The epilogue of a presidential election is strangely like the opening chapter. Before the primaries there are several candidates. First this one is in the lead, then that one, and finally the party settles on the nominee. After the general election, the party that lost has to make sense of what went wrong. For a while one explanation gains favor, then another, and finally the party settles on the lesson to draw from defeat.

It's been only two months since John Kerry gave his concession speech, but the process of explaining the loss has already had phases. In the first and angriest one, the Democrats blamed the voters. Within two days of the election, Jane Smiley, Maureen Dowd, and Garry Wills (among others) fingered the electorate's stupidity and bigotry as the decisive factor. Although a candid expression of what lots of Democrats really do think, vilifying the people creates problems for a party that might like to win an election at some point in the future.

If it won't do to blame the voters, maybe the thing to do is blame the candidate. A variety of criticisms have been put forward. But few Democrats can work up the anger against Kerry that they directed at Al Gore after the 2000 election or Michael Dukakis in 1988. It's not that Kerry engendered more affection than his predecessors, or that he ran a much better campaign. Instead, the Democrats realize that it's pointless to keep blaming the candidate for the party's defeats. 

Certainly, Kerry was not a perfect candidate. No one suitable for Mount Rushmore, however, was running in the Iowa caucuses. It's hard to see how any of the alternatives to Kerry—Howard Dean? Richard Gephardt? Wesley Clark?—would have done better in November. Political parties don't exist to nominate a new Pericles every four years. Their mission at the presidential level is to provide the institutional resources and political rationale that make it possible to win an election with a nominee who, inevitably, has flaws and makes mistakes. 

The Democrats certainly did not lose because they (and allied groups, like and America Coming Together) failed at the nuts-and-bolts level of finding their voters and getting them to polling places. John Kerry received 6 million more votes than Al Gore. The problem, as Matt Bai explained in the New York Times Magazine, is that Democrats have believed from the time of FDR right up to the 2000 election that a majority of Americans agreed with them, were with them—and thus they could not lose a high-turnout election. 

But in 2004 they registered and brought to the polls every prospective voter they might realistically hope to find—and still lost. It is clear, Bai wrote, that "turnout alone is no longer enough to win a national election for Democrats. The next Democrat who wins will be the one who changes enough minds."

Finding a Narrative

By the process of elimination, then, a clear front-runner has emerged in the race to explain the 2004 election: the Democrats lost because they couldn't change enough minds. But then, they can't change minds if they don't know their own. Even those who argue that the lack of a clear message was the Kerry campaign's chief problem go on to say that it reflected a larger confusion in the Democratic Party and, indeed, in American liberalism. 

According to Ryan Lizza in the New Republic, "the no-message critique is congealing into conventional wisdom." He argues that "the Kerry campaign had a laundry list of policy proposals, or, in the words of James Carville, a litany rather than a narrative." In his Washington Post column, Harold Meyerson wrote, "Cover the Democrats for any length of time and you become expert in campaigns that don't seem to be about anything. They have policies; Democrats are good at policies. But all too often the campaigns lack a message—a sense of what the candidate's about and what he aims to do." Ruy Teixeira, the co-author of 2002's The Emerging Democratic Majority, a title that sounds ever more forlorn, said in a post-election interview that, "Democrats have to have large and good ideas that people can recognize—ideas voters can sum up in a couple of sentences."

Many of the Democrats attracted to this explanation appear to have spent time in creative writing workshops. Everyone, suddenly, is talking about the crucial importance of the "narrative." "A narrative is the key to everything," according to Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. Even Senator Kerry's brother, Cam, said, "There is a very strong John Kerry narrative that is about leadership, character, and trust. But it was never made central to the campaign."

The narrative of Democrats trying to find a narrative might be more promising, or at least more interesting, if it were fresher. The problem is the Democrats have lost five of the last seven presidential elections, not to mention control of Congress in 1994, and have talked about the urgent need to redefine and re-explain themselves after every one of those defeats. It has been 24 years since that dim, unelectable extremist Ronald Reagan won a landslide against Jimmy Carter. A generation later, can there really be any promising ideas that haven't already been taken down from the shelf?

More Liberalism, or Less?

Here is what the Democrats have to show for two-and-a-half decades of introspection, besides a worsening win-loss record: After Walter Mondale lost 49 states in 1984, the Democratic Leadership Council was brought forth, conceived in panic and dedicated to the proposition that a politically viable party must become less liberal. In reaction, various groups and candidates have asserted that the prescription for Democratic victories is to become more liberal, to present the voters a choice, not an echo. It's hard to say who will win this tug-of-war, and twice as hard to see how either approach will reverse the Democrats' losing streak.

The only other nostrum has been that of the neo-liberals (once called "Atari Democrats"). To the extent their advice ever came into focus, it was that more liberalism or less liberalism, bigger or smaller government, was not the issue. Making government smarter—more effective, flexible, and responsive—was. Gary Hart nearly wrested the 1984 Democratic nomination from Walter Mondale by baiting him about being beholden to such interest groups as the AFL-CIO. The hot public affairs book after Bill Clinton's victory in 1992 was Reinventing Government, now available in a remainder bin near you. Vice President Gore went on the David Letterman show with a hammer, a glass ashtray, and safety goggles to demonstrate something-or-other about how the Clinton Administration was making big government safe for democracy.

Most of the footprints left by neo-liberalism have been washed away; the rest are fading. Bill Clinton, in seeking a Third Way, disparaged the false dichotomy between big and limited government. With the passage of time, Clinton's triangulation looks less and less like a political philosophy and more like a personality disorder, the type afflicting a man who thinks every dichotomy is false. (As Charles Kesler has pointed out, Clinton apparently believed that there was a Third Way between fidelity and adultery, and between telling the truth and lying.) Good government is, in any case, too small and banal an idea to settle the problem of the proper size and scope of the welfare state, and too slender a thread to tie together a majority coalition for the Democratic Party.

Architects, Not Housekeepers

If the Democrats' current attempt to figure out what they stand for is going to be more enlightening than their previous efforts, they will have to grapple with fundamental questions, not peripheral ones. The gravity of the situation calls for architects, not housekeepers. The 2004 campaign, after all, was a single episode in a much longer narrative, the story of American liberalism trying to define and advance itself. What's curious is that although intellectual clarity has never been liberalism's strength, for a very long time this confusion did not cause any political problems. Almost forty years ago, the political philosopher Joseph Cropsey observed that while its contradictions were "damaging to liberalism as a theory, [they have] not hindered liberalism as a political movement." "It is instructive," he commented, "to note how wide is the gap between theoretical sufficiency and political efficacy." 

The "no message" interpretation of the 2004 election claims that this gap has now closed, finally and completely: liberalism cannot become politically strong again until it stops being so theoretically weak. But Democrats need to recognize how far back, and how far down, liberalism's confusion goes. The notion that liberalism is fundamentally indecipherable was voiced frequently during the 1930s, when liberals absolutely dominated American politics. Raymond Moley, an erstwhile advisor to FDR, wrote of the New Deal in his memoirs, "To look upon these programs as the result of a unified plan, was to believe that the accumulation of stuffed snakes, baseball pictures, school flags, old tennis shoes, carpenter's tools, geometry books, and chemistry sets in a boy's bedroom could have been put there by an interior decorator." In 1940 another New Dealer, the economist Alvin Hansen, admitted, "I really do not know what the basic principle of the New Deal is. I know from my experience in the government that there are as many conflicting opinions among the people in Washington as we have in the country at large."

But the complaint that it's impossible to figure liberalism out has, until recently, typically been voiced by exasperated conservatives. For decades they have watched liberals rushing around with wheelbarrows and ladders, busy, busy, busy at building the welfare state. New programs are created, old ones expanded, urgent needs discovered and rediscovered. Conservatives marvel at this vast construction site and ask prosaic questions: What is this thing going to look like when it's done? How big is it going to be? How will we know when it's finished? And just in case there's any doubt that they areconservatives, how much is all this going to cost?

The replies have not been illuminating. Their major motif has been soaring humbug. In 1943 Archibald MacLeish expressed liberals' hopes about realizing the "America of the imagination": 

We have, and we know we have, the abundant means to bring our boldest dreams to pass—to create for ourselves whatever world we have the courage to desire. We have the metal and the men to take this country down, if we please to take it down, and to build it again as we please to build it. We have the tools and the skill and the intelligence to take our cities apart and put them together, to lead our roads and rivers where we please to lead them, to build our houses where we want our houses, to brighten the air, clean the wind, to live as men in this Republic, free men, should be living. We have the power and the courage and the resources of good-will and decency and common understanding…to create a nation such as men have never seen.

One could discount this as rhetoric, considering that MacLeish was a poet by trade. It is, however, language that working politicians relied on as well. President Lyndon Johnson's speech in 1964 calling for the creation of a Great Society "explained" it in these terms:

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But this is just the beginning. 

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

Is There a Master Plan?

Parsing such blather might seem as pointless as it is cruel. But MacLeish and Johnson do reveal, inadvertently, truths about liberalism's meaning and its problems. First, conservatives' questions about the welfare state's ultimate size and cost are turned aside by rhetoric that emphasizes the processes and attitudes that go into building it. What's important, liberals say, is that the creation of government programs to promote social welfare be pursued in a vigorous, confident, optimistic manner, suffused with concern for the vulnerable and respect for the common man, unconstrained by the stifling precepts of the past. (Looking forward to an activist Kennedy presidency after the somnolent Eisenhower Administration, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote, "The '60's will probably be spirited, articulate, inventive, incoherent, turbulent, with energy shooting off wildly in all directions. Above all, there will be a sense of motion, of leadership, of hope.") Conservatives wonder if all this lofty talk is a smoke screen—they wonder, that is, whether there really are blueprints in a safe back at the central office, detailing the vast, Swedish-style welfare state that is liberalism's ultimate goal for America.

The answer is, probably not. If that answer is correct, it then raises this question: Which would be more troubling—the existence or the absence of those blueprints? That is, should conservatives conclude that liberals pose a graver threat to self-government, freedom, and prosperity if they have an ambitious but hidden agenda, or if liberalism has no master plan at all because it is, ultimately and always, an adhocracy?

Liberals have a practical reason why they won't say what they ultimately want, and a theoretical reason why they can't say it. The practical reason is that any usably clear statement of what the welfare state should be would define not only a goal but a limit. Conceding that an outer limit exists, and stipulating a location for it, strengthens the hand of conservatives—with liberals having admitted, finally, that the welfare state can and should do only so much, the argument now, the conservatives will say, is over just how much that is.

Keeping open, permanently, the option for the growth of the welfare state reflects the belief that the roster of human needs and aspirations to which the government should minister is endless. Any attempt to curtail it would be arbitrary and wrong. (In his concession speech after losing to Ronald Reagan in 1984, Walter Mondale listed the groups he had devoted his political career to assisting: "the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the handicapped, the helpless, and the sad" [emphasis added].) 

This gets us to the theoretical reason why liberalism cannot incorporate a limiting principle or embrace an ultimate destination. Given humankind's long history of sorrows, most people would consider securing "abundance and liberty for all," ending poverty and achieving racial justice, a pretty good day's work. For LBJ it was, astoundingly, "just the beginning."

Liberal intellectuals who drew up the blueprint for the Great Society regarded peace, prosperity, and justice as achievements that were not merely modest but troubling. They lived with a strange dread—that if Americans' lives became too comfortable the people would decide that the country had been reformed enough, thank you, even though liberals knew there was still—always—work to be done. In 1943 the National Public Resources Board, which FDR hoped would chart the course for a renewed, enlarged post-war New Deal, advocated the recognition of various welfare rights, including the right to "rest, recreation and adventure." In a speech he gave to the Americans for Democratic Action in 1948, the group's first chairman, Wilson Wyatt, rejected "the view that government's only responsibility is to prevent people from starving or freezing to death. We believe it is the function of government to lift the level of human existence. It is the job of government to widen the chance for development of individual personalities."

How Shall We Live?

The fear that liberalism would be thanked for its service and given a gold watch became more acute as the American economy soared after World War II. In 1957, the year before John Kenneth Galbraith published The Affluent Society, Arthur Schlesinger tried to redefine liberalism's mission for such a society. He wrote that the New Deal's establishment of the welfare state and Keynesian management of the economy heralded the completion of the work of "quantitative liberalism." Its logical and necessary successor should be "qualitative liberalism," which would "oppose the drift into the homogenized society. It must fight spiritual unemployment as [quantitative liberalism] once fought economic unemployment. It must concern itself with the quality of popular culture and the character of lives to be lived in our abundant society."

To speak of lifting the level of human existence suggests that there are higher and lower levels of human existence. Such thoughts imply a certain congruence between modern liberalism and the worldview of classical philosophy and the great monotheistic religions. But, of course, the rejection of those traditions has been crucial to modern liberalism, and to modernism generally. Plato poses, as the central question of philosophy, how shall we live? The liberal response, expressed most directly by John Stuart Mill, is that the question is unanswerable, and the practical imperatives of politics cannot be put on hold forever while philosophers debate it. Therefore, the only realistic answer, one that reflects both the need to find a way to live together and the futility of ascertaining the meaning of the good life, is that we should all live however we want, constrained only by the need to choose a "lifestyle" that does not interfere with anyone else's living the way hewants to live. 

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argued that "democracy in judging each other's aims is the foundation of self-respect in a well-ordered society." Rawls goes on to say that the person whose aims consist of counting blades of grass should not be denigrated but supported—that is, both praised and publicly subsidized. "Different strokes for different folks" is a meager philosophy, but also a coherent one. If liberals were content to leave it at that, they would at least have one large idea voters could sum up in a couple of sentences.

But they have never been content to leave it at that. Liberalism has never found a way to regard the "character of lives to be lived in our abundant society" with indifference, in the good sense of being tolerant, for fear of also being indifferent in the bad sense of being callous. The social critic inside every liberal cannot resist berating other people's unsatisfactory lifestyles—some are merely inane, others are actually menacing. Fifty years ago this scorn was directed at suburban split-levels. Today the target is evangelical churches. Meanwhile, the social worker inside every liberal cannot resist treating these unfortunate lifestyle choices as problems to be solved. 

Meaningless Growth

How does liberalism square this circle, embracing relativism while declaring that millions of non-liberals are "spiritually unemployed?" (It's hard to imagine anyone being more spiritually unemployed than Rawls's grass-counter.) The moral standpoint from which liberalism passes judgment is one it derives from John Dewey, for whom the highest imperative was "growth." According to political scientist Robert Horwitz, Dewey looked to "the bright promise of an evolutionary understanding of human potentialities, a view which presents boundless possibilities for development." The point of growth is more growth; the only standard by which we judge the direction of past growth is whether it facilitates or stymies future growth. It is in this vein that Johnson spoke of a Great Society where the government will enrich minds, enlarge talents, and concern itself with monitoring our leisure hours to make sure we are constructive and reflective, not bored and restless. It is an agenda for which prosperity, liberty, and justice are "just the beginning," and one which, constantly advancing the constantly evolving goal of personal growth, can have no end.

Bill Clinton was fond of saying that character is "a journey, not a destination." But to leave home without a destination, convinced that the very idea of a destination is arbitrary and false, is to embark on a "journey" that will be no different from just wandering around. How, then, shall we live? The entirety of liberalism's answer is, according to Rawls, that it is better to play chess than checkers: "human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized or the greater its complexity." Humans can rescue their lives from meaninglessness by striving, however they pass their days, to employ more rather than fewer of their talents, finding new ones and expanding known ones, to the sole purpose of being able to enlarge them still further, endlessly. We have seen the future, and it's an adult education seminar, where ever-greater latitude is afforded to ever-smaller souls, and where freedom means nothing higher than the care and feeding of personal idiosyncrasies.

As an ethical precept this position is risible. As the basis for social criticism, it is infuriating. This is the standard by which liberals judge us to be spiritually unemployed, the basis on which they are going to lift the level of our existence? Many Democrats lament that Republicans have been successful in getting working-class Americans to vote "against their own interests," by stressing social issues like abortion and gay marriage. Thomas Frank wrapped an entire bestseller, What's the Matter with Kansas?, around this idea. It's a "false consciousness" diagnosis that betrays rather than describes the Democrats' problem: the smug assumption that we know, far better than they do themselves, the "real interests" of people who live in dorky places and went to schools no one has heard of.

What Are Democrats Against?

As a political philosophy, the belief that "it is the job of government to widen the chance for development of individual personalities" is not merely lame and insulting, but dangerous. The endless widening and development of our personalities will require and legitimize the endless widening and development of our government. The threat goes beyond taxes, spending, borrowing, and regulating that increase without limit. It culminates in a therapeutic nanny state that corrupts both its wardens and its wards. Convinced that they are intervening, constantly and pervasively, to assist the growth of people who would otherwise stagnate, the enlighteners don't need coercion to enfold the people in a soft totalitarianism. The objects of this therapy, meanwhile, may grow accustomed to it, and ultimately prefer being cared for to being free; or conclude that being free has no value apart from being cared for.

Lyndon Johnson gave one other memorable speech in 1964. At a campaign rally in Providence he climbed onto his car, grabbed a bullhorn, and summed up his political philosophy: "I just want to tell you this—we're in favor of a lot of things and we're against mighty few." The Democrats' problem is not that they, like Seinfeld, are a show about nothing. It's that they are a show about everything, or anything. (At one point, the Kerry-for-President website referred to 79 separate federal programs he wanted to create or expand.) 

Ruy Teixeira says that after 2004, "The bigger question is: What do the Democrats stand for?" Here's a better and bigger question still: What do the Democrats stand against? Tell us, if indeed it's true, that Democrats don't want to do for America what social democrats have done for France or Sweden. Tell us that the stacking of one government program on top of the other is going to stop, if indeed it will, well short of a public sector that absorbs half the nation's income and extensively regulates what we do with the other half. Explain how the spirit of live-and-let-live applies, if indeed it does, to everyone equally—to people who take family, piety, and patriotism seriously, not merely to people whose lives and outlooks are predicated on regarding them ironically. 

Until those questions are answered, until Americans have confidence about the limits liberalism will establish and observe, it's hard to see when the Democratic narrative will again have a happy ending.