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Paul Ryan, Überwonk

An epitaph for technocracy

Paul Ryan is not a wonk. Or he was, until he wasn’t. Just five years ago, reverence for the Republican from Wisconsin constituted a rare point of mutual faith within the Beltway. He was the only man on offer who could combine so well the reactionary’s moral quest to starve the poor and the data-pundit’s enthusiasm for charts that can prove any policy is Good, Actually. Ryan was the first Republican in a generation to really “understand” the budget—and his popularity wasn’t hurt by the fact that he was also a buff prom king. He was perfect. Ezra Klein, First Wonk of the modern era, praised Ryan’s “fluency” on the issues and “refreshing” willingness to have an honest conversation, finding fault only in Ryan’s decision to defend somebody else’s ideas for the purposes of election. Even his detractors conceded the power of Ryan’s reputation. “One you earn a reputation as a Serious Man in Washington,” wrote Alec Macgillis in a lengthy New Republic profile in the fall of 2012, “it is almost impossible to lose it.” Almost impossible, but not entirely.

As the Republican Party spent the following four years stumbling into control at every level of our government, Paul Ryan’s own fortunes appeared, at first, to rise with it. He became budget chairman and, after a John Boehner flounce and another congressman’s alleged extramarital affair, the speaker of the house. But then the idea of “Paul Ryan, wonk” transformed from a serious proposition into a punchline, a joke at the expense of the wonk-minded liberal desperate to find a peer across the aisle. By 2015, while there were still outlets trying to keep faith in Ryan’s wonkiness alive, they did so somewhat quizzically (“Paul Ryan: Budget wonk to Congress’s rescue?” asked the Christian Science Monitor). Even the excitable boys over at Lawyers, Guns and Money moved on. (Once you’ve lost their credulity, what’s left?) Then, last month, the faith was broken conclusively. Despite a sympathetic president, a Republican majority in both houses, and years of promises, Paul Ryan failed to pass the American Health Care Act. “Downfall of a Policy Wonk,” read the headline at Salon. Even Wonkblog itself, the Ezra Klein blog-turned-Washington Post outlet that had affirmed Ryan’s reputation as a Serious Man in Washington, did not spare the congressman. “Is Paul Ryan a policy guy, or does he just play one on TV?” it asked. The answer was implied. The New Republic called it the “death” of a policy genius. Ryan had spent years becoming the king of reactionary wonkery. But at the hour of his crowning glory, he had faltered. He had failed. Now he’s dead.

Friedrich Nietzsche predicted all of this, of course. At the beginning of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s 1891 personal fantasy about what it might be like to be so clever but without all the migraines, hopeless crushes, and academic decadence, Zarathustra comes to a town on the edge of a forest and begins to preach about the depravity of the West. The townspeople don’t care. They’ve come out to see a tightrope walker, and after Zarathustra has blathered on too long about the Übermensch, one of the locals cuts him off with a savage pun: “Now we have heard enough about the tightrope walker; now let us see him too!” (The pun is better in German.) “All the people laughed at Zarathustra,” Nietzsche writes.

The crowd, once so enamored with the idea of the performer, loses interest.

But when the tightrope walker finally appears, it does not go well. Emerging from a town tower and making it halfway across the rope toward another, he is suddenly set upon by a demonic jester. The jester mocks the tightrope walker, chasing after him, screeching, jumping over his head. The walker panics and loses his balance, tumbling down and landing “badly maimed and disfigured.” The crowd, once so enamored with the idea of the performer, loses interest, and Zarathustra is left to console the broken man.

“I am not much more than a beast that has been taught to dance by blows and a few meager morsels,” says the tightrope walker with his dying breath. But Zarathustra contradicts him, because for Nietzsche, it was no shame to fail or die in the commission of your will. The trouble was in a decadent society, members of which would rather gawk and cheer than follow their vocation. It was the time of the last man, as Nietzsche calls him, who is bound by paralysis, unable to imagine or countenance any ambition beyond tinkering with the present hell, committed only to the endless dogmatic repetition of the sameness of the world. At least the tightrope walker got on the fucking tightrope and tried. “You have made danger your vocation,” says Zarathustra, “there is nothing contemptible in that. Now you perish of your vocation: for that I will bury you with my own hands.”

The tightrope walker died and the crowd dispersed. But they are still living, and now, over a century later, we know these gawking, halfway-clever last townspeople by a different name: the wonks.

What, after all, is a wonk? It is not the same thing as an expert, although those are tedious as well. In a 2011 interview with Newsweek, Ezra Klein explained that he gave Wonkblog its name (and accepted the moniker himself) in an “effort to denote that we’re doing something a lot different by covering Washington through a policy lens.” This fits well with what Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Morgan meant when he introduced the term into American political vernacular back in 1992 by applying it to then-candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore: they were politicians, to be sure, but ones with a “preference for arcane policy details over back-slapping and baby-kissing.” Jacobin editor-in-chief Bhaskar Sunkara, in a 2013 essay for In These Times, gave the term a less charitable reading, but the essence is the same. The wonk, he wrote, is a “technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet.”

The wonk is not a player, but a card collector.

What is remarkable in all of these applications of the term wonk—positive, negative, and neutral—is their verbiage. The wonk covers. The wonk prefers. The wonk obsesses and searches. What he does not do, notably, is act. The wonk is not a player, but a card collector—a nerd who can tell you the batting order of every Washington Nationals team since before they defected for Minnesota the first time, but who couldn’t catch a pop fly if they were sitting on the hugest, classiest shoulders in the world. The wonk is a fan, but for tinkering with tax brackets. It is not his actual knowledge that matters, nor his ability to predict anything about the future (much less his capacity to change it). The wonk is defined by his interest, by his devotion to the churning irrelevant details of a game that ordinary people watch to see who actually wins and loses. Wonks announce their affection for “arcane details,” but we would be wise to keep in mind that this also implies what they are not interested in. Wonks are not interested in vision, or in power, or in the hearts of citizens who are not moved by a positive report from the Congressional Budget Office.

Like any superfan, the wonk claims dispassionate expertise—too down in the weeds to see the forest or the trees—but this insistence is at odds with reality. They have strong preferences for this team or for that one, for one bootleg recording or another, for the best Star Trek captain of all time: the whole purpose of their vaunted expertise is to transform their subjective desires into objective facts, the result of obsessive study to shore up what is essentially an opinion about a game that does not really affect them. You find few wonks among the poor for the same reason you’ll find few really hardcore Deadheads among them: You don’t really have time to follow your pet hobby across the country when you’re waiting to see if Congress decides to let you feed your kids this year. You’ll be happy if the band just comes to town.

Like all obsessives, the wonk only has one real preference: that nothing ever change. Then they’d have to learn the rules all over again. Then all that interest would be for naught. It was better before they tried to make it so accessible to newbies, they were better before they went mainstream, the real game got lost when they made all those stupid changes to the rules. The wonk’s essential function in technocracy is to explain (they are always, always explaining): why History is Over, why justice is not possible, why evil can’t win and you can’t win either, how a little fix here and there is all we can really hope for. The futility of all of this does not discourage the wonk. The point is that they’re interested, that they’re searching. They’re more interested and more searching and more obsessed than you’ll ever be, poser.

The wonks do not do this because they cannot imagine a radically different world. They do it because a radically different world wouldn’t be the one they’ve spent so much time declaring themselves the only real masters of, because a radically different world might suggest that all that time spent studying the narrow possibilities of liberal capitalism, all that time merely describing the world, that all of that was just missing the point. Change occurs anyway.

All of this makes Paul Ryan into a paradox, and not just because he was a conservative wonk, rare in a world where tinkering with earned income credits and just-short-of-universal health care schemes jive much more easily with liberalism’s vision of a slightly kinder hell. Ryan is a paradox because unlike the wonks at the Washington Post, Vox, and Slate, he made the draft and topped the batting order. “When policy gets made, it falls to Ryan,” Jeet Heer wrote in the New Republic last month, “Perhaps the only positive outcome of the current turmoil is that it might, at long last, destroy Ryan’s reputation for policy expertise . . . his long con is now obvious for all the world to see.”

Paul Ryan did not fail because he is not really a wonk. He failed precisely because he is one.

But Ryan did not fail because he is not really a wonk. He failed precisely because he is one. The notion that the American Health Care Act did not pass because Ryan failed to master the policy details is an insane proposition, the same kind that imagined Hillary Clinton would become the forty-fifth president because voters love the sight of a leader slinging a fat stack of whitepapers. (Instead Donald Trump’s victory was a cultural defeat for wonks, and all that they hold dear: facts, consensus, expertise—or, at least, an aesthetic commitment to those things.) Ryan’s health care act was fine on the details, at least so far as an 80:20 compromise between the reactionary desire to give the poor what’s coming to them and a last grasp on sanity goes. The trouble is that the details didn’t matter. The Democrats had voters to posture for. So did the Freedom Caucus. The president didn’t care, and to the extent that the people did, they didn’t object to details they weren’t familiar with, but to the whole moral enterprise on offer. Paul Ryan failed because wonks fail, because wonkery does not change the world.

Or, put it this way: Paul Ryan went out onto the tightrope. The crowd, so long adoring their golden child, cheered. But the jester got the best of Ryan too. The outcome was the same as it was in Zarathustra: Ryan lost his balance, and tumbled to the ground. Again, the crowd turned. Again, they squawked and joked and expelled him from their ranks, denying that he was ever one of them at all. But there is nothing contemptible in Ryan’s failure. The trouble was his method, his explaining and obsessing, and his disinterest, ultimately, in action.

Paul Ryan is not a wonk. Or he was, until he wasn’t. Paul Ryan was a wonk, but he went over. He did not transcend wonkdom, but like the tightrope walker, he attained through ambition and through accident what no explaining pundit wonk has ever managed: real power. He became the Überwonk. His fellows cannot abandon him now. Like Zarathustra, they must take up his body, and bury it with their hands.