Are You Listening? – Does the Government Listen to Pundits

Eliot Cohen brought something troubling to my attention in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Our government functions in a vacuum. The government doesn’t really listen to pundits and outside advisors say. If they rarely pay attention to people who study policy for a living, maybe even for fun, could we even hope that they listen to us?

Cohen said that in his time working for Condoleezza Rice in the State Department he read outside works with passing interest. He called outside sources, “a background noise of which I was dimly aware, unless it was either unusually nasty, or unusually perceptive, which often merely meant that it fit my own views.” So if you are only following that which supports what you think already, how can you be getting the full picture? You can’t, but most of us are guilty of that behavior. It’s a hardy soul that can read Ann Coulter and Michael Moore without becoming steaming mad at one of the two.

Cohen goes on saying that outside information is seldom listened to because it is just that, outside the circle. Those of us not right in the mix cannot have all the knowledge of what is going on. He compares it to the telephone game. “Government resembles nothing so much as the party game of telephone, in which stories relayed at second, third or fourth hand become increasingly garbled as they crisscross other stories of a similar kind”

I get a great deal of comfort from what commentary officials do listen to.

“What, then, is a pundit to do? The best commentary has an impact, less because it offers new ideas (most ideas have been considered, however incompletely, on the inside) than because it clarifies problems or solutions that the insiders have only vaguely or incompletely considered.”

Blabbermouths like Limbaugh, Ingraham, Olberman, and Matthews are seen for what they are; people with huge egos trying to see who can shout the loudest. “WATCH ME!” “NO ME!” I’LL SAY SOMETHING SHOCKING SO YOU LISTEN TO ME!” Bla, bla, bla. Only serious work gets the attention it deserves. Those talking heads have much less of an impact then they would like to think.

I have hope for the voice of the common people though. We are in the trenches. Policy choices have a direct impact on our lives. If you want to know if a policy is successful just look out in the streets. President Obama’s pledge for transparency and an almost wiki style government, coupled with the ease in contacting our reps through email and online petition sites like will give us unprecedented access to the halls of power. Will we make use of these tools or just get on TV and yell? It’s clear what gets better results.