Features » January 18, 2013
Programmed for Primetime
For policy wonks, politics no longer computes.
When faced with cybernetic revolt, organic life prevails through the use of emotions and guile to exploit the mechanical thinking of the synthetic mind.
Once upon a time, hope was scarce and darkness everywhere. People looked for heroes. During the worst years of the Bush administration, we found them. They weren’t big or brawny, but they had heart. A bunch of nerdy kids blogging about politics were here to save the day.
Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein and their companions were fearless—but, beyond that, analytical. They knew how to use graphs and the Internet, bringing an earnest quantitative approach that would make liberals the Very Serious People of the Digital Age. Even the media establishment had nice things to say about our protagonists.
There seemed to be something different about this band, an idealism that blended the resurgent youth activism that rallied behind Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign and against the Iraq War with the liberal “netroots” culture that developed alongside it. Their popularity grew as they were absorbed into the media ecosystem. Klein’s writing moved from his eponymous Typepad to the American Prospect to the pages of the Washington Post. Yglesias also got his break at the Prospect and ended up at Slate.
But at some point, Klein and company stopped being liberals. They even stopped being human. The singularity—a technological superintelligence—was upon us. The wonks had become robots, ready to force enlightenment down our partisan throats.
In science fiction, cybernetic revolts often begin benevolently. Humans are fallible, petty, prone to argument and war. Synthetics are precise, dispassionate, above jealousy and strife. Wouldn’t our interests be better served kneeling at the altar of disinterested judgment?
Klein wielded his new legitimacy with a simple, high-minded goal: to construct policy to benefit the greatest number. To this end, he went rummaging through the marketplace of ideas. He even sampled those of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), interviewing him in three parts and lauding his “honest entry into the debate” in a 2010 Washington Post piece titled “The virtues of Ryan’s roadmap.” In the same venue a few months later, Klein defended Ryan against attack by the far-from radical Paul Krugman. Klein pushed back against Ryan’s individual points here and there, but his mechanical mind failed to realize that the congressman was playing a different game—a far more dynamic and ideological one—than he was. The blogger wanted to tinker with numbers to make Washington run smoother; Ryan wanted to use data to obscure a different mission: ending the welfare state.
Origins of the present robot
Klein is the archetype for the bankruptcy of modern liberalism, so much so that he disavows being a liberal at all. He’s a technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet. He told The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, “At this point in my life, I don’t really think of myself as a liberal. That’s not the project I’m part of, which is to let the facts take me where they do.” This statement isn’t unusual. It reflects a new center-left common sense—liberals against politics and democratic messiness. Liberals, in the interest of humanity, against humanity.
The rapid integration of formerly obscure, wonkish outsiders into the media spotlight elite is easy to understand. Technocratic analysis and blogging that divorces policy from politics dovetail neatly with the noble-sounding notions of objectivity long dominant in American journalism.
This fetishizing of objectivity hasn’t been with us forever. The 19th-century press was unapologetically ideological. Newspapers editorialized at every turn, openly declaring allegiance to a political party. The Progressive Era saw a shift away from this model. It was a mixed blessing. The reformed publications could take on corruption and entrenched political machines like never before, but this shunning of overt bias was tied in with hostility toward mass participation in debate and policy formation. Only professional journalists and technocratic politicians, untainted by popular passion, could be trusted to illuminate and solve the problems of the day. The media revolution was, by nature, an elite project.
During the long era that followed—the heyday of CBS News and the New York Times—the dominant media’s elite character was obfuscated by this cult of objectivity. Public relations spin aside, these outlets didn’t present all views; rather, they offered a limited spectrum of debate selected from what publishers and journalists—and the corporate advertisers who funded them—deemed “acceptable”. Ties were forged with experts in the state, the corporate world and academia. Old ideals of citizenship and participation were abandoned. Public debate that might derail the new liberal consensus was not to be tolerated. “All the news that’s fit to print” became the Times’ slogan in 1897.
Like their journalistic predecessors, Beltway liberals today prefer to tout their expertise and talk raw facts. It’s what distinguishes them, in their minds, from the “ideologues” (people with a coherent worldview) to their left and right. Moral and ethical appeals to voters are thus discounted.
Refreshingly, Republicans such as Ryan sport a more ideological project. They realize policy and politics can’t be separated and that an empirical debate about numbers can serve a prepackaged ideal—in Ryan’s case, some sort of libertarian fantasy world of free markets and almost-free labor.
It’s a project completely foreign to “solution-oriented” technocrats like Klein, who are quick to find nuance and compromise without considering long-term consequences. They refuse to acknowledge that all policy has political implications, either building momentum for the progressive movement or undermining it. After all, if you keep fighting the very people who vote for you, you’ll have no one left to support you.
Just look to the New York Times editorial on the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, titled “Chicago Teachers’ Folly,” which explains that “teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea,” and then places much of the blame for the strike on a “personality clash between the blunt mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and the tough Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis.”
What room is there for justice and injustice, right and wrong, when there are personalities to dissect?
The Times wasn’t alone. Though more numbers than personality obsessed, Slate’s Yglesias and frequent Klein collaborator Dylan Matthews found middle ground between a “blunt” neoliberal Democratic mayor and a “tough” public sector union. Technocratic liberal bloggers have accepted terms of debate set out by conservatives, making only tiny adjustments and pushing back on the fringes against a reactionary vision designed to stop the emergence of any new Left coalition. The new technocrats' “open-mindedness” legitimizes attempts to smash these emerging movements.
By comparison, the Republican tendency to shore up their social base by closing ranks and enforcing ideological conformity seems awfully sophisticated. Big policy changes, after all, require mobilized and militant political actors. And sometimes uncritical defense of these actors, whatever their short-term policy failings, makes the most long-term sense.
The wonks couldn’t understand. “Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn’t adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation,” Klein whined. Republicans weren’t playing fair. They were playing at politics, while he was trying to construct sound policy.
This is the kind of rigid simplicity that will eventually bring about Klein’s downfall. As science fiction foretells, when faced with cybernetic revolt, organic life prevails through the use of emotions and guile to exploit the rigid, mechanical thinking of the synthetic mind. Many of those celebrating President Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney will share this fate. Liberals pore over data and cite demographic trends favoring the Democratic Party and its dominant “vital center.” Similar optimism pervaded the pundit class following Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. But the Right had a long-term vision: building social forces, reconstructing a political ideology, recruiting a B-list actor, changing the country. That wasn’t a policy revolt; it was a revolution.