A Defense of Barbara Ehrenreich

A DEFENSE OF BARBARA EHRENREICH….Brad DeLong is unhappy with Barbara Ehrenreich and thinks that “it will in all probability be a waste of ink and paper to put her on the [New York] Times op-ed page”:

I agree that Barbara Ehrenreich is a very smart and graceful writer, a keen analyst of American culture and society–she is worth, say, ten of David Brooks. But her brand of left-wing politics is an infantile disorder. Left-wing politics is, for her, primarily a means of self-expression. The point is not to actually do anything to make the United States or the world a better place–not to actually help people make better lives for themselves by improving the enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act or to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit or to raise the minimum wage or to improve Medicaid coverage.

Ehrenreich’s politics are not mine either, but I think she deserves a defense from this attack. What Brad surely realizes, but does not say, is that in politics both policy and persuasion are necessary. Brad has policy in abundance, but Ehrenreich would probably think it bloodless and, in the long run, ineffective, because it does not change people’s minds. Likewise, Ehrenreich has polemics and persuasion in abundance, but without good policy this simply produces a mess.

In other words, like it or not, they need each other. Exhorting us to do better, even if not always in sensible ways, is a valuable service. Harnessing the public sentiment thus produced with policies that actually accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish is, equally, a valuable service.

A truce is needed here. Fiery rhetoric is not likely to lead to barricades in the streets these days, and there are powerful forces arrayed against Ehrenreich’s brand of lefty populism ? not least of which the fact that people like her rarely get space in, say, the New York Times. She is thus not likely to do too much damage.

At the same time, a simple (and frustrating) truth is that it is not people like Brad or me who change the world, it is people like Barbara Ehrenreich. Policy wonks then sigh, pick up the pieces, and try to convert the Ehrenreichian emotion of the moment into lasting programs. But without that emotion, we never get the chance.

So, sure, I disagree with Ehrenreich on many things and will likely say so during the remainder of her tenure at the Times. Sometimes she even makes me cringe. But her voice is still one that we should listen to, and surely a short summer vacation of Barbara Ehrenreich is not too much to ask?

Besides, remember that she is temporarily replacing Tom Friedman. We should, perhaps, simply think of this as the “infantile disorders” space in the Times and be grateful that at least the current resident is a smart and graceful writer….