Wonkery or Wankery?

by Henry Farrell on December 22, 2005

“Kevin Drum”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_12/007834.php reads this Washington Monthly “article”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0601.wallace-wells.html on Kos, and says that we need more wonkishness in the leftwing blogosphere. “Duncan Black”:http://atrios.blogspot.com/2005_12_18_atrios_archive.html#113528562485802439 disagrees.

bq. 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.

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. Looking back to the Social Security debate, left-of-center blogs played a real role in helping to torpedo Republican proposals – but it wasn’t only the Cossacks (or even Josh Marshall’s information-gathering campaign to separate the sheep from the goats) that did the trick. Wonkish critiques of the bogus figures and rationales that the administration was floating helped shift the public debate from one about a purportedly necessary and inevitable reform, to one about a political ploy that looked like backfiring. More to the point – one of the reasons that Republicans seem to have a dealers’ edge in politics these days is that the terms of debate have been shaped by right-wing talking points emanating from the AEI, Heritage etc. A politically savvy wonkishness is an essential part of the long campaign to claw back some of this lost ground. You can make a pretty good case that the Democratic party, and the left more generally, has done a lousy job in connecting wonkish proposals together into a coherent political agenda for change, but it seems to me that that’s a different argument altogether.



Shelby 12.22.05 at 7:24 pm

It also presumably matters at the state level (try telling Californians that Democrats are irrelevant!) and, to some degree, in the primaries. Though it’s easy to overstate the importance of ideology and principle; they’re what motivate me, and I often forget others don’t share that tendency.


Jim Horn 12.22.05 at 7:28 pm

Speaking of lost ground, some of “us” continue to sit on the sideline in denial while education privatization trucks along without any of the outcry that accompanied social security privatization. Where is Josh Marshall on this bamboozlement?? Where is Kos? Drum?? etc, etc. This just in from People for the American Way:

First-Ever National Private School Voucher Program Sent to President’s Desk

Legislation diverts money from public schools, allows for religious discrimination in hiring, and fails to keep federal funds from being used for religious indoctrination
WASHINGTON—On the same day the Senate passed legislation that cuts public education funding for the first time in a decade, it also voted to establish the first-ever national private school voucher program, as part of the final appropriations measure for the Department of Defense. With final approval in the House today, Congress has signed off on this dangerous measure, under the guise of one-time relief for students affected by this year’s hurricanes.

People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas voiced strong opposition to the voucher program, which, in addition to diverting funds from public schools, allows federally funded private schools to discriminate on the basis of religion while hiring teachers, and fails to protect against the use of federal funds for the religious indoctrination of students.

“The promise of a quality public education for every child is a cornerstone of our democracy, but private school vouchers divert money from public schools and undermine that promise. Most Americans oppose such voucher programs, which might be why this one was attached to a must-pass defense appropriations bill,” Neas said. “This program throws open the door to using taxpayer dollars to fund private schools. It also allows for government funding of religion and religious discrimination. We deeply regret its passage.”


MQ 12.22.05 at 7:38 pm

Here is part of the argument for “wonkishness” that Wallace-Wells makes in the article:

“But in politics, that’s not the case—you have to govern, and if you don’t govern well, you won’t get reelected.”

This statement is complete hogwash and the Bush administration refutes it every day.


Cernig 12.22.05 at 8:35 pm

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!”

Regards, Cernig @ Newshog


Oberon 12.22.05 at 9:40 pm

Good policy is good politics.



Henry 12.22.05 at 10:01 pm

Cernig – I don’t think that’s true – on those infrequent occasions when Atrios talks to substantive issues, he usually has something interesting to say. He’s also one of the few active connections between the wonkosphere and the activist-bloggers – even if he gives Kevin etc grief he reads them, and brings their message to his readers.


MQ 12.22.05 at 11:48 pm

“Good policy is good politics.”

Why do you believe this? I would say the two conincide less than half the time.

Also, Kos has a point about the Dems not really needing new ideas. Stuff like Social Security is if anything more relevant to the modern economy than it was a couple of decades ago, when the employer-provided pension system was stronger. Single payer health care is more needed now than ever, as private health insurance frays at the edges. In general the Dems need to communicate their good ideas better, not come up with new ones.


bad Jim 12.23.05 at 4:56 am

Atrios subsequently posted some second thoughts:

Just to add to the earlier discussion, it wasn’t all that long ago that Left Blogistan was dominated by boring boring repetitive wonky wonkery of the most wonkish kind – during the Social Security Bamboozlepalooza tour. The president was lying, the Trustees’ various reports were based on contradictory internal assumptions, and journamalists didn’t know what the hell was going. We came, we wonk’d, and we kicked some ass.

He then praised Max Sawicky, and ended:

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…

For my part, I think that we liberal Americans ought to be hammering out a platform for the next election, and the one after that, an agressive economic agenda of the sort that Thomas Frank is calling for.


abb1 12.23.05 at 6:04 am

The Democrats aren’t seem interested in popular things like universal healthcare or, say, nuclear disarmament, and flatly opposed to any degree of economic nationalism. Under these circumstances demonizing the opponent is the best way to go; and it’s easy too, because the opponents are evil monsters indeed.


RedWolf 12.23.05 at 6:35 am

Politics is the art of “in your face.” The Democrats look at their Banfi shoes, i.e. away, and that’s the reason they didn’t claw back to power. In a sense, Kerry asked “what is claw?”

Left wonkism is a necessary condition, but it is missing the point since most Democrats are Rockefeller Republicans (Hillary, Nelsons, Feinstein; Lieberman is a Neocon.)


Semanticleo 12.23.05 at 12:04 pm

No, politics is the art of controlling the environment.

The voting public doesn’t really care
(at the core; which excludes one-issue voters)
about policy. They aren’t that interested
in the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ of government.

That’s why they hire congressmen. They don’t want to be bothered by the details. If dems can
manage to herd their own cats and develop
a sense of decisiveness that is consistent,
they’ll get the vote.

As long as they don’t define themselves,
the republicans will be glad to do it for
them, and will continue to control
the environment.


James Kroeger 12.23.05 at 5:33 pm

Unfortunately, policy wonks tend to think that the political party that offers the best arguments to the voters on the issues will win on Election Day. The Republicans have shown us repeatedly that The Issues are not the most important variable in an election campaign. True, the issues might actually be important to many Swing Voters early on in a political campaign, but when both sides start to loudly pick apart each other’s facts & interpretations, the typical Swing Voter quickly becomes confused. As the debate over The Issues drags on, Swing Voters realize that they don’t understand the details well enough to make an informed decision, so they end up relying on their impressions of the candidates.

Republican strategists see this clearly. That is why they continuously try to create doubts in the minds of the Swing Voters about the character of the Democratic candidate. They know that it doesn’t really matter if they can’t find any real flaws in their Democratic opponents. Accusations, insinuations, & innuendo will work just fine. They hope to encourage voters to question the motivation and dependability of The Democrats. They try to create the perception that Democrats are “defective” in a disturbing way.

The most important reason why negative campaigning has worked so well for the Republicans is because their negative attacks on the Democrats create a positive impression of Republican candidates, who appear—in contrast—to be individuals who do not possess the defects that they have accused others of having. They define themselves [positively] by defining their Democratic opponents [negatively]. On a visceral level, what the Republicans actually “stand for” in the minds of Swing Voters on election day is that they are not Democrats—those defective people who seem to have been born to ruin everything.

Yes, it’s a good thing that Democrats and Progressives and Liberals have their think tanks. It’s great to have facts when you need them. But there is nothing that these think tanks are generating that can help Democrats to win elections. Kos is right. We’ve got to master the emotional side of political strategy or we’re going to continue to get our butts kicked.


Barbar 12.24.05 at 5:00 am

They define themselves [positively] by defining their Democratic opponents [negatively]

This can’t be emphasized enough. This is the main reason Lieberman drives people up walls, for example. He isn’t bothered by characterizations of Democrats as liberal amoral godless wusses who hate America and wish to undermine our security, and just takes this framework as an opportunity to say, “Look at me, I’m the Democrat who defies your expectations.” He’ll never challenge that mindset.


chef 12.24.05 at 10:41 am

The Democrats need to do a variant of Reagan’s “there you go again” ploy. The democratic candidate should bring a notecard and place it face down. Then, when the usual canards are voiced (e.g. “class warfare”), whip out the card and say, “ah. number 6!” Then ridicule it to the point that the Republicans can’t use it without peoples’ eyes glazing over.
I used this technique in cross-examination debate to great effect. It would work doubly well against dopes like Ed Gillespie who never vary their message.


PersonFromPorlock 12.25.05 at 9:57 am

The Democratic party is sclerotic; like American car makers of a generation ago, it wants only to make the same old product and rely on advertising to move it. The Democratic leadership will say they want ‘new’ thinking, but any new thoughts that require a change in direction or, worse yet, a change in leadership will receive short shrift.

In other words; wonk away, it won’t make a bit of difference until after the palace revolution.


John Emerson 12.25.05 at 4:54 pm

The Democratic party is sclerotic; like American car makers of a generation ago, it wants only to make the same old product and rely on advertising to move it. The Democratic leadership will say they want ‘new’ thinking, but any new thoughts that require a change in direction or, worse yet, a change in leadership will receive short shrift.

In other words; wonk away, it won’t make a bit of difference until after the palace revolution.

I pretty much agree, but this particular criticism of the democrats is pretty old and sclerotic itself.


james 12.26.05 at 1:09 am

Just maybe the Democratic party is not offering the voting public what it wants?


Answer Guy 12.27.05 at 11:00 am

Just maybe the Democratic party is not offering the voting public what it wants?

Is it that simple? That the Republican platform and Republican “ideas” (especially as pertains to domestic policy) are simply popular? Polling numbers (and, indeed, Republican message management behavior) suggest that that’s not really the case.

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