They're harder for journalists to cover than personality conflicts or material interests, but ideas matter enormously for politics and public policy. They're the oxygen that's necessary for the fire to burn, they shape the landscape in which cynics and operators play their games, and they motivate the grassroots whose words and deeds can drive success or failure on the stage.
So here's a look at nine ideas that shaped 2014 — not necessarily ideas that were brand new this year, and certainly not ideas that triumphed this year, but ideas that commanded attention, shaped debates, cast the world in a new light, and continue to be relevant today.
1) Secular stagnation
Over the course of 2014, there was more and more discussion of Larry Summers' revival of Alvin Hansen's old idea that the economy lacks sufficient self-correcting forces to restore itself to full employment. With US economic growth seemingly accelerating in the back half of the year, expect to hear less about it on this side of the Atlantic in 2015, but it may prove more influential than ever over in Europe.
2) Global wealth tax
Most of the people who bought Thomas Piketty's book haven't read it, but that doesn't mean they haven't formed a strong opinion about his idea that we should curb economic inequality through a globally coordinated tax on wealth. Of course, no such thing is likely to happen in the near future. But both the US and EU have become increasingly aggressive at cracking down on tax havens, a sort of proto-step toward Piketty's somewhat utopian idea.
3) Basic income
The idea of having the government just give everyone enough cash to live on every year, no strings attached, isn't exactly new, but it had a moment in 2014. A Swiss referendum on the idea — set to take place in 2015 or 2016 — prompted considerable interest globally, and the prospect of widespread technological unemployment has analysts like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich calling a basic income "almost inevitable." Critics argue that unconditional payouts would destroy work effort, and though the evidence there is murky, the fact that the idea is now mainstream enough to prompt widespread critique is striking.
4) Body cameras
A few police departments had experimented with requiring officers to wear cameras to record their interactions with civilians before 2014, but the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson spurred policymakers at every level to give the idea another look. The Obama administration wants funding to provide body cams to 50,000 more cops nationwide, and the LAPD is planning on providing all of their officers with cameras. When Rialto, CA mandated body cams, use of force by police has fallen dramatically, but the topic remains understudied, and the grand jury's decision to not indict in the case of Eric Garner — whose death at the hands of the NYPD was captured on video — emphasized that it'll take more than cameras to end police brutality.
5) Family tax reform
Senator Mike Lee of Utah has joined with a small band of conservative intellectuals to push to turn GOP tax priorities upside down. Tax policy details are complicated, but the basic idea is simple. Rather than cut taxes on the rich, cut taxes on middle class parents.
6) The Caliphate
This one doesn't have a lot of adherents in the United States, but the Caliphate revival movement has certainly been influential in Iraq and Syria in a way that we haven't seen in quite a while.
7) Alt unionism
A higher minimum wage — even one as high as $15 an hour — isn't a particularly novel idea, but the way that the Fight for $15 movement has been pursuing that goal is intriguing. Participants have conducted frequent protests against fast food outlets and other low-wage employers, including a number of one-day wildcat strikes by workers, in over 150 cities. Simultaneous walkouts are common, including one in May that involved 230 protests in 33 countries, according to protesters. Unions, notably Service Employees International Union (SEIU), have bankrolled the movement, but it represents a very different model of unionism than the traditional organizing approach.
8) Affirmative consent
California's decision to require all public universities to adopt an "affirmative consent" standard for sexual assault — that is, one in which all participants must actively signal their eagerness to participate — wasn't the only reason that sexual assault began to be reported on and discussed in 2014 more frequently and seriously than it has been in years. But it was a major factor, and prompted a serious debate on campus safety and the rights of the accused that will continue into 2015 and beyond.
9) Drill, baby, drill
Relentless exploitation of America's fossil fuel resources may prove to be catastrophic environmental policy, but it really has turned out to be a bit of a game-changer in economic terms. Cheap oil is boosting growth in the vast majority of American states, and though the US shale boom isn't the only factor driving the price down it is a huge part of the story.