Don’t Explain

by Michael Kinnucan

Howard Hawks. His Girl Friday. 1940. Feature film. 1 h. 32 m.

This article appears in Even no. 6, published in spring 2017.

“Barack Obama is Officially One of the Most Consequential Presidents in American History,” blared the lead story on this past summer. It’s a perfect example of the explainer journalism that Vox has come to embody, and that other digital publications have come to adopt, not only in its sweepingly authoritative yet casual tone (note the headline’s “officially”), but in its ethos: counterintuitive, nerdy, and focused to the point of myopia on policy detail. The author, one Dylan Matthews, knew quite well that he was arguing against the dominant media narrative, which held that Obama’s eight-year-old promise of a transformative presidency had been a bit of a fizzle. Matthews proposed that the little tweaks were the big deal. If you focused on policy, not big ideas, then the president who passed the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank, who pushed through executive orders on immigration, labor rights, and climate change, was far more consequential than Clinton or Reagan. After all, “the point of politics is policy,” as Ezra Klein, the defining wonk journalist, wrote soon after he left the Washington Post to found Vox in 2014.

That this stance has not aged well is the least one can say. On the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration, with Republicans maintaining the same firm hold on Congress they won in 2010, what’s most breathtaking about Obama’s presidency is how entirely inconsequential it turns out to have been. Every single policy initiative of the past eight years, from the ACA down through all those executive orders to our ratification of the Paris climate accord, will be overturned with a vengeance in the next two years; by 2018, it will be as if the Obama administration had never happened. The technical complexity and lack of flashiness which made the wonkbloggers love a program like the ACA — Vox spent years churning out graphs and explainers in its defense — turns out to be its fatal weakness. Unlike, say, Medicare, whose passage created a mass constituency for its continued existence, the ACA is too complicated and clunky to have garnered much support. (Heck, I buy my insurance through the ACA and even I don’t like it.) One doctor in Texas, trying to understand why his poor, newly insured patients didn’t turn out for the Democrats in 2016, put it this way: “If you need a team of economists, Vox, and two hundred men wearing lanyards to explain how you’re helping the poor, maybe you aren’t.” Maybe!

Barack Obama speaks to Ezra Klein for an interview, with explanatory graphics, on 2015.

Hating explainer journalism in general, and Vox in particular, is a sport for both the right and the left. Its self-confidence and glibness, the way it passes its presuppositions off as pure facts, rankles a lot of people. What is the ideology of the explainer, then? The Irish political scientist Henry Farrell would call it “left neoliberalism”: a broad (neoliberal) acceptance that relatively free markets are the best way, or at least the only “realistic” way, to organize society, combined with a progressive insistence that those markets’ products be fairly redistributed. Forget unions, forget mass movements; bureaucrats are the heroes here. This is politically naïve, of course (who’s going to push for a redistributive state without the political power of organized workers?), and passing it off with a smirk as “just the facts” is doubly so. The wonkbloggers, though, are innocent of history. They conceive politics as negotiation rather than struggle.

But the complaint that false neutrality is the real trouble with Vox and its ilk — Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the New York Times’s Upshot blog — lacks context. Sure, neutrality is a pose, but it’s the pose modern American journalism is built on. Ezra Klein hardly invented the notion of presenting facts without fear or favor; that notion of a fair and accurate press is what makes the “good” newspapers like the Times tick. But Klein came on the scene at a moment of crisis for that pose. Journalistic neutrality depends on political consensus, on an at least approximate framework of facts and values shared among American political elites. That consensus, already unraveling, came completely undone after 2008, with the accelerating radicalization of one of the major parties, which forced papers like the Times (Silver’s former employer) and the Post (Klein’s) into a predicament as ugly as Sophie’s Choice. When one party claims that Obamacare features death panels and its creator is a Muslim, you have to choose: report the claims at face value, fairly but inaccurately, or call them out as wrong, accurately but unfairly. Hence the appeal, for Klein and his acolytes, of the explainer format. Running the numbers and relying on research papers seemed to offer an escape from the madness of American politics and the inadequacies of political journalism. It dissolved the issue of interpretation, and hence fairness, in a cloud of accuracy, or at least data.

And the data had its charms. In the best hands (Matthew Yglesias comes to mind), it was frequently the most interesting and informative commentary on American politics in the Obama era, however ideologically compromised or confused. And simultaneously party-driven ideology mattered less than ever; for the past decade, stuck with a bifurcated government in the straitjacket of American checks and balances, the details of executive actions were the only thing to read about. Given the impossibility of real change, a glib consensus on the art of the (im)possible was in some ways just accurate reporting.

Now the change has come, wrenchingly fast, and a journalism of explanation no longer seems sufficient. Klein wrote, before the election, that “Donald Trump’s candidacy is the first time US politics has left me truly afraid.” It should make all of us afraid, but especially him. The wonkbloggers always looked down on political rhetoric; they saw it as essentially vulgar and vacant, a dirty business that unhappily precedes the real work. Trump, though, is the ultimate victory of vulgar rhetoric over real governance, and it turns out that without politics, policy is just words.