Sunday, December 25, 2005

Wonks and Cranks

Big debate over Wonkery and Activism on blogs is brewing around the biggies in the Left Blogistan. Let me rehash it quickly before starting my own rant.

It all started with a Washington Monthly article titled Kos Call by Benjamin Wallace-Wells:
"Moulitsas is just basically uninterested in the intellectual and philosophical debates that lie behind the daily political trench warfare. By his own admission, he just doesn't care about policy.
He doesn't pretend to be a policy wonk. But the more that the Democratic Party turns to Moulitsas for help, the more the limits to his movement become apparent, the less the raw animus of many liberals for the Iraq war seems likely to translate into any lasting liberal movement, and the more the current obsession with his brand of Winnerism looks misplaced."
Markos responds:
"But I'm not sure where the notion that Daily Kos had to singularly encapsulate the entire VLWC came from. Everyone has a role. I see Daily Kos as part of our noise machine, with tangents into organizing, fundraising, and even think tank wonkery (like the energy policy work organized by Jerome). But at the end of the day, this site won't replace the need for a network of think tanks to challenge CATO, Heritage, and the like. In fact, our book makes this very clear -- there is no single solution to the problems facing the party. The blogs (like this one) are a piece of the puzzle, but it's a big-ass puzzle with lots of parts.
So the fact that Daily Kos isn't particularly focused on policy isn't a bug, it's a feature. We can't single-handedly rescue the progressive movement. We are but a small part of a much broader whole."
And responds again:
"But the gist of it -- that we focus too much on tactics and too little on policy, is a feature, not a bug. All the policy talk in the world is pretty useless when it means zero. I'm sure when Dems take back our government, policy will take a more prominant role on this and other blogs. But aside from that, there is a ton of policy talk on this site (the diaries are full of it) and the rest of the progressive blogosphere."
Wallace-Wells corrects some of his errors (Amazing!)

Garance Franke-Ruta comments on the whole exchange on the Tapped blog:
"Standing up, standing firm, and standing tough are all essential for Democrats to win again -- but the single most important deficit cited by voters in survey after survey, and focus group after focus group, is a lack of clarity about what Democrats stand for."
Kevin Drum adds:
"All political movements have both tacticians and theoreticians, so there's nothing odd that Kos is all about tactics and prefers to leave the ideology to others. But there's more to it than that. To a large extent, I think Kos is symbolic of nearly the entire political blogosphere, which tends to be far more a partisan wrecking crew than a genuine force for either progressive or conservative thought.
None of which is to say that Kos himself has to be a policy wonk. There's plenty of room for all kinds".
Atrios makes an important point (sorry for pasting the whole thing, but it is short, concentrated and indivisible, and I want to make sure that the mouse-lazy folks read it):
"I've said this before, but there's just little point in detail-oriented grand policy proposals when Bush and Republicans are in office. Just about everything their side offers up involves tax cuts, corporate pork, or cuts to programs that help keep granny from freezing to death in winter. The rest are complete disasters for obvious reason, like the Medicare drug plan, and there's really not much to discuss.
If our team actually had some power we could be debating the merits of various universal health care proposals, or considering just how large a minimum wage increase might be appropriate, or various other wonky things. It would be good fun. But we live in an unserious age where the people running the government have no interest in policy and the people not running government have no ability to get anything passed without having anything good about it destroyed by the Republicans.
The 90s were a delightfully wonky era when serious center-left political types spent lots of time debating lots of things. We had a wonky president, a wonky vice president, and an utterly bored press corps, until the blow jobs happened anyway. I'd like a chance to spend more time talking about how policy matters, but the space just isn't really there right now."
And again Atrios adds:
".....While I don't see wonkery as an especially important part of the day to day public discourse - by pundits, bloggers, columnists, and even politicians - that doesn't mean that the Wonks in Exile shouldn't be toiling away in their wonky dungeons doing the FSM's work. Research should be done, policy proposals written, etc... I just don't think that, in general, such things are an especially important feature of our public debate at the moment. There are exceptions and having the wonky tools in place when they arise is crucial.
But even the social security debate was basically a defensive one. Such wonkery is necessary when those moments arise, but there's little point in having public debates about detailed policies which can't possibly pass, etc..."
"Now the truth is Duncan couldn't wonk if his life depended on it nowadays. He's a snark and link engine, nothing more. But talk about handing the Right their talking points... "Atrios says not only does the Left have no new ideas, it shouldn't have any new ideas!"

Then Max speaks out in defense of wonkery:
"Some people are saying that in an adverse political environment, research or policy are not very important. My self-interest here is obvious, but maybe I can still convince you this is a mistaken belief.
One implication that might be drawn from this belief not asserted explicitly is that facts don't matter. All that matters is who can shout the loudest. I beg to differ. You may be able to shout, but if what you have to say is crap, the volume isn't much of an asset.
For some to discount facts is understandable since they often fail to appreciate how difficult it is to ascertain and document important facts. They dismiss policy analysis and research because they don't do it, don't know how to do it, and don't understand what role it plays in the political process."
Read the rest - it is good!

Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber also defends wonks:
"I think this misses the point. Not only is a certain amount of wonkishness on the left a good thing in itself, but it can be an important political weapon."
Kevin Drum responds:
"My own view is that in addition to activism, which blogs obviously excel at, blogs can also be very good at what I call "policy-lite" — short but serious takes on policy issues leavened with enough red meat to make it entertaining. It's not the same thing as a Brookings white paper or even a 5,000-word Washington Monthly article, but blogs do provide a forum to educate and inform at a non-expert level in between all the snarkiness and partisan catcalling."
Angry Bear:
"Of course, we spend more time on debunking than "grand policy proposals" per se here, because there's so much debunking to be done and there is in fact little likelihood of grand proposals going anywhere in the near term."
Michael on
"The truth may not always set you free, but there is no real freedom without truth.
Academics, wonky bloggers, muckrakers, we all play our small parts in the Experiment that is democracy."
He also posts an oh-so-true joke on the subject.

Next, Ezra Klein, also defending wonkery on his own blog:
"Who are we writing for, anyway? Assuming that knowing policy is a good in and of itself, isn't there an inherent utility in using our blogs to better inform our readers? I mean, most of my visitors already don't like Republicans. My work there is done. But now, they don't only dislike Republicans, but they know a lot of boring facts about health care. That's value for ya."
Digby really has a way with words (and ideas):
"............These and the many great blogwonks are essential to the left blogosphere. They are a tremendous resource that I (a card carrying partisan crank) treasure and I link to them more often than anyone else. They are often compelling writers who effectively convey complex information to the lay reader and offer excellent analysis. So I'm not sure I see the beef. I rarely find it difficult to get educated on any number of subjects when I need to (which is often.)
Wonkery is reason. The comaraderie we find among those of our online political tribe is heart. Successful politics requires both.
So I say hooray for the wonkosphere and the crankosphere. I know that each side sometimes offends the sensibilities of the other but we should warmly embrace our bretheren no matter what our temperaments incline us to. Robust progressive politics requires both."
I picked nice one-liners. For substance, go read Digby's post, especially the parts I replaced with dashes.

Neil the Ethical Werewolf pitches in:
"Markos rightly sees himself as having a fairly well-defined role within the partisan wrecking crew, and he wants wonks to do their thing and do it well. It's kind of like having a debate over whether good offensive linemen are worthwhile, just because there was a big media fuss over a cornerback. The reason that there's any discussion of this is because we haven't been on offense for a while. The offensive linemen are looking at each other, thinking, "do we really matter?" Wonks matter big-time, and doubts will end as soon as our partisans get us the ball back."
Pepper of Daily Pepper:
"Wonks do most of the heavy lifting of the blogosphere in that they are the individuals who wade through facts and pull out the information that applies to us. Essentially, wonks are nerds who specialize in politics. Instead of a pocket protector and slide rule, they arm themselves with reams of policy papers that they kindly translate for the rest of us. Those facts are repeated in "Dick-and-Jane" format by politicians, and the wonks get little to no credit."
Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math:
"Still, wonks have value in the public sphere. They provide a set of policies that help reinforce political identification, which gives partisans ideas to believe in beyond the rhetoric that stems from their preferred politicians.
Doesn't "public wonkery" sound like something that's illegal in Alabama?"
Stirling Newberry:
"However, it is important to see wonking in context. All too often, Democrats wonk first, arguing over niggling problems, rather than getting the context right first. Wonking is only important if it is in service of a vision, or an identified problem. At the same time, the ability to deliver policy, both in outline and in detail, is often what turns the tide of a political fight.
Combining policy making with the rest of the political operation, and having a better flow between rhetoric, politicking and policy is, however, essential. It isn't that the Democratic side of the ledger has fewer ideas - it is that all too often they are sealed off in little sections."
Shakespeare's Sister is exposing the unconscious biases of all of the above bloggers:
"That said, there is plenty of good policy debate about issues that “don’t matter”—reproductive rights, women’s issues, gay rights, etc. On the gay marriage issue alone, I can point in the direction of pieces and associated discussions about court opinions, specifically what legal benefits would be conferred by marriage rights, framing, history, and specific policy prescriptions: civil unions v. marriage, government civil unions as the default for all people with religious ceremonies left to churches, equality amendments in the mold of the ERA, etc. Endless policy-specific information can be found on abortion, emergency contraception, and access to birth control. Ditto abstinence-only sex education. And all of these are inevitably discussed with an ideological context. Necessarily so, in fact, because neither party particularly considers them winning issues, and they are quick to be compromised by both politicians looking for a win and blogosphere partisans in search of the same.
I’m not convinced there’s a lack of wonkery in the blogosphere. At first blush, my thought is that there’s simply a lack of wonkery on particular issues, and that this is of a feather with the generally lower profile in the upper echelons of women bloggers. I could well be wrong; I need to think about it some more."
Bigger Picture

I think that Shakes Sis is really onto something here. Perhaps she opened a little crack, and I saw a narrow beam of light come through it that gave me some ideas. Let me try to widen that crack a little more and see if more light will come through.

The division of bloggers (and not just bloggers - pundits, journalists, politicians, etc.) into these two categories - wonks and activists, theoreticians and tacticians, wonkosphere and crankosphere - has a root in some much older times. My guess is it all harks back to all of these people (or their sources) having read, at some time in their past, Eric Hoffer's True Believer.

Hoffer wrote his book in 1951, focusing on revolutionary movements of fascism, nazism and communism (Stalin and Mao versions). While many took the take-home messages from the book about the way social outcasts are easily recruited into mass movements, my main memory of the book is its division of mass movements into three phases, each characterized with a different types of leaders with different temperaments.

According to Hoffer, a mass movement starts with ideologues (or visionaries) writing ideology (Phase I). They are educated and smart and good with words. But they are also tentative and shy, so they pass on the leadership torch to revolutionaries, the charismatic bold leaders who are capable to inspire fire in their followers and to make the movement grow (Phase II). However, once the victory is won (Phase III), neither the ideologues nor the revolutionaries are temperamentally suited for governing and they need to pass the torch to diplomats, people who know how to get along with people, manipulate people with a smile, and push their policies through against the opposition.

Hoffer's description is quite relevant for literal revolutions - people with rifles on barricades, storming government buildings in the capital and taking over. Hoffer's description is far too simplistic to transpose wholesale onto the situation of here and now.

How does the present situation differ? First, it is not a new movement - it is the Democratic Party, though the idelogy certainly changes over time. Second, the method of gaining power is through winning elections, not military coups, though the Republicans are trying hard to make sure that ballots don't matter. Fourth, the elections are happening at several levels: federal, state and local, as well as in the executive, legislative and judiciary branches. Finally, the methods of exhange of information are much different now than 60 years ago, too, especially with regards to the Internet.

This situation requires a much more complex taxonomy of players than just wonks (ideologues) and cranks (revolutionaries). I think that some of the bloggers cited above may subconsciously sense this, as they tend to use the two terms in somewhat different meanings. Why do some of them think that Kevin Drum is a wonk, while others (including me) think he's a crank? Nobody even tried to define these two terms - the assumption is that everybody knows already. But if the two terms are inaplicable to modern times, it is to be expected that different people mean different things when they try to apply outdated terms to contemporary situations.

Let me try to skech out an alternative taxonomy briefly - please comment on it - and see how it applies to the Left Blogistan.

A) Policy experts. I assume that this is what some of the people would consider "wonks". People with proper education in a field (e.g., law, economics), thinking about, writing about, and proposing policy solutions to such problems as health care, education, Social Security or foreign policy. Each is a specialist, cranking numbers and deciphering the terminology, proposing systems and mechanisms that, in their opinion, will work if applied in the real world. They tend to live in think tanks of which the Left has far too few.

B) Big Picture guys. These are the real ideologues. People who look at what the policy experts propose and pick those proposals that, put all together, make an internally coherent ideological system - something that is much easier to sell to voters than a grocery list of independent (and hard-to-understand) policy proposals. They are the unifiers of the movement. Think of George Lakoff in "Moral Politics"

C) Tacticians. These are the people with access to the information channels (e.g., media) and/or the candidates running for office. They are pollsters and campaign managers. Their job is to have a deep understanding of the way the electorate thinks - what pulls their strings, what words and ideas resonate. Their job is to take the wholesale ideologies from the Big Picture guys and to distill them into campaign slogans and speeches. Their job is to sell the ideology (which contains within it all the specific policy proposals, too) and the candidates to as many people as possible. Think of Joe Trippi, or George Lakoff in "Don't Think Of An Elephant."

D) Leaders. Charismatic types that can rally the troops either with things they say, or the way they say it, or with their sheer personalities. They run for office, of course. Think of Dean and Edwards, each inspiring and charismatic (though for somewhat different audiences).

E) Groundtroops. Activists knocking on doors, courageous enough to try to convert complete strangers. They write letters to the editor in local newspapers, spend hours and days phonebanking, stuffing flyers, blogging on campaign blogs, making signs, organizing campaign events etc. They freeze in Iowa and New Hampshire in January.

F) Cheerleaders. They pick up the slogans. They try to convert their family and neighbors. They show up at campaign events and send in donations. They are the first in line to vote on the Election Day. But they do not have the time, enthusiasm or courage to do much more.

G) The Unwashed Masses. Duh. They don't care. All politicians are corrupt, they say. It does not affect them, they think. They are just fine. Taxes are too high. Government is not providing enough services, though. But get the government off their backs. And evolution promotes immorality. If someone picks them up in the morning, they'll vote - otherwise they'll forget.

It is the duty of Groundtroops to convert TUMs into Cheerleaders, by explaining how dangerous the current Party in power is, how directly those policies are affecting them negatively, and how the alternative is going to change this. Some policy knowledge is needed for this effort (to intelligently answer questions), but slogans do most of the work.

Some knowledge is neccessary at some stages and for some voters, though - Edwards' most effective campaign tool in the Dem primaries was his policy booklet "Real Solutions for America". Each copy of the booklet converted more Iowa voters than a whole brigade of loud, angry and obnoxious Deaniacs.

Unfortunately, these are the so-called "swing voters", quite capable of voting for the President just because he is the President, too afraid of change even if that change means jumping out of boiling water. Lobsters. But they are worth their weight in gold if you can get them. They are the target of ALL of the effort.

H) Potential Elected "Diplomats". People who will actually do the work once elected, or once the elected charismatics hire them to run things. They better know what they're doing! They are usually kept behind the curtain, although good reputations of some of them can be used as campaign "promises". After all, GW Bush was elected on the premise that, though dumb himself, he will surround himself with smart, competent people (see what current mafia is running the country - but a lot of voters swallowed this canard). Again, both Dean and Edwards are smart can-do people who would surround themselves with experts on top of their own expertise and intelligence.

Of course, this taxonomy is too tidy. Many people belong to more than one category. Hey, I've been, at one point or another almost ALL of this: wonk on science education policy (A), blogging profusely about the big picture of liberal (and conservative, to contrast) ideology (B), suggesting ways to frame issues (C), actively working for Edwards, then Kerry/Edwards, as well as Erskine Bowles (both E and F at different stages of the campaign), and totally agnostic on some issues (e.g., Confederate Flag, or gun control) due to my non-existent background of growing up American (G). I am even strongly contrarian on a couple of issues dear to the Left - the Balkans bombing and the animal rights, two subjects I know a lot about, where I side with the Right, as much as the Right takes the right position on these issues for all the wrong reasons. And of course, I can never be either D or H.

How About the Blogs?

Rare are the blogs in the Lefty Blogistan that easily fit into just one of the above categories. Look just at my blog - it is all of it in various proportions that change over time. Certainly a large blog community like DailyKos has all of it. Even Sen. Boxer and some other elected officials sometimes blog there. There are Diaries of all kinds, covering A through H. DailyKos itself, as well as the whole Left blogosphere, is a mix of everything, and most importantly, a way to build a community that connects together people who feel comfortable in one or two of the categories and leave the other roles to other people.

But there is another way in which the taxonomy is not entirely correct, and that is what Shakespeare's sister alluded to. Counting Social Security, foreign policy and healthcare as policy issues is an anachronism. The biggest ideological divide is the psychological divide - hierarchical vs. interactionist thinking - from which all the other policies naturally grow.

The psychological divide is most strongly and emotionally exhibited in the aspects of the Culture Wars: religion, creationism, femiphobia, homophobia, sexism, racism, xenophobia, rampant nationalism and fear. Those are the most important prongs in the multi-prong strategy of the GOP because they elicit strong emotional responses in voters the way no economic issue can ever hope to do. They also consitute the core of the conservative ideology, which also contains such peripheral stuff like low taxes, groupthink, reverence for the rich and for megacorporations, aggressive military, harsh legal and penal systems, and intrusive government.

When some people say that Kevin Drum is a wonk, and I say he is not, it is due to this misunderstanding of what is important. Kevin may write about economic topics. But those who say that is wonkery miss the point - those are not the key issues in the ideological war. They are peripherals - stuff we can agree on once in power. They are not part of the war itself. The war trenches are dug firmly in the domain of cultural issues, not economics.

Thus, the people in category B, the Big Picture folks, while sifting through the policy proposals of the experts (A) in order to build a coherent ideology, need to, if they are smart enough, to pay special attention to people who do not have PhD's in economics, law or political science. They need to pay at least the same, if not more, attention to people whose expertise is more helpful in analysing the cultural domain: psychologists and antropologists, evolutionary biologists and educators. Then again, a PhD is not the only way to gain expertise. Being a woman, or non-religious, or a minority, or gay (or all of the above), provides a real-life expertise which campaign managers (and cranks on blogs) ignore to their peril.

Who is an expert in the blogosphere? Does a PhD count as much as in the offline world. If someone writes a post a day, for two years, on a single issue, and obviously does the research and makes sense - is that person an expert even without official credentials? Is a woman thinking and writing about woman's issues not automatically an expert? Is it wise to ignore their thoughts?

One of the reasons that the GOP has been so effective lately is that everyone, from A to H, is part of the team. They all know their places and their roles and they fulfill them ruthlessly. Just see how their blogosphere operates - hierarchical organization and strict division of labor.

On the Left, some (especially the B and the G) are looked down upon and dismissed, yet those two are the best sources of information needed by the other categories in order to design a winning strategy. Focusing on A (policy wonks) and C (campaign operatives, i.e., cranks) is a misguided way of thinking about politics. It is the Bs, studying the Gs that should be the starting point - the Phase I in the post-Hofferian world, with the others following their insights, not inventing their own strategies out of the blue, or based on old, out-dated ideas (that could not elect a Democrat for a long time anyway).

The way it is now, we have many spoiled star players, but no team. Each player pushes for a different strategy or some different conrete 'plays'. There is nobody to set the overarching vision for a winning strategy based on what works.

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 3:11 AM | permalink | (3 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink