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How Washington’s Elite Learned to Love Policy Wonks

They believe democracy is best left to the experts.

T.J. Kirkpatrick/The New Yor​k Times/Redux

If David Brooks of The New York Times were alive in the Eisenhower era, rather than a mere intellectual artifact of it, we might have called him a “meatball.” Today, we must settle for “policy wonk.” The Oxford English Dictionary calls policy “a principle or course of action adopted or proposed as desirable.” But to understand policy requires expertise, and to craft it requires a meticulous, dispassionate, almost clinical attention to detail. (As journalists like to say, the best policies are always the most “granular,” with “nuts and bolts” reliably found in “the weeds.”) Policy, then, is more than simply a desirable course of action. It is the scientific management of good government.

There was a time when politicians and pundits worked to avoid being characterized as policy wonks. In 1988, Gary Hart mused in The New York Times that his sex scandal might have been good for his career. People would now see him as “a human being, not a cardboard cutout or some policy wonk.” But when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he showed that the wonk could become human. Throughout that campaign, the press emphasized his personal charm and scrupulous intelligence. Just before Super Tuesday, the Times marveled that this “cross between LBJ and Elvis” could “get genuinely excited” when asked about stock depreciation compensation. More recently, former Representative Paul Ryan—who in another time might have been mistaken for cardboard—won press plaudits (and a VP nod) for his “policy smarts.”

Of course, not all candidates benefit from being seen as masters of policy. Hillary Clinton inherited her husband’s reputation for expertise, and Elizabeth Warren has built her candidacy around an impressive array of policies, yet both have faced sexist criticism for their supposed lack of warmth. Still, for most candidates, a devotion to “policy” is a mark of seriousness and responsibility.

On social media, people are regularly beseeched to vote for “policy, not personalities.” The word choice is telling, for if the policy wonk is smart, meticulous, and objective, his or her evil twin is the emotional, bombastic, and partisan politician. The voices of the establishment associate “personality” with outsider candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and “policy” with their own chosen standard-bearers. (Of course, Sanders has plenty of policy plans, but Washington insiders persist in framing his appeal, like Trump’s, in emotional terms—he has “fans,” where other politicians have “supporters.”)

Establishment politicians are worried about these kinds of candidates. That’s why they tend to exalt policy and demean “politics,” which takes place on the messier terrain where most of us live: in our desires, our resentments, sometimes our prejudices, and, yes, our feelings. As mayor of Atlanta in the 2000s, Shirley Franklin once told a reporter, “I don’t believe in playing politics with government policy,” a phrase that was echoed constantly in the debate over Obamacare.

The idea that we should keep politics out of government is a peculiar demand, but it’s also an elitist one: It suggests that democracy is best left to the experts. The trouble is, experts are routinely wrong, and practically no policy, no matter how meticulously crafted, ever passes Congress nowadays. If anything, the widespread reverence for it only betrays a fear of transformation.