As the global system endures another round of crisis, leaders and policy makers in many countries are under pressure. The tip of the spear ---barring riots and protests -- tends to take the form of inflamed punditry: on air, on line, and on newspaper op-ed pages. Since we live in an age of volubility, or what someone calls the paradox of plenty in the global media, punditry is everywhere these days and yet most of it is of dubious quality. The outlets for punditry grow exponentially every week. The question, though, is this: how do we assess the quality of the massed punditry that we are being bombarded with these days?
I see at least two categories of influential pundits:
- The public affairs commentators that policy makers take seriously.
- The public affairs commentators that tendentious movements or groups take seriously.
Years ago, I was a writer of opinions and editorials on the leading newspaper of influence in Lagos, Nigeria. We had on the editorial board advisers to we the writers men who had vast experience of government and business both within and outside Nigeria. I learned a lesson from them that has stayed with me. They taught me that if you want policy makers to take you seriously even when they disagree with you, your commentary must meet two requirements.
- First, it must betray an awareness of the complexity of the decision making context policy makers confront. You don't cheat. That basically means appreciating the complexity of politics, power configurations and the underlying rules of the game.The pundit's challenge becomes: given the realities what would you do differently?
- Second, your commentary must show that you understand the policy area in question. It might be defense, or macroeconomics or healthcare: do you know what you are talking about? Will a policy maker with a good grasp of the issue think you know what you are talking about? The graph below makes the point.
What is saddening about our age of volubility is that the vast majority of public affairs commentators do not meet these two requirements. Lots of commentators do not have real mastery of the policy issues they are commenting on. Plus there is an epidemic of cheating, of ignoring political realities and simply assailing policy makers and leaders, and yelling: 'Just fix it! Just show leadership!' Leadership is coming to mean Performer of Miracles!
Influence within movements
There are many pundits who owe their place to their ability to command the attention of specific groups within political communities. In plural, deeply divided societies, these are the commentators who rally particular groups: liberals, conservatives, Shias, Sunnis, Ethnic Group XY, Ethnic Group LK and so on. They are the defenders of the faithful, the theologians of in-group dogma, the purists of the faith, avenging daemons or angels ....depending on whether you like them or loathe them. These pundits need two things only: rhetorical prowess (relative to the form of media) and mastery of the theology of the group or movement. And they are ready to roar and soar. The graph below makes the point.
Given how these pundits operate, they are not likely to persuade those outside the group and they don't care. Their influence tends to be greatest when the movement has won power. Then the job of these pundits, as they see it, is to make sure that those in government keep to the one and only true faith. If they don't, they can expect to make the acquaintance of rockets of vitriol. It is these ranters and shouters, coupled with the way new media tools create micro-communities that can opt out of national conversations, that drive the intense polarization that we see in several political communities; and make it difficult for leaders and policy makers to negotiate solutions that can lead to progress on many complex, thorny problems.
A crying shame.
Photo Credit: Flickr user daveelf