The Wonk and the Populist

One argument that has been often thrown about during the 2016 campaign is that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have proposed no practical workable programs detailing what they would do if they win presidency.  This stands in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton and the now-departed Jeb Bush who seem(ed) to absolutely thrive in cooking up detailed policy proposals and other wonkery.  The wonkiness of Clinton and Bush have been consistently offered as how prepared they are to be presidents, while Trump and Sanders are not.

This is just plain wrong, unfortunately.  From the perspective of the voters, the details of the plan mean nothing.  In a famous episode from the 1992 campaign for Democratic nomination, Bill Clinton responded to accusations of character flaws and womanizing by producing a booklet detailing his economic plan.  Many have taken from this episode–apparently including his wife, if not the man himself–that the wonky details of the economic plan put him over the top in the primary process, but this is a mistake.  No one really looked through the details of the Clinton plan in 1992, and even if they did, there is no good reason that it would have been any good.  Technical details of economic policy proposals make little sense to most voters and they are rarely any more than rough guidelines anyways, given how the reality, political as well as economic, invariably deviates from the hypothetical.  The proximate factor that mattered was that Clinton knew what he was doing on a topic of central import to many voters at the time–the economy, far more than public morality–and the voters were willing to give him a benefit of the doubt.

Fast forward 24 years.  Same problems remain.  Indeed, these are much more dire than they were in 1992.  Like Bill Clinton, Jeb Bush had a decent sized booklet detailing his economic plan.  Nobody disputes the policy savviness of Hillary Clinton, whether justified or not.  Yet, these do not seem to convince the voters as they did in 1992.  What is going on, or what is not going on?

There are two things worth noting.  First, even in 1992, many voters remained unconvinced and they went for Perot–about 15% of the general election electorate is no small number.  Second, the same problems have gone unaddressed for at least 28 years (Reagan probably deserves much of the blame too, but that was a long time ago and the problems were not apparent in mid 1980s):  with the names Clinton and Bush prominent among the occupants of the White House since then.  The economy in general has seen ups and downs during that time, but the losses fell mostly on the middle class and below while the gains mostly fell on the wealthy.  Whatever benefit of the doubt many voters were willing to give to a morally dubious but obviously clever person with a plan have largely dissipated.  Amongst the many candidates who seem to be allergic even to recognize the biggest source of concern for many voters, the two men who seem to be at least honest about recognizing the problem and its severity draw trust, even if they may be hazy and potentially impractical about what to do about it.

This becomes a slight variation on the old Fox and Hedgehog parable:  the wonks know all sorts of wonderful tools, but they do not know what problems need to be addressed and are seemingly unwilling to learn about the latter; the populists know what problems concern the many voters, but they may be woefully short on the tools that they propose.  What worked for Bill Clinton (partially at least) in 1992 was that he was able to show that he is both a wonk and a populist, for the Democratic audience, at any rate.  This magic has been lacking since then.

In many aspects of American life, there has been a steady path to wonkification:  people sell the many wonderful tools and techniques that they have to offer, but do they know what problems they are to solve with them are?  This lies at the root of the great unseen polarization unfolding in American politics and society that has been unfolding–not the partisan polarization, but between the masses and the technocrats.  The masses doubtlessly know that the technocrats are indeed smart people who know many things.  They are, however, increasingly insulated from each other without recognition of what the other are thinking.  The episode of a Silicon Valley “tech bro” who wrote to the mayor of San Francisco to get rid of the homeless so he doesn’t have to see them is an extreme example, but this pervades many other corners of American (and indeed, world) polity and society as well in less obvious forms as well, and has been growing for years.  The chickens are revolting, they want to have the farmer for dinner, and for good reasons, too.

PS. Corey Robin offers the explanation that the wonks are not only not getting the masses, but are actively looking to accept that they are about to be had for dinner.  I am not a leftist, but I have to agree.  This takes some gall.


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