Sunday, January 10, 2010

Meet the new boss, will he turn out like the old boss?

Original post 11/3/2005

Peggy Noonan's piece last week--in which she bemoaned America's plight as its political and journalistic elites have, to her mind, written the rest of the country off--set off a rash of responses. The Speculist (Phil Bowermaster) speculated that Noonan is too isolated and insulated in Manhattan to have a good grip on who the true (new) leaders of America are: engineers and scientists. According to Bowermaster, those ensconced in the nation's media and political capitals are understandably dismayed because:
they simply don't matter as much as they used to, and that they aren't the ones shaping and determining the future. . . . Some of them may be classified as belonging to some sort of "elite;" but most of them do not. They work in business and in the public sector. They are educators, doctors, sales people, farmers, clergy, and, yes, even some journalists and politicians. They are scientists and engineers.
Justin Katz also opined along a similar theme.
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. . . have managed to secure the "grim comfort" that "I got mine."

. . . 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.
Glenn Reynolds also weighed in and, citing both Bowermaster and Katz, offered further elaboration:
But while the members and hangers-on of yesterday's power structures are mulling their reduced prospects, ordinary people seem to be doing pretty well, as the economy continues to boom, small businesses to form, and new kinds of enterprises take off. We certainly don't view government with the same awe we felt before Watergate broke, or journalism with the same respect it had before Dan Rather struck, but all available evidence suggests that it was our earlier attitudes that were misinformed.

At any rate, Noonan is surely right that our current elites are not up to the task of steering the country. They're too ignorant, too insulated, and too concerned with "getting theirs." Fortunately, they're also a lot less important than they used to be.
Meanwhile, within the context of the recent Supreme Court nominations, both Todd Zywicki and Tony Blankeley put forth the idea that perhaps we are now seeing the results of a years-in-the-making conservative populist movement. Taken together, what we have is, perhaps, the beginning of a sea change, a tipping point, a groundswell of populism of a different sort. It is not just conservative, it is also libertarian and, yes, liberal. No matter the ideology, or cause or whatever, it is technology that is facilitating these changes. In short, technology is the sling carried by Reynold's Army of Davids. But it's more than that, it is the new leveller, the new frontier.

Over 100 years ago, Frederick Jackson Turner penned The Frontier In American History, which posited the "Frontier thesis". Years of debate ensued, and still continue, with the concept of "frontier" being redefined to the present day. So what did Turner's thesis say? In essence, this:
...geography determines the character of a people and, depending on the situation, gave them certain advantages and disadvantages. An example is that the English and Japanese, being Island Nations, would naturally have an advantage at sea combat. And, in an age of sea-trade they would, tend to be powerful. His thesis explicitly stated how the Frontier shaped the American mind to be open to new things and to strive for what was new. In our modern technological age, Americans are very open to new technologies.
The last conception--new techology as new frontier--has been commented upon by many. A post earlier this year by Ben Compaine provides a good example:
Blogging and podding and vodding or whatever else these formats might be called should not be viewed as a veneer or a Potemkin Village of phantom access to the world stage. The move to the Western frontier was real. Similarly this digital outlet that gives voice to the leafleteer, corner orator or anyone with a point of view or a story to be told is real and meaningful. . . . I believe, peercasting will have an overall positive effect on the American -- and no reason why not the rest of the world’s – experience with the expanded boundaries of this new frontier. I think that’s how Frederick Jackson Turner would describe it.
One aspect of Turner's thesis is the idea that the frontier served as a sort of "safety valve" that served to relieve social pressures. But it was more than an incident-by-incident occurence. For example, as Alan Taylor's William Cooper's Town illustrated, western expansion didn't occur all at once: it was a rolling expansion and each new wave brought about social--and eventually political--change.

William Cooper's story is an example of how a working class man became successful because of the new opportunity offered by the "open" frontier of a young nation as well as by the new political order generated through the American Revolution (which, incidentally, Cooper mostly sat out). Though he achieved financial success through land speculation and commercial ventures, Cooper's ideal of what it meant to be successful was to mimic the lives of those who were traditionally identified as the elite. But to them, money wasn't enough and "blood" still accounted for much. Thus, Cooper was never to be fully accepted by the old elite.

Cooper thought he had cracked the code to becoming a contemporary "new elite" by seeking prestige via political office. He was a successful politician for a short time, but his eyes were still on the old standard (largely paternalism and noblesse oblige--if I recall correctly) by which success had been defined. With his eyes so firmly fixed on the traditional model of elite success, failed to see the rising tide of social and political change--especially the rise of the populist Democrats in New York--that would forever alter his life. Perhaps if he would have recognized that there was a new political, democratic dynamic in the offing, he could have adjusted. But while his method of achieving success was "new," his concept of maintaining success was to follow the old blueprint. He learned too late that a new set of plans had been drawn up and followed by others who soon displaced him on the social ladder.

So what does this have to do with the "new elite"? The individuals who make up this "new elite" should be ever vigilant of falling into Cooper's trap. Today's small-time blogger may dream of becoming the next Glenn Reynolds, Matt Drudge or, heck, Wolf Blitzer or Ted Koppel. But they better make sure they don't become the next Dan Rather. The frontier isn't closed: but it isn't static either. It is constantly redefined. Those who recognize this can take advantage of the opportunities provided, but they must realize that there is always another wave of speculators behind them. If they don't see that wave, it'll sweep them away.

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