Lines on a Napkin

Author: Gary Hart

In the mid-1970s, Dr. Arthur Laffer became famous for drawing a curve on a napkin.  It represented his theory that tax cuts would more than pay for themselves in new revenue returned by economic growth stimulated by the tax cuts.  In short order the Laffer curve became Republican dogma, principally because it gave tax cuts, a standard conservative hallmark, economic dignity by promising growth with balanced budgets.  It is a beautiful theory murdered by one ugly fact: it has never worked.

About the same time, I began to use restaurant napkins to draw a different picture.

As long as anyone can remember, political journalists have seen the world on a one-dimensional, horizontal line with liberals on the left and conservatives on the right.  Then came Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, as Republicans dispelled their moderate members and began their steady march to the right (ending up in the mess they are in today), and those same journalists had to place the Clintons in a non-ideological center characterized by “triangulation” and murky policy.

Now political journalists instinctively put Senator Sanders on the left end of the spectrum and virtually all the Republican Party on the right end.  So far as I can tell, Mr. Trump’s greatest achievement is to confuse this worn out dichotomy.

My napkin chart drew a vertical line through the middle of the old ideological left-right line with the top of the vertical line labeled the future and the bottom of the line labeled the past.  The horizontal line is static.  The vertical line is dynamic.  It is based on the most elemental of human truths: things change.  Political systems that adapt to inevitable change move most effectively into the future.  Those that refuse to adapt to change slip farther back into the past.

Since the age of Franklin Roosevelt the Democratic Party has been the party most able to adapt to change.  That is because it is also the Party of innovation.  Roosevelt’s mantra was: try something and if it works, keep it; if it doesn’t work, throw it away.  Because the bedrock of conservatism is preservation of traditional institutions, and the policies that established them, conservatives instinctively resist change and dread experimentation.

Emerson wrote of “gravity, custom, and fear” and Arthur Schlesinger said of their power and “given the dead weight of inertia, of orthodoxy, and of complacency, the tasks of persuading majorities to accept innovation remain forever formidable.”  Machiavelli observed “the incredulity of mankind who do not believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”  And Emerson wrote further of a party of memory and a party of hope: “Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has not invention…It is all memory.”

One of the great ironies of ideological politics is that to preserve the best of our past we must often change, especially when there is rapid change around us.  I used my two dimensional chart to urge my Party and its leaders to see the tidal waves of change coming and prepare for them in creative, not defensive, ways.  Globalization and the information revolution beginning in the 1970s.  The winding down of the Cold War under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.  The rise of religious fundamentalism, tribalism, and ethnic nationalism in the late 1990s leading to terrorism, including against the U.S.  And much else.

Revolutions continue.  Climate change.  The threat of viral pandemics.  Rising threats to personal privacy.  Growing income disparities.  Mass migrations.  The rise of authoritarianism.  And much else.

So, while confused political journalists search for a traditional ideological box in which to place Mr. Trump, the rest of us ought to be scanning the horizon for leaders on the vertical line of the spectrum who can see farthest ahead and issue not only warnings but, much more importantly, also ideas based upon our founding principles that prepare us to adapt to the changes ahead in positive and constructive ways.

If America gives way to fear and loses its optimism for the future, we will no longer be America.

4 Responses to “Lines on a Napkin”

  1. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    The whole world is looking for a way forward. Our adversaries/partners are wanting to relieve the myriad of pressures on their own populations. Most people want to be able to greet their neighbor and feel genuinely glad to see them. I believe there is an unconscious yearning in most people to be free to be just human without all the Accessories. I also believe there is a common desire to be free from the oppression that results from mistaken notions about what is actually good for flesh and blood Human Beings.

    America has a gift for rapid transformation and when we put our heart and soul to the job, things happen. Our young people have energy and ideas, lets not cage them in. Their potential is staggering. Let’s not give them reasons to want to waste that potential in a drug or alcohol induced existence. Let’s not force them in this or that direction. Allow their Conscience to be their guide. They are our children after all. They might actually want to please us sometimes. As for us, we need to do our best to provide the foundation that will empower our children to accomplish things that make us Proud. Let’s not let vested interests, that in my view may not even be human, suck the Joy from our lives.

    Let’s create an America that is full of Life and Joy for everyone. Let’s create an America that is Powerful, not in the sense of ability to coerce, but rather in the sense of ability to provide for everyone and protect everyone’s right to be free. America is about People not machines, banks or even government. These things are our tools to use to realize our dreams and ensure our Freedom. As I see it we have allowed these and other things to make us into their tools.

    We might even become the envy of the planet instead of being viewed as the proverbial “bull in the china shop”. Enough said.

  2. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Trump is most decidedly down-wing. That is to say he is at the far south end of your excellent future-past axis.

  3. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    There are a few up-wing political leaders out there and we certainly need to focus more attention on them, celebrate their visionary leadership, and encourage more of the same.

    Up-wing is a term used by a favourite political analyst, William Bradley, and was derived from an idea that Senator Hart showed him to characterize political figures using a past-future spectrum instead of the usual right-wing/left-wing classification.

    To paraphrase Bradley, this past-future spectrum naturally runs from the up end to the down end of the spectrum, with the futurist end characterized by new technology, creative utilizations of existing technology, and new structural forms to pursue enduring values and new visions. The up-wing leader places a special emphasis on big think/think big future-oriented and enlightened policies in an effort to position a society on the global cutting edge, even in the midst of great challenges and crises that would paralyze a more down-wing political leader … like, for example, Trump.

    Additionally, to quote Bradley, “Big thinking, big ideas need not be about big items per se. In fact, some of the biggest thinking is about small things, or more accurately, how to bring smaller things into play to solve problems that big things might make worse.”

    This is a far superior method of characterizing presidential candidates than the outdated and tired left-wing/right wing labels because it identifies the candidate most capable of outlining a coherent vision for the future and of possessing the courage to carry it out.

    I would really like to see this sort of language being used over the next several months leading up to the November election. In fact, somebody needs to talk to Hillary about this!

  4. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    A thought that reflects my experience too:

    Fail to honor people,they fail to honor you; but of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’

    Lao Tzu

Leave a Reply

All comments are reviewed by a moderator prior to approval and are subject to the UCD blog use policy.