Should the Left Fear (Or Hate) Its Wonks?
If I am notorious for anything in the blogosphere—other than being that guy who won that thing at the Washington Post that one time—it’s probably my persistent (if gentle) criticism of “The Wonky Left.”
So when Bhaskar Sunkara writes that wonky bloggers like Ezra Klein, Matthew Yglesias, and Dylan Matthews are obsessed with technical policy design over persuasive politics, my head starts involuntarily nodding. As I’ve written before (many, many, many times), the institutional left is unduly obsessed with policy wonkery—to its political detriment.
Sunkara’s argument is pretty similar, but with one important difference: he concludes by blaming the technocrats themselves. I’ve always tried to blame the left-at-large (its think tanks, its philanthropic backers, etc) for overvaluing technocratic experts instead of recognizing their appropriate purpose. See, wonks aren’t inherently bad or implicitly anti-democracy or anti-liberal or anti-progressive or even anti-politics, etc. They’re just incomplete.
Sunkara argues that the new technocrats mistake their obsession with facts for a knowledge of value judgments. By mistaking policy for politics, they set themselves (and their fellow liberals/progressives/et al) up for political defeats.
Yes. A million times yes.
Ask your average Beltway lefty elite what we should do about climate change. Nine times out of ten they’ll rattle off some nifty policy ideas for carefully adjusting political and economic incentives to subtly encourage greener behavior. They rarely have much to say about how the left might go about winning the broader argument. On this, and so many issues, they’re policy smart and politically naïve. When elections or debates go wrong, whelp, they get pissed off at voters too stupid to appreciate their good, nuanced policy proposals. Oh well, put “This American Life” back on.
At the core of his argument, Sunkara (rightly) puts it thus:
Refreshingly, Republicans such as Ryan sport a more ideological project. They realize policy and politics can’t be separated and that an empirical debate about numbers can serve a prepackaged ideal—in Ryan’s case, some sort of libertarian fantasy world of free markets and almost-free labor.
It’s a project completely foreign to “solution-oriented” technocrats like Klein, who are quick to find nuance and compromise without considering long-term consequences. They refuse to acknowledge that all policy has political implications, either building momentum for the progressive movement or undermining it. After all, if you keep fighting the very people who vote for you, you’ll have no one left to support you.
The wonks’ focus on policy details blinds them to political realities. This is why Klein can float blithely from “about as close to a democratic socialist as you’ll come in America” to “just the facts, not really a liberal” to “Paul Ryan’s budget is serious and fiscally sound.” Or, put pithily: better chart blogging isn’t about to secure Florida’s electoral votes. It’s not going to win the gun control argument. Those are political battles that depend on compelling rhetorical narratives and corresponding mobilization efforts.
Thing is, I’m not sure that this is Klein or Yglesias’ fault. I’m also not sure that they’re a problem—they’re just insufficient on their own.
The wonks aren’t really the problem. After all, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with fact-based policies. They beat the hell out of the alternative. Sophisticated policy analysis is fine, even necessary, once we’ve (politically) hashed out the relevant value-laden objectives that we’re after. Snazzy charts alone can’t settle whether or not the United States should pursue educational equity or stratification. That’s a moral and political question. Wonky analysis can help us get a better sense of which policies might encourage one or the other (only when it’s done right, though). Wonks can be useful, so long as we remember the appropriate contours of their expertise.
Unlike Sunkara, then, I think the problem lies with us. Media outlets, news consumers, and leftist activists (et al) too often mistake the wonks’ policy expertise for knowledge of politics.
See, the left—unlike the right—doesn’t seem interested in building strong moral arguments to go with their wonks. American conservatives have data gurus too; but their movement keeps them subservient to broader political narratives (Reagan Era, etc). Conservatives put their arguments first. Leftists (from liberals to progressives to democratic socialists and beyond) often don’t. This has been pejoratively called a “hack deficit,” though one person’s “hack” is another’s “loyal activist.”
So: Sunkara’s right (again) when he concludes that
organic life prevails through the use of emotions and guile to exploit the rigid, mechanical thinking of the synthetic mind. Many of those celebrating President Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney will share this fate. Liberals pore over data and cite demographic trends favoring the Democratic Party and its dominant “vital center.” Similar optimism pervaded the pundit class following Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. But the Right had a long-term vision: building social forces, reconstructing a political ideology, recruiting a B-list actor, changing the country. That wasn’t a policy revolt; it was a revolution.
Things could turn out that way. But there’s an alternative, one that I’ve been suggesting for a few years now. Left-of-center institutions could copy their conservative brethren and invest more time and resources into building more compelling narratives. The conservative Republicans’ push from Goldwater to Reagan wasn’t a coincidence—it was a concerted push with backing from institutions with political agendas. The same thing happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Various right-wing think tanks beefed up their messaging by investing in ideas (and their history). They told the American story in a way that permitted them to frame future debates in conservative terms.
There’s nothing preventing today’s left from doing the same. Nothing, that is, but overestimating its wonks.
 I don’t flatter myself, by the way. I’m well aware that I’m not even a minor league blogger. I’m like, a semi-pro: occasionally paid a little bit, but mostly just scuffling around whining about playing time/attention from scouts/etc. Which is most bloggers, I guess—call it the soft narcissism of low performing writers.
 On this point, see prominent progressive philosopher John Dewey’s work. Dewey was an enthusiastic backer of modern political science back when it was still an incipient discipline, but he recognized that political “facts” are always bound up with substantive interpretations. We may collect all the data we’d like, but it’s nonsense to pretend that they’re capable of “leading us” anywhere on their own. Dewey knew—and celebrated the fact—that politics is always about judgment and incommensurabilities and messiness and so on and so forth.