The fecklessness of Senate Republicans and their inability to negotiate seriously on a new economic rescue package that economists of nearly all stripes say we need is not primarily a failure of personal virtue. It reflects a disconnect between what most of them believe and what the moment requires.
And the rise of a more vocal left, including the victory of unabashed socialists in big city Democratic primaries, signals a backlash against ideological constraints that prevent an honest reckoning with a great many questions.
They include: Why do so many people lack health insurance? Why are housing costs out of control in our great metropolitan areas? Why is college unaffordable? Why is the pay for workers we call “essential” so low? Why is so much wealth concentrated in the hands of a small number of financiers and a small group of tech companies?
What do these developments have in common?
It’s a habit of intellectuals (and newspaper columnists) to highlight the importance of ideas in politics. “Ideas Have Consequences,” the title of Richard M. Weaver’s 1948 conservative classic, is a line much beloved by those whose job it is to traffic in them.
Much less noticed is a different truth: Events have consequences for ideas.
The survival of big belief systems is not guaranteed by able cadres of philosophers and theorists who dutifully beat back objections. Most of us, even when we don’t admit it, are rough-and-ready pragmatists. We judge ideas by whether they work. And ideas that once won wide assent fall by the wayside when they lead to plainly undesirable outcomes.
The collapse of the Soviet Union is an instructive case. The fall was preceded by a loss of faith in the doctrine that undergirded the system by the very people who ran it. Aleksandr Yakovlev, known as the “godfather of glasnost,” — the term for the opening up of closed intellectual spaces under Mikhail Gorbachev’s presidency — chose one word to capture the mood of frustration: “Enough!”
“We cannot live like this any longer,” he once said. “Everything must be done in a new way. We must reconsider our concepts, our approaches, our views of the past and our future.”
Such also was the mood that gave rise to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In his 1965 book, “The Poverty of Abundance: Hoover, the Nation, the Depression,” the historian Albert U. Romasco wrote that President Herbert Hoover’s failure to contain the economic wreckage of the Great Depression opened the way for the very forms of big government he disdained.
“He had labored to create a psychological climate of opinion conducive to public confidence,” Romasco wrote of Hoover. “Instead, he succeeded in fostering a necessary precondition for the legislative outburst of the New Deal years: the public’s conviction that the job of recovery would require the forceful use of federal power.”
And here we are again. Trump’s cries to “open up the economy” were a failed exercise in creating “public confidence.” Instead, he fostered the spread of covid-19. His refusal to mobilize federal resources to fight the pandemic in a robust and consistent way have left behind a catastrophe for both the economy and public health.
In the meantime, Republicans in the Senate, like Hoover before them, cannot fully bring themselves to accept how large an intervention Washington needs to make to prevent a long, grueling economic slide. Thus their dithering.
Meanwhile, Biden and his advisers are busy studying up on the New Deal not because they are, as Trump would have it, “puppets” of the left, but because our circumstances echo Roosevelt’s time. Getting out of the mess we’re in requires more government action than conservative ideology admits. And as in the 1920s, inequality and economic concentration leave us with pent-up problems that must finally be confronted. Sounds like a time for a New New Deal.
In a tellingly entitled 2018 essay, “The New Old Democrats,” top Biden policy adviser Jake Sullivan wrote: “Democrats should not blush too much, or pay too much heed, when political commentators arch their eyebrows about the party moving left. The center of gravity itself is moving, and this is a good thing.”
Yes. It’s moving because thoroughly nonideological voters are saying “Enough!” They are rejecting old ideas not just because they’re tired and wrong, but also because we can’t live like this any longer.