If you’ve ever wondered “What is wrong with those people?,” Janine R. Wedel’s book Shadow Elite may have the answer you’re looking for.
Of course, Wedel is a cultural anthropologist, not a politician nor a pundit, who takes a scientific approach to the study of the games being played by those who “wield high-level power and influence.” A professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, Wedel knows how to ferret out the shifting trends among cultures and how to compare them with other cultures past and present. With years of experience in the field, with firsthand knowledge of Eastern European communist governing styles, and with a keen eye for the finer details, Wedel lays it out for all to see. In Shadow Elite, she exposes what she calls a systemic change to the way both official and private influence are connected and used to establish a system that, according to Wedel “undermines the principles that have long defined modern states, free markets, and democracy itself.”
She has coined a term for the power brokers, be they politicians, lobbyists, or those ubiquitous experts who pop up in the media to spout nonsensical answers to non-questions asked by talking heads who never set foot in a journalism class: she calls them “flexians,” these strange bedfellows who combine their power to the benefit of all of them. While we the people sometimes call out a particular individual on ethics charges, Wedel points out that the whole “flex net” is insidious and more diseased than any one of its parts.
Flex nets, says Wedel, go far beyond a special interest group. Flex nets are defined by four key features: personalizing bureaucracy, or using personal connections and loyalties to realize goals; privatizing information while branding conviction, or branding the information available only to insiders in this game; juggling roles and representations, or changing spots frequently, wearing the pelt of military leader one day, analyst the next, and concerned citizen the next; and relaxing rules at the interstices of official and private institutions, or adjusting accountability and rules that apply to one or more of their pelts from the safety of a seemingly non-aligned position.
Unlike special interest groups, flex nets are neither formally established nor are they permanent, making them all the harder to spot and nearly impossible to stop:
“Flex nets draw their membership from a limited circle of players who interact with each other in multiple roles … both inside and outside government, to achieve mutual goals.” If this sounds like a raving conspiracy theorist at work, check the validity of Wedel’s theory for yourself – chart the number of times the same person turns up on CNN, MSNBC, or any of the other news programs with different billing. Does a political candidate who is also financial analyst who recently received a bonus as CEO of a major banking institution and who dines regularly with Ben Bernanke really have an objective take on the current economic situation?
Shadow Elite is not pop-culture fluff. Wedel presents a serious, thoughtful, and thorough examination of 21st-century political culture here, fully documented. By drawing on her knowledge of failed communist states and their identical methods of operation, the author is able to ask the valid question Who and what constitutes today’s government? She exposes not only the good old boys and girls we’ve never really trusted and expands the reader’s view of a culture that is adept at using loopholes, even deliberately incorporating them into the system. Smaller government, you say? No problem for the flexians – they simply outsource.
Shadow Elite is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn the rules of the game, either for personal gain or for self-defense. Terms like truthiness and coincidence of interests are the most important tools in your arsenal, and Janine Wedel walks you through the steps to attaining and implementing both. Keep your highlighter handy while reading this book – every paragraph is one you’ll want to memorize.