The chattering classes

Wikipedia informs me that the term “the chattering classes” was coined by Auberon Waugh and later appropriated by his friend Alan Watkins, a conservative columnist in 1980s Britain who used it to describe the (self-proclaimed) intelligentsia that despised then-PM Margaret Thatcher. More recently it has been used to broadly characterize that parallel universe of media mavens, political pundits, Washington insiders, lobbyists, commentators, spin doctors and (un)named sources who keep up a constant flow of instant analysis and criticism of whatever happens on the national stage.

Technology has played a large part in the proliferation of these self-important honchos and honchettes. Not too long ago, commentators waited until, say, a debate among the Republican candidates for their party’s nomination was ended, before dispensing instant ratings of who did well and who did not. Today, social media make possible, and even invite,”real-time” commentary by means such as Tweets and live-blogging. Proponents of one candidate try to fill the internet with positive spin, while opponents counter with their negative take. It’s all a big circus, “signifying nothing,” as the bard of Avon would say.

In Coolidge’s day, there was a chattering class, too, but their output was confined to the much slower media of newspapers and magazines, or even books. And the journalists, columnists and commentators of the the era, such as Walter Lippmann, William Allen White, Franklin Pierce Adams, Heywood Broun, or H.L. Mencken, to name a few, were arguably of a higher calibre than the chattering classes of today. While many had a political axe to grind, and filled their pens with vitriol as often as with ink, their writing was of a decidedly higher quality than the grammar-be-damned, speed-is-everything style of today’s instant commentators. I’m not sure whether the cacophony of commentary we are besieged with today leaves us better informed or not, but I’m tempted to say that while there still are worthwhile commentators (mostly old-media types) whose experience and insights enrich the political discourse, most blog posts and tweets are justly forgotten in an instant. I wager that Calvin Coolidge (who certainly was up to speed regarding new media of his time, such as radio, a medium ideally suited to his persona) would not feel at home in this environment.

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