I've long thought Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein - part of a group of mini-celeb bloggers in D.C. - were rather badly overrated, the Interpol and Vampire Weekend of blog-punditry. (Klein is closer to Interpol than Yglesias, as his irritating pomposity is always closer to the surface, while Yglesias, for all his faults, like Vampire Weekend has a self-effacing and ironic streak that makes his liteness less disappointing.) They're 'wonks,' which is to say they like to talk about specific policy and are largely 'pragmatists' (read: young, unearned cynics) where transformation and vision are concerned,; Klein is less the cynic and lets himself get swept up in windy rhetoric sometimes, never more than when John Edwards is involved, but both bloggers write about politics they way Yglesias writes about basketball: with a remarkable ability to make exciting topics seem lifeless and small. They embody unfulfilled promise: there's nothing revolutionary about Ivy-educated Jewish nerds entering the world of political punditry, and the fact that they do it online mightn't have been irrelevant, but it is in their cases (they're also magazine writers, unsurprisingly). Do they write well? Well enough - like smart undergrads, or jaded grad students. Do they write beautifully? In my years of reading them, I've never known either to write something I would consider beautiful, or even particularly elegant - in prose, in structure, or in thought.
I bring these guys up because this election cycle has utterly captivated me - it's the first election in which I've given a damn about primary results and so forth - yet it seems to have had no emotional effect on them. The bloodlessness of their campaign coverage, the nonchalance with which they talk about the ascension of two remarkable politicians (and Hillary Clinton), is unbelievable to me. Yglesias in his most common refrain talks about McCain as if he were literally nothing more than a knockoff sequel to his Boomer contemporary, George Bush, disregarding the awesome, essential differences between them - not least McCain's repeated demonstrations of iconoclasm and bravery, starting (yes, this really matters) at the Hanoi Hilton; Klein (in the above-linked post) kneels to kiss John Edwards's feet while dismissing any notion of Obama as a transformational candidate on the very grounds of his greatest promise, i.e. as a practitioner of a politics of recognition and reconciliation, particularly in outreach to marginalized Americans.
As 'wonks,' maybe Yglesias and Klein feel they need to maintain distance from the aspirational, transhistorical moral questions animating our changing culture (e.g. 'How can we be great?') and stay closer to the earth ('How can this policy be better?'). But I read their stuff, then head over to read the riskier writing of someone like Christopher Hitchens (there aren't actually that many people 'like Christopher Hitchens'), and all I can think is that these two young guys have never ever in their entire lives been told 'No,' never actually fought for anything, never risked anything in writing. The closest they've gotten to war - or even to high-stakes cultural politicking - is name-calling in the comment threads of lefty blogs.
They remind me of the worst of me, and of my generation, and when I see Klein's biography blurb on his page ('He's a frequent guest on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews' - even as he calls Matthews an empty suit on his frontpage this week) I can't help but think that an incrementally better pundit corps isn't really what the country and world need. They encounter political questions as topics for debate - as fodder for blog posts. Where's the empathy, the imaginative outreach? Where's the sense of a shared story? I won't ask 'Where's the courage' but will ask instead: Where's the reverence for courage?
It's telling that neither writer has ever (ever) displayed anything like an aesthetic sense on his blog; their discussions of movies, TV, and music are invariably as gutless as their political writing, like book reports from high-school résumé-builders. (Their knowing post-MTV hipster informality has none of the naughty jazz of their more literary peers.) It's that lack of passion, that disconnection from the emotions that fuel most people's political aspirations, that marks them as cut-rate writers. They don't capture American energy in their writing; they don't reach for it; they amble at sufficiency instead of straining for greatness.
Say what you want about the overwrought disingenuous prolonged-adolescent careerist [and frankly misandrist] Amanda Marcotte, forever rebelling against primordial wrongs - she's got stones, and gives over to the fire sometimes, and is caught up in something that's bigger than her own total monthly pageviews. Klein and Yglesias could take a note or two from her (but one or two will do).