themes dressed up in new packaging. That's the conclusion one has to reach when reading E.J. Dionne's column today on the beginning of a new national center-left movement. Dionne describes perfectly the mechanism for stirring new movements to life, but he misses the point when it comes to the nature of the philosphies that govern them:

"New ideas," "bold visions," "detailed solutions" and "courageous policies" almost never originate with politicians, especially politicians in the middle of election campaigns. Political consultants, with a few honorable exceptions, don't do "vision" either.

Politicians typically pick up their ideas from intellectual entrepreneurs, professional visionaries and impatient ideologues who wonder why the parties they support seem to stand for little.

Ronald Reagan could not have become, well, Ronald Reagan, if William F. Buckley Jr. and his allies at National Review magazine had not spent years developing modern conservatism's core ideas -- and if neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz had not tweaked the philosophy in directions that brought in new converts. ...

The biggest change is that moderates and liberals have begun to accept the fact that they cannot simply adjust to conservative dominance of the political debate and alter their ideas to fit the current consensus. As Michael Tomasky writes in the current issue of the American Prospect, Democrats and their allies must destroy the current political "paradigm" based on "radical individualism" and replace it with a politics of the "common good." Only a larger argument rooted in a different conception of government and society, Tomasky argues, will allow the party to "do a lot more than squeak by in this fall's (or any) elections based on the usual unsatisfying admixture of compromises."

Unfortunately, this "new" paradigm is the same as the old paradigm that governed this country from the Depression to the end of the Cold War. The notion of "common good" created the welfare state, the Great Society, and eventually speech codes, political correctness, and the hypersensitivity to offensive expression that threatens to stifle free speech. The philososphy which produces this new paradigm is the same one that places the needs of society above those of the individual. That's not new or even particularly controversial, and it describes the entire left, not just that of the center.

On the other hand, modern conservatism bases itself on the opposite philosophy -- that the needs of the individual should take precedence over the needs of society, because in a free government based on the rule of law, self-interest will produce the best results overall. This also is no new idea, and it didn't get cranked out by William F. Buckley or Irving Kristol or Norman Podhoretz. It came from philosophers such as John Locke and put into place by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and our other founding fathers. The genius of men like Buckley, Podhoretz, and Kristol came from their recognition of the distance we had travelled from those philosophies and the effort they put into moving us back towards them.

Dionne is wrong about Reagan, although he certainly isn't alone in that position. Reagan had spoken on the same themes as Buckley and others for a decade on the speech circuit, honing his ability to communicate and learning how the message got received. Reagan had long been an anti-Communist even before that, and by the time he ran for governor in California he had transformed himself into a rarity: a philosopher-politician. Dionne is correct in that they do not exist in large numbers, but Reagan was one of them and very much the contemporary to Buckley, Kristol, and Podhoretz.

The center-left did learn the lessons taught them in the past twenty years by the conservatives about how to build a movement; Dionne notes the new and revamped magazines, the new think tanks, and the development of new intellectual voices on the left as signs of a resurgent liberalism, and he may be right. However, the power of the message won't be in what's new, but in what's old. The liberals still must rely on a message that defines freedom downward as a government benefit rather than upward as a natural component of the individual. Their approach worked for decades here in the US and still holds sway in Europe, and it may work again someday. But let's not pretend that they have invented anything new.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 25, 2006 6:39 AM

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