Historical Perspective: Ideas in Context
by Joseph J. Thorndike
Date: Sep. 6, 2005

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When it comes to politics, do ideas really matter? Not according to Jonathan Chait, a senior editor for The New Republic. In a July article for the magazine, Chait takes issue with the current Democratic obsession with "new ideas" and says pouring money into think tanks is a waste of time, offering false hope to a dispirited liberal establishment. Worse yet, it distracts Democrats from the hard work of winning elections.

In good contrarian fashion, Chait makes a provocative case, insisting that ideas lack the transformative power that Democrats crave. Of course, Chait's argument is its own sort of new idea: When liberals disagree on everything except the need for new ideas, what could be fresher than the case for moribund thinking?

To be fair, though, Chait doesn't actually call for a return to the old and musty. He simply says fresh ideas won't stem the conservative tide. The modern Republican ascendancy draws ideological sustenance from conservative think tanks, but its electoral lifeblood flows from corporate America. Struggling to cope with the competitive pressure of a global marketplace, business has bankrolled a long-term campaign to roll back the New Deal state, Chait says. Deep pockets, not deep thinking, have built the Republican regime.

The Importance of New Ideas

That materialist explanation, although compelling to a point, unfairly discounts the importance of political ideas. Certainly Democrats shouldn't count on think tanks to deliver them from political purgatory. But neither should they ignore the "idea gap" separating left from right.

Consider, for instance, today's ferment around tax reform. Debate among conservatives is substantially more vibrant than anything going on between Republicans and Democrats. Advocates for the Fair Tax and the flat tax are having the sort of passionate argument that once found a home in the fringe journals of the left; we haven't seen this sort of internecine bickering since the Partisan Review took on the New Masses.

And that's bad news for liberals. Feisty debate is a sign of good health, and Democrats look pretty sickly these days. Progressive leaders spend most of their time debating the tactics, not the tenets, of progressive politics. Should Democrats stake out strong liberal positions, offering voters a clear choice at the polls? Or should they adopt a moderate stance, emulating Bill Clinton's famous triangulation strategy? That's an interesting question, and a useful one for political operatives. But it can't take the place of substantive thinking about politics and policy. Ideas do matter, and sometimes they even help win elections.

Do Democrats Really Need New Ideas?

In his article, Chait insists that Democrats already have plenty of good ideas. "Indeed, devising earnest new ideas is the very thing liberals enjoy the most," he writes. "Accusing them of having no new ideas is like accusing a member of the Kennedy family of excessive sobriety: If anything, the actual problem is just the opposite."

Chait concludes that the call for new ideas is simply nonsensical. "One constantly hears impassioned demands that the Democrats do exactly what they are already doing," he writes. "I can't tell you how many conversations I've had in which liberal friends ask why the Democratic leaders aren't simply saying that Bush's tax cuts are unaffordable and go to the rich, when in fact they are doing so with stultifying repetitiveness."

But that's the point, isn't it? That stultifying mantra isn't working. In a January 2005 poll by the Los Angeles Times, 58 percent of respondents said the rich have been the principal beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts. But 54 percent also wanted the cuts made permanent. Clearly, rolling back the Bush program is not a winning platform. Democrats need to offer something more than oppositional rhetoric.

In another poll, conducted for NBC in April, 54 percent of respondents described the federal tax system as "basically unfair." Given that level of discontent, it's not surprising that voters respond warmly when presented with plans for dramatic reform.

Look at the surge of interest in a national sales tax (NST). A new book endorsing the idea, coauthored by Rep. John Linder, R-Ga., and talk radio host Neal Boortz, recently made its debut at the top of The New York Times bestseller list. (So much for my casual prediction earlier this summer that the idea had just about run its course.)

I still think the FairTax will founder on the shoals of its necessarily high rate. But that's not the point. Even if the proposal sinks next week, its broad appeal should serve as a wake-up call for liberals. And in fact, a few liberals have even jumped on the sales tax bandwagon. In a recent article, also in The New Republic, historian Niall Ferguson and economist Laurence J. Kotlikoff offer a decidedly liberal case for the NST, suggesting that it could be used to fund a "New New Deal."

Dramatic proposals like the NST have a certain appeal, at least to everyone not responsible for implementing them. And they underscore the political power of new ideas -- ideas that mobilize democratic forces and help remake the political landscape. As historian Elliot Brownlee has observed, tax ideas can be particularly powerful, emerging from the political fray as "independent creative forces."

Some Historical Perspective

Once upon a time, the income tax was that sort of new idea. As Ajay Mehrotra, a legal historian at Indiana University, points out in an article for the August issue of the UCLA Law Review, the levy rose to prominence on a wave of popular discontent. Unhappy with the state and local property taxes, as well as federal tariff duties, Americans in the late 19th century cast about for alternatives.

The income tax quickly emerged as the most likely candidate, thanks largely to the energetic efforts of its academic advocates, including Edwin R. Seligman, Richard T. Ely, and Henry Carter Adams. But like all transformative ideas, the income tax had a constituency outside academia too. It won a spot on the policy agenda of populist and progressive reformers, who used it to mobilize farmers and middle-income voters to challenge the fiscal status quo. In the process, they opened a new chapter in American political economy.

Ultimately, the modern income tax emerged from the crucible of national emergency. Congress first enacted the levy in 1913, but it took the revenue crisis of World War I to make it a pillar of federal finance. As always, necessity was the mother of political invention.

But the idea of income taxation -- expounded in countless articles and before numerous panels -- was still pivotal to the wartime watershed. Once debated only in the abstract, it soon absorbed meaning and urgency from its political and social context. Mehrotra credits Seligman with a similar observation: "It is always on the borderline of the transition from the old social necessity to the new social convenience that the ethical reformer makes his influence felt."

World War I was that sort of borderline. Have we reached another one today? Probably not. Fundamental reform occurs only when it must, not when it just seems like a good idea. We don't face that sort of imperative today, although the growing fiscal gap may eventually become one.

In the meantime, though, tax reform is certainly worth debating. Ideas take a long time to ripen. The nascent income tax of 1913 emerged only after decades of intellectual and political debate. So too with the "mass tax" reforms of World War II. If liberals want to be ready when the next fiscal crisis arrives, they had better start their planning now.

Of course, some liberals have taken up that challenge. A few groups, notably the Center for American Progress, have even offered comprehensive plans for progressive tax reform. But most liberal commentary on tax issues never moves beyond righteous indignation and a tired defense of the status quo. If that's the kind of agenda that Democrats are planning to recycle, then maybe Chait's right: Ideas don't matter.