Is political science a rigorous field that journalists ought to tap when trying to understand and explain what's happening in American politics? Will doing so imbue them with a structural understanding of events that's superior to the armchair analysis provided by journalists and sources who overestimate their own expertise? Or are Washington, D.C., political journalists excessively beholden to so-called experts and their impenetrable jargon, people with no understanding of America beyond an insular bubble, whose track record of awful recommendations includes the Vietnam War, a conflict run by "the best and the brightest"?
Those are rough outlines of the positions taken by two high-profile journalists, Ezra Klein and Thomas Frank, during a much-discussed exchange on American political journalism. They're actually arguing over a subset of the field that focuses on describing politics as it currently is. My typical focus has been on how Americans ought to govern themselves, rather than the depressing business of how they actually do govern themselves, so I'm commenting here as something of an outsider. In time, we "oughts" hope to persuade Americans to give Klein and Frank a less depressing status-quo to fight over. But there are so many people thwarting us.
Drawing on nine years in the nation's capitol, Klein acknowledges one class of obstacles. "Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research)," he explained, "but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma." Sweet validation! I've often suspected that official Washington is populated by enough disingenuous, misinformation-spreading hucksters to fill an underground container of organic waste. No one has better standing to render this judgment than Klein, whose earnest, tireless embrace of deep-in-the-weeds wonkery is unsurpassed in his generation. He wouldn't assert a whole cesspool of intellectual waste product without having seen plenty of specific examples.
His jaded view is widely held, too.
Yet it's rare for individual faux-experts who are getting by in Washington on affiliations, connections, or charisma to be identified and called out. Surely news consumers would benefit from a rigorous jeremiad demonstrating that particular people are trafficking in misinformation. In time, their influence would wane.
But I go deep in the weeds on a relatively narrow band of topics (and even then I'm focused on what ought to be, not what presently is).
In contrast, Vox, the digital-journalism startup that Klein runs with Melissa Bell and Matthew Yglesias, specializes in digging deep into the wonky details of most domestic debates that major D.C. institutions research (or pretend to research). Its staffers are fantastically talented. I'd love to see a definitive project that boils down which insiders are bullshitting us with particular examples of their mendacity. Knowing names, affiliations, and even "connections" who enable their hucksterism would be useful for everyone presently getting played by their shoddy work.
A standing explainer on this under-covered topic would be much more powerful than occasional articles pegged to breaking news that note discrete examples of disingenuous bullshit. What better fulfillment of the Vox mission than a permanent resource page replacing a flow of ephemeral examples that are quickly forgotten? Care would have to be taken to avoid besmirching people who don't deserve it. But Klein's quote makes it sound like he isn't talking about borderline cases.
This project would be in tension with what Julia Ioffe once described as Klein's "nice policy," which includes an unwillingness to write negative book reviews, and it would certainly put Klein and Vox on the wrong side of the de facto Washington, D.C., rule in which insiders don't denounce other insiders as hucksters. But conquering hucksters requires the unflinching quality of a conquistador.
It's such a wonderful quote: "Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research), but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma." Kudos to Klein for saying what many insiders would never acknowledge. But if even powerful insiders who know that solidly enough to confidently declare it for publication won't name names, the cesspool will never be drained.