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.