[Isaiah] Berlin liked to remind people that when they most believed they know where they are going, that is when they are likeliest to be wrong.
Dear Friends, In case you missed it, or your invitation got lost in the mail, last week featured the official launch of another “big idea” journal in a city crowded with them. Democracy: A Journal of Ideas self-describes as being on the progressive side of the equation, and in search of new ideas from an array of new minds. Its mission: “to build a vibrant and vital progressivism for the twenty-first century that builds on the movement's proud history, is true to its central values, and is relevant to present times.” And its editorial goal: “breakthrough thinking on the concepts and approaches that respond to the central transformations of our time.” As the song says, “Nice work if you can get it.” So, ironically, the evening featured a couple of slightly aging, not-exactly-progressive, and certainly not new ideevolk-- with one notable exception -- who were asked to wrestle with a question for the ages: Do ideas still matter in American politics? [It was a question I would have killed for on a Poli. Sci. 101 final instead of “Compare and contrast the 'state of nature' and 'social contract' theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau and demonstrate how Aristotelian metaphysics influenced their disquisitions ”] In any event, there was something about that gathering of very smart, determined, and rich people who have dedicated themselves to publishing and purveying progressive ideas in American politics that recalled Isaiah Berlin's rumination from a few decades ago -- that when they most believed they know where they are going, that is when they are likeliest to be wrong. It just so happens that Berlin, one of the 20th century's foremost political philosophers and historian of ideas, is also the author of an important bit of relevant thinking entitled: The Fox and The Hedgehog -- an essay based on an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” So, while attempting to hold these competing thoughts in my mind, I was interrupted by a flashback to a book published several years ago entitled Consilience, by the distinguished scientist, Edward. O. Wilson. Here's what the book's jacket had to say about it: “An enormous intellectual adventure. In this groundbreaking new book, the American biologist Edward O. Wilson, considered to be one of the world's greatest living scientists, argues for the fundamental unity of all knowledge and the need to search for consilience -- the proof that everything in our world is organized in terms of a small number of fundamental natural laws that comprise the principles underlying every brand of learning.” Whew. This “enormous intellectual adventure” suffered the fate of most great intellectual leaps in search of transcendent ideas -- too much, too soon, too dense, too inaccessible, too obscure and of value to too few readers. And all of this led me to think a bit about what can happen -- in politics, science, or elsewhere -- when people go out in search of “organizing ideas” -- the 'one big thing' that explains it all. And so, I asked myself: What's driving the push to find these big, new ideas? Is this a conspiracy or confederacy of 'foxes' and 'hedgehogs'? And is this what American politics needs now? Or, said another way, are we just looking to trade in our team of neocons for a collection of notneocons and a fresh crew of neo-something-or-others? If so, that's just an exchange of tyrannies for the body politic. For those who live outside the reallybigideasphere -- the route that runs between Penn Station and Union Station and encompasses the land that stretches from the East River to the Potomac -- it may come as a surprise to learn that there is considerable heat and some light being generated in these parts by individuals and institutions in search of la grand idée or the 'one big thing.' It's a phenomenon generated by the coming together of several factors: o the sense of a wide-open race in 2008, the first presidential contest since 1952 in which no incumbent will be a candidate o the impact of nearly six years of big ideas, brash talk, and woeful execution from the Bush Administration: ironically, this President's legacy may have been best articulated this past weekend in the remark of a senior FBI official who described the status of a recently captured Miami terrorist cell as “more aspirational than operational.” o the withering away of the deliberative role of Congress on matters of national import, unless Constitutional amendments on flag-burning and gay marriage, keeping Terri Schiavo on life support, feigning reform in response to the Jack Abramoff affair(s), pay raises and pork barrel allocations strike you as serious public business o the internecine warfare in the Democratic party about which election strategy - all 50 states or blue states only -- is most likely to deliver control of the legislative branch in '06 and '08, and the White House by '08 o splintering in the Republican base, and some diminishment in Karl Rove's hold on the Republican party's strategy development reins o a backlog of churning and yearning Democrats-in-waiting, people who had hoped to be part of a Kerry-Edwards administration today, and who aren't getting any younger o the growing sense that conservatism, in its many forms, may be waning while some new configuration of progressivism or liberalism may be waxing o the absence of a bipartisan, comprehensive foreign policy and national security framework to confront and confound fundamentalist Islamic fascism o Iraq fatigue, Guantanmo fatigue, Rumsfeld-and-Cheney fatigue, secrecy fatigue, negative poll fatigue, Abramoff fatigue, Bill Frist fatigue, Harry Reid fatigue, Nancy Pelosi fatigue, and fatigue fatigue. Let's be clear: the search for new ideas is always a good thing; the search for “the big new idea” is often not: the last thing the country needs is to free itself from one intellectual straitjacket in order to simply don another. The biggest mistakes of the current Administration stem from a slavish adherence to a few grandes idees: neoconservatism on foreign policy and national security; tax-cutology as economic policy; Commander-in-Chiefism, the conviction that powers assigned to the legislative branch in Article I and to the people in the Bill of Rights can be trumped by the senior authority of the occupant of the Oval Office; moral certainty coupled with an incapacity to distinguish between a personal belief in the Almighty and a determination that the Almighty should have a hand in governing decisions. As a result, the state of the union, circa 2006, leads to some sobering conclusions - about the impact of fiscal profligacy; the hyperextension of the “big stick” and the misuse of “the bully pulpit;” the leaching of trust in the domestic body politic; the freefall from grace in the international community despite many acts of kindness and incalculable support during humanitarian crises; growing economic disparity that threatens to leave America without its essential middle -- economically, socially, and politically -- and which intensifies racial, ethnic, and class divisiveness. So, is what the country needs most now “breakthrough thinking on the concepts and approaches that respond to the central transformations of our time”? Or is it several years of political leadership that can focus on fixing what's broken -- economically, ethically, fiscally, politically and socially? Despite the admitted allure of searching for new, big, organizing ideas, a mountain of evidence suggests that it is time for America to engage in a sustained nose-to-the-grindstone nation-building effort that can measure its progress on a few metrics: deficit reduction; substantial and substantive job creation; greenhouse gas reduction; energy conservation; shoring up Medicare and Social Security; narrowing the economic, racial, and social divides; and crafting a foreign policy and national security strategy that balances America's resources with its resolve and unites its national interests with a commitment to global interdependence. And that will take a strong confederacy of foxes, hedgehogs, workhorses, and a wise owl or two at the very top of the pyramid. But in this next chapter of American history, let's go it without the ideologues and the next really big transformative overarching organizing idea. Who knows? We might just get it right.