Organic Consumers Association

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Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Are Upending Our Democracy

Editor's Note: Any time you turn on the television these days, you'll find pundits sounding off on the policy debate du jour. Labeled something along the lines of "military experts" or "Democratic consultants," you have to wonder what they're hiding behind those vague-sounding titles. In an era when mainstream media turns to punditry to shape the American public's view of the most important policy issues, it's worth looking into who these so-called experts are and what effect they're having on our society. As Janine R. Wedel writes in her new book, Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market (excerpted below), the rise of a new breed of confidence men and women -- think-tank members, government advisers, business consultants and television pundits -- upend our democracy. Because they are technically individual actors, they claim to hold no allegiances; in fact, they usually hold too many.

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We live in a world of flexibility. We have flex time, flex workers, flex spending, flex enrollment, flex cars, flex technology, flex perks, mind flex-even flex identities. "Flex" has become an integral part not only of how we live, but of how power and influence are wielded. While influencers flex their roles and representations, organizations, institutions, and states, too, must be flexible in ways they haven't been before. The mover and shaker who serves at one and the same time as business consultant, think-tanker, TV pundit, and government adviser glides in and around the organizations that enlist his services. It is not just his time that is divided. His loyalties, too, are often flexible. Even the short-term consultant doing one project at a time cannot afford to owe too much allegiance to the company or government agency. Such individuals are in these organizations (some of the time anyway), but they are seldom of them. 

Being in, but not of, an organization enables these players to pursue a "coincidence of interests," that is, to interweave and perform overlapping roles that serve their own goals or those of their associates. Because these "nonstate" actors working for companies, quasi-governmental organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) frequently do work that officials once did, they have privileged access to official information-information that they can deploy to their own ends. And they have more opportunities to use this information for purposes that are neither in the public interest nor easily detected, all the while controlling the message to keep their game going. 

Take, for instance, Barry R. McCaffrey, retired four-star army general, military analyst for the media, defense industry consultant, president of his own consulting firm, part-time professor, and expert, whose advice on the conduct of the post-9/11 U.S. wars was sought by the George W. Bush administration and Congress. Crucial to McCaffrey's success in these roles was the special access afforded him by the Pentagon and associates still in the military. This included special trips to war zones arranged specifically for him, according to a November 2008 expose in the New York Times. McCaffrey gleaned information from these trips that proved useful in other roles-and not only his part-time professorship at the U.S. Military Academy, which the Pentagon claimed is the umbrella under which his outsider's perspective was sought.  
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