Once upon a time, hope was scarce and darkness everywhere. People looked for heroes. During the worst years of the Bush administration, we found them. They weren’t big or brawny, but they had heart. A bunch of nerdy kids blogging about politics were here to save the day.
Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein and their companions were fearless — but, beyond that, analytical. They knew how to use graphs and the Internet, bringing an earnest quantitative approach that would make liberals the Very Serious People of the Digital Age. Even the media establishment had nice things to say about our protagonists.
There seemed to be something different about this band, an idealism that blended the resurgent youth activism that rallied behind Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign and against the Iraq War with the liberal “netroots” culture that developed alongside it. Their popularity grew as they were absorbed into the media ecosystem. Klein’s writing moved from his eponymous Typepad to the American Prospect to the pages of the Washington Post. Yglesias also got his break at the Prospect and ended up at Slate.
But at some point, Klein and company stopped being liberals. They even stopped being human. The singularity— a technological superintelligence — was upon us. The wonks had become robots, ready to force enlightenment down our partisan throats.
In science fiction, cybernetic revolts often begin benevolently. Humans are fallible, petty, prone to argument and war. Synthetics are precise, dispassionate, above jealousy and strife. Wouldn’t our interests be better served kneeling at the altar of disinterested judgment?
Klein wielded his new legitimacy with a simple, high-minded goal: to construct policy to benefit the greatest number. To this end, he went rummaging through the marketplace of ideas. He even sampled those of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), interviewing him in three parts and lauding his “honest entry into the debate” in a 2010 Washington Post piece titled “The virtues of Ryan’s roadmap.” In the same venue a few months later, Klein defended Ryan against attack by the far-from radical Paul Krugman. Klein pushed back against Ryan’s individual points here and there, but his mechanical mind failed to realize that the congressman was playing a different game—a far more dynamic and ideological one—than he was. The blogger wanted to tinker with numbers to make Washington run smoother; Ryan wanted to use data to obscure a different mission: ending the welfare state.