Knowledge is not power: The limits of wonkery

A recent study that compiled thousands of scientific papers on climate change showed that 97% of them agreed that global warming is happening and humans are the cause.

Does it matter?  Probably not even a little bit.

This exposes the inherent limitations of being a policy wonk.  The major barriers to tackling climate change are not that the science doesn’t prove it’s real, or that we haven’t developed effective policy mechanisms for dealing with it.  It’s that the fossil fuel lobby is richer than God and down to get dirty.

I think it’s important for all of us doing political work to have a strong grasp of policy.  It not only helps us make persuasive arguments, it keeps us from wasting our time fighting for stupid shit.  Understanding all the wonky things allows us to identify our goals for social change, for example equal opportunity in education, and pick good ideas to fight for, like universal preschool, rather than bad ideas, like forgiving all student debt.

Now I spend a lot of time nerding out and getting my Wonkblog on.  But there’s a certain arrogance within the world of policy that drives me crazy.

Al_Gore_31

Policy expertise without the political muscle to back it up is a body-less brain floating in a jar of self-satisfied goo.  We could call it… I don’t know… a think tank?

Among the things I dislike about DC is that everybody wants to be a policy analyst.  People naturally like the clean ivory tower where they can all pat each other on the back for being a smartypants and go to conferences and speak on panels and whatnot.

If wonks had their way we would eliminate agriculture subsidies, replace taxes on good things like income with taxes on bad things like carbon emissions, and shift almost all aid programs to the poor (food stamps, rental subsidies, etc.) to direct cash assistance that they could use to buy whatever they want.

Why don’t any of the above policies happen even though probably 90% of PhD economists would agree with them?  Ask anyone who works on Capitol Hill and they’ll tell you they’re not “politically feasible”.  What does that mean?  What defines the realm of political feasibility?

Power.  It doesn’t matter if all the smart people agree on something.  Smart people are not the same as powerful people.

Knowledge is not power.  Only power is power.

From knowledge, emerges ideas.  Ideas inspire organizers who draw together people and resources.  Those people and resources build organizations that drive forward movements.  And that creates the power to make social change.

But often we forget all the steps in the middle.

Power comes from doing all the things we don’t like.  We don’t like squeezing our refined ideas into everyday language to appeal to the hearts and minds of the uneducated masses.  We don’t like ruthlessly cutting down our intellectual explorations into short soundbites for the media so they can reach a broader audience.  We don’t like the exhausting and disheartening cycle of outreach and rejection necessary to recruit new members from outside our narrow intellectual circles.  We don’t like the slow, frustrating task of developing the skills and confidence of doe-eyed young activists and who have some tiny possibility of becoming leaders one day.  We don’t like asking for the money we need to run every single day-to-day operation of an organization.  We don’t like the give and take of building alliances with groups whose interests don’t perfectly align with ours.   We don’t like the secrecy and bitterness and messiness of backing imperfect candidates running for office or the tedious foot-work of getting out the vote.

We all want to work at a goddamn think tank.

My message to the wonks out there is not to give up your wonkery.  It’s to get out from behind your desk every once in a while and dive into the more messy, uncertain work of politics, the stuff that your parents think is less respectable.

Engage directly with the everyday people impacted by the policies you think about.  Bring together people who are suspicious of each other at first.  Take risks.  Get rejected.  Get a door slammed in your face.  Learn something every day from someone who hasn’t gone to college.  Chant till you lose your voice.  Look stupid sometimes.  Smile when an elected official gives you and your crowd that frustrated look.  Work on an issue you think isn’t that important but that a majority of your group voted on.  Give up a TV interview to someone else whose leadership you’re developing, even if you know they’re going to fuck it up.

Maybe you’ll end up feeling like I do, that alternating back and forth between wonky research and mass communications and grassroots organizing is the most fulfilling work you can do.

Or maybe not, but at least you’ll prove me wrong when I call you a nerd.

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