The New American Dream: Be a Pundit or Wonk


  • 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?