Political Animal


May 25, 2012 1:00 PM The Wonk Gap

By Ryan Cooper

Adam Serwer had a good point months back, during the Libya intervention:

More to the point, though, is that President Obama faces what you might call a “hack deficit.” There simply aren’t many legal scholars on the left who are willing to give Obama a pass. Unlike right-wing legal writers, left-leaning ones are treating Obama and Bush equally. Bruce Ackerman, who called for the impeachment of torture memo author Jay Bybee, has now blasted the White House, claiming it “has shattered the traditional legal process the executive branch has developed to sustain the rule of law over the past 75 years.” His colleague Jack Balkin wrote: “If one is disturbed by Bush’s misuse of the process for vetting legal questions, one should be equally disturbed by Obama’s irregular procedures.” Liberal writers like Eugene Robinson and James Fallows have also rejected Obama’s attempt to redefine the term hostilities. Even in his own administration, State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh was the only one of Obama’s top legal advisers who backed his interpretation of the War Powers Act while the OLC, Pentagon Counsel Jeh Johnson, and Attorney General Eric Holder all disagreed.

Jon Chait chimed in:

I think this phenomenon is best understood within a larger context. Conservatives have developed an ideological critique of a wide swath of elite institutions that serve a mediating role — media, academia, even science. In the right wing view, all these institutions are bastions of liberalism hiding behind a facade of disinterestedness. Conservatives have developed their own alternative networks, whose members operate under a far more partisan and ideological ethos, on the view that they’re merely offsetting the liberalism of their counterparts. Thus the political culture is tugged right by the asymmetry of liberal elites trying to act objectively and conservative counter-elites making no such attempt.

Or, to state it more simply, the right has us licked on the propaganda front. As I was saying before, when it comes to catchy slogans premised on their ideological assumptions (“job creators,” etc), lockstep message discipline, and mind-numbing repetition, liberals just can’t compete. That sort of thing makes liberals nervous, and many on the left take pride in pointing out our side’s perceived mistakes. This is sometimes intellectually respectable (Jack Balkin), sometimes craven (Cory Booker), but in any case it hinders the left’s ability to control the news cycle.

However, the left has an equally lopsided advantage when it comes to a different type of pundit: wonks. The left’s wonk bench is both wide and deep. These folks are ideologically inclined, certainly, but are also dedicated to study, empirical analysis, and informed debate. They argue mostly through evidence-based reasoning, sometimes shot through with a bit of sarcasm or anger, but they’re uncomfortable with abject partisanship.

They do have a strength, though, which was on vivid display yesterday when Mitt Romney finally released a few niggling details about some of his policies. Team Wonk sank their teeth into that like a bunch of half-starved wolverines. (Finally, something we can analyze!) Jon Cohn dug into Romney’s health-care plan (yikes), while Matt Yglesias found some disturbing implications in the education plan. Today, Suzy Khimm took a more even look at Romney’s education plan, and they’ll probably be gnawing over the scraps all weekend.

The right simply doesn’t have that kind of policy muscle, though it remains to be seen whether their increasing disregard for evidence and policy will hurt them electorally. Previously Romney’s strategy, to which he’ll probably return, is to avoid anything buy the vaguest details on his policy proposals, and it’s unclear whether running on no details is actually a disadvantage. I’d like to hope so, but only time will tell.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • stormskies on May 25, 2012 1:19 PM:

    The right simply doesn’t have that kind of policy muscle, though it remains to be seen whether their increasing disregard for evidence and policy will hurt them electorally. Previously Romney’s strategy, to which he’ll probably return, is to avoid anything buy the vaguest details on his policy proposals, and it’s unclear whether running on no details is actually a disadvantage. I’d like to hope so, but only time will tell.


    In a country in which 20% 'believe' that the Sun revolves around the Earth, 50% 'believe' the the Earth is less than 10,000 years old in which humans co-mingled with the Dinosaurs, only 25% accept that Darwin's idea of evolution is true, a country in which more American vote of American Idol than for the presidency itself, a country, according to the corporate polls, in which the majority actually 'believes' that Romney has better economic ideas that Obama and the Democrats, and so on what do you think that answer is ?

    A large percentage of our fellow citizens are so fucking stupid they could not figure out how to get out of a room that had one door.

  • c u n d gulag on May 25, 2012 1:36 PM:

    Sure, our side has most, if not ALL, of the "wonks."

    Wonks are already smart, knowledgeable, people who are curious to know more and more, looking at as much empirical evidence as they can find on a topic, delving for facts and figures they can use to support, as well as discover and know any weak points in, their position(s).
    And wonks will show the supporting facts and figures to prove their point.

    Conservatives have 'winks.'
    Winks are purposely ignorant and incurious people, who have beliefs and gut feelings on any and every topic, and are ready to offer their opinions on them in a nanosecond.
    When looking for facts, figures, and supporting materials, they pull them from their favorite reliable source, their good friend - Otto Thurasses.
    And if called on that, they 'wink' like only someone in-the-know can understand these things, and the questioner obviously one of them.
    And then they 'wink' to the audience as if to say, "Look at this dummy. HE/SHE doesn't know what WE know - what all "smart" people should know."

    In a better world and nation, the "wonks" would win.

    But we don't live in a better world, and certainly not a better nation, so the 'winks,' having nothing but beliefs and gut feeling, and the brazen and shameless ability to openly lie, usually win, because too many people in this country believe not only that people of 'good will' would never lie to them, but that they CAN'T LIE on/in public mediums like TV, radio, newspapers, and Op-ed pages. They believe that, "He/she MUST be telling the truth, otherwise they'd never state that publicly!"

    In America, carefully documented facts and figures don't stand a chance against a brazen person who can look in the camera, talk into a microphone, or write in a newspaper or magazine, and lie with belief in their own bullsh*t.

    And has been today's edition of "Why We Can't Have Nice Things."

  • boatboy_srq on May 25, 2012 1:47 PM:

    The modern Movement Conservatist acts on instinct and believes s/he's guided by wisdom.

  • jsacto on May 25, 2012 2:02 PM:

    Very salient points, c u, that explain most of the dysfunction in our politics and society in general. As a society we seem to have, in too many quarters, elevated pathological behavior - predominantly in the form of absolutely shameless lying as you mention - into a desired or admired trait. Meanwhile too much of the remaining, non-pathological elements simply can't, or don't wish to, accept or comprehend how far the sociopaths have permeated our government and other institutions, nor to accept how insidious their goals actually are.

  • SadOldVet on May 25, 2012 2:16 PM:

    On the early morning (about 4:15 eastern) CBS National News, the following was enunciated by the designated script reader:

    College loan rates are due to double in July, after the Senate failed to pass republican or democratic bills. Both republicans and democrats want to keep the current rates, but are unable to agree on how.

    For anyone following what has occurred, this is a gross misrepresentation of what has taken place and reiterates the both sides are responsible for gridlock mentality of the Corporately Owned Media.

    Rhetorical Q & A...

    Q: Are the amerikan sheeple stupid?
    A: Many are.

    Q: Are the amerikan sheeple ignorant?
    A: Many are.

    Q: Are the amerikan sheeple uninformed?
    A: Not really. They are mostly misinformed.

  • ckelly on May 25, 2012 2:19 PM:

    I would argue that it won't hurt the Repubs one bit. Liberals win the policy wonkery - Big Whoop. Those wonks can write one hell of a blog post or policy paper. Meanwhile, the Repubs control the message and the Media is either too lazy or too dishonest to call them on their absurb policy positions. Thus, the electorate never hears how ridiculous and damaging Repub ideas really are.

  • boatboy_srq on May 25, 2012 2:25 PM:

    @SadOldVet and ckelly:

    The saddest part of this is that the Libertarian[tm] response to this condition would be that the Free Market[tm] decides what news matters as a commodity, and the wonks and bloggers are getting outcompeted.

    Sid Hudgens said it so well: "Once you whet the public's appetite for the truth, the sky's the limit."