October 29, 2005
Fashioning a New Elite, a Truer Sky
Blogs are a marker of a new elite. More accurately, they represent one area in which the ways society works around elite structures must be reconceived.
That's the central theme with which I approached the annual professional development seminar of the Legislative Information and Communications Staff Section (LINCS) of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) as a speaker for a session addressing "Blogs: The Wave of the Future?" Along with RI Future moderator Matt Jerzick (he sat to my left) and Ric Cantrell, the organizer of a blog by the Utah Senate, I explained the significance of blogs to professionals who handle public information, media relations, and civic education services in state governments:
This summer, my wife took a part-time job as a waitress over in Tiverton, Rhode Island, in a restaurant that turned out to be somewhat of a summer hotspot. No reservations available; a two-hour wait every night throughout the season.
Sometime in August, one of my fellow carpenters mentioned that well-connected acquaintances of his professional lobbyists had pulled every string trying to get a table there, and it occurred to me that I would probably have a better shot at getting them in than all of the powerful people with whom they've worked so hard to develop networks.
Now imagine if there were a network for waiters, busboys, bouncers, or even roadies, concert security guards all of those people who are very narrowly connected to something desirable. Individually, they're not powerful people; collectively, they'd have clout. Moreover, their network needn't be such that its capital would be consolidated in some sort of negotiating leadership, as is the case in unions. This, in a limited way, is how the blogosphere functions.
For a quick local example, in February 2004, Rhode Island's governor put forward a terrorism-related bill, which essentially would have updated state laws to factor in terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Well, an existing network of mainstream media outlets, the ACLU, and ostensible "experts" (professors and such) flipped the switch, putting political pressure on the governor, and succeeding in getting him to withdraw the bill. Libertarian law professor and blogger Eugene Volokh, who is himself part of that network, initially contributed to the pressure.
I just some nobody from Rhode Island was interested enough in the issue to look into the claims and to read the bill, and I found that the breathless reportage exaggerated its language to such an extent that one might reasonably fling an accusation of falsehood. I wrote up a post for my blog, Dust in the Light, with an embedded picture of the Providence Journal's front-page story and pointed it out to Prof. Volokh. He modified his stance and included a link back to my blog, leading thousands of readers interested readers, connected readers to my argument. Subsequently, the Journal replaced the picture that I'd included with a blank image, and as I recall, they issued a correction.
In our small way, the emerging network of bloggers had offered a counterforce to an existing network of elites. Since this incident, that sort of activity that role has become a hallmark of blogs. Dan Rather's memo scandal perhaps being the most prominent example.
As it concerns you, in your role with state legislatures, the important lesson is that a local blogger now has the power to tap into national or international interest in an issue and bring that force into the mix for local concerns. The challenge for you is that it won't be enough simply to think of bloggers as another channel of media; they're not in it for money; they're more ideologically driven. But it won't be adequate, either, for you to handle them as, say, a special interest group, because they've got direct access to a broad audience, consisting not necessarily of fellow ideologues.
And now as we at Anchor Rising discovered a couple of weeks ago bloggers are also filling the role of experts in that old network. One of our writers, Carroll Andrew Morse, was recently interviewed for the six o'clock news to offer "the conservative side" for a report on national Republican ads against local Republican upstart Steve Laffey. Instead of a bow-tied professor behind a desk, viewers saw some guy whom the reporter met in a parking lot on his lunch break. In the case of Dan Rather, people who happened to know about typesetting contributed their expertise to the aggregate understanding; others spent their lunch breaks duplicating the forged documents on their own computers.
What it comes down to is that lawmakers are no longer dealing with a categorized and hierarchical field of players. Every constituent is a potential influencer and conveyor of news, and those who excel in that role will approach it from that perspective. In other words, they themselves will not turn to an established network of elites, but to their peers.
Among those peers, just as among blue collar service providers, will be somebody with an inside connection, as well as somebody with the wherewithal to put pieces together and somebody with access to an audience. One fortunate consequence of this new reality is that the best strategy for legislators to begin addressing blogs is to be respectful of and responsive to constituents. What blogs ultimately make palpable is the reality that legislators are also among citizens' peers.
The theme echoes more broadly. I recently heard it in the strains of the latest bit of D&G (that's "doom and gloom") to thud onto the conservative reading list. Writes Peggy Noonan:
Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us. I refer specifically to the elites of journalism and politics, the elites of the Hill and at Foggy Bottom and the agencies, the elites of our state capitals, the rich and accomplished and successful of Washington, and elsewhere. I have a nagging sense, and think I have accurately observed, that many of these people have made a separate peace. That they're living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they're going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.
Ms. Noonan is surely in a better position than I to judge whether this attitude drives the Western elite, but I can't help but wonder whether, similarly, she's more susceptible to elites' false conceits. Perhaps it isn't "the whole ball of wax" that's falling apart, but just the artificial system long sensed to be untenable by which the elites, the conceit-full Baby Boomer elites, have managed to secure the "grim comfort" that "I got mine."
Or perhaps we are headed toward "the next chapter of trouble," and it may be trouble from more than merely a limited perspective. But blogs are proving that, if the functional elites are too resigned to that trouble to lead our society through it, the underclasses now have the technology and the faculty to pick up the slack. Maybe the sky is falling only to reveal the truer sky beyond, and in its light, we will be better able to respond to the troubles with which life and history accosts us all equally.