Homo Politicus ≠ Homo Wonkus

I’m always amused by the bien pensant recoil at politicians who don’t have Kennedy School-level mastery of policy details. You’d think the last half-century of American politics hadn’t seen candidates like Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, or Al Gore, wonks all who knew more about policy than your average PhD, yet whose intimacy with the arcana of state was somehow insufficient to propel them to—or keep them in—the White House. Or Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, whose relationship to policy details was, how shall we say?, attenuated, yet who nevertheless managed to completely rearrange the political furniture of our lives. Maybe, just maybe, mastery of policy detail does not a successful political actor make. And if you think Reagan or Bush would have been less disastrous as presidents if they knew the details of what they were doing, I suggest you pick up any introductory text on the workings of political ideology. To understand theirs—and yours.

As it turned out, Bernie Sanders really didn’t botch that interview with Daily News, which has prompted this latest wave of policy tut-tutting in the media. And his answers about Dodd-Frank and banking regulation were basically right. That said, he does seem to be relatively clueless about the transhistorically significant fact that New Yorkers pay for their subway rides with swipe cards rather than tokens.


  1. realthog April 6, 2016 at 8:58 am | #

    Many thanks for the Huffpo link. It’s pleasing to see that the old Tom Paxton song still holds good.

  2. Tiercelet April 6, 2016 at 9:22 am | #

    I’ve heard (without verification) that some Brooklynites of his generation still call Metrocards “tokens.” Kind of like how I still call them the Triboro Bridge and the 59th St Bridge…

  3. JAMES_SCAMINACI_III_PHD April 6, 2016 at 9:40 am | #

    That was my comment on Conason’s hit piece. We choose a president for his or her judgement, strategic choices, and policy choices. He or she relies upon Cabinet officers, sub-cabinet experts, and technical experts to carry out policy. Bernie would have an Attorney General and Solicitor General to tell him what was legal. He would have Treasury experts telling him what was necessary to do in breaking up the banks. William K Black, an expert on the “controlled fraud” business model of Wall Street, has expertise from Reagan days on reorganizing banks. Funny, but no one asked Hillary how you plan and execute a No Fly Zone in Syria–as if she would know. Her answer would be, the military will figure it out. Well, how will Bernie break up the big banks? The Treasury and Federal Reserve will figure it out.

  4. Roquentin April 6, 2016 at 9:42 am | #

    I’m about 2/3 through Marcuse’s “One-Dimensional Man” right now, and he discusses pretty much this exact thing. This sort of rationality and operationalism (as he liked to call it) is the manner in which the established order and system of domination perpetuates itself. One is only able to justify his or her ideas in terms of the logic of the existing system and this is a key factory in neutralizing any alternatives to it.

    Marcuse’s argument wasn’t to justify and promote ignorance, but to point out that rationality, expertise, knowing how to work the system and “get things done” is never, ever neutral.

  5. Wilson April 6, 2016 at 9:56 am | #

    Excellent arguments. We need more of such.

  6. Warren Ingber April 6, 2016 at 11:31 am | #

    Ryan Grim did a good job in his HuffPo column, but I can’t agree that Sanders, an important co-founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, “has not shown much interest in organizing, or ability to organize coalitions within the House or the Senate to advance his agenda.” (And what’s with the “his”?)

    On the shocked, shocked punditry over Bernie’s “tokenism,” I wanted to share some notes from underground (and surface transit) taken during last night’s MSNBC coverage.

    In an attempt to show how REAL New Yorkers ride the subway, Andrea Mitchell whipped out a Metrocard as if it were her own. But why wasn’t it a senior card? Would Alan Greenspan let her subsidize public transportation? I concluded that if she ever swiped that card, it was from an underling who would be walking home that night.

    To his credit, Brian Williams did not chime in about the time he rode a subway that took RPG fire from terrorists. But then he’d already done his bit to misspeak about local mass transit. Earlier on he tried to build up a question by saying he wanted to learn the answer before he died, which he depicted as his being hit on his walk home by the “No. x crosstown bus,” for some value of x that I can’t recall except to say that it’s not the number of any actual bus route.

  7. UserGoogol April 6, 2016 at 11:55 am | #

    It seems odd to say the Clintons were wrong to triangulate and then point to the failures of Carter, Dukakis, and Gore as proof we should sacrifice our wonk ideals. Wonkishness is the very soul of progressivism: the belief that careful analysis can produce a better world.

    • aab April 7, 2016 at 5:44 am | #

      No, “wonkishness” of this sort, aka technocratic thinking, is integral to neoliberalism, but anathema to progressivism.

      • UserGoogol April 7, 2016 at 11:32 am | #

        Technocracy and progressivism have marched hand in hand since before neoliberals existed. The Progressive Age was full of calls for things to be managed by experts. Or outside of the classical Progressives, (who were a mixed bag, to be sure) the left in general has long called for scientific organization of the economy.

  8. xenon2 April 6, 2016 at 12:20 pm | #

    Since MetroCards revel itineraries, they are inherently insecure.Suppose you are a journalist wanting to meet up with someone off the record.FBI-CIA-nypd determine what happened thru FISA, then create a parallel construction, so they can use it in court.

    I would like to point out the man responsible for the expense:
    Robert Moses.

  9. Joe Jordan April 6, 2016 at 3:39 pm | #

    I really enjoy (that is to say am impressed by the silliness of) claiming that since someone does not know the full details/repercussions of a plan (as is the case here with BS), that we should not try that plan or listen to that person. The truth is, that we don’t know the full details/repercussions of maintaining the status quo, and can never know.

  10. David EGan April 7, 2016 at 1:47 pm | #

    …how does someone like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a supreme policy maker not ascribe to leadership of this nation which he re-defined through disciplined, devoted research. He was a behemoth of a man, intellectually as well as in stature, a commanding presence in the Senate and all of Washington….why do we let this kind of Prometheus out of our collective influence?

  11. chatterjeevk April 7, 2016 at 5:03 pm | #

    What does ‘transhistorically’ mean?

Leave a Reply