Hacks Vs. Wonks: The Great Divide

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Posted on May 4, 2017

Machiavelli tells us in The Prince there are three classes of intellects: “One which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehend; and a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others; the first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless.”

For many watching the Conservative leadership race, it is perhaps too easy to divide candidates into these categories: those who are charismatic personalities running without substance and those who are brilliant thinkers running without any understanding of the base. The more pessimistic will even open up Machiavelli’s third category for those who lack both.

This is where the great divide becomes apparent between hacks and wonks. For hacks in this race, you edge out the competition by sticking to your polling data and securing the most memberships for victory. For wonks, taking the time to make your case and demonstrate you have a fresh, measured approach to reboot the party will mean not just seizing the day, but securing a legacy.

So who wins? Is it that black and white?

The Eternal Contest

For those unfamiliar with these terms, in the political world, a “hack” is someone hands-on, interested in strategizing and deploying tactics like a military general on a campaign. They enjoy a good fight, unafraid of getting down in the mud with their opponents and battling hand-to-hand. They like style, have tact, and pride themselves on serving the proverbial kool-aid to mobilize their base of supporters.

A “wonk” is someone who is more cerebral, interested in good ideas and evidence-based policy. They are intellectuals in their own right, well-versed in the principles of ideology. They believe the survival and advancement of the movement is their sole charge and prerogative. They pride themselves on being trusted advisors, believing a long-term vision will ultimately win out over ad hoc tactics.

And for as long as anyone can remember, these two archetypes have set themselves to the purpose of forever mistrusting the other. Think Kissinger and Brzezinski. Anne-Marie Slaughter and Hillary Clinton. Roland Paris and Gerald Butts.

A Study in Scarlet

This is why Andrew Coyne’s piece in The Walrus misses the mark on how to save the Conservative Party. Coyne mourns the perceived death of conservatism under the Harper government — the caving to boutique tax credits and corporate bailouts. According to him, these policies deviated from the traditional conservative ideology espoused by grassroots Conservative Party members, such as small government and flat tax cuts. .

However, running on an intellectual platform that defends a return to classic liberalism doesn’t resonate with the average voter. If you are seeking to activate all of the enlightened small-c conservative out there (hint: they are few), you are going after a fairly niche market.

This is not to critique the tenets of classical liberalism. In fact, they should be revived, but not in an ivory tower. What is fundamentally missing in the piece and what Andrew Coyne will never understand is that you cannot divorce intellectualism from political reality without political cost. Just ask Michael Chong.

At the same time, personality without substance does not conquer the day. For decades, Kathleen Wynne and her Liberal government have pursued strategies at the behest of highly vocal interest groups that involve short-term fixes and policy announcements made on the fly. With the Premier’s popularity at an all-time low, in 2018, the electorate is poised to do what they do best in a democracy: reward those with good ideas and punish those without.

Similarly, those who think that the leadership of the Conservative Party and the country can be achieved at the hands of a few good strategists will quickly learn that the demands of leadership and governance require vision and informed decision-making. Winning a few battles against your opponents does not score you points in the war for hearts and minds.

What is certain is that the conflict between hacks and wonks inevitably leads to weakness in any political party. A party that isn’t good at selling its ideas is no better off than a party with nothing to sell. When you pit hacks against wonks, everyone loses.

A Marriage of True Minds

Conversely, if your organization can build an environment where hacks and wonks can co-exist and even thrive, you become a formidable force — whether that’s the business, political, or social world in which you operate.

But how does one get the Montagues and Capulets of the modern age to see eye to eye? How do you engineer a marriage of true minds?

First off, both must be empowered to provide their valuable insights and direction into the leadership of your organization. Make sure both archetypes have a voice at your table and in your war room. Learn to mesh those ideas and strategies to help achieve your ultimate goals, whether that’s campaign victories, business expansion, or fundraising targets.

Second, facilitate cross-pollination of expertise. Help your wonks understand how and why strategy and tactics can be important to helping them get their ideas to the table and into practice. Mentor your hacks into seeing the bigger picture and understand how evidence-based, well-crafted ideas can help their organization succeed.

Third, encourage mutual respect. Readers may well roll their eyes at this seemingly mundane idea, but you’d be surprised how often wonks and hacks will shut the door on each other unless someone is there to keep the doors wide open. Give your wonks and hacks opportunities to openly prove their value to your organization, earn the respect of their colleagues, and great working relationships will follow.

At the end of the day, you will no longer have hacks and wonks. You will have a formidable team of what Machiavelli would only describe as true virtuosos.

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