The Argument is not really about an argument at all. In fact, it's more about the lack of an argument. It's about the angst and dejection of Democratic politicians and activists who woke up after the 2004 election and discovered that their party still didn't have what it needed to win elections. At various times Bai calls this lack a "philosophical framework," a "compelling case," or a "new paradigm," but basically it all boils down to one thing: a big new idea. Something that will define the Democratic Party in the information age and earn the loyalty and votes of a new generation of voters who take the past triumphs of the party for granted.Bottom line: I thought The Argument was a terrific ad colorful piece of descriptive reporting about Howard Dean, the Democracy Alliance, MoveOn, and the blogosphere, and I highly recommend it though Bai describes his subjects warts and all, so you probably won't like it much if you prefer your descriptions of the netroots to be straight-up hagiographies. That said, however, the theme that motivates the book is Bai's belief that the Democratic Party needs a big, new, paradigm-busting makeover right now. I think this is fundamentally misguided, but I also don't think it spoils the descriptive power of the book, which is considerable. Thus my description yesterday.
....Movement conservatism, despite its frequent and tiresome pretensions, has never really produced any big ideas. What it's produced is an intellectual superstructure designed to provide fresh justification for all its old ideas. Supply side economics was a new excuse for cutting taxes. Constitutional originalism was an excuse for cutting down the regulatory state. Neoconservatism was an excuse for old fashioned hawkery. Evangelical Christians provided ammunition for cultural traditionalism. These were all dusty ideas, but the think tanks and interest groups made them look shiny and new.
....In the end, Bai fails in his search for the holy grail. He never finds his big new idea. Bai contends that this betrays a hollowness at the core of modern liberalism, but as entertaining as The Argument is and it's very entertaining that may be a flaw in the book more than a flaw in the Democratic Party. As bloggers will endlessly (and correctly) tell you, liberals have loads of good ideas certainly far more than the tired carcass of conservatism bequeathed to the country by George Bush and if none of them truly qualifies as a New Deal-esque paradigm shift, that may be because there just isn't one to be had right now.
It's easy maybe too easy to toss around glib references to the "information age" and the "postindustrial state," but the fact that people put these phrases into book titles doesn't automatically make politics-as-we-know-it obsolete. Sometimes, after all, you live in an era that demands progress but not a root-and-branch transformation, and that may just be the era we live in. Bai quotes an awful lot of smart politicians and liberal thinkers repeating the mantra that Democrats need a big new idea, but it's telling that not a single one of these smart people ever actually suggests one that's compelling. Maybe that should tell us something.
THE ARGUMENT....REVISITED....Yesterday I wrote a short post about Matt Bai's new book, The Argument, that was probably a little more enigmatic than it should have been. Then, today, I read a couple of posts criticizing Bai's notion that the Democratic Party needs "new ideas," and figured that I ought to post a couple of excerpts from my upcoming review of the book. I basically agree with the criticisms, but I don't think it's quite right to say merely that Bai thinks the party needs "new ideas" in a policy sense. He's really after bigger game: