Hey, it’s the highest functioning level of mental disability. You can work under supervision.
All these effing geniuses: Ezra Klein, expert-driven journalism, and the phony Washington consensus
Thomas Frank, Salon
Sunday, Sep 14, 2014 07:00 AM EST
In a recent article on Vox, Ezra Klein declared that his generation of Washington journalists had discovered political science, and it is like the hottest thing on wheels. In the old days, he writes, journalists “dealt with political science episodically and condescendingly.” But now, Klein declares, “Washington is listening to political scientists, in large part because it’s stopped trusting itself.” Klein finds that political scientists give better answers to his questions than politicians themselves, because politicians are evasive but scientists are scientists, you know, they deal in “structural explanations” for political events. So the “young political journalists” who are roaring around town in their white lab coats frightening the local bourgeoisie “know a lot more about political science and how to use it” than their elders did.
The powerful in Powertown love to take refuge in bewildering professional jargon. They routinely ignore or suppress challenging ideas, just as academics often ignore ideas that come from outside their professional in-group. Worst of all, Washingtonians seem to know nothing about the lives of people who aren’t part of the professional-managerial class.
How well-known is this problem? It is extremely well known. One of the greatest books of them all on American political dysfunction, David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” (1972), is the story of how a handful of poli-sci geniuses got us into the Vietnam War. How political science conquered Hanoi, you might say, except that it didn’t exactly work out like that.
You can see this dysfunction for yourself in the headlines of recent years. Ever wonder why the foreign policy authorities never seem to change, keep coming back, despite racking up shattering failures like the Iraq War? It’s because of the way Washington worships expertise, and the way these authorities have perched themselves atop a professional structure that basically does not acknowledge criticism from the outside.
Ever wonder why the economic experts never seem to change, keep coming back, despite racking up such shattering failures as the housing bubble and the financial crisis and the bank bailouts? Ever wonder why a guy like Larry Summers gets to be chief economist at the World Bank, then gets to deregulate Wall Street, then gets to bail Wall Street out, then almost gets to become chairman of the Fed, and then gets to make sage pronouncements on the subject of-yes- inequality? It’s for the same bad reasons: Because D.C. worships expertise and because Summers, along with a handful of other geniuses, are leading figures in a professional discipline dominated by what a well-informed observer once called a “politburo for correct economic thinking.”
“Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People – powerful people – listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.”
Allow me to drop a single, disturbing data point on this march of science. You might recall that Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from the early 1930s until 1994 with only two brief Republican interludes. What ended all that was not an ill-advised swerve to the left, but the opposite: A long succession of moves toward what is called the “center,” culminating in the administration of New Democrat Bill Clinton, who (among other things) signed the Republicans’ NAFTA treaty into law. Taking economic matters off the table was thought to be the path of wisdom among expert-worshipping Washingtonians, but it had the unforeseen consequence of making culture that much more important for a large part of the population. Democrats were eventually swamped by all the crazy grievance campaigns of the right, which has splashed back and forth in the mud of the culture wars ever since.
In 2010, the two parties repeated the act, with D’s embracing the extremely unpopular Republican bailout strategy (and a more modestly unpopular Republican healthcare program) and R’s pretending to be some kind of ’30s-style protest movement waving signs in the street.
Not getting this is standard in the comfortable and well-educated precincts of Washington, D.C. All political contests are battles over the center, everyone here knows that, and so Democrats who wish to win must always move to the center, meaning to the right. That the noble pursuit of the median voter might somehow bring defeat is beyond comprehension.
So a data-minded commentator like Nate Cohn is able to look out over the blasted moonscape of Appalachia and conclude that a party of the left has nothing it might conceivably offer the people there. If Democrats wish to win back the seats that Republicans have taken away from them in such stricken areas, the Dems must either become more conservative themselves or sit audaciously on their butts for a couple of decades while some new generation is born and grows up to populate the boarded-up towns and collapsing houses of the deindustrialized hinterland. Those are the only choices.
The fatalism here may be science-driven, but still it boggles the mind. Today, the right is out there organizing and proselytizing and signing people up for yet another grievance-hyping mass movement. Over the last 40 years they have completely remade the world, and at no point did they play by the centrist rules.
But the Democrats chase nobly on after grand Washington bargains and sign more free-trade deals and make endless compromises with Wall Street-and then can’t figure out why such achievements don’t win them the adoration of the people in the hard-bitten countryside. No matter. They’ll simply wait for a new generation to come along, a new public that is more enlightened, better able to appreciate the fine distinctions between the parties, that is capable, at long last, of making the rational choice.