April 2, 2010 [LINK / comment]

GOVT 101: "wonks" vs. "hacks"

My brother Dan pointed me to a nice column by Charles Wheelan, Ph.D., entitled, "Why Washington Is Failing." It's a good background piece for understanding why it is often so hard to tackle crucial issues such as health care; see below. What interested me most, however, was the perceptive take on how policy-oriented "wonks" and politics-oriented "hacks" see the world so much differently. Wonks are rational, problem-solving people who (usually) look at things from a detached perspective -- e.g., moi. They focus on substance. Hacks, on the other hand, are hypersociable busy-bodies who crave attention, power, and influence more than anything. For them, issues are nothing more than ammunition to be used against one's adversaries, and the idea of public interest means absolutely nothing to them. They focus on process; it's all about "Who's side are you on?" As Dr. Wheelan points out at Yahoo Finance:

Wonks are often oblivious to political realities, or even dismissive of them.
That is why the world needs political hacks, or just "hacks." The hacks can read the political tea leaves and get stuff passed in a democratic system.

He goes on to compare the wonks to engineers, and the hacks to the guys in the marketing department. It's a good analogy. Well, as someone who has seen politics "from both sides now" (cue Judy Collins), I couldn't agree more with that article. It's well worth reading. Too many academics look down at the practical nuts and bolts of political action, forgetting that deft handling of interpersonal relations can often mean the difference between success and failure. This may seem like an elementary point to some people, but you would be surprised how many students have a hard time grasping such crucial distinctions.

But back to health care, Wheelan lays bare a scathing critique of the way that Obamacare was crafted and made into law:

Remarkably, the Obama administration and its Democratic allies seem to be failing on both the substance and the politics, the health care "victory" notwithstanding. The bills they have been pushing, from the stimulus to health care, are not what policy wonks would recommend. Nobody who is serious about health care policy would have drafted a bill anything like the one that President Obama just signed.

Things aren't much better on the other side, either: "But where are the Republican wonks? There is no intellectual center of gravity in the party right now." How true... frown