Big New Ideas

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Towards the end of a short essay about the low aspirations of modern think tanks, which he thinks are more interested in being better mouthpieces than in shaking up a stodgy establishment, Matt Bai says:

Perhaps the pace and shallowness of our political culture — the echo chamber of pundits and bloggers in which the shelf life of some new slogan can be measured in weeks or even days — makes it all but impossible to sustain a serious public argument over a period of years. Something like Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay on the “end of history,” which influenced a generation of conservative foreign policy, probably wouldn’t resonate today beyond the next news cycle or partisan branding session. Which is a shame, really, because there is an urgent need, on both the left and the right, to modernize rusting ideologies.

Tim Fernholz is unamused:

Bai makes a living as a political writer who takes ideas seriously, but the limit of his engagement with “serious public argument” is clear if he thinks that blogs aren’t a venue for serious discussion. He obviously ignores political scientists, he’s clearly never taken up with deeply wonky blogs like Credit Slips or read budget expert Stan Collender’s work. As for pursuing arguments over years, how long has Ezra Klein been writing about health care? How long has Matt Yglesias been critiquing U.S. foreign policy? How long as Andrew Sullivan explored his own long-standing themes?

Now, I happen to partly agree with this. I thought Bai’s book, The Argument, was terrific (and I still do), but here’s what I said about his contention that the blogosphere doesn’t produce any big new ideas:

Liberal political bloggers generally view the blogosphere as split into two halves: the netroots activists on one side and the “wonkosphere” on the other. They aren’t separate groups so much as two halves of a single brain. Both sides want to win, and both sides want to push the Democratic Party moderately to the left, but it’s the wonkosphere that likes to gab about policy big think. If the blogosphere is ever likely to produce a big new idea in an ideological sense, this is where it’s going to come from.

But you’d never know that, because Bai doesn’t waste any time with the wonkosphere, an omission that’s unfortunate. It’s not that the wonks have necessarily gotten a firm handle on the future […], but at least they’re talking about it. I usually think of the wonkosphere’s discussions as “policy lite,” but even at that they’re frequently more penetrating and more honest than the 300-page white papers from the think tanks. And they make policy interesting and digestible to a huge number of people who wouldn’t otherwise hear anything about it at all.

So, yes: Bai needs to get out more. And yet, reading Tim’s post I’m left wondering again why we bloggers seem so often to be so thinskinned. Bai’s criticism was just the lightest of glancing blows, and he obviously meant it to encompass not just the blogosphere, but also the rise of cable news, the permanent campaign, the dumbing down of think tanks, the MSM’s endless horserace journalism, and so forth. What’s more, he’s right. There are plenty of policy-oriented blogs that do excellent work — often better work than the mainstream media — but they have their downsides too. And one of those downsides, obviously, is that even wonky blogs tend to be reactive, quickly written, and not especially prone to developing deep conversations about genuinely big new ideas. Ezra and Matt do a fine job of explaining and teasing out policy issues as they flit across our radar screens, but I don’t remember either one of them ever making a sustained argument for a genuinely novel and transformative idea.

That’s not a criticism, either. I mine the same territory, after all. It’s just an acknowledgment of what the blogosphere is good at and what it isn’t. So even though I think Bai’s obsession with policy innovation tends to be both misplaced and slightly incoherent, it’s hardly outrageous to suggest that our quick-cut media culture — of which blogs are a part — is making it harder for big new ideas to find a home where they’ll promote a transformative, long-term conversation. Agree or disagree, it’s an argument worth having without getting defensive about the blogosphere’s role in it, for both good and ill.

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