The D.C. Pundit Class — Chevy Chase Sketch Edition

We wrote a while back about Djilas and how he might analyze our current situation. Would he declare a new “Pundit Class”? What would be its characteristics? A more fully considered post on that awaits another day. But we offer a quick follow-on tonight limited to one famous D.C. suburb, replying in part to recent comments here.

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Our sense is that many (but not all) outside the Beltway perceive the “Inside the Beltway” Pundit Class (loosely defined — and for our purposes tonight in existence) the only way they can — via television, Talk Radio, print or now increasingly in the pundits’ own awkward migration to the blogosphere. These impressions, however, are more realistically ephemeral imagery, fragmentary intellectual burps. The true nature of the class must be seen and observed in the social rituals and environment in which it operates, much like the old Soviet nomenklatura elites used off limits beriozka stores to buy Western ‘luxuries’ with illicit valyoota (hard-currency).

We also make some further stipulations for accuracy and intellectual honesty. First, our definition of pundit: for tonight’s purpose, it’s limited to the traditional media sense — and distinguishes mere talking heads from scholars or serious academics, etc. Second, we also exclude those who are truly members of the various strands of the Movement as their motivations and strategies (diagnosed at length here and at STSOZ 1.0) diverge from the traditional pundit class. Third, what we are about to say obviously does not apply to each and every individual pundit. We know a few of these pundits, some quite well. Below is a *general* observation — using Chevy Chase as one sketch. Finally, we include in our conversation the producers of shows, their bookers, etc. In other words, those who control the immediate oxygen valve for any given pundit.

A main pundit characteristic we observed — particularly during the era of Unified Authoritarian Government — was the quietly frantic worry about their individual brand viability. (In some cases the worry from some tv talking heads was an openly reeking stench, but we should all walk a mile in each other’s shoes, etc.) Brand viability defined not only soft power such as ego gratification via appearances on shows, getting coffee machines from the I-Man, etc. but fundamentally socio-economic standing. Those two intertwine necessarily. The collapse of the traditional media model is well known. The paper, network and radio layoffs, closings and firings sent shock waves through a group that was used to covering other peoples’ misfortunes. Job security was and still is an iffy thing.

The Administration’s unsurpassed punitive nature compounded pundit insecurity, particularly for those on the “Right”. Thus the mushrooming phenomenon of “pundits” openly opining and asserting things they did not believe in, sometimes blatantly with a shameless grin. Or offering memes they knew to be outright false. One pundit we have known quite well said to the Stiftung circa mid 2006, “I’ve lied to so many people about so many things on so many issues I no longer know what I really believe.” Not atypical. Gotta keep the ‘brand’ afloat. Need to keep the cable producers calling for appearances.

Want to hit the Warlord on this or that? Prove your brand viability by slamming home the Nativist/anti-immigration cant, even if you don’t believe it. It still keeps the brand alive. The Left/Moderates? Most traditional pundits suffered from and continue to inflict upon us their intellectual bankruptcy. Yet they too also competed in their own way to maintain branding niches. Very few traditional pundits fell on their swords defying the Warlord and conventional wisdom for the longest time. Very few. And here are a few possible tangential reasons why:

Friendship Heights

This is an area called ‘Friendship Heights’ in the heart of Chevy Chase. Chevy Chase used to be a small, leafy suburban enclave, kid friendly, small shops and without much pretension. All gone now. Wiped out in a sea of Imperial ostentation. In addition to Bulgari, Gucci, Saks, Tiffany’s, Louis Vuittton, etc.

It would be naive, sophomoric and inaccurate to assert that Friendship Height’s transformation from family friendly environment to Rodeo Drive vulgarity has a direct causal link to what any given pundit in the broader Chevy Chase area may say or write. Indeed, many living there don’t necessarily frequent these stores. But the entire tone of living in Chevy Chase has irrevocably changed. To maintain membership in the socio-economic strata that permits living in Chevy Chase and Bethesda up Wisconsin Ave. now comes with heavy golden handcuffs. Even outside the relatively modest sized homes a few blocks away (still listing in this down market at a million plus) the BMWs, Jaguars and Mercedes clog the streets like bad cholesterol.

Frankly put, once one is a part of this “scene”, the risks of non-conformity, of defying the “mainstream” view, or otherwise rocking the boat are very high. Particularly when the WaPo’s circulation spirals, networks are cutting back and bureaus from papers outside the Imperial City simply close. Of course, everyone sees the same ratings, everyone sees the same circulation figures. But it is no surprise to the Stiftung that even today Olbermann is relatively (if not absolutely) an aberration. Daily Kos keeps asking why if his numbers are so good more shows aren’t like it. Bomb throwing in a turbulent environment threatens the community.

Consider the social networks in Chevy Chase, the formal parties, the birthday parties, the schools, the lobbyists next door, the former ambassador up the street now representing Saudi Arabia, these also set the milieu for the Pundit Class. This is what can not be seen from CSPAN, or witnessed by some bloggers visiting DC for a few days lobbying on the Hill, etc.

It is again important to emphasize that we are specifically trying to sketch a quick picture of a social environment. And to highlight some imperatives and personal costs driving the frenzied Pundit Class “branding”. It’s not a new phenomenon by any means. The extent and scale certainly are.

Pundits don’t necessarily drive a Mercedes. (Novak has his Corvette, and Al Hunt almost ran the Stiftung over in his very appropriately mid-1990s soccer mom mini-van, with Judy next to him, etc.)* Many pundits do not live in Chevy Chase (although other neighborhoods we could name are not too different and have Tiffany’s, etc.). And some even in the Chevy Chase area may not (or argue that they have not) pulled their punches.

We simply offer this as a sketch. To keep in the back of your mind when wondering why X is said by Y on this show or in this column. A pundit’s gotta eat, too.

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n.b. No disrespect intended in any way for other reasons a mini-van is a necessity for their family.