Organizing Personalities

The Corey Robin item I linked earlier contains what is probably a common thought about the left wonkosphere:

This is a challenge to the left…the left that’s like, well, me: the academics, the writers, the bloggers, the journalists, the think tankers, the kibbitzers. The people who talk too much…

Have you ever organized a majority, even a plurality, of your co-workers—in an academic department, at a newspaper, in a think tank, at the little non-profit where you work—to confront the boss, whoever that might be, in such a way that all of your jobs were put into jeopardy?

If you haven’t, I ask you to imagine doing that. Not for the sake of you and your co-workers’ immediate well-being but for the sake of a larger collective good: a single-payer health care system, let’s say, or an end to adjunct labor, the elimination of capitalism, whatever.

Chris Mooney got a lot of attention a while back with his book The Republican Brain, which postulated deep personality differences between liberals and conservatives as part of the reason the GOP is so invested in science denial. Setting aside the more controversial parts of that thesis (which I’d say is at least partly true), I’d say there is something similar happening between organizers and wonks.

I’m not a fervent believer in Jungian personality tests, but at least from my own experience the profiles seem reasonably accurate. For example:

The INTP [my particular result–RC] is above all a thinker and his inner (private) world is a place governed by a strong sense of logical structure. Every experience is to be rigorously analysed, the task of the INTP’s mind is to fit each encountered idea or experience into a larger structure defined by logic. For here is the central goal of the INTP: to understand and seek truth. The experience of anything takes a back seat. The INTP is not interested in experiences themselves but is far more fascinated by concepts…

They tend to believe that information is the key to life. All mistakes can be avoided by having the right information at the right time. This has at least a certain logic about it. Where they differ from other temperaments (especially from SP types) is that a large gap may exist between knowing and doing. To know is everything, to do is a lower order necessity, if it is necessary at all. This breeds the potential for lazy aloofness

If an INTP speaks, he must be listened to, for he believes his spoken opinions to be important. If not, he withdraws (at least in spirit) and assumes that the people who do not listen lack intelligence. Hence, INTPs make very poor leaders, for they depend too much on the attitudes of others. This is one of the negative sides of the Ne function. INTPs tend to jump to intuitive conclusions, can be fatalistic and have little perseverence. On the other hand, they can make very good assistants to leaders, provided they and the leader are of one mind, for their perceptive analysis can give the leadership useful insights which they may overlook, being too busy with leading. Indeed, INTPs are often glad when someone else takes over the lead, again providing the leader is of the same mind.

Emphasis mine. Again, I don’t think there’s a quantum mechanics-level of theoretical and empirical precision underlying this kind of stuff, but that does seem to capture my particular strengths and weaknesses fairly closely. This perhaps accounts with the abject failure I experienced nearly every time I tried any sort of organizing (including starting a chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy in school and volunteering for Obama in 2008, among other things). Simply put, I strongly disliked the grunt work of political organizing, the knocking on doors, the calling strangers, the arguing with strangers, etc., and wasn’t any good at it.

I can’t know for sure if that is representative of all wonks, but I suspect this kind of sentiment is what lies beneath their lack of interest in organizing their own workplaces, as opposed to a theoretical interest in unions generally. Contra Robin, I don’t think there’s much chance that wonks will ever organize anything, but we could be useful in other circumstances—like I’ve been saying, it is vitally important for people to understand policies correctly in addition to being able to field organizational muscle.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.