Beware the View from Nowhere: Wonkery Can Only Take a Blogger So Far

Ezra Klein rose to prominence as a progressive. Now he says he's just data-driven. But there's more to policy than that.

There's a lot to admire about Ezra Klein, the Washington Post's star blogger, whose impressive rise from UC Santa Cruz student to Dean of Washington Journalism (a title I am merely first to confer) marks a culmination: the upstart bloggers who forever changed public discourse in the mid-aughts by critiquing it from the outside are now the ascendant players in the establishment press. It is fitting that The New Republic took notice of this change with a loving, gently-mocking Klein profile even as Bob Woodward, our most famous newspaperman, finds his Watergate reporting questioned by a longtime editor, his Bush-era work derided as stenography, and the critique of his most incisive critic echoed by a journalist who, having re-reported an old Woodward book, found that its technical accuracy masked serious errors of analysis.

It is unfortunate, for Klein and Woodward, that they're frequently made to bear the heavy burden of being treated as symbols rather than individuals, but the rising esteem for the former and the increasingly brazen attacks on the latter tell us something interesting about political journalism: a biting critique of old methods has become mainstream, insofar as what Jay Rosen calls The View from Nowhere is now widely acknowledged to have serious shortcomings,* whatever you think of the increasingly diverse media landscape that is fast displacing it.

The View from Nowhere is "a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer," a preemptive defense against accusations of bias, and "an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view." Claiming objectivity or viewlessness shouldn't be a source of journalistic authority, Rosen says, partly because everyone is coming from someplace, but also because there are better metrics:

In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. "I'm there, you're not, let me tell you about it." Illuminating a murky situation because you understand it better than almost anyone. Doing the work! Having a track record, a reputation for reliability is part of it, too. But that comes from doing the work.

At its best, Wonkblog embodies that kind of journalism. Klein has an impressive work ethic, an ability to consume large amounts of dry, jargon-laden information, and a talent for boiling down complex policy proposals. He understands much of what he covers as well as anyone doing it. And his work exhibits several kinds of integrity: if I discovered a factual error in one of his pieces, he would correct it; he has hired intellectually honest, talented people to contribute to his vertical; and he's taken his outsider vision of what political journalism ought to be and tried to embody it.

I sincerely respect that.

All this praise isn't a buildup to a devastating take-down. On the whole, journalism is lucky to have Klein. I sincerely hope and fully expect that I'll have him to argue with for many years to come. But there is one aspect of his journalism that demands criticism, for it springs from a correctable intellectual mistake, and left unchecked it threatens to undercut his tremendous potential in much the same way that Woodward's faulty analysis has undermined his reportorial talents. It is strange, given Klein's career trajectory, that he of all people should make this mistake.

He is trying to bolster his authority by invoking The View from Nowhere.

In the TNR profile, Julia Ioffe nodded toward that tic by noting that "Klein, who came up through the progressive media and is, according to public records, a registered Democrat, insists on portraying himself as someone driven purely by powerful, un-ideological currents of data." In 2012, Klein told TNR's Alec MacGillis, "At this point in my life, I don't really think of myself as a liberal. That's not the project I'm part of, which is to let the facts take me where they do." As a writer with idiosyncratic policy preferences and an aversion to ideological movements, I'll never demand that Klein self-identify as a movement liberal or progressive. But he is deeply mistaken when he avers that policy can be grounded in no more than currents of data, or that his writerly output is divorced from disputed value judgments and philosophical foundations. As Will Wilkinson once told him, "There's no avoiding the fact that, if you're doing anything with policy at all, you're trying to achieve some goal. If you think that the goal is one that's worth having, you have to have some rational justification for why that's the end that we ought to be aiming at." Following facts where they lead is smart and necessary, but it is not sufficient.

If that all sounds a bit abstract, consider Klein's latest write-up of Paul Ryan's latest, widely and justly criticized budget. There's a lot to be said for Klein's post. For starters, he quickly analyzed a complicated policy proposal and successfully conveyed its most significant particulars. He also correctly pointed out some of the misleading rhetoric that Ryan employs in his proposal, and astutely observed that Ryan is trying to obscure the least popular aspects of his agenda.

The item's weakness is most evident in the paragraph where Klein writes, "It is Ryan's unusual ideology, and not the specific state of our finances, that justifies this budget," as if a federal budget -- a document that allocates scarce societal resources among competing priorities -- could ever just spring from "the specific state of our finances." A budget just is a statement of values, whether implicitly or explicitly. Says Klein of Ryan's allegedly "unusual" ideology, "his view is that the federal government is strangling our community. When the federal government provides health care for the poor and the middle class, it muscles out states, communities and families that might otherwise fill some of the gap. When bureaucrats set up Obamacare's exchanges, they stifle the essential ingenuity of the private sector. When government does too much to provide for individuals, they are robbed of the bracing necessity of providing for themselves."

Do you see what's curious about that critique?

Says Wilkinson:

I don't find this ideology so "unusual". Though I wouldn't say the federal government "strangles" community, I agree that federal programmes do tend to crowd out state efforts. I daresay even Mr Klein agrees. For American progressives, the point of centralised federal control is so often to ensure that states considered backward in one way or another are not allowed to offer programmes deemed insufficient by enlightened technocrats. And there's definitely much to be said on behalf of this point of view. Just think of the horrors that would no doubt obtain in Mississippi to this very day had Mississippi been left free to govern itself wholly free of federal meddling. That's why conservative proposals for devolving power to the states still carry with them a whiff of Jim Crow. And that's why liberal proposals for strengthening federal power still smack of Harvardian colonial crusades to civilise the humid boondocks.

Don't expensive federal guarantees make community and family charity both less necessary and less affordable? Hasn't the increasingly intense and comprehensive regulation of the health-care sector made free markets in insurance and medical services basically illegal? I'm not so sure it's unusual to think so. At any rate, it's correct to think so. Mr Klein simply believes that, all things considered, we're better off with the relatively centralised status quo than we would be if we made a significant move toward free-market federalism.

That belief is Klein's prerogative.

But as Charles C. Cooke puts it, "Are we really expected to buy that doing the opposite of Ryan's plan isn't 'ideological'? That there's no ideology behind the status quo? That there's nothing but reason behind what Klein and his acolytes wish would happen? That Klein's desired path for America is based on pure analysis?" He is excessively uncharitable to Klein elsewhere in that post, but I understand his frustration. Lest you think it is just right-wing sour grapes, note that voices on Klein's left offer a strikingly similar critique. "Klein is the archetype for the bankruptcy of modern liberalism, so much so that he disavows being a liberal at all. He's a technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world's problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet," Bhaskar Sunkara wrote.

That isn't right.

Klein isn't suddenly bereft of values. He's just more reluctant -- too reluctant -- to clarify what they are, perhaps even to himself. 

A bit more from Sunkara:

At some point, Klein and company stopped being liberals. They even stopped being human. The singularity--a technological superintelligence--was upon us. The wonks had become robots, ready to force enlightenment down our partisan throats.

In science fiction, cybernetic revolts often begin benevolently. Humans are fallible, petty, prone to argument and war. Synthetics are precise, dispassionate, above jealousy and strife. Wouldn't our interests be better served kneeling at the altar of disinterested judgment? Klein wielded his new legitimacy with a simple, high-minded goal: to construct policy to benefit the greatest number... It reflects a new center-left common sense--liberals against politics and democratic messiness. Liberals, in the interest of humanity, against humanity.

That's... extremely hyperbolic.

But it gets at what's rubbing some people on the right and left the wrong way. When Klein writes as if politics is about dispassionately identifying the best means to a universally agreed upon end, as opposed to a way of facilitating compromises among free individuals with different values and preferences, he isn't just disagreeing with values not his own, he is disappearing them. As he rises in the journalistic establishment, he runs the risk of making himself vulnerable to the very backlash against The View From Nowhere that helped to facilitate his rise. The audience gets resentful when journalists treat their own values as normative. 

What's so strange about this occasional tic is that Klein is more than capable of providing the View from Somewhere, having risen to national prominence taking exactly that approach. Time moves on. Ideology shifts. Value judgments change. I'd gladly read Klein wherever he comes down (to hell with the conservatives who dismiss all liberals, to leftists who can't conceive of earnest, compassionate neo-liberalism, and to everyone who wants to put writers in molds). But I refuse to accept that Klein is now influenced only by facts and is in pursuit of no ends worth naming.

Why not name them? Why not be as transparent as before? That's the beauty of the format Klein is afforded. Explainers that set forth what is can live beside other entries that make a case for what ought to be, and having hashed that out, still other posts can articulate how to get there.    

Klein's ideal budget, whatever it is, flows in large part from his foundational values just like Ryan, not from "the specific state of our finances." It's perfectly legitimate for Klein to advocate on behalf of the budget preferences he has come to favor, so long as he doesn't pretend that his budget-making and wonkery flow inexorably from "the data," whereas those who have other priorities, be they Paul Ryan or Dennis Kucinich, are uniquely engaged in making proposals to advance their ideological notions. Call out their revealed preferences, by all means.

Just don't obscure your own, lest you start to confuse means and ends.


* When James Fallows critiques "false equivalence" he is describing one of several pathologies of the View from Nowhere.