WASHINGTON — Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair came to prominence in the 1990s as an expert in political renovation, transforming the Labour Party from a creaky, socialist relic to a modern, center-left, governing institution. Before Blair, Labour had not won back-to-back victories in a hundred years. Blair secured three.
In his recent Philip Gould Lecture, Blair described the substance of that overhaul: the need, driven by globalization, to decentralize economic decision-making; to recognize the essential social roles of business and the voluntary sector; and “to be iconoclastic in reshaping public services.” “No political philosophy today,” he argued, “will achieve support unless it focuses on individual empowerment, not collective control.”
But Blair ultimately credits the emergence of New Labour, not to “a cast of policy, but a cast of mind.” He describes this as “an analysis of the world shaped by reality not ideology, not by delusionary thoughts based on how we want the world to be, but by hard-headed examination of the world as it actually is.” This way of thinking, he continued, sometimes requires defying party pressure groups, and even (in his case) “a certain convergence of thinking with the center right.”
“Relax,” Blair urged his progressive audience. “It happens the world over and where it doesn’t — see the polarization of American politics today — a country is poorer for it.”
It is unpleasant, but not unexpected, for “American politics” to be the international shorthand for dysfunction. But it is worth asking: What “cast of mind” characterizes our political parties today?
For Democrats, governing has become a topic best avoided. The world descends into leaderless chaos. Trust in government scrapes along near historic lows. But many Democrats, including President Obama, evince an eerie calm. They appear confident that a rising coalition of minorities, millennials and college-educated elites can be motivated by cultural wedge issues (immigration, contraception, abortion, gay rights). “Amid public unease over Obama’s economic and foreign policy record,” observes Ron Brownstein in National Journal, “cultural affinity has become the Democrats’ most powerful electoral weapon.”
Democratic governing failure, therefore, produces no internal pressure for policy innovation or outreach. While riding a cultural and demographic wave, only patience and relentless polarization are required.
What could go wrong on the right side of history? As conservatives found when social issues seemed to favor them, there are dangers in being seen as the cultural aggressor. Depicting anyone to the right of Wendy Davis on infanticide as part of a war on women, or anyone concerned about institutional religious liberty as a bigot, may even spook the sympathetic. America is not yet a continental college town. Add to this that the most energetic portions of the Democratic Party are well to the left of the public on economic issues, and the claim of political inevitability weakens.
What of the “cast of mind” of Republicans? A year or two ago, “delusionary thoughts based on how we want the world to be” might have been a comprehensive summary. No longer. A series of welfare, education and criminal justice reform proposals from Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin represent serious, conservative reflection on the task of governing.
Both Rubio’s “flex fund” and Ryan’s (more limited and realistic) “opportunity grant” would have the federal government do what it is best at: set broad goals and send money. States and civil society, in turn, would be enabled to do what they are better at: meet human needs one to one. Both proposals would extend the earned income tax credit to childless workers.
These ideas are potentially bipartisan, and thus offensive to some GOP pressure groups. The policy goal is not to reduce social spending but to improve the functioning of social programs. Reform conservative proposals actively press on federal levers to reward work and provide additional benefits to families.
There are, admittedly, no Republican rallies insisting on additional wage subsidies; no talk radio demands for improved welfare casework. But reform conservative ideas have the advantage of filling a predictable vacuum. Any serious Republican presidential candidate in 2016 is likely to adopt them in some form. When the call comes for policies that appeal to working- and middle-class voters, there will be no serious alternatives from the further reaches of the right.
The Democratic cast of mind — in the midst of multiple failures — manages to be complacent, culturally polarizing and bereft of policy innovation. For all its disadvantages, the GOP is suddenly the party of reform — and our politics are richer for it.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.