I came of political age during the debate over the Iraq War. The soundtrack to my sophomore year of high school was Nelly and incessant chatter about weapons of mass destruction. The fate of countries and reputations hung on facts — or the administration’s reasonable facsimiles of them, anyhow — and what counted as proof (like, for instance, whether those little ole WMDs existed). By the time I headed to college, the countries and reputations were well on their way to being destroyed. Bad policy and poor reasoning were slowly killing a presidency, so I watched as the self-serious young men of politics’ next generation tried to correct for those mistakes. They read The New Republic and joined the campus Federalist Society, where they debated abstract topics and drank whiskey out of cut-glass tumblers their mothers bought them at Bed Bath & Beyond. Bush’s failures suggested that you had to have a detailed game plan for the country if you ran for office. The triumph of Barack Obama, meticulous professor, seemed to prove this.
At least until the 2016 primaries. On the Republican side, Donald Trump’s grasp of policy details seemed limited, yet he blew his competition out of the water. His big ideas about changing trade dynamics, banning Muslims and building a wall — and the bombastic, broad-strokes style in which he delivered them — swayed Republican voters primed for action after eight years of Obama. The Democratic contest was more policy-conscious, but Bernie Sanders caught flak from Hillary Clinton and her supporters for plans they thought were implausible, like free college and single-payer healthcare.
Thus far, the politics of the 2018 midterms and the looming 2020 presidential primary are filled with some of the same big ideas. The hang-up that many Democrats had about a lack of detail — “Anytime someone tells you it’s free, read the fine print,” Clinton said of Sanders’s free college plan in 2016 — has fallen somewhat by the wayside. Sanders introduced a free college bill last year that was supported by Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, two likely 2020 presidential contenders, while a federal jobs guarantee has now been embraced by Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, other likely 2020 candidates.
The universe of the politically possible seems to be expanding. The shift is happening on the right and the left, each end of the spectrum opening their windows wider, though on opposite ends of the house. Some people are waiting for a cross breeze that might never come, but there’s an unmistakable joy just to have the house aired out.
Voters’ increasing tribalism might be fueling this era of big ideas. According to Pew data from March, Americans increasingly prefer politicians who won’t compromise on their positions. In 2018, 53 percent preferred politicians who stuck to their guns, a radical change from 2017, when only 39 percent said they felt the same. Republican respondents to the Pew survey have long displayed this aversion to compromise, but 2018 seemed to mark a transition point for Democrats: In July 2017, 69 percent said they liked politicians who compromised, but in 2018, only 46 percent said the same. That data might indicate that politicians need to worry more about upholding ideological purity — promoting those big ideas — than they have in the past. That may mean that the accountability pressure has changed from the practical to the ideological, though it’s not clear how voters will feel if a lack of compromise also leads to a lack of, well, actually getting things done.
Most of the Republican Party’s shift appears to be related to what’s seen as acceptable in public life and leadership. A recent Pew survey showed that most of the president’s supporters prefer his approach to the job of the presidency over his actual policies.
Democratic voters have become a disillusioned bunch; 68 percent say that significant changes are needed to the design and structure of government itself. The party, meanwhile, has struggled to solidify its fundamental identity in the post-2016 universe. In this uncertain climate, rising Democratic stars have trafficked in the new currency of institution-shifting proposals.
First there was the Sanders single-payer health care bill of 2017, which most of the probable 2020 presidential primary contenders signed onto. It promises more generous coverage than nearly any other country with a single-payer system — Canada and the Netherlands included — but health care policy expert Sarah Kliff at left-leaning site Vox wrote that the Sanders bill “provides no information on how it would finance such a generous health care system. … This is a crucial part of any health care plan, and in the Sanders proposal, it is notably absent.” (A recent study found that the plan would cost the government $33 trillion, though Sanders said the same study showed that his proposal would actually save $2 trillion in overall health care spending.) The cost details here could be crucial to winning over Americans who are not a part of the Democratic base, but for now the push is to show a glimpse of a possible future to those already ideologically inclined to seek a change.
Perhaps the most galvanizing issue of the last few months for Democrats has been the movement to eliminate the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a reaction in large part to the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the underdog winner of a Democratic congressional primary, picked up the “abolish ICE” mantle as she rocketed to political stardom. Just days after Ocasio-Cortez’s win, Gillibrand said that she too would get rid of ICE, and Warren soon hopped on the bandwagon. Harris stopped short of calling for the agency’s demise, but said, “We need to probably think about starting from scratch.”
The calls to get rid of the agency have proved compelling to many Americans horrified by the administration’s brutal approach to asylum-seekers, but the root causes of the deportations have been little addressed. Immigrants continue to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law under an executive order issued by Trump, and if the agency were dismantled, it’s unclear what would replace it, if anything, or whether redistributing its duties would result in any change in policy. Democrats like Cecilia Muñoz, who was the head of Obama’s White House Domestic Policy council, are concerned by the lack of nuance in these calls. She told Slate, “I think we need to be willing to address how do we think immigration enforcement should be conducted, what’s a way to do that, that actually values people’s lives and their civil rights. The abolish ICE argument doesn’t touch those questions, and I think that’s a mistake.”
Muñoz’s warning echoes Clinton in her post-campaign memoir, “What Happened.” “I’ve always believed that it’s dangerous to make big promises if you have no idea how you’re going to keep them. When you don’t deliver, it will make people even more cynical about government,” she wrote. Clinton was unsparing in her critique of Sanders’s primary platform — he “didn’t seem to mind if his math didn’t add up or if his plans had no prayer of passing Congress and becoming law” — and yet she seemed a little wistful that she didn’t go further in deviating from the slate of policies she thought were possible. “I have a new appreciation for the galvanizing power of big, simple ideas. I still think my health care and college plans were more achievable than Bernie’s and that his were fraught with problems, but they were easier to explain and understand, and that counts for a lot.” (When Sanders dropped out, Clinton adopted a version of a free college plan that the head of education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank, said would be “a financial disaster.”)
Details, it turns out, are tiresome — they slow things down and draw you into the weeds, in part to discover how things might work in the realm of the actual, not the theoretical. And it’s hard to say whether the big ideas of today will eventually win over much of the country or drive a wedge deeper into it. It’s a thrilling gamble that the Democrats in particular are taking, one that has the potential to pay huge political dividends.
It’s also a rare moment in American history we’re living through. “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835. Perhaps that sentiment is dated, but it’s also true that we don’t have a reputation for being particularly contemplative. The historical success of the American experiment has made us ideologically complacent at times. Perhaps justifiably so, perhaps not.
But as the nation grasps onto audacious new ideas that say something is radically wrong with our present system, it makes a person wonder what the next political moment will be like, 10 or 15 years down the road. We might be hurtling towards a comedown, a wise-up or an actual paradigm shift, one that Baby Boomers, clutching at their Woodstock photos, will turn green with envy over. In the end, today’s policy details might be inconsequential compared to the real project of democratizing ideas in America. Perhaps what’s happening now proves that the direction of the country isn’t just in the hands of the boys of the Federalist Society and The New Republic. Its course might be more broadly determined.
Or we might learn that not very much has changed at all.
CORRECTION (Sept. 11, 2018, 12:25 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Alexis de Tocqueville. His first name was not Alexander.