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December 24, 2005

Wonks Play Offense

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Ezra regarded this Atrios post as a pessimistic contribution to the importance-of-the-wonks debate.  That's certainly how Atrios wrote it.  The sunny side that Atrios mentions but doesn't focus on is what the wonks will do when Democrats have the ball. When you're playing defense, it doesn't really matter whether your policy arguments are right, as long as they're effective in shutting down the Republican measures that are coming your way.  So if you're up against a Republican Party that cares nothing for the common good, all you need is the partisan wrecking crew to smash up everything they try to do.  Sure, wonks have a limited role when something like Social Security privatization comes up, but for the most part they're dreaming about how to do things that you can only do when you're running things.  While our partisans and cultural-criticism folks are useful in any season, policy knowledge meets its raison d'etre when you can actually enact policy. 

When you have power, the detail work involved in figuring out good policies doesn't just make people's lives better -- it feeds back into general support for the Democratic Party.  Robert Rubin's good work during the 1990s overturned our malaise-smeared reputation on the economy, and now we're regarded as the party that creates jobs.  Franklin Roosevelt is probably the best example.  The party identification that his successful economic management instilled in voters lasted long after the New Deal. When elderly people vote for Democrats because we'll protect Social Security, we have Roosevelt to thank for giving us a program that would bring people to our side.  And when the elderly voters' Democratic representatives make it harder for Bush to appoint socially conservative judges, the fruit of wonkish labor is redistributed throughout the liberal coalition. 

(It's funny that the Markos article touched off all of this discussion.  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.)

December 24, 2005 | Permalink


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One real problem with the derailing approach is that it causes people to think that derailing is your goal, regardless of the consequences, which leads to a general discount on all discourse.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | Dec 26, 2005 10:54:03 AM

If I thought that ordinary folks could sift out the bad hackish arguments from the good wonkish ones, I would agree. Sadly, most people don't have enough of a grasp of the data (and on some issues, there's a gigantic amount of data) to tell whether someone is being disingenuous or genuinely correct.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Dec 26, 2005 1:39:45 PM

Poor Neil, making a post that others made no the same subject but longer, and also providing the sort of out of context quote that the trolls find like sweet ambrosia "all you need is the partisan wrecking crew to smash up everything they try to do", like the infamous environmental scientists quote about exaggerating data.

Anyway, I wonder what you think about the current party in power and their relationship to wonkery. I'm sure I've heard you and your friends claim they have abandoned wonks as a source of solid policy for quite some time, in favor of political theater and corruption, and that our country is the worse for it. How do you propose to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to the Democrats when they gain power? (Especially in light of that horrid PPI editorial ezra mentioned.)

Posted by: Tony Vila | Dec 27, 2005 10:51:41 AM

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