Books

Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Are Upending Our Democracy

Wedel argues in her new book that a group of corrupted elites are destroying the principles that define modern states, free markets and democracy itself.

Editor's Note:Any time you turn on the television these days, you'll find pundits sounding off on the policy debate du jour. Labeled something along the lines of "military experts" or "Democratic consultants," you have to wonder what they're hiding behind those vague-sounding titles. In an era when mainstream media turns to punditry to shape the American public's view of the most important policy issues, it's worth looking into who these so-called experts are and what effect they're having on our society. As Janine R. Wedel writes in her new book,Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market(excerpted below), the rise of a new breed of confidence men and women -- think-tank members, government advisers, business consultants and television pundits -- upend our democracy. Because they are technically individual actors, they claim to hold no allegiances; in fact, they usually hold too many. 

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We live in a world of flexibility. We have flex time, flex workers, flex spending, flex enrollment, flex cars, flex technology, flex perks, mind flex—even flex identities. “Flex" has become an integral part not only of how we live, but of how power and influence are wielded. While influencers flex their roles and representations, organizations, institutions, and states, too, must be flexible in ways they haven’t been before. The mover and shaker who serves at one and the same time as business consultant, think-tanker, TV pundit, and government adviser glides in and around the organizations that enlist his services. It is not just his time that is divided. His loyalties, too, are often flexible. Even the short-term consultant doing one project at a time cannot afford to owe too much allegiance to the company or government agency. Such individuals are in these organizations (some of the time anyway), but they are seldom of them.  

Being in, but not of, an organization enables these players to pursue a “coincidence of interests,” that is, to interweave and perform overlapping roles that serve their own goals or those of their associates. Because these “nonstate” actors working for companies, quasi-governmental organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) frequently do work that officials once did, they have privileged access to official information—information that they can deploy to their own ends. And they have more opportunities to use this information for purposes that are neither in the public interest nor easily detected, all the while controlling the message to keep their game going.  

Take, for instance, Barry R. McCaffrey, retired four-star army general, military analyst for the media, defense industry consultant, president of his own consulting firm, part-time professor, and expert, whose advice on the conduct of the post-9/11 U.S. wars was sought by the George W. Bush administration and Congress. Crucial to McCaffrey’s success in these roles was the special access afforded him by the Pentagon and associates still in the military. This included special trips to war zones arranged specifically for him, according to a November 2008 expose in the New York Times. McCaffrey gleaned information from these trips that proved useful in other roles—and not only his part-time professorship at the U.S. Military Academy, which the Pentagon claimed is the umbrella under which his outsider’s perspective was sought.  

At a time when the administration was trying to convince the American people of the efficacy of U.S. intervention in Iraq, the general appeared frequently as a commentator on the television news—nearly a thousand times on NBC and its affiliates. He was variously introduced as a Gulf War hero, a professor, and a decorated veteran, but not as an unofficial spokesperson for the Pentagon and its positions. He also was oft-quoted in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other leading newspapers.

Further, in June 2007, according to the Times, he signed a consulting contract with one of many defense companies he had relationships with, which sought his services to win a lucrative government contract. Four days later, McCaffrey did the firm’s bidding by personally recommending to General David Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq, that the company supply Iraq with armored vehicles, never mentioning his relationship to it. Nor did he reveal these ties when he appeared on CNBC that same week, during which he praised Petraeus, nor to Congress, where he not only lobbied to have the company supply Iraq with armored vehicles but directly criticized the company’s competitor.

Using information and access to link institutions and to leverage influence is what General McCaffrey and other such players were expected to do by an administration seeking public support, media in need of high ratings, industry pursuing profits, and academia in search of superstars. But because only the individual player bridges all these institutions and venues—by, for instance, enlisting access and information available in one to open doors or enhance cachet in another—only he can connect all the dots. Such a game involves a complex, although subtle, system of incentives that must reinforce its players’ influential positions and access to knowledge and power. And the players must uphold their end of the bargain. When McCaffrey criticized the conduct of the war on the "Today Show," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld quickly cut off his invitations to Pentagon special briefings. Tellingly, McCaffrey went back on the air, reiterated the Pentagon’s line, and regained entry into those briefings.  

McCaffrey owes some of his access to a Pentagon public relations campaign that enrolled retired, high-status military personnel as “message force multipliers” in the media, according to an earlier piece in the Times. McCaffrey was among the most high-profile members of the campaign, during which, from 2002 to 2008, the Pentagon provided the seventy-five analysts access to military campaigns and initiatives through private briefings, talking points, and escorted tours. Following the expose and congressional calls for an investigation, government auditors looked into whether the Pentagon effort “constituted an illegal campaign of propaganda directed at the American public,” as the Times put it. The Pentagon’s inspector general found that Pentagon funds were not used inappropriately and that the retired military officers didn’t profit unfairly from the arrangement. President Obama’s Pentagon later rescinded the inspector general’s report, but no new one was issued.

Even when they are not whitewashed, such government audits are not designed to capture the reality of today’s influencers and the environment in which they operate—a reality that poses potentially much greater harm to a democratic society than a mere drain on taxpayer dollars. While millions of viewers, Congress, and General Petraeus were led to believe that McCaffrey was offering his expert, unbiased opinions, McCaffrey’s interlocking roles created incentives for him (and others of his profile) to be a less-than-impartial expert. TheTimesunderstatedly remarked, “It can be difficult for policy makers and the public to fully understand their interests.”  

Meanwhile, the official and private organizations in and out of which such movers and shakers glide either just go along to get along or are ill equipped to know what these actors are up to in the various venues in which they operate. In McCaffrey’s case, no institution, from the Pentagon to the defense contractor to NBC, had an incentive to be anything but complicit. Operators like the general have surpassed their hosts, speeding past the reach of effective monitoring by states, boards of directors, and shareholders, not to mention voters. And while the players sometimes cause raised eyebrows, they are highly effective in achieving their goals—and often benefit from wide acceptance. Much more than the influence peddlers of the past, these players forge a new system of power and influence—one that profoundly shapes governing and society.  

This new breed of players is the product of an unprecedented confluence of four transformational developments that arose in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: the redesign of governing, spawned by the rising tide of government outsourcing and deregulation under a “neoliberal” regime, and the rise of executive power; the end of the Cold War—of relations dominated by two competing alliances—which intensified the first development and created new, sparsely governed, arenas; the advent of evermore complex technologies, especially information and communication technologies; and the embrace of “truthiness,” which allows people to play with how they present themselves to the world, regardless of fact or track record. While it may be jarring to mention such seemingly disparate developments in the same breath—and to name “truthiness” as one of them—the changes unleashed by these developments interact as never before.  

The proliferation of roles, and the ability of players to construct coincidences of interest by those who perform them, are the natural outcome of these developments. So, for example, increased authority delegated to private players (facilitated by privatization, the close of the Cold War, and new, complex technologies) has enabled them to become guardians of information once resting in the hands of state and international authorities. While supposedly working on behalf of those authorities, such players (working, say, as consultants for states or as special envoys or intermediaries between them) can guard information and use it for their own purposes, all the while eluding monitoring designed for the past order of states and international bodies.

And they get away with it. Appearances of the moment have become all important in today’s truthiness society, as comic Jon Stewart expressed in his quip: “You cannot, in today’s world, judge a book by its contents." Today’s premier influencers deftly elude such judgment. Pursuing their coincidences of interest, they weave new institutional forms of power and influence, in which official and private power and influence are interdependent and even reinforce each other.

The phenomenon of these “flexians” is no less than a systemic change. A new system has been ushered in—one that undermines the principles that have long defined modern states, free markets, and democracy itself.    

FromShadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Marketby Janine Wedel.  Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

Janine R. Wedel is a professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. Her previous books include Collision and Collusion. She lives in Washington, DC.
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