What is a wonk? It’s a deceptively simple question which it’s worth us attending to. This is the answer given in an excellent Baffler essay by Emmett Rensin:
What, after all, is a wonk? It is not the same thing as an expert, although those are tedious as well. In a 2011 interview with Newsweek, Ezra Klein explained that he gave Wonkblog its name (and accepted the moniker himself) in an “effort to denote that we’re doing something a lot different by covering Washington through a policy lens.” This fits well with what Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Morgan meant when he introduced the term into American political vernacular back in 1992 by applying it to then-candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore: they were politicians, to be sure, but ones with a “preference for arcane policy details over back-slapping and baby-kissing.” Jacobin editor-in-chief Bhaskar Sunkara, in a 2013 essay for In These Times, gave the term a less charitable reading, but the essence is the same. The wonk, he wrote, is a “technocrat, obsessed with policy details, bereft of politics, earnestly searching for solutions to the world’s problems through the dialectic of an Excel spreadsheet.”
The wonk is defined “by his devotion to the churning irrelevant details of a game that ordinary people watch to see who actually wins and loses”. Rensin makes a powerful case that the wonk is an over-privileged super fan who wishes nothing ever change lest they have to learn the rules of their favourite game all over again:
It was better before they tried to make it so accessible to newbies, they were better before they went mainstream, the real game got lost when they made all those stupid changes to the rules. The wonk’s essential function in technocracy is to explain (they are always, always explaining): why History is Over, why justice is not possible, why evil can’t win and you can’t win either, how a little fix here and there is all we can really hope for. The futility of all of this does not discourage the wonk. The point is that they’re interested, that they’re searching. They’re more interested and more searching and more obsessed than you’ll ever be, poser.
What defines the wonk is not their concern but their concern for what is. Where are they situated though? My first reaction when reading this essay was to wonder about differentiation, with the wonk living and breathing the reality of the field within which they work. But there have always been people defined by their occupations.
What’s different about the wonk? Does it reflect an increasing degree of cultural autonomy, such that one can have an identity and lifestyle built solely in terms of the field they work within? Or a newfound inclination to so exhaustively construct a sense of identity around work? Or is it something about the intersection between fields, with wonks existing at the interface between politics, media, think tanks and academia? Is wonkish-ness a form of subcultural capital (to use Sarah Thornton’s concept) operating at this intersection? Who values wonkishness other than the wonks themselves? Finally, what are we to make of the rise of the higher education wonk? What does that say about the university system?