In her recent book, “Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market” (Basic Books, 2009), Mason public policy professor Janine Wedel examines how power brokers make decisions involving domestic and foreign policy without public input or awareness.
She explains that power brokers once had fewer and more stable affiliations, which made it easier for them to be accountable to the public.
But today’s players, with their greater fluidity and number of involvements, have power that is more global and harder to track.
Wedel describes this political culture from her perspective as a trained social anthropologist and public policy professor.
She observes similarities of state power and private power comingling and relates that to her research of what occurred in eastern Europe after the fall of communism.
She writes that her longtime focus on central and eastern Europe, studying communism as it really worked and then came undone, was excellent preparation for charting this new phenomenon.
The transformations that created this new breed of players and networks, according to Wedel, include the outsourcing of government work to the private sector and the general move toward deregulation; the conclusion of the Cold War, which opened up new sparsely governed arenas; the dramatic advancements in information technology; and the embrace of “truthiness,” defined as the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true rather than those known to be true.
Wedel demonstrates that the new breed of power brokers is more insidious and difficult to detect than their counterparts of yesteryear.
She notes that these players with their many overlapping (and not fully revealed) roles, dense networks and undisclosed sponsors make it difficult for the public to discern individual agendas and make an informed judgment.
Often the media are complicit, she argues.
“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,” Wedel wrote in a Shadow Elite column in the Huffington Post.
The public’s acceptance of truthiness, she states, helps public figures make whatever claims that suit them at the moment; track records vanish.
While these influencers are not typically engaged in illegal activity, they influence and help move public policy beyond accountability.
In “Shadow Elite,” Wedel gives examples of individuals who appear to the public as objective experts even as they knowingly benefit financially or otherwise from their hidden agendas to sway public opinion.
According to Wedel, this network of new world power brokers undermines democracy, government and free markets.
Exposing and understanding the shadow elite are important first steps to regaining a more transparent democracy.
“Shadow Elite” has received national attention for the issues Wedel brings to light. She has appeared at numerous New York City and Washington, D.C., venues and continues to discuss this volatile, important issue on national television and radio.
Wedel is encouraged that the nation is taking a keen interest. Reactions during her many public appearances have been promising, and her weekly Shadow Elite column attracts many readers and comments.
“The world still has some hope for tracking the shadow elite. But existing means are far from sufficient or able to cover the traveling bases of the players, who operate largely above public input, knowledge and visibility,” says Wedel.
This article originally appeared in a slightly different format in SPP Currents.