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Janine R. Wedel Headshot

Shadow Elite: Do You Know Whose Agenda You're Being Sold?

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In the community of fewer than 2,000 in which I grew up, the proverbial six degrees of separation melt away. You can't help but play multiple roles in a small town: A teenager babysits for her next-door neighbor's kids whose father is also her schoolteacher and a colleague of her father's and whose mother is also her Sunday school teacher. Is there potential for nepotism and corruption? Yes. But at the same time, everybody knows what everybody else is doing and it's difficult to hide agendas. In a small community, agendas, roles, relationships, and sponsors are pretty clear.

By contrast, among today's top power brokers--the shadow elite--agendas, roles, relationships, and sponsors are difficult, if not impossible, for the public to ascertain. We've looked at a number of these "flexians" and have seen that even when they've been sued for defrauding the government they somehow manage to take a seat back at the table. It didn't used to be this way. Where once power brokers had fewer and more stable affiliations, the new breed of players--whose ever-fluid and greater number of involvements reflect the multiplicity of enterprises today engaged in governing--are more global in reach and difficult to track.

Overlapping roles and interconnectedness can make a community vibrant and strong--and help explain why it can be at one and the same time insular and highly engaged with the world. This structure supports mobilization, whether for a community festival or relief efforts. My home community, which is steeped in the Mennonite tradition of service, has been very quick to organize aid to Haiti. That is at least in part because first-hand information and interdependencies are mainstays of community life.

On a small scale such interdependency of roles and relationships can be beneficial. But when applied to the shadow elite, the model can endanger democracy. Whereas, in a small community, an apparatus is in place to "out" hidden agendas and to sort out whose word counts for what--the source of the information and the reputation of the source is easily checked--no such system is available to the public with regard to the shadow elite. (The shadow elite relies, of course, on the same kind of first-hand information exchange but guards it closely.) The public is left without reliable means to know what flexians are up to--be it their overlapping roles, dense relationships, or undisclosed sponsors--which would, of course, be the basis for the public's ability to make informed judgments.

In a small community, when an acquaintance approaches you at a social gathering on the pretext of expressing condolences at a relative's passing and you've already heard that the acquaintance sells life insurance on the side, you can discern his agenda pretty quickly--and make a decision to smile and nod or turn away. He may be all about maneuvering you somewhere else. But with the shadow elite, we don't know how and when we're being maneuvered.

Take, for instance, former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, who has taken to the airwaves virtually nonstop since Christmas day. Pushing for full body scanners as a cure-all for lax airport security, he revealed only belatedly that he also represents the only company to have initially qualified for the government contract to manufacture the full-body scanners. Before this came out, how would we have known if we were being directed to a certain viewpoint? The public had no way to sort this out because the public didn't know there was something to sort out. And even after the revelation, the public will likely remember Chertoff's warnings more than any caveat.

Or Ambassador Peter Galbraith. Galbraith, a longtime champion of Kurdish autonomy, has worn many hats vis-a-vis Iraqi Kurdistan in the last decade. He advised Bush's Deputy Secretary of Defense on Kurdistan and helped the Kurds draft the Iraqi constitution. Presenting himself as a disinterested expert, he published opinion pieces in the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other outlets staunchly advocating Kurdish independence and the right of the Kurds to control oil resources in their region. Along the way, we now know, he acquired the potential to make up to $100 million in business dealings involving these same oil reserves. Associates in Galbraith's non-business Iraq activities were not necessarily aware of his business goals. As one former Iraqi diplomat and legal advisor put it: "The idea that a foreign oil company was in the room drafting the Iraqi Constitution has me reeling....It casts a tremendous pall on the legitimacy of the process."

While flexians are not necessarily unethical, the public trusts such people for expertise about everything from foreign policy and national security to health care reform, the financial system, and where we should keep our money. Meanwhile, the public, which tends to take these players at face value, much as they might be able to do in a small community, has virtually no way of knowing that the players have incentives to be less than impartial, much less means to do something about it. There is no real-time or almost real-time mechanism of information flow as there is in a small town. And the full range of flexian activity is almost always difficult to detect.

A democratic society looks to the media--a cornerstone of accountability--for such detection. Yet full (or any) disclosure of a flexian's array of affiliations may not be in the interest of a given media outlet. "Experts" like Chertoff and Galbraith are continually given air time without their relevant roles, relationships, and sponsors being fully revealed. Last Sunday the New York Times' public editor Clark Hoyt chastised these two, as well as two other players, for not revealing roles that might affect the impartiality of their public pronouncements. He also took to task the journalists who interviewed them for not asking for such information.

When attention is paid after the fact, the damage has already been done. The public has been influenced. For instance, the revelations about Galbraith are too late to avert bad PR. They give fodder to those, Iraqi or otherwise, who believe that the United States and its allies invaded the Middle East for oil.

To make matters worse, the public's acceptance of truthiness enables public figures to make whatever claims that suit them at the moment; track records vanish. My most recent favorite is "the economy is getting better." Not when one out of six people who want to work full time can't find a full time job. In today's world of 24-7 news, investigative journalism has virtually gone by the wayside and viewers' memories of the resumes of influencers they see on television dissipate into the here and now--because that's what counts in the truthiness society.

Until we find a way of creating a credible information system that holds flexians and flex nets accountable, these power brokers will only become more influential as the next generation of shadow elite gathers steam. Steadily, they will keep breaking down the walls of separation that were erected in the name of democracy.

Author's note: In light of information that has recently been brought to my attention, I've clarified one of the illustrations above - the passage concerning Ambassador Peter Galbraith.
Janine Wedel, 21 January 2010

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