Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Field Guide to Political Creatures

American politics can be better understood by looking at three important political creatures – the wonk, the hack and the zealot. Here's a brief introduction.


Occasionally shy, the wonk may be tracked by following its trail of citations. Quotation droppings can also serve as useful clues. Wonks are especially fond of chewing on obscure policy papers and classic works such as this one (that coincidentally captures the wonk mindset):

Meno: Somehow, Socrates, I think what you say is right.

Socrates: I think so too, Meno. I do not insist that my argument is right in all other respects, but I would contend at all costs both in word and deed as far as I could that we will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know, rather than if we believe that it is not possible to find out what we do not know and that we must not look for it.

Highly inquisitive and giddy over problem-solving, wonks typically possess enormous stamina that aids them in poring over legislative bills, detailed memos and original documents. Many prefer a dry climate. It's not uncommon for male wonks to sport beards, but beware the moustache of understanding. The wonk is most easily found in one of its natural habitats – academic departments, activist meetings, certain blogs, Scandinavian award ceremonies and PBS shows. The wonk responds well to empirical data, geeky humor and sometimes wit, but certain breeds can become confused and flustered by prolonged exposure to bullshit. When provoked, some wonks utter a piercing, shrill cry that petrifies their enemies.


Over the years, once mighty herds of news wonks were hunted mercilessly in the name of profit, contributing to the ascendancy of the hack. Steven Pearlstein describes the devastation after a typical swarm of hacks:

The recent attacks by Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers on the effort to reform the health-care system have been so misleading, so disingenuous, that they could only spring from a cynical effort to gain partisan political advantage. By poisoning the political well, they've given up any pretense of being the loyal opposition. They've become political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus on one of its most serious domestic problems.

There are lots of valid criticisms that can be made against the health reform plans moving through Congress -- I've made a few myself. But there is no credible way to look at what has been proposed by the president or any congressional committee and conclude that these will result in a government takeover of the health-care system. That is a flat-out lie whose only purpose is to scare the public and stop political conversation…

The hack thrives in moist, damp environments, such as loss-leader magazines, conservative think tanks, political television shows and talk radio cess pools. Hacks display a variety of plumage, often preen and strut, and sometimes can be identified by a sneer or other look of disdain. They play better with their own kind (assuming similar markings), but frequently grow territorial, aggressive and predatory around any other creatures. Some try to disguise themselves as wonks as a hunting technique, with varying degrees of success. They require constant scrutiny, since they tend to steal or destroy anything not firmly secured. Some are quite belligerent, yet prove cowardly when confronted. When pinned down, a hack often flails about wildly, and may bite off its own leg to escape (some instead go very, very still).


Let's move on to our third type of political creature. Noted Zealotologist John Cole writes:

Now- nobody SANE is arguing that the health care reform proposals will include death panels, which is probably why James [Joyner] thinks it is so preposterous. He is sane.

On the other hand, the same crazy people who the right wing has whipped into a froth the past couple of decades sure as hell do believe there are going to be death panels. But then again, they also think a small increase in the top marginal rate is socialism, that Sarah Palin would make a great president, that you can make people ungay with therapy, that the earth is ten thousand years old, that Obama was born in Kenya and doesn’t say the pledge of allegiance and was sworn in on a Quran, that the Clinton death list is real and that Hillary murdered Vince Foster, and on and on and on. And operatives in the Republican party, to include elected officials, have spent decades making people believe this stuff. We didn’t imagine Dan Burton shooting pumpkins in his backyard and we aren’t imagining Richard Shelby and others pushing birther nonsense. There is an entire industry pushing this crap.

While the zealot desires that its perceived enemies huddle in the cold (and die), the zealot itself prefers a hot climate, to match its burning rage. Zealots are fond of rituals of shared grievance and fictional courage. The zealot can found wielding teabags, threatening to "go Galt," bullying politicians and citizens at town hall meetings, agreeing with Bill O'Reilly, and crouching in caves covered in batshit. Zealots are best handled with caution or avoided altogether if possible. Their inscrutable, sphinx-like logic can prove hypnotizing, and even the brave of heart and nimble of mind may find him or herself captivated. Disruptive but normally a limited threat in isolation, zealots in numbers can grow dangerous. When challenged or agitated, the zealot can puff up in size and employ a relentless sonic attack.

It can be difficult at times to distinguish hacks from zealots, and the two often intermingle. In fact, they often can't tell each other apart. Traits of hackery and zealotry may ebb and flow back and forth - or coexist - in the same entity. Field studies have discovered hacks and zealots cavorting together, rolling in tall piles of false talking point papers mixed with fresh batshit. Regardless, for dealing with either type, protective fact-checking and latex gloves are highly recommended. Prolonged exposure is best countered with equal or greater time with basically sane, decent people, wandering in nature, or doing something generally positive. If, after exposure to either type, your annoyance lasts more than four hours, turn off the TV.

There's at least one more important political creature that bears mentioning – the Jester. The most insightful of these can be found on basic cable. Impervious to bullshit, and eager to call it out, they are the only creature hacks fear more than wonks. (They're also an exception to the "turn off the TV" rule.)

In any case, that's a partial field manual to political creatures. Join us next time, when we'll diagram a Glenn Beck monologue with crazy string.

(I've linked it before, but Steve Benen has a better –and more realistic - breakdown on the different types of opponents to health care reform. See also "Bush's War Against Wonks" by Bruce Reed and A Political Bestiary. This post is basically a tongue-in-cheek riff on part of an older, serious and very long post on American politics. And of course Stewart, Colbert and a number of other bloggers do better satire.)

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

1 comment:

debg said...

very useful! and clever as always