The Decline 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 who are either pundits themselves, or can command the attention of the media, with all manner of advice on how Obama should be talking or behaving (substance appears to be utterly irrelevant). The latest is Bill Clinton, who thinks Obama needs to “sound more hopeful.” I refer to this group of talking heads who with the rise of the cable news networks and the 24 hour news cycle have enjoyed a lengthy run as opinion leaders as the “Chattering Class.” To fill the time — and cut back on actual news reporting, which costs money — the talk radio folks, the cable news shows, and now even the newspapers have created a class of pundits, experts, and analysts who exist for the sole purpose of supplying chatter to fill up the space. Indeed, I am always amused at the criticism that the rise of the blogs means the death of news because the hardcore news folks switched from mostly news to mostly chatter some time ago.

For years, the Chattering Class has controlled and framed debates around policy for most Americans. And, as one might expect, chattering about style and insider games takes precedence over actual substance. Not only is it cheaper and easier, as it requires no expertise, it is self-re-enforcing. This has corresponded, not coincidentally in my opinion, with the general disinterest by an increasing number of Americans in politics and public policy.

But what the Chattering Class talk about and how they frame winners and losers has become so disconnected from the reality people experience that folks have begun to notice. Not merely those “whacky left-wing totally non-mainstream” bloggers at TPM and elsewhere. Frank Rich observed in an opinion piece in last Sunday’s NYT that the Washington press corp has degenerated into the equivalent of a high school clique obsessed with their petty gossip and insular rules that define who is in and who is out.

This is why Bill Clinton, a man who in his prime ranked as one of the most gifted political campaigners to grace the national stage,feels the urge to give some “helpful advice” to the man who not only won the election, but is still clocking in with approval ratings that bespeak of enormous popularity. It is why the news continues to focus on things like whether the stimulus is actually a “loss” and is only gradually, and reluctantly, turning to the question of its anticipated impact. And it is why the Chattering Class is, after unquestionable dominance of public opinion for nearly 20 years, starting to lose it’s ability to frame the issues.

More below . . . .

As a prelude, I must start by saying we are talking trends, not a light switch. Anyone who wants to argue that this proves the mainstream media are irrelevant so who cares about ownership rules for cable and television should look at the panic over the DTV conversion and the fury of those denied their free TV.

Nor has the Chattering Class lost its influence. As the Obama Administration and the progressives learned to their dismay, the coordinated assault by Republican leaders, conservative pundits, and the general echo chamber of the White House press corp and Capital Hill reporters very nearly tanked the Stimulus bill. But once progressives and Obama realized the danger and started fighting back, the polls flipped again, and the Obama people got a final stimulus package very close to what they had initially proposed.

So the Chattering Class remains strong, but can no longer shape the agenda. It has become possible for a concerted effort to push back. What is happening and what does it mean?

Lets look at this disconnect in action for a case study. Why would Bill Clinton think Obama needs to be “more upbeat” when Americans appear to be responding to his message and his proposed remedies remain reasonably popular? Conventional wisdom in the Chattering Class and political consultants is 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. And, for some time, people won elections by pandering and lost elections by telling uncomfortable truths. So if you believe that the American people will panic when told that the fundamentals of the economy are not “strong,” and that we must all gird ourselves for real sacrifice in the short term and fundamental, structural change in the long term, then you think Obama’s assessment of the economy as in “crisis” and his call to arms is not only less effective than something more optimistic, but actually dangerous.

But this conventional wisdom overlooks two things: (a) Americans were never the overgrown babies cynics believed them to be; 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. Rather — 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 Class doesn’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. But the extent to which this advice will actually shape public opinion and drive the policy agenda going forward remains to be seen.

stay tuned . . . .

One Comment

  1. Hmmm. Yeah. Pretty much the shift is going that way. Its part and parcel of why the Pulp Press in decay. They don’t reflect the attitudes on the ground and can’t keep up with the swarm assault of discussion that has occurred long before the paper goes ‘thud’ on the street corner.

    One thing to keep a eye on however is that the internet and wireless technology will be a valuable tool to vigilante groups. If things really get nasty expect to see it rise.

    As to Obama. He has already made one mistake on message. Contrary to your assessment he has launched a tone of doom and gloom — “If we don’t do this disaster is assured.” That’s a far cry from “Nothing to fear, but fear itself.” That is what Clinton is picking up on. And who is to disagree with the most consummate Pol of the last half of the 20th century? The second error is yet to come. I am picking up way too much in the way of dissatisfaction with proposed mortgage bailouts. If its pushed and the the backlash comes it will come from the 97% of homeowners paying their mortgages on time and the renters as well. Not a good scenario.

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