NEW WONKS ON THE BLOCK: New leadership needed!


Part 4—Familiar hemming and hawing: Progressives have a crying need for smart intellectual leaders.

Has any movement ever had its brains beaten out in so many ways for so many years? Without its members so much as noticing—without its members even being encouraged to notice?

Progressives and liberals have had their brains beaten on an array of policy matters. One example: Did anyone ever step up to challenge the decades of disinformation about the way Social Security works?

Actually, no—no one did! Compounding the injury, major Democratic politicians were trashed from the right in various ways. But then, they were also endlessly trashed, in ridiculous ways, from the heart of the mainstream “press corps.”

So what! Twenty years later, one of our new wonks on the block is actively praising the journalism which produced this deadly trashing (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/3/13). The rest of the gang just sat and started when the same sort of journalism was aimed at Susan Rice.

So it goes as our new leaders are picked for us by our existing elites. This brings us around to Ezra Klein, a very important new wonk on the block. Klein is being certified as a new leader by the Washington Post—and by MSNBC, The One True Liberal Channel.

Klein is very prominent—and he’s very young. He’s also very capable. And yet, before he can recommend a book in a year-end list, he has to hem and haw in the following manner:
Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, by Chrystia Freeland

I’ll admit, the title on this initially left me skeptical. But Freeland’s book is much more than a jeremiad against rising inequality and stagnating median wages. It’s a deeply reported, and often fun, tour of the lives of the very, very rich. Freeland’s access is impressive, and she’s sympathetic to titans she covers without being captured by the self-aggrandizing narratives they spin. But her evidence that the super-rich “are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home” makes the book important.
That synopsis is wonderfully horrible. Let us translate for you:

That was Klein’s thumbnail review of Chrystia Freeland’s new book about the rise of the plutocrat class. Because she’s from Canada, Freeland is allowed to see that the world is being devoured by this class.

According to Freeland, this new global class is engineering “the fall of everyone else.” But before Klein can recommend such a book, he has to tell us the following:

Sounding like a Serious Person, Klein says he was troubled at first by the book’s provocative title.

Luckily, Klein is able to report that Freeland’s book is “much more than a jeremiad against rising inequality and stagnating median wages.” After all, who would want to read a “jeremiad” about something like that?

Luckily, Freeland is “sympathetic” to the titans she covers—to the titans who are producing the fall of everyone else. And not only that! Her tour of the lives of the very, very rich is often fun!

Final point—Freeland’s access is impressive. From a professional standpoint, this counts in her favor too.

Poor Klein! With so much at stake, he has to propel himself through those hoops before he’s able to tell you that the super-rich “are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home.” We’re told this makes the book “important,” although we aren’t told why.

Poor Klein! The rising wonk must be careful not to offend our existing elites! Klein is cast in the role of the new liberal wonk, so he’s allowed to cite this book—though it’s hard to know why any progressive would want to read it, based on his milquetoast description.

Freeland’s title is rather transgressive—and she’s from Canada, so she might even mean it! But Klein is caught in a terrible trap. He’s willing to recommend the book—but first he has to show that it can be read and enjoyed by a Serious Person.

Does anyone think that such a reviewer will ever provide real progressive leadership? Despite Klein’s skills, we have our doubts. Having said that, we’ll offer a guess:

The lifestyle of the young and wonkish may demand such hemming and hawing.

On Monday, we’ll offer an award-winning sequel to this report, involving scenes from two (2) marriages. But first, let’s examine the hemming and hawing we found in a second year-end Wonkblog list—the list in which the Wonkblog team presented its “second annual Wonky awards.”

We were directed to this list by Kevin Drum’s post, in which he criticized the choice of Grover Norquist as Wonkblog’s “wonk of the year.”

Norquist simply isn’t a wonk, Drum correctly said. But Norquist is a powerful player. For that reason, his keister must perhaps be kissed, as the keister of Paul Ryan was kissed by Klein at considerable length in recent years.

Might we show you the other ways the new wonks may possibly bend to established elites to guarantee their success?

Book of the year: The Wonkblog Team cites the book by Ornstein and Mann as its “book of the year.” (Somewhat oddly, no team member cited this book in his or her individual list.)

As the book is described by the Wonkblog team, liberal readers are permitted some joy. Other joy is withheld:
THE WONKBLOG TEAM (1/28/12): Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein are probably the most respected scholars of Congress in Washington. For more than 40 years, they’ve been the staunchest advocates, and most respected interpreters, of the institution, tutoring legislators from both parties and serving on an almost endless number of commissions and projects dedicated to understanding and improving what they call “the First Branch.” They’ve even got bipartisan credentials: Mann is at the center-left Brookings Institute, while Ornstein hangs his hat at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. And, at this point, it’s fair to say they’re scared.

In “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided with The New Politics of Extremism,” Mann and Ornstein do something very unusual for this town: They leverage the respect and political capital they’ve spent a lifetime building and use it to try and say exactly what’s gone wrong, even if that diagnosis won’t be popular in all quarters. “It is, of course, awkward and uncomfortable, even seemingly unprofessional, to attribute a disproportionate share of the blame for dysfunctional politics to one party or the other,” Mann and Ornstein write. But it’s also necessary. “Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party,” they write, saying what most everyone knows but too few are willing to admit.
We’re told that Ornstein and Mann pin the blame for our current mess on the Republican Party—a diagnosis which “won’t be popular in all quarters.” We aren’t told that the bulk of the mainstream press corps then froze Ornstein and Mann from further debate. (The Washington Post was a giant exception.)

You’re allowed to know what these scholars said. As always, you’re not encouraged to know about the way press elites reacted.

Fail of the year: According to the Wonkblog team, the fail of the year award goes to “the 112th Congress,” which was “likely to end in ignominy, having pushed the country off the fiscal cliff.”

As it turned out, that didn’t quite happen. But “it’s not just their final days that disappointed,” the team reports, providing a link to fourteen other disasters engineered by this entity.

Please note: It was “Congress” which got the award for fail of the year. It wasn’t the Republicans in the Congress, or the Republican leadership. Apparently, both parties were at fault. It took both parties to produce this epic fail.

In short: Immediately after praising Ornstein and Mann for saying what few will admit, the wonks adopted a Serious pose; they failed to admit it themselves! One commenter chided them for it:
COMMENTER: The level of cognitive dissonance required to give a wonky to It's Even Worse Than It Looks and then immediately turn around and give the fail of the year to Congress instead of the Republican Party is, frankly, flabbergasting. Aside from that, great list!
Let's call it a comical moment.

Let’s see: Norquist was chosen as wonk of the year—and “Congress” produced the biggest fail. In the process, the press corps’ disappearing of Ornstein and Mann was itself disappeared. This goes with Klein's hemming and hawing about Freeland's book, along with Suzy Khimm's throwback praise for the journalism of (liberal) destruction.

The liberal world has always accepted this sort of thing from its leadership and from the press. We ended up with Sam and Cokie the last time we put up with this.

For ourselves, we’ll even complain about this award from Wonkblog. We'll ask for a bit more fight:
White paper of the year: Tax Policy Center’s paper on Romney’s tax plan

It seemed too good to be true: a tax plan that slashed everyone’s rates without increasing the deficit or raising the tax burden on the middle class. And the Tax Policy Center revealed that it was. The TPC’s white paper on Romney’s tax plan revealed its central incoherence, showing that it would be impossible to devise a plan that would fulfill all of Romney’s stated objectives. Romney and his defenders tried to fire back with competing analyses, but none of them fully refuted the TPC study. In the end, it was a triumph of empiricism over political rhetoric.
It’s true! That Tax Policy Center paper did show “that it would be impossible to devise a plan that would fulfill all of Romney’s stated objectives.” But it and other papers showed something much stronger. These papers showed that Romney’s “plan” was essentially a fraud—that there wasn’t any way you could even come close to “fulfilling all of Romney’s stated objectives.”

Fiery leaders would notice the difference—would want the public to know the full truth about the fraudulence of this proposal. Somehow, these new wonks on the blog settled for much less.

Can we talk?

At present, your lizard brain is telling you that these new wonks are on your side.

We’re telling you something different.

We’re telling you that Ezra Klein voted the way you did in November—and that he couldn’t recommend Freeland’s book without staging a somewhat familiar song-and-dance.

We’re suggesting you may have to push in the coming years to get real leadership from this new liberal wonk—and from several others in our emerging liberal stable. As you push for stronger service, you may have to abandon the sense that they’re your imaginary friends.

We liberals went down this road thirty years ago. We ended up with decades of disinformation about Social Security and about virtually everything else. We ended up with a war against both Clintons, then against Gore—a war our tribe failed to notice.

Even today, our leaders won’t discuss that war—and in a year-end favorite books list, one is actively praising the journalism which conducted that war, sending George Bush to the White House.

Are we getting sold Sam and Cokie again? Will our new leaders ever define the outlines of a real progressive politics? Will our new leaders ever know how to talk to regular voters?

Will we settle for puddles of porridge again? Are we buying new Serious People?

In fairness, our new leaders may have a lot at stake. On Monday, scenes from two marriages.


  1. Brooks versus Krugman is what it's coming down to. Mr. Howler is right -- these pundits have way overblown importance in shaping our national discourse. Brooks enables Republican stupidity when it matters with some superficial intellectual pap palatable to moderates of both parties. Krugman is the one mainstream pundit who most consistently and substantively critiques the intellectual vacuity of the Brooksian mindset. You can see them trading barbs in their recent columns. I think Krugman has figured out that the real enemy to decent policy discussion is not right-wingers, who have always been there. It is the more moderate centrists like Brooks who put a pseudointellectual gloss on rightwing ideas that most enabled Bush/Cheney style politics.

  2. In other words, you're demanding that Ezra Klein make himself unemployable. In this respect, Krugman has given the world false expectations. He was hired when he was an apolitical neo-liberal economist promoting "free trade". Today, though hardly a leftist, he'd never get hired. He probably wouldn't even get op-ed space. He'd be another bearded lunatic from academia.

    What we have here is a false equivalence of expectation. Right-wing views are no threat to management and the owners, even when those views are not accepted in the executive suites. But there's no cost to having those views represented, fully and fulsomely, and they also have entertainment value.

    Left-wing views, on the other hand, do pose dangers to the ownership class. Expecting equal representation in corporate media is absurd, no matter how often TDH berates corporate hires for failures to argue effectively for liberalism.

    Could Ezra, as a smart and generally well informed kid, be shamed into being a little more truthful and frank about the ongoing class war? Probably. But he knows the limits. Indeed, he embodies those limits. If you're going to reproach him for those limits, you might as well damn him for working for WaPO instead of blogging from his mother's basement in shorts and sneakers.

    1. You may be right, but when reasonable truth gets too far beyond those punditry limits, then it is more honorable to forgo the money and job and risk the oblivion of your mother's basement. These pundits make their living spouting opinions and they should be held accountable for those words. Like that time on Charlie Rose when Friedman said every so often the US should throw some country up against the wall just to show strength. Shameful. Chauvinist, ignorant talk from the mouths of professional pundits deserves a reasoned logical takedown. We need the Krugmans, the Daily Howlers, and the Glenn Greenwalds.

    2. . . . and the Michael Moores and the Bill Moyers.

  3. Krugman would still be hire-able today. A truthfully liberal Ezra Klein would still be hire-able. But any MSM outlet that hired either one would also have to hire their opposite, some kind of hackish Republican, for balance.