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Welcome to the winter of the wonk

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The elections taking place around the world this year are some of the most consequential in modern history — and yet they somehow have all the appeal of a contest for student council president. For these are elections without ideas, full of politics without policy and fierce debate over values but none over direction. It is a bitter, baffling world for those who have devoted their lives to thinking about how society might organise itself better. Welcome to the winter of the wonk.

Donald Trump has no shortage of policy ideas, it is true — from ramping up trade tariffs to the direct election of school principals and “crushing the deep state” — but barely even a theory for how they are supposed to make anything better. His all-but-defeated primary opponent Nikki Haley (who refuses to go home even though the restaurant staff are putting chairs on the tables and flicking the light switch on and off) has no discernible policies full stop.

The Democratic side is not much better. After a first term in which his signature policy initiative was a big, one-off, and not particularly well-timed green spending plan — the so-called Inflation Reduction Act — Joe Biden seems determined to seek a second term mainly on the pledge of not being Donald Trump. Since nobody in the Democratic party is allowed to criticise their obviously vulnerable candidate, there is no policy debate. In the UK, meanwhile, the Conservative party ran out of ideas a long time ago, while Labour seems determined not to have any that might prevent its polling lead from becoming an election victory.

Policy is always a poor relation to politics; elections are a big picture contest between different visions for society, ideas about nationhood or preferences over the role of the state. Yet for many years, voters expected their governments to have some idea of how to do things better, not just more nationalist or more liberal, more free market or more left-wing. That was the role of the wonk. It was true during the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan governments of the 1980s, which were backed by a lot of conservative thought, and reached a technocratic apogee under Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the 1990s. Those were the years of wonk apotheosis, of policy seminars at the heart of government — of nudges and incentives, the third way, congestion charges, resource shifts to early years education and public service reform.

The subsequent decline of the wonk was partly due to their own failure. Centrist reforms were never enough by themselves to satisfy a large political constituency, but the failures that led to the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent bailouts — designed according to impeccable technocratic principles, but incomprehensible to the average voter and deeply unpopular — blew up the idea that competent leaders could reform their way to a better world.

Subsequent developments have dug wonkism into an even deeper hole. During the pandemic, technocrats were to the fore: in some countries they did well, in others badly, but in almost all they made themselves unpopular. War in Ukraine and the return of great power competition between the US and China has revived a certain kind of wonk — the kind who runs war-games and looks at satellite photos — but conflict calls for defence spending, not schemes for a better society. Meanwhile, the steady ageing of populations and the decline of economic growth rates in advanced countries means there is ever less money to smooth the path for technocratic reforms.

Giving up on policy, society has gone back to politics. Plenty of people are happy about that: those who want a hard shift to the left or right; whose main interests are cultural, not economic; or who disliked efforts to isolate parts of policy from politics and give them over to pointy-headed bureaucrats, running independent central banks or bodies to regulate drug purchasing.

But does anybody truly feel better off for the past decade of public affairs? For the tax cuts unmoored from the rising social security bill, the feasts and famines in public spending, the diminution of free trade in the name of national sovereignty? To wonkish eyes, one of the most frustrating things about populist governments is that for all the sound and fury, they have barely changed the role of the state at all — just made it less effective.

What is a wonk to do when nobody is listening? They can, at least, point out the nonsense in political proposals. There is no route to greater prosperity through economic nationalism or spending masses of public money. Reforms to make the government and economy function better may be bloodless as politics, and difficult to implement, but at least they work — and need not be incompatible with the right-wing or left-wing priorities of your choice.

Right now, there is no appetite for such schemes at all, which is ironic given there are more wonks about than ever, pouring out of university social science departments, holding think-tank events for each other and filling PDF reports that nobody in power cares to read. It is time for a different approach. There is no point coming up with schemes for social betterment and then asking the political system to implement them. Instead, the challenge is the reverse: what reforms to the political system would make it once again interested in social and economic betterment? Answers will not come easily. That, however, is the wonkage the world needs now.

robin.harding@ft.com

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