The Case Against Wonkery
It may seem strange based on the world we live in today, but there was once a point in very recent history where Democrats were very bad at winning elections. Not just presidential contests, but Senate and House contests as well. The entire federal government had GOP leadership, and the only occasinal Democratic majorities were at the whim of one politician switching sides. No, really.
Why did this happen? I believe that in part this was thanks to the left going crazy on wonkishness and its happening again.
Despite the conservative caricature of the left as being run solely on emotion, I find that too often the left wholeheartedly embraces its Vulcan side. That is, believing that the way to “win” politically is to overwhelm the voters with a giant pile of facts, thinking that the one with the most facts wins.
In reality, this doesn’t work. If anything, this approach turns off voters. Barack Obama saw this in 2007 as he rolled out his presidential campaign. He had minimized the thing people liked most about him – soaring, aspirational oratory – and instead presented a logical case for his nomination. Sure, it made sense, but it left people feeling cold. He only began to win when he connected emotionally with voters. It worked in the general election, and again in his re-election campaign where Romney also seemed to be much more at home presenting a Powerpoint on Why I Should Be President than just telling people why he wanted to lead the most important country in the world.
On a less important stage, we’ve seen this play out in MSNBC’s programming lineup. A few months ago the network – who, by the way still has a 3 hour block hosted by a Gingrich foot soldier spewing conventional wisdom on the so-called “liberal” network – decided to double down on wonkery while it sidelined its programming that was perceived as more emotional. In my perspective, this has led to an audience base that is less emotionally invested and less likely to tune in.
I’m not arguing, however, that the left should create a policy/media ecosystem based solely on feelings to the exclusion of objective fact. That’s what the right has done and is now experiencing a failure spiral thanks to it.
We should be able to argue about policy in an evidence-based manner, while also appealing to people’s emotions and beliefs.
People aren’t computers, and no matter how logical your case may be (see my previous argument about home ownership and Americans) it won’t work if it doesn’t emotionally connect.
Wonkery has its place, but not in practical politics and advocacy.