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Sanders, Trump, and the Decline of the Policy Wonk

American Enterprise Institute

“Today, we tend to hear more about how ‘health care is a human right’ with comparatively less talk about the economic or health impact universal health care might have on the nation.”

It seems like the glory days of the policy wonk are behind us. The Trump administration routinely ignores expert consensus, and the Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders displays a similar penchant, at least when it comes to mainstream economists. Given the historical backdrop of the 2016 election, it does indeed look like we’re witnessing a repudiation of the technocratic elite that has held a lot of sway in both major political parties for decades, if not equally. The result is an era of unapologetically deontological politics.

The political decline of the wonks was brought on by a few factors. First—and perhaps obviously—wonkishness seems to make for uninspired politics. Only a very small, highly educated group of people have the interest and wherewithal to consider the minutiae of policy or what effects they may engender. The majority of voters are far less utilitarian than the average think tank employee or even political hobbyist.

Secondly, it’s possible that the weakening of America’s political parties is partly responsible. There isn’t consensus that this is the case, but it would explain how the Republican and Democratic establishments have been unable to thwart the ascendance of two populists—and the apparent success of the latter in remaking the parties in their image.

Finally, and most importantly, there’s a chance that we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns with technocratic public policy, at least in many of the areas that get people excited. As our baseline conditions have improved—thanks in part to policymakers of the past—it’s become more difficult and expensive, if not impossible, for policies to achieve significant impact.

Education is one of the best examples of this, where both the brute-force approach (dramatically increasing the resources devoted to K–12 schooling) and more lofty attempts to improve outcomes, such as expanding charter schools, have disappointed advocates by yielding inconsistent, muted, or even negative effects. The exposure of the limits of technocratic leadership may have sent people in search of alternatives.

None of this is to say that policy is no longer important, nor to deny that bad policy could set us back. But as effect sizes dwindle, the case for policy is increasingly, and perhaps more effectively, made on a deontological basis.

To me, this is best exemplified by the push for universal health care, which was often sold by advocates on utilitarian grounds: It would improve health outcomes; it would lower costs; it would unleash the productivity of workforce, and so on. Today, we tend to hear more about how “health care is a human right,” with comparatively less talk about the economic or health impact universal health care might have on the nation. This line of thinking is easier for the average person to engage with and harder for opponents to poke holes in.

The embrace of politics more transparently centered around moral obligation is good in some ways. In addition to making politics more accessible, it’s more honest about the nature of politics, a quintessentially human act that cannot be performed in a moral vacuum.

And insofar as party establishments are weakening and outsiders are more viable, it means a purer version of democracy can be pursued. If you believe the establishment to be overly staid, corrupt, and sclerotic, as many do, then so much the better. The election of President Trump has given life to new circles of right-wing intelligentsia. Sanders and his “political revolution” may do the same for the Left.

On the other hand, politicians are now free to focus on ends without specifying the means to achieve them, and that is obviously dangerous in the long run. Considerations like “how do we pay for it?” and “what are the second-order effects?” may only appeal to a small crowd, but they can’t be ignored forever.

Whatever the rhetoric of the day—or whatever promises are made—we continue to live in a world of scarcity. The diminishment of the wonk may open new political frontiers, but it is just as likely to erect new impediments to achieving our ambitions, since we cannot simply will things to be as we want them. The draw of authoritarianism will likely grow under such conditions—and with it the need for scapegoats. It’s hard to see how this doesn’t deepen the nation’s political fault lines.

Eddie Ferrara writes about policy from a data-driven perspective. He studied sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter @EdwardFerrara_.

One thought on “Sanders, Trump, and the Decline of the Policy Wonk

  1. “politicians are now free to focus on ends without specifying the means to achieve them”. I think that the 2008 bailouts and MMT at least partly explain that. We’ve printed tons of money and there was no hyperinflation. There was lots of talk about hyperinflation in 2008 but it didn’t happen. MMT came along and explained why. Then it transpires that MMT is not new, its been used by central banks since the gold standard was abandoned. I think that the idea you can pay for big policies by printing money is pretty mainstream now.

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