The New American Dream: Be a Pundit or Wonk

WonkAFAHero

  • Pundit: A person who gives opinions in an authoritative manner usually through the mass media
  • Wonk: A person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field

We as a culture have moved from doers to talkers, and even our education system seems to acknowledge this. A recent American University ad campaign in the Washington region encourages local prospective students to be a wonk. The ads highlight a subtle cultural shift to a desire to be known as an information source, famous for subject area knowledge. Today, Americans want to be famous for talking about things.

In the past, Americans wanted to do things with their career. They wanted to be a fireman, the president, a lawyer, a nurse, a parent, etc.

Notice the verb switch from doing to knowing. The two are not the same thing. One involves actively engaging in a career. The second path can possess the domain knowledge from experience, but not necessarily. The realm of the pundit or wonk is to talk about a profession, as opposed to actively engaging in that work.

Even the campaign subtext seems to acknowledge this: …where budding experts are transformed into true wonks.

What this trend acknowledges: Most Americans want to be famous. We have a celebrity culture. Success has transitioned from great acts to a great public perception. And now with the advent of social media building such a perception is easier than it has ever been before. A recent news article aptly dubbed this trend, “too much sizzle, too little steak.”

The new celebrity culture does make you wonder about a few things:

  • If we are all so busy talking about the work, who will actually do it?
  • What are the rewards for being a “doer?”
  • Does the talker fare better now? Have we dis-incentivized real action?
  • How do we as a culture delineate opinion from subjective experience and fact-based research?

Just some thoughts on the New American Dream of being a publicly known expert. What do you think of our celebrity culture?

16 Replies to “The New American Dream: Be a Pundit or Wonk”

  1. I think this is a huge part of our problem, and sadly, one of the negatives of a Social Media culture. Andy Warhol was more right than ever as a YouTube video can bring us our 15 minutes of fame, or perhaps a well-timed (or ill timed) tweet. This is why our political system is a mess, and we give reality shows to every dysfunctional stereotype on the planet. While clever, the American University campaign certainly feeds into that. We used to say “You can be somebody!”, and now it’s “You can be somebody…famous!”

    1. It’s very scary.  And no one understood the pop ethos quite like Warhol did. Way ahead of his time!

  2. Great post, Geoff, and you capture such a wonderful nuance of this problem–the issue of talking _past_ each other. Wonks and pundits lecture. They make everyone else listen to them. Doers talk _with_ each other. McLuhan said conversations begin with the recognition of ignorance, and our society really misses that point. Thank you for making the point so visibly and for leading the way beyond pundrity and wonkdom. 

    1. Thanks for getting me off the edge and blogging about this. I’ve been looking at this campaign in the metro system for weeks, and it has been rubbing me the wrong way as a bad message. Your Google+ post touched off this one.

  3. I think the celebrity culture is a sham. It’s the antithesis of all those “Wag More, Bark Less” bumper stickers. The American Dream has become the American Entitlement, and working hard to realize things which are important has been cast aside as we expect rich rewards just because.

    The pundits and the wonks speak to data and information – lowest common denominators of any topic. This is fast becoming the basis of the “Knowledge Economy,” and it frustrates me because it’s not knowledge. Knowledge requires considering the information and using it to create something new. Furthermore, wisdom comes from answering the question, “Why?”

    Beyond the Knowledge Economy lies the “Meaning Economy,” where those who start with why and how figure out how to use the what to support action. I think, for all the mindless consumption and posturing, there is unprecedented opportunity for communicating in terms of why and how to do more with what.

    We all know what a firefighter, the president, et al., do, but where are the conversations informing the masses why and how they do those things? If we can get those messages out, we can connect with people on intrinsic levels, helping them fill the gaping chasm within with things more meaningful.

    1. Yeah, I think you hit on something with the entitlement comment.  You know everyone thinks that the world should be handed to them on a silver platter when in reality what we are seeing is a diminishing attitude of responsibility. We are responsible for doing things and just generally caring. A firefighter feels a sense of responsibility for his community. You rarely hear the importance of responsibility anymore.

      Thanks for a great comment, Brian.

      1. No problem, Geoff. I only wish I could contribute so meaningfully more often. In many ways, I’m a bit simple-minded; I’ve got my ideals, they’re simple, and I stick to them.

        The more people (and businesses) focused on the gimmie-gimmie, the easier it should be for those who make a difference to take root and start growing. Like Ghandi said, “First they ignore you, then they mock you, then they fight you, then you win.”

        I’m looking forward to that fight.

  4. I probably am biased because I went to grad school at AU, but I am not seeing the Wonk campaign the way you are. I don’t think you have to want to be a celebrity to be a wonk. You just have to be “a studious or hardworking person” (another wonk definition you didn’t cite). More likely than not, this means doing (not just talking about) work.

    I know plenty of feds, for example, who do important work that will only make them famous to their coworkers but I nevertheless consider wonks. They know everything there is to know about their specialized field. They work hard on issues they are passionate about.

    I think this is what AU is trying to capture. Smart people making a difference versus smart people trying to make a fast buck. AU’s School of International Service (where I attended grad school) attracts that kind of person. 

    Geoff, I consider you a pundit and a wonk, by the way, and think you too should be on AU’s wonk map at http://americanwonks.com/. You are a noteworthy alum, and I hope writing this blog post won’t stop you. Go Eagles! 

    1. As an AU, graduate (ba, literature) who works his ass offf and shares thoughts based on experience, I find the campaign to be atrocious. I also find it demeaning to my degree. I’ll ignore the wonk comment, as. i believe you meant that in a kind way.

  5. That explains why the jobs that are available but require re-training and learning of new skills continue to go unfilled.

    I’m insulated from these goings on as I work with fellow entrepreneurs that are building businesses, offering both products and services. This shows that not only are we the exception to the rule but the rule is increasing.

    I don’t see this as good for the country at all (not sure how anyone could). Ultimately we’ll begin losing our edge to countries willing to put in the work, and there are a lot of hungry ones out there ready to eat our lunch.

    1. Yup. No one wants to work for it.

      I don’t think it is a good thing either. The reality of this attitude penetrating our education system with this campaign, with the use of Klout as a barometer for online success in the classroom, well, it can’t bode well.

  6. Tom Peters – the management guru and Napoleon Hill – Think and Grow Rich, and Thomas Stanley – Millionaire Next Door all took on this position of being the observer/reporter and made it work to their advantage. Between the three of them, I don’t think either have “done” anything to create wealth besides marketing and writing about their findings.

    Proof is so crucial in influence and I believe these guys were able to work their magic is because they were so good at telling stories that included facts that backed up what they were preaching.

    In my head, if you actually “Do” but don’t do what these guys do and wrap what you “Do” in a great stories, you’ll find it hard to influence other people which is helpful to anyone who interacts with other humans.

  7. Some good comments here and I share in the frustration of many. Right now, I guess b/c it was just on cable, I’m flashing to that scene in Gladiator where the ‘one honest politician’ is talking about how Rome is the mob, not the upper ups in power. I think of that in context of this quote, burned in my brain from a blog comment, that goes something like “Credibility is built inside the echo chamber, popularity outside it.” Except it no longer takes work or credibility to build up – or tear down – something anymore. 

    I’m ashamed to admit I did read one article on the Kardashian divorce, how it won’t hurt her ‘brand’ and thought, “what brand?” But then, I’m not the mob that certain folks (pundits or wonks) they’re catering to, so I don’t get how any sort of notoriety, how that 15 minutes translate to real ‘celebrity’ status, much less credibility. IDK except it’s the celebrity, the popularity that translates into success. See also, how many quality blog posts sit around unread, uncommented, untweeted while a ‘big name’ can throw up dreck and go ‘viral.’ FWIW.

  8. I am one of those that is trying to establish myself as a pundit. Of course it is easy to published posts, it is finding followers that are interested in hearing about the world accorcing to (insert name here) that is the hard part. Given that I still have not figured out how to get a following for my political blog, I guess trying to figure how to make a living off it is out of the question.

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