While the Democratic and Republican National Conventions were underway, I took some time to discuss the Right, the Left, and the two major American parties. But there was one quadrant that never got clarified. So put on your Policy Wonk hat, because we’re about to get technical.
As I mentioned previously, the Democratic Party lives on the Elitists axis, vacillating — depending on the issue — between mildly progressive and quite conservative. But what is it that defines the intersection between Elitist and Progressive? What does a political ideology or governmental philosophy that falls in that area look like?
Say hello to the Technocrats.
Technocrats can be elected, but most do their best work in unelected positions. They are the bureaucrats who work behind the scenes, implementing small changes to rules and regulations in an effort to make things better in tiny, targeted ways. Technocrats don’t speak the language of rights or mass movements. Instead, they favor a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. They are more concerned with pragmatism than idealism, and with what they feel they can do right now over what they feel is best long term.
Barack Obama is the ur-technocrat. Obama believes in the System, the web of elected and unelected voices working behind the scenes. The Ivy League wealthy, the Silicon Valley innovators — to Obama and others like him, these were the people who deserved the reins of power, because they’d proven that they were smart enough to handle it responsibly. Workers? Workers can’t be trusted to manage their own affairs. The System will take care of it. You just have to have faith. Maybe start a committee. And don’t forget to vote once every four years!
In defense of the technocrats, sometimes they do genuinely do great things. Michael Lewis’ The Fifth Risk is a book-length paean to the good work done behind the scenes by what is now derisively referred to as the ‘Deep State.’ I shouldn’t be surprised that the Obamas optioned the book for a Netflix docu-series, should I? I’ll be honest: I tend to find Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites to be a more honest and insightful look at the technocracy as a force in society, though there is value in The Fifth Risk too.
Tony Blair in the UK was a big early proponent of technocratic governance, of what was then known as the ‘Third Way’. Blaire once said, “What matters is what works to give effect to our values.” He went on to say:
With the right policies, market mechanisms are critical to meeting social objectives, entrepreneurial zeal can promote social justice, and new technology represents an opportunity, not a threat.Tony Blair in the Independent.
At the time, I think people believed that those values were ‘meeting social objectives’, ‘social justice’, and ‘opportunity.’ You might notice how vague those are, and how little Tony Blair and other Third Way icons like Bill Clinton did to actually do those things. That is because the values he wanted to give effect to were the other side of the equations, the specifics: ‘market mechanisms’, ‘entrepreneurial zeal’, and ‘new technology.’
This, to me, defines the Technocrat: What’s important is not what happens, but how it happens.
Bill Clinton killed welfare. He saw a system he decided was broken, looked at the research given to him, and chose to reform what the system. We will never know how many tens of thousands have died in the years since, because of that decision — but he certainly promoted market mechanisms! And the entrepreneurial zeal of the private prison industry couldn’t have skyrocketed without technocratic support of ‘police reform’ that shoveled money and power into police departments across the nation while stripping power from judges and social services. Judges and social services don’t make money, they cost money. Technocrats don’t like that.
The rosiest possible view I can give to the Technocrats goes like this: We live in an imperfect world. You have to be pragmatic. Introducing work requirements to Medicaid may let us expand the system to conservative states, it could help weed out fraud, and it’s something we may be able to pass on a bipartisan basis! It’s not pretty, but it works.
That said: Does it work? It works for you, the politician passing the law. It works for the algorithm that predicted a small but measurable improvement overall. It works for capital, who have more ability to force desperate workers into untenable situations.
But does it work for the people who need Medicaid? They don’t have the money or power to hire a lobbyist — and as we touched on earlier, technocrats don’t really want to hear from the people, they want what’s best for the people. The people are fickle. They don’t always know what’s best for them. And the truth is, I think technocrats don’t want to hear from them because… well, no, it didn’t work for them, and at the end of the day, they’re the only ones it needed to work for.
And technocrats aren’t just in government. A great many white collar workers, middle managers, and professionals fall into this category. Most have finished college; many have gone on to graduate school. This has given them a knee-jerk trust of that system. If you bought into the system that judged you as successful for so long, you grew to trust that people who got better grades, went to better schools, must know everything you do and more. Some may be very progressive; those in government tend to be hew closer to the center. But all share a knee-jerk trust of the intelligentsia.
I often see people express confusion when Donald Trump or Tucker Carlson rants about ‘the elite’. They are both incredibly wealthy people who have never had to work a day in their lives. In what world are they not the elites?
They’ve pinpointed something crucial about Obama and the Technocrats. They understand that intelligence and credentials are different things, and that some of the most well-credentialed people on the planet have led us into disaster after disaster. They understand that credentials are something you can buy or even inherit, and they only have as much meaning as people believe they have — and you can only see the world get worse under the guidance of so many Harvard grads before you start to wonder if Harvard grads actually know anything at all. Is it merely an Ivy Tower, a way to look down at those who didn’t do their homework, who took a job when they were a teenager and couldn’t make it to college?
Traditionally, we had the Left and the Right fighting — workers against capital, the people against the elites. For a long time now, we’ve had the Technocrats and the Right fighting — elites fighting elites for control. But that’s not the fight that played out in 2016, and it isn’t the fight that’s playing out in 2020. These election cycles have been the Alt-Right against the Technocracy, a white nationalist populist movement against an elitist one. In my opinion, that’s a scary place to be if you want to defeat white nationalism.