Politics, Ideology, and Journalism

Conor Friedersdorf has a very smart piece at The Atlantic calling out The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein for characterizing himself as data-driven and Paul Ryan as ideological. It’s impossible to disagree with the central claim of the piece:

I’ll never demand that Klein self-identify as a movement liberal or progressive. But he is deeply mistaken when he avers that policy can be grounded in no more than currents of data, or that his writerly output is divorced from disputed value judgments and philosophical foundations. As Will Wilkinson once told him, “There’s no avoiding the fact that, if you’re doing anything with policy at all, you’re trying to achieve some goal. If you think that the goal is one that’s worth having, you have to have some rational justification for why that’s the end that we ought to be aiming at.” Following facts where they lead is smart and necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Yep. And frankly I’d love to read a post by Ezra outlining for his readers his moral philosophy. But I still think there’s a very real sense in which Klein’s manner of analysis is in fact pragmatic and Ryan’s is, at least arguably, more ideological.

That sense is one I’ve thought about a lot in the context of similar debates about Obama, who loves to claim that he’s just a pragmatist. Conservatives happily point out essentially just what Friedersdorf did here: that it’s impossible to advance policies without some ideology pointing the way.

But in the context of today’s American politics, I consider “pragmatism” to mean, simply, that one’s ideology is agnostic on the proper role of government. Take the example of the utilitarian. Her ideology seeks to maximize happiness. She’s certainly not valueless, she holds an ideology, yet her ideology says nothing specific about one of the biggest questions in U.S. politics. When asked what the proper role of government is, she looks to the evidence to see which policies optimize happiness.

Even a Rawlsian, for whom justice is specifically about the role of social institutions, consults the evidence to determine whether government should be bigger, smaller, more or less active.

Contrast that to small government conservatism, in which a central value is that, all else equal, less government is better. Sure, the most sophisticated conservatives, particularly those who work in think tanks and the like, aren’t likely to hold such a principled view. They’d rather couch their support of small government relative to values like liberty, self-reliance, or welfare. But it’s hard to deny that the principle that less government is better plays a serious role in conservative politics.

It’s in this sense that I think Klein is in fact data driven in a way that Ryan probably is not. Sure, Klein’s not a blank slate when he considers the proper role of government in the healthcare system, but nor does he place moral weight on one side of the scales. I doubt the same can be said of Ryan; it certainly can’t be said of many conservatives.

None of this detracts from Friedersdorf’s point. It’s possible to take the ‘driven by data’ perspective so far as to fall into the same traps as the ‘view from nowhere.’ But once all the ideological disclosures are on the table, I suspect the difference outlined above would still remain. Political pragmatism, to me, does mean something. Everyone has values, but some of us hold values that directly answer the policy questions we’re asking, before evidence is ever brought to bear.