osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

The obsolecense of the chattering class and the rise of the discussion class

You'd never know Barack Obama has an approval rating in the mid-60s. Higher if you poll among Ds and Is and exclude Rs.

I say this because there appears to be no lack of people in the chattering class with all manner of advice on how Obama should be talking or behaving (substance appears to be utterly irrelevant to the chattering class). The latest is Bill Clinton, who thinks Obama needs to "sound more hopeful."

My feeling is that this comes from the conventional wisdom that Americans are frightened, spoiled children who cannot look truth in the face. As is so often the case, there is no lack of things people can point to as proof of this thesis, if they want. But this conventional wisdom overlooks two things: (a) this was never as true as cynics believed; and (b) the world really has changed since this conventional wisdom formed oh so many years ago.

WRT the first point, my feeling on the American people, by and large, is not that they are lazy spoiled children so much as -- to paraphrase one of my favorite Lord of the Rings quotes -- we lived so comfortably for so long we don't know what to do. The vast majority of Americans were content to go about their business for a long time, ceding the political playing field to the loudest, most obnoxious, and worst players.

Which brings us to (b), which the chattering classes don't get. Times have changed. It is not that Obama is a change maker. Rather, he is a reflection of the fact that a huge number of Americans are unhappy with business as usual and want something else. In particular, a majority of Americans are responding to someone who projects those virtues we Americans like to imagine in ourselves. We like to believe that, when the chips are down and our backs are against the wall, we can roll up our sleeves, grit our teeth, set aside our differences, reach into our tool boxes, pull out our favorite cliches, and get to work.

Which is precisely the tone Obama has been striking, and where it differs from the messaging the Bush Administration used. Obama and Bush both highlighted dangers and difficult struggle to come (Bush from the threat of terrorism, Obama from economic collapse). But the Obama call includes the element that Bush's call to arms lacked and that Bush critics roundly criticized later. Obama's call to arms includes a call for public service, sacrifice, and for Americans to work together despite our differences - but without ignoring them. Nor does Obama pitch this as a temporary change of affairs. He hits on another favorite American theme: reinvention of self. The idea that in America, the land of opportunity, you can always start again and find the next opportunity. The future will be different, we must make permanent changes in our way of life, but that is what we Americans do in time of crisis.

Bush, by contrast, declined to call on Americans to make specific sacrifices or substantially alter their way of life other than to accommodate the "needs of security" -- such as a willingness to expand the scope of federal law enforcement and intelligence power. the pitch was always that, if we followed the Administration's prescriptions, we would return to our way of life as we have always known it. This assessment that Americans are weak and need to be shielded from bad news, combined with the belief that there was no systemic problem with the economy and that it only required people to maintain "confidence," gave Americans a surfeit of optimism that the majority grew to distrust over time.

In addition to the immediate crisis change, we have had both technological change and generational change. It is not just that we have a significant population bulge in the 35-25 demographic working its way through the system, this demographic is far more active and engaged in the political process at every level. This is fueled by the widespread adoption of the internet and other technologies that make it easier to engage in the three pre-requisites of political engagement - find information, communicate with other people to discuss it, and organize like-minded citizens in response.

As a result, the generation reared on mass media, mass political action, followed by disempowerment and disengagement, is being rapidly supplanted by people willing to become active and engage the system. Put another way, the political culture that formed around the Chattering Class of profession pundits and commentators is increasingly yielding to the rising Discussion Class. Blogs and social networking sites are part of a continuing set of discussions on multiple topics. Even better, this discussion can, and often does, crystallize into concrete action. Further, as noted by the PEW Project on the Internet and American Life, while this phenomena may have started in a particular demographic, economic and social class, it has now propagated out to all age groups and classes.

This not a trend, it is a culture change -- and its implications are profound. One in which people increasingly expect that -- if they care enough -- they can find alternate points of view and people interested in discussing them. As PEW has consistently noted in studies following every election year, the rise in broadband access in the home and the ability to access information and participate in the online environment directly corresponds to increased political activism. When people feel in control of their lives and can set their own priorities and level of participation, they chose to engage.

More importantly, the fact that they have options causes them to evaluate the collective wisdom of the Chattering Class very differently. Ten years ago, if you saw something confirmed on cable shows and in editorials that you felt contradicted your own perception and experience, you had to struggle against the idea that you were the one out of touch. Now, it is routine to observe that it is the chattering class that is out of touch. Find it out once, for one thing, and you no longer accept other things as gospel.

No one should imagine it is a perfect world, or one of frictionless civic engagement, or one in which people and interests do not find ways to play games and seek to manipulate information. Indeed, it is entirely possible to insulate oneself from other opinions and -- if you really want to try to shut things down -- try to bully others into submission. But it is a different world, a world in which people increasingly want the raw feed and will interpret the events and data for themselves, where they can compare multiple perspectives, discuss the issues directly with others so inclined, and can take targeted action on the specific issues the find important.

Unsurprisingly, the chattering class, which is drawn up of refugees from the political class as well as chatter veterans of the last decade or so, cannot grasp that the world has changed. Indeed, because their existence depends on the perceived need for them to provide "analysis" rather than actual investigative reporting, the chattering classes cannot accept they are increasingly becoming obsolete. So Obama does not lack for advice on what he can be doing better from people far less popular or successful.

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