Wednesday, April 06, 2005


Advice to Democrats is pretty common nowadays, and most of it would be a good idea to listen to. Especially Jim Wallis' tome God's Politics, which I just finished reading, but more on that later. The one piece of advice Democrats shouldn't listen to is the "be more like Republicans" arguments, or institutional isomorphism if you want to use some buzzwords. The Republicans have effective models, but a lot of them are based on the nature of their coalition and how conservative ideology works. They wouldn't be so easily replicated by Democrats, who have the problems of a crumbling coalition and ideology in crisis. Bill Bradley has proposed a downright foolish idea on this type of institutional isomorphism:

"You've probably heard some of this before, but let me run through it again. Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid.

The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate. That language is sometimes in the form of an assault on Democrats and at other times in the form of advocacy for a new policy position. The development process can take years. And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.

At the very top of the pyramid you'll find the president. Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine."

This sounds all fine and dandy, but Kaus offers a near-perfect rebuttal:

"Bradley wants the Democrats to emulate Republicans and generate ideas from a stable, pyramid-like institutional base--with "Democratic policy organizations" engaged in the "patient, long term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas." Just plug in a candidate at the top of this institutional pyrmaid and ... victory!

The problem, of course, is that the Democratic party's most stable institutional elements are also its most problematic elements: 1) unions; 2) the civil rights and Latino lobbies; 3) the senior lobby (AARP); 4) institutional feminists (NOW); 5) trial lawyers; 6) Iowa-caucus style "progressives;" and 7) Hollywood emoters. If a national problem could be solved without trampling on the interests of this institutional base, Democrats would have solved it in the decades when they were in power. What's left are the problems that can't be solved--even solved in accordance with liberal principles--without trampling on these liberal interest groups: competitiveness, for example, or public education, or entitlement reform. If the Dems' permanent institutional base is what gets to "develop" and "hone" the ideas to be adopted by the party's presidential nominee, then the Democrats will in perpetuity be the party of union work rules, lousy teachers, mediocre schools, protectionism, racial preferences, unafforadable entitlements, amnesty for illegals and offensive rap lyrics! That winning collection gets you, what, 35%?

Currently, the Democrats' only hope is that once every four years a maverick candidate will come along who tells the party's permanent institutional base to shove it and actually fashion an appealing platform. The party's post-Vietnam presidential winners--Carter and Clinton--both fit this pattern. Bradley seems to regard Clinton's success as a failure because it wasn't replicated. But it wasn't replicated because people like Bradley sneered at it, and played instead to the party's reliable, pyramid-like base. ...Over the long run, of course, the Democrats' institutional problem may at least partly solve itself as the role of unions in the private economy asymptotically approaches zero. ... P.S.: Bush's problems selling his Social Security plan suggest that not everything generated by a mighty idea-honing institutional GOP pyramid succeeds. Crazy thought: Maybe the substance of ideas, and not the mechanism that produces them, is what counts. ..."

What Kaus implies is two key observations about Democrats. 1) They probably already have the pyramid-type structure Bradley discusses, only it's one that generates bad ideas across time. No matter what candidate is at the top, he takes predictably bad ideas and policies from these withering power structures. 2) The tectonic shifts in Democrats and good ideas are bottom-up style insurgencies that force their ways through this structure.

With no offense to 5th, I don't think think-tanks and foundations are the answer. Democrats need to decentralize and do some straight grass-roots coalition building. The strength of the Dems is that their good ideas and power come from the bottom. And the problem currently is that the Dems don't have enough meat there.