Where Do We Go From Here? Part IIa
In a two-part essay that begins today, I will argue Democrats have to let go of the belief that they are just inches away from winning nationally. Democrats won’t ever win, and more importantly, begin to realize progressive change, until they dare to stand up and say things that are unpopular or that are seen as out of touch -- the things they truly believe.
My problem with this Democratic conundrum is that the political landscape is really not as evenly divided as it appears. Republicans control all three branches of government, most of the state houses and governor-ships. But more importantly, they control the national agenda and the national subtext or narrative.
This last part is crucial, for the national subtext determines how something like a policy proposal will be portrayed in the press, how it will be cast, and how it is likely to be received. Time Magazine used to cast this as the conventional wisdom. But it is more than this and certainly more than the taken for granted notions of the Beltway elites. Not for nothing did Clinton famously proclaim in one of his state of the Union messages -- "the era of big government is over." The national subtext represents how the majority of people are inclined to view political messages, to decide among policy options, and to interpret cause and effect in the policy landscape.
Elections are determined by recent events but national subtexts are shaped by significant historical developments and the way that society digests them. My theory is that society’s work like amateur social scientists. When presented with a consequential set of historical developments, they search the landscape for plausible hypotheses. One job of political parties is to present these hypotheses in a clear and compelling enough way that society will consider them as explanations for the developments witnessed. Once in place, a subtext provides for a sustained period the compelling narrative by which most people understand events around them and make political decisions. Just as financiers speak of secular shifts in stock markets, I think of shifts among subtexts as secular shifts in political markets.
I can think of several moments in American History when these national subtexts have emerged to transform the tenor of the political landscape. Around the time of the Great Depression the nation turned away from the dominant economic conservatism of the time and embraced the Democratic liberalism of FDR. The narrative people told themselves in the wake of this disaster and FDR’s strong leadership was that unchecked market forces were unreliable and dangerous and needed to be controlled and regulated by the national government and by comprehensive social policies. This subtext stayed in place by and large and was even magnified up until the late 1970s when ‘stagflation’ emerged.
What had occurred was that the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s subsequent intervention gave people a plausible story by which they could understand historical cause and effect. This framework provided a way not simply to understand the past, but to make judgements about appropriate behavior and decision-making in the present. Even though this period was interrupted by two Republican presidents, I would maintain that Nixon’s Presidency was in fact one of our more liberal presidencies for it saw a significant expansion of the welfare state and of the national bureaucracy. Recall, that aside from Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964, the standard bearers for the Republican Party at this time were Eisenhower, Rockefeller, Ford, & Nixon.
Reagan’s Presidency marked the replacement of this national subtext by a competing vision that conservative Republicans had been pushing since the mid-60s. Reagan came to office at the height of America’s post-oil boycott malaise, promising to cure the nation’s ills with an agenda of tax cuts and economic growth. The economy’s recovery during this time cemented in people’s mind that tax cuts would lead to economic growth and that large government would lead to economic stagnation. Never mind that scholars have serious questions whether Roosevelt’s policies in the 1930s did anything to end the Depression. Or that Paul Volcker’s policies at the Fed probably did more to encourage economic growth and end the stagflation of the early 1980s than Reagan’s tax cuts and subsequent deficits. The national narrative doesn’t necessarily attend to truth or accuracy. It attends to the simplest plausible story presented. Today, tax cuts are off the table. Big government is bad. Government spending is bad. Markets are flawless and good. These shibboleths lie beneath the surface in the media dialogue or what I call the Washington ethosphere but they are common and deeply held. They are implicit in the political dialogue throughout the 50 states.
We currently remain in the grip of what I call the Reagan subtext. It gives Republicans the ability to control the national agenda, to put Democrats on the defensive, and to present a coherent story of their vision and leadership. Democrats, as we note, struggle to present a coherent story and credible set of policy alternatives that make sense. Republican candidates start out with an advantage because the subtext supports and validates their vision. But the time and opportunity to create a Democratic subtext is now at hand.