Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Are we now in the age of celebrities putting a pop-culture face on the ongoing workings of the wonkery machine?

Michael Brendan Dougherty at NRO has a piece today that's worth your while. He says that it's not so much the under-informed consumer of television fare that delivers us the likes of Trump and Oprah as it is the pointy-heads:

The wonk’s role is well-fitted to the centrist political ideal in the post–Cold War West. For them, government is most highly admirable when it is totally denuded of questions of value or morality (these having obvious and uncontroversial answers), and reduced to a purely technical exercise. The politician working with the wonk finds that his job is reconciling the public with what’s good for them. And this fits the machinery of the executive branch, which is filled with hundreds of thousands of civil servants, overseen by a much smaller retinue of political appointees almost all chosen from within the governing class of the country. Where this model of government is most advanced — in Europe — policy questions are routinely taken away from the passions of democratic peoples, and quarantined for expert management.

Taken together, these trends are more or less the abolition of traditional democratic politics. And so there is little use for the traditional politician, a person of judgment and charisma who represents the community from which he or she emerges, using his own wisdom in reconciling the diverse interests and needs of his nation and constituency.

Having eliminated the need for real probity in politicians, why shouldn’t the parties turn to celebrities as their political leaders? The celebrity will do the job of winning elections and riling up the public, but the machinery of government will go on, almost undisturbed.  We can see how the permanent class of Republicans in government almost immediately tamed the Trump presidency. Instead of the populist presidency Trump promised, Trump is ushering in much of the pre-existing “moderate” Republican agenda of corporate tax cuts and economic deregulation. The political class and the media allied to it were able to expunge most of the populist figures from the administration. Soon, they might even succeed in expunging Trump, too.

Oprah Winfrey is perfect for this moment. So what if she believes in, and spent gobs of her career promoting, New Age quackery. That will be as relevant to her presidency as Donald Trump’s critique of military adventurism is to his: not at all. The wonks’ dream is coming true: A bureaucracy has come into shape, one that is able to fend off all democratic challenge, even as it uses a celebrity to gain democratic legitimacy. Wonks are now the producers, behind the scenes. The celebrities are just the talent, reading lines and leveraging their brand for the great project of governance. 
Where I might take some exception to his argument is on the point that is core to the LITD worldview and is routinely expressed elsewhere, that culture winds up shaping society's destiny more than politics or policy-tweaking. DJT's impact is mainly cultural, and Winfrey's would be as well.

The wonks do wind up taking their cue from those making the loud, broad pronouncements that do indeed rely heavily on values of one kind or another, especially in this age of outsized celebrity worship.


  1. if her opponent is Trump I would probably vote for Oprah.