Ezra Klein and “Substance”

Bhaskar Sunkara takes on one of his favorite targets, Ezra Klein:

Klein is the archetype for modern American liberalism, so much so that he disavows being a liberal at all. He’s a centrist technocrat, obsessed over policy, ignoring politics, honestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel sheet. When he told Alec MacGillis that “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,” he was just embodying a new center-left commonsense: liberals are anti-political.

Unfortunately, anti-political proclivities are present across the political spectrum (even on the radical left, as I argue in a forthcoming Jacobin essay). Sunkara is right, though, to pay special attention to the “solution-oriented” strand of American  liberalism, of which Klein and company are avatars. Because of their prominence, they’ve had an appreciable impact on American political discourse, and perceptions of the left.

Klein defines himself as a classic positivist would: “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.”

Even in his days as a liberal, he adopted a similar attitude, derisively dismissing principle-based debates. Here’s Klein talking with an exasperated Will Wilkinson nearly six years ago. (Bonus: watch the rest of that conversation, and you’ll get to see Klein associate himself with the proletariat and describe himself as “about as close to a democratic socialist as you come in America”!)

Klein casts himself as the pragmatist, running the numbers while Wilkinson’s head is in the sky, focused on immaterial things like Rawls’s theory of justice. Wilkinson is no man of the left, but he’s correct in this case: you have to establish the ends before you can determine the efficacy of the means. Values and principles aren’t self-evident.

Often chided for its abstract philosophizing, the left has to lucidly articulate a compelling set of moral principles if it’s to advance a viable political project. Discussions of principles can quickly become abstruse, but there has to be a happy medium between Klein-style policy pragmatism and esoteric theorizing. Theory can be divorced from practice, but the reverse is a danger as well.

To me, the most insidious effect Klein et al. have had is this: Those who want to be considered relevant and substantive basically have to comport themselves in the same way.

If you aren’t citing a graph, you’re either a partisan hack or an irrelevant academic.

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant editor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at shawn.gude@gmail.com or on Twitter @shawngude.


  1. I don’t know about this. Its true Klein is focused on finding solutions. Good for him. Its also true we need both theory and practice. But i think far to many poli arguments ignore if something is possible or if theory, you know, actually works. We have lots of debates around here where earnest conservative and libertarians proclaim about freedom as a first principle from which all solutions must follow. However they are disinclined, to say the least, to hear or answer the question about whether Freedom or Free Markets will reach the ends they want. Or if they do acknowledge the question the answer is supposed to be a self-evident “of course it does.”

    For Klein, and someone like myself, something like Uni HC is a a good and noble end. There you go, thats an end, now lets talk about how to get there. Libs have plenty of ends in mind, we just don’t talk about in the same abstruse philosophical manner that makes some others all warm and fuzzy.

  2. (rolls eyes to heaven) Lenin once said To accept anything on trust, to preclude critical application and development, is a grievous sin; and in order to apply and develop, “simple interpretation” is obviously not enough.

    Trouble was, Lenin was a man of ideas and his applications and developments came later. That’s the sovereign failure of Communism in a nutshell. But here Lenin said something important. The Left has always enjoyed the advantage of the facts. Though we’re always being accused of being pie-eyed idealists, the suffering of the world is beyond denial.

  3. That video is the most excruciatingly frustrating thing. It’s really an impressive feat to pull off coming across as both pedantic and stupid, but Klein pulls it off.

  4. Oh, and– they often just ignore the graphs, too, when they don’t favor their preconceptions. Absolutely perfect example: school reform. As a matter of pure empiricism, the school reform movement has been an outrageous failure. In fact it’s been one of the most outrageous failures in the history of American public policy. Yet Klein et al. show no interest at all in moving away from school reform. So I guess they aren’t just brains in a jar, after all.

  5. the left has to lucidly articulate a compelling set of moral principles if it’s to advance a viable political project. Discussions of principles can quickly become abstruse,

    I realize I’m taking that quote out of context, but it’s just such a loaded bunch of hogwash; and the same descriptions could easily apply to Republicans or libertarians. Examples might include abstracts like ‘cutting taxes promotes growth’ (shown to be untrue by historical data) or the whole libertarian argument of getting rid of much of government without laying out paths of how one gets from here to there.

    • “Cutting taxes promotes growth” is an empirical claim that has to be assessed empirically. “We should pursue policies that promote growth” is a normative claim that has to be assessed theoretically. That’s entirely Shawn’s point.

      • Excellently put.

        A road map is a useful and necessary thing, but you still need a clear idea of where you want to go.

  6. Though of course I don’t agree with him (most of the time) (well, some of the time), you know who does this blend of wonkyness and politics well?

    Chris Hayes.

    (and he’s able to do it on TV too)

  7. Freddie’s reply to zic, above, cuts to the heart of it. For liberals of a technocratic persuasion, there are only empirical questions. Normative questions are best avoided, or their existence denied, and those who engage them earnestly must perforce be irrelevant or on the fringes. The technocratic vision of a wholly empirical approach to policymaking is the dream for the withering away of politics, of the need to contest, persuade, and engage in (self-) criticsm, of the strong and slow boring of hard boards.

    • I won’t dispute that, but to add to it:
      The weighting of normative propositions is absent; ie, balancing competing interests; eg, “We should institute policies which foster growth, up to Point X,” and “We should institute policies which foster economic stability up to Point Y,” where X and Y are at odds (or unclear).

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