Ideas, Leadership, and the New Left: A Reply to Fukuyama

A few months ago, in the 90th anniversary edition of Foreign Affairs, Francis Fukuyama looked across the last two centuries of economic and political history and reached two grand conclusions. First, during this period the liberal democracy has been the world's only successful secular model. Liberal democracies created an increasingly wealthy middle class that still strongly backs a system combining a democratically-governed public sector with a primarily private economy. Second, Fukuyama joined the widely-shared consensus that this model is in trouble. The financial crisis and a persistent inability to address deep-seated structural and political problems have all but halted economic and social progress, threatening the stability and perhaps even the existence of many liberal states. Among the culprits Fukuyama blamed for this state of affairs, one is curious. Fukuyama reframed the failure of liberal democracies as a failure of the Left to create viable alternatives to the old welfare state. He points to a failure of ideas on the Left that has laid low the West -- ruined its middle class, eroded its faith in government, and saddled its economies with trillions of dollars of debt.

A Dearth of Ideas?

For the last 50 years, the political dialog between the Western Left and Right has not been about a choice between market democracies and some other archetypal system. The debate has been, and remains, over democracy's span of control -- its size, function, and funding. The clash of ideas has been about how a market democracy should be managed and funded, not about whether some other wholesale system is better.

During this period there has been a stream of New Left ideas on how to create a civil society with opportunity, prosperity, and justice. In the 1990s, a new generation of economic thinkers rose to prominence who were both resolutely left-oriented and unapologetic about replacing the old welfare state. For example, Princeton Macroeconomist and Nobel Prize Winner, Paul Krugman, has forgotten more about what makes policies "unaffordable" than most of us will ever know. While he has advocated tirelessly for a larger stimulus, higher progressive taxes, and a stronger state, neither does he fit in the Old Left orthodoxy. Fellow Nobel Laureate, Joe Stiglitz's book, Freefall, addresses an ongoing "battle of ideas," and concludes "we won't and can't go back to the world as before." In Price of Civilization Columbia Professor Jeffrey Sachs "combines fiscal responsibility with increased social investment, pays for it with higher and more progressive taxes, and offers a broad vision of a good society." Other New Left economic policy authors include Jeff Madrick, Gordon Brown, Simon Johnson and James Kwak, Robert Kuttner, Brad DeLong, Paul Hawken, and others.

The New Left now has its own journals and think tanks: The American Prospect, founded in 1990, and the Center for American Progress (CAP), founded in 1996. As President Obama took office, CAP published a book-length policy blueprint, including economic policy broadsides by Gene Sperling and Laura D'Andrea Tyson. Sperling wrote that his program was based on "... four core progressive values -- shared prosperity, economic dignity, real opportunity for upward mobility, and the chance to succeed regardless of the accident of birth. These values must be translated into pragmatic policies." No one who knows Sperling or has heard him speak would accuse him of seeking a return to an old-style welfare state.

Outside the realms of policy advocacy, main channels of economic thought have evolved in several directions supporting the New Left. The New Right's case for ever-smaller government assumes humans were largely rational consumers and markets were overwhelmingly efficient. The new field of behavioral economics, popularized by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Thaler and Sunstein's Nudge, shows that humans are (sometimes predictably) irrational, and that careful public policies can improve social welfare. Several decades of work by mainstream economists, summarized in works by Richard Nelson and Kasushik Basu find much empirical support for the proposition that an appropriately strong government improves rather than impedes markets.

If It Isn't Ideas...

Yet Professor Fukuyama is on to something -- the economic crisis is only now starting to spark a full-scale debate over the free-market orthodoxy that has reigned supreme since the 1980s. If it is not a lack of ideas that accounts for this, what does?

Several factors are much more plausible. Technological and social changes have fractured the Left and the economic classes that used to define it. Some of these changes have also weakened the overall democratic process and increased the power of the wealthy elites, typically represented by the Right. The New Left has also lacked an encapsulation that is as unifying and understandable as the New Right's simple creed that "government is bad; markets are good." Finally, the New Left has lacked a transformative leader, who can change mainstream political policies by hitching them to a simple and powerful new set of ideas.

The Fractured, Evolving Left

Political coalitions are constantly changing, but the Left had a particularly rough ride in past century or so. When states were more homogeneous and classes more clearly defined by their economic condition, the Left and Right could represent the poor and rich, respectively. Affluence has now de-homogenized the class and cultural landscape by attracting immigrants who seek a fair piece of the pie. Rapid technological progress -- another hallmark of liberal democracy -- heightened competition for a dwindling supply of blue collar jobs and introduced culturally divisive innovations like contraceptives and cable TV.

By the 1970s, the alignment between the working class, minority groups, unions, and their political representatives cleaved into a highly factionalized and disunited Left. Its old institutions and political support structure were frequently at cross-purposes with the new generation of Leftists, many of whom were from white collar backgrounds and more interested in promoting social issues than blue-collar economic opportunity. The Left became a "rainbow coalition" of liberal unions, environmentalists, civil and gender rights groups, and others -- a partly-economic, partly-cultural mirror of the new conservative movement. Unlike conservatives, who simply agreed on less government, the values and policies of the New Left are not as easy to reduce to a single bumper sticker.

Meanwhile the Right used its wealth to unify and enlarge itself, marrying pro-business economic interests with culturally disaffected members of the working class. The Rights's funding of conservative intellectual research and new messaging institutions far outpaced any similar efforts of the Left. While the Right has inarguably eclipsed the Left in promoting and mainstreaming its ideas, it does not follow that it has done so in idea generation.

Broken Democracies

Observers on both the Left and Right, including Fukuyama, see increasing signs that the democratic process itself is unraveling in many countries under economic stress. As Robert Putnam and others have observed, Western Democracies and the U.S. in particular have lost much of the social capital needed to sustain democracy. With millions of home foreclosures, shriveled and sometimes bankrupt local governments, prolonged un- and under-employment, the Great Contraction brought public confidence in market capitalism to new lows.

Some of the loss of civil fabric can be attributed to the new media explosion, which has enabled information isolation among political partisans. As Eli Pariser observes in The Filter Bubble, the never ending supply of new media on each side creates "information silos" where partisans can chose to be surrounded by only media that reinforces and hardens their beliefs - a type of "echo chamber." Additionally, U.S. elections are monstrously expensive and professionalized, applying sophisticated tools of market research and persuasion techniques that cause voters to lose faith in an electoral process reduced to personality-centered exercises in calibrated marketing communication. Diminished public engagement in elections does not favor the Left. When elections are expensive, media-driven efforts all candidates running for office must be financed by the wealthy elites. When the wealthy are financing both political parties, how well can the parties compete over the issues that might offend the wealthy?

Political Leadership

Very few new political ideas are ever put into practice without a charismatic and committed leader. Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King successfully rallied the public and thereby succeeded in getting bold new liberal policies enacted. The deeply divided and often inaccurate media barrage of our age makes it essential that a transformative political leader appeal to a broad swath of otherwise-balkanized voters and interest groups. He or she must be the equivalent of a crossover pop artist -- one whose music can reach an audience spread across the full spectrum of music genres. Despite this, the Democratic Party has produced a series of charismatic and eloquent Presidents who have lashed their policies to the Center rather than attempt a bold injection of New Left ideas. No Democratic American President since Lyndon B. Johnson has voiced or pursued the ideas of the New Left with anything resembling the force with which Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush turned the rhetorical and policy steering wheel in America to the Right.

The Half-Written Anthem

The New Left has many ideas for improving liberal democracies that are pragmatic and hardly anti-market. It has plenty of lyrics. Unfortunately, its songwriters haven't had a hit in many years, its musicians are working two jobs just to make ends meet, its orchestrators are outmatched and it lacks a bold and effective front man or woman. What the New Left lacks is not ideas, but rather an integrating anthem, a more cohesive coalition, and a political system that enables it to compete with an inherently wealthier opposition. Above all, it needs a charismatic, full-throated political champion. Whether it can overcome the hurdle of hatching a leader who can simultaneously beat and reform a wealth-driven political system remains to be seen -- but if it fails, it will surely not be due to an absence of ideas. Tactical, process, and leadership failures, perhaps, but not an absence of vision.

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