Ezra Klein’s Vox: Epistemic Closure, Derp, or Ideology Building?

In a recent post at The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry attacks the Left generally, and Ezra Klein and Vox more specifically, as suffering from “epistemic closure,” or, more colloquially, “derp,” or just plain intellectual stagnation. These are not precise synonyms, but the general idea is that Vox and similar on-line ventures aligned with the ideological Left are guilty of the same things of which they’ve accused the Right in recent years: “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors.”

As evidence, Gobry offers the following:

Two things are particularly striking about the current Democratic agenda. The first is that it’s so tired. Raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on high earners, tightening environmental regulation — these are all ideas from the ’60s. The second is that nobody on the left seems to be aware of it.

He is also highly critical of Vox’s “explainer” posts that purport to be unbiased but are largely just advancing a liberal policy stance. As Gobry says, “much of what passes for ‘explanation’ on Vox is really partisan commentary in question-and-answer disguise.”

A few points here. One, what I believe liberal bloggers and others on the Left have criticized the Right of in recent years is not so much the repetitive reiteration of strong priors, but the reiteration of those priors in the face of contradictory evidence. Insisting, for example, that the Iraq War was going well half a decade into a military operation that was supposed to take months, that a cold day in January was evidence that there was no global warming occurring, that the hundreds of polls forecasting an Obama victory over Mitt Romney in 2012 were “skewed,” etc., is classic derp. It suggests an ideology that is divorced from empirical reality and is thus compromised in its ability to offer valuable critiques or realistic policy ideas.

Are some on the Left prone to such problems? Without question. But that’s not really what Gobry offers as evidence. Rather, he argues that the Left’s ideas are stale, as in the above quote about the minimum wage, taxes, and environmental concern. But old ideas are not the same thing as ideas divorced from reality. (And it’s not like reducing taxes or eliminating environmental regulations are particularly new ideas.) Decades of liberal agitation on minimum wage and environmental concerns led to policy ideas and ultimately laws in the 1960s and 70s, and it’s not like these ideas have run their course. After all, the minimum wage has lost much of its value in recent decades, inequality is on the rise, and the environment faces new challenges. The Left still pushes their ideas because problems still remain.

What of the critique that Vox is really part of the Left? Well, sure. And in that sense, Klein and his colleagues are what fellow Mischief Hans Noel defines in his new book as “coalition merchants.” That is, they are in the business of arguing what it means to be a liberal. They, along with other left-leaning journalists, activists, bloggers, and pundits are making arguments and sorting out just what their team should stand for, and over time the Democratic Party and its candidates will come to champion those stances. Conservative opinion-makers at places like National Review, Human Events, and Redstate.com are doing the same thing. Will they sound repetitive at times? Sure. Will ideological organizations sometimes try to portray themselves as common-sense, neutral observers? Oh yeah. But this is how an ideology is forged. The delicate part is how to do this without losing touch with objective reality, and given what we know about motivated reasoning and ideologues, it’s not obvious they’ll always be on the right side of that line, whether we’re talking about conservatives or liberals.

But the fact that Vox couches its agenda within competent data analysis is encouraging. If that’s derp, we could use more of it on both sides.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.