Liberal Wonk Blogging Could Be Your Life

May 9, 2013Mike Konczal

As the Reinhart-Rogoff story started up, Peter Frase of Jacobin wrote a critique of liberal wonk bloggers titled “The Perils of Wonkery.” Now that things have calmed down, I’m going to respond. Fair warning: this post will be a bit navel-gazing.

I recommend reading Peter’s post first, but to summarize, it makes two broad claims against liberal wonk bloggers. The first is the critique of the academic against the journalist. This doesn’t engage why wonk blogging has evolved or the role it plays. The second critique is the leftist against the technocratic liberal, which I find doesn’t acknowledge the actual ideological space created in wonk blogging. I find both of Frase’s arguments unpersuasive and also under-theorized. Let’s take them in order.

1. Liberal Wonks in Practice

Frase, a sociologist, locates the peril of wonkery in the fact that it needs to engage with academic research that often is more complicated than the writers have the ability to critically evaluate. “The function of the wonk is to translate the empirical findings of experts for the general public.” As such they are subject to a form of source capture, where they need to rely on the experts they are reporting on, as “they will necessarily have far less expertise than the people whose findings are being conveyed.”

We can generalize this critique as one that academics make of journalists all the time. Journalists don’t understand the subtlety of research and how it often functions as a discourse that changes over time. It’s a conversation on a very long time scale, rather than a race with winners and losers. They want dramatic headlines, conflicts, and cliffhangers, often over whether something is “good” or “bad” or other topics that make academics roll their eyes. Where researchers spend a lifetime on a handful of topics, reporters bounce from topic to topic, oftentimes in the course of a single day, made even worse through the “hamster wheel” of online blogs.

That’s a problem, as far as it goes. But bad journalism is easily countered by...good journalism. Source capture actually strikes me as one of the smaller problems wonk bloggers face. If journalists are worried that they are over-influenced by their source, they can just call another expert -- which is what Wonkblog did for the Reinhart/Rogoff studies. Wonk bloggers tend to focus on a group of related areas, and like any other journalist, they develop a list of the top researchers in any area to navigate complicated issues. They call people and ask questions.

It is true that in the wonk space, judgments on where the wonk’s self-declared expertise ends and where the line should be drawn on what is covered explicitly lie with the authors themselves. But this just makes explicit what is hidden in all of journalism, which is the problem of where to draw these lines.

It’s true that these debates take place within the context of existing policy research. A friend noted that Frase’s piece rests on a weird contradiction: it’s about how wonks don’t have enough expertise, but also how expertise is just a way of power and capital exerting itself and should be resisted. But that assumes that wonk blogging is just a replication of ruling ideology.

1.a What Creates Wonks?

We’ll talk about ideology more in a minute, but it’s surprising that Frase doesn’t even try to ground his analysis in the material base of institutions that create and fashion liberal writers. Frase seems to imply that the peril derives from personality-driven ladder-climbing, or to bask in the reflected glory of Serious People; he’s a step away from saying what wonks do is all about getting invited to cocktail parties.

But let’s try to provide that context for him. Why has “wonk” analysis risen in status within the “liberal” parts of the blogosphere, and what does that tell us about our current moment?

Contrasted with their counterparts on the right, young liberal writers come up through journalistic enterprises. That’s where they build their expertise, their approaches, their sensibilities, and their dispositions, even if they go on to other forms of opinion writing. Internships at The Nation, The American Prospect, or The New Republic are a common touchstone, with the Huffington Post, TPM, and Think Progress recently joining them. Though this work has an ideological basis, the work is journalism. Pride, at the end of the day, comes from breaking stories, working sources, building narratives, and giving a clear understanding of the scale and the scope of relevant actions. And part of that reporter fashioning will involve including all sides, and acting like more of a referee than an activist.

Where do young conservatives come from? They are built up as pundits, ideological writers, or as “analysts” or “experts” at conservative think-tanks. These conservatives then go out and populate the broader conservative infrastructure. As Helen Rittlemeyer notes, one reason conservative publications are declining in quality is because they are being filled with those who work at conservative think tanks (and are thus subsidized by the tax code and conservative movement money).

This is an important distinction when you see the numerous criticisms asking for wonky liberals to get more ideological. Bhaskar Sunkara argues that liberal wonks have a kind of “rigid simplicity” that is incapable of even understanding, much less challenging, the conservative ideology it is meant to counter. Conor Williams makes a similar argument, arguing that the “wonks’ focus on policy details blinds them to political realities.” In a fascinating essay comparing wonks to conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, Jesse Elias Spafford writes in The New Inquiry that wonks “have risen to prominence because they come wrapped in the respectable neutrality of the scientist and have eschewed the partisan bias of the demagogue” and that, instead of agreed-upon facts, “our political discussions need to grapple with ideology and psychology, and with the underlying tendencies that draw people to particular ideologies.”

But just as there are numerous pleas for liberal writers to get more ideological, there are pleas on the right for more actual journalism. The post-election version of this was from Michael Calderone at Huffington Post, ”Conservative Media Struggles For Credibility. The hook was that everyone was excited because there was finally one genuinely good conservative congressional reporter in Robert Costa. Previous versions include Tucker Carlson getting boos at CPAC for saying, “The New York Times is a liberal newspaper. They go out, and they get the facts. Conservatives need to copy that.” Connor Friedersdorf issued a similar call back in 2008: “[a] political movement cannot survive on commentary and analysis alone! Were there only as talented a cadre of young right-leaning reporters dedicated to the journalistic project...the right must conclude that we’re better off joining the journalistic project than trying to discredit it.”

Meanwhile, the attempts by actual reporters (Tucker Carlson, Matthew Continetti) to build journalistic enterprises on the right (Daily Caller, Free Beacon) have collapsed into hackish parodies. The funders are wising up; the Koch Brothers are looking to just purchase newspapers wholesale rather than trying to build them out organically through the movement.

1.b Why Liberal Wonks?

Frase also makes no attempt to understand why wonk blogging has risen right now. And even a cursory glance at the historical moment makes it clear why wonk blogging has become important. From 2009-2010, several major pieces of legislation quickly came up for debate on core economic concerns: the ARRA stimulus and more general macroeconomic stabilization, health care reform, financial reform, immigration reform, unionization law, and carbon pricing.

Some passed, some didn’t. But all of these were complicated, evolved rapidly, and needed to be explained at a quick pace. Conventional journalism wasn’t up to the task, and wonks stepped up. As these reforms unfolded, often shifting week by week, there were important battles over how to understand the individual parts. There’s a passage from Alan Brinkley about businessmen asking, in 1940, if the “basic principle of the New Deal were economically sound?” Wonks had to answer the specific questions - is the public option important? - but also explain what parts were sound and why.

So I disagree with Spafford, who writes, “The startling rise of the wonk to political prominence has been buoyed in large part by the hope that the scientific objectivity of the technocrat might finally resolve political disagreement.“ The wonk rises more with the wave of liberal legislation of the 111th United States Congress, rather than the waves of centrist deficit reduction or conservative counter-mobilization.

It’s true that the right is more ideologically coherent and part of a “movement.” But it’s not clear to me that this is working well for them right now, or that liberals would be right to try a strategy of replication. Especially as I contest that wonk blogging doesn’t have an ideological edge.

2. Liberal Wonkery as Ideology

As an aside, here's Arthur Delaney's first wonk chart:

In Frase’s mind, wonkblogging is a “way of policing ideological boundaries and maintaining the illusion that the ruling ideology is merely bi-partisan common sense.” Wonk bloggers merely reproduce technocracy, performing the Very Serious Analysis that always comes back to a set of narrow concerns that coincide with ruling interests.

But is the background ideology of liberal bloggers a “ruling ideology” committed to the status quo? I don’t buy it. First off, just the act of writing about problems and potential policy solutions casts them as problems in need of a solution. Indeed, as many on the right have noted, a crucial feature of wonk blogging isn’t the creation of “solutions” to policy problem but the creation of “problems” in the first place.

Think of some of the things liberal wonk bloggers (at least in the economics space) focus on: unemployment; lack of access to quality, affordable health care; wages decoupled from productivity. These aren’t just put out there as crappy things that are happening. Wonks don’t focus on how there’s nothing good on television, or rain on your wedding day. And the problems they signal aren’t, usually, thought of as personal failings or requiring private, civic solutions. They are problems that the public needs a response for.

What does that amount to? If you link them together, they tell a story about how unemployment is a vicious problem we can counteract, that the shocks we face in life should be insured against, that markets fail or need to be revealed as constructed. And they don’t argue “just deserts” -- that some should be left behind, or that hierarchy and inequality are virtues in and of themselves -- and instead produce analyses in support of economic and social equality. Everyone should have access to a job, or health care, or a secure retirement.

In other words, they describe the core project of modern American liberalism. Keynesian economics, social insurance, the regulatory state and political equality: wonk blogging builds all of this brick by brick from the bottom-up. Signaling where reform needs to go is increasingly being viewed as the important role pundits and analysts carry out. And rather than derive them from ideology top-down, they’re built bottom-up as a series of problems to be solved.

Wonkiness-as-ideology has its downsides, of course. In line with Frase’s critique, wonky analysis makes virtues uncritically out of economic concepts like “choice” and “markets,” while having no language for “decommodification” or “workplace democracy.” They reflect the economic language of a neoliberal age. (Though if you are Ira Katznelson, you’d argue that this wonky, technocratic, public policy focus of liberalism was baked into the cake in the late 1940s.) There’s an element of liberalism that is focused on “how do we share the fruits of our economic prosperity” that hits a wall in an age of stagnation and austerity.

But I wouldn’t trade it for what the left seems to be offering. Indeed one of the better achievements of mid-century democratic socialism, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, was proto-wonk blogging. He identified problems. He consciously didn't mention ideology, knowing full well that stating the problem in the context of actually existing solutions would create the real politics. And if he had access to modern computing, Harrington certainly would have put a lot of charts in his book and posted them online.

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