The Second Atlantic Expedition occurred within the context of a continuing wave of populism, nationalism, and anti-globalist sentiments on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States and Germany, we have seen the influence of “protest votes” driven less by political ideology than by frustration with the status quo. Naturally, when our group of German and American students and professionals assembled, much of the conversation centered on how to reengage “the elites” with “the masses” and reconnect a chasm that left millions feeling disenfranchised, skeptical, and ignored.
The fellows agreed that better dialogue and trust-building measures between government and voters are needed. Internal discussions and dialogue with experts helped us conclude that policymakers, industry leaders, and scholars need to connect with the communities they serve and understand what people are missing. Time and again, whether it was a former State Department official or a program manager at a cultural non-profit, experts and fellows alike agreed that those at the top are out of touch.
Observers have remarked that the conversation tends to taper to this point – the nexus between the elites and the public – but typically stops there. The characterization of the problem as a disconnect between elites and everyone else is accurate, but is too broad to yield actionable insights. This is because “the elites” are not a distinct group of people, and deeper exploration is needed in order to make this understanding more granular.
We met with a community organizer named Ebony in Chicago. Ebony drives social and economic development in her neighborhood, and people like her are what move the world forward. Critically, one observer from our program pointed out that, in her community, Ebony is an elite. She directly influences the lives of those around her, and her efforts can change people’s socioeconomic status and livelihoods for the better. Separately, we met with Art Acevedo, the Houston Chief of Police. He, too, is an elite with significant influence on the lives of the people in his community. His behavior has inspired Houston’s police officers and enhanced their relationship with the public.
Neither of these individuals is a senator, Fortune 500 CEO, or the director of a think tank, and people forget about them when discussing “the elites.” In addition, just like for the Senator and CEO, Ebony’s and Chief Acevedo’s interaction with their community is shaped by a number of variables, including:
- Their organization and its role within the community
- Their supervisor
- Their background and experience
- The legal and political context of their role
- The composition of their respective communities, such as technological availability, geographic factors, and communication infrastructure
Because of this, the conceptual approach of driving engagement between the elites and the public is correct, but we need to zoom in on that thinking. The specific tactics Ebony and Chief Acevedo have leveraged to better their communities would make superb case studies for other community organizers and police chiefs around the world. Groups like the Atlantic Expedition must break down the “elite” category into sub-levels based on the specific role of each type of influencer. We can then compile best practices, tools, and methods for others in these roles to implement. In closing, advancement requires a painstaking methodology, just as it always has.
Thank you to Nastassja Wohnhas, Dr. Johannes Bohnen, and the rest of the Atlantische Initiative for giving me the opportunity to explore these issues.