The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority touches upon many of the most pressing problems of our time — the collapse of trust in institutions and public figures, the degeneration of public discourse, tribalism, and a pervasive sentiment of outrage about the current failures of modern capitalism and mob desire to tear down all of the (what he labels, appropriately, I think) ‘Industrial Age’ institutions and values without any concrete plan for how to do better in the future that he (again, I think appropriately) labels nihilism.

I’ve written about some of the same issues in Panem et Circenses (structural problems of attention economy), The Emperor Has No Clothes, There is No Santa Claus, and Nothing is Rocket Science (distrust of social structure and inherited institutions), Metrics, Incrementalism, and Local Maxima (difficulty of measure complex / many dimensional systems, like govt), The Beautiful Struggle // The Beautiful Game (work and dignity).

A few of Gurri’s best insights:

  • Historically, trusted authorities mediated the information disseminated to the public, presenting a coherent picture of the world (a picture which happened to reinforce their authority). Direct access to more information via the internet allows the public to see reality, which is noisy, complex, and uncertain. This has led to a ‘crisis of authority’ — the public realizes once-trusted institutions actually don’t know really know what’s going on, and no longer trusts them. (The chapter on The Crisis of Authority is by far the best in the book.)
  • Although political movements and forms of antiestablishment activism have legitimate grievances, none present a positive alternative to the status quo. Their plans all amount to nothing more than tearing down all of the old institutions. As a result, Gurri labels them all ‘nihilist.’
  • The current structures of authority are supported by industrial age principles of hierarchy and organization which don’t seem compatible with a highly networked public with more distributed access to publishing online media.
  • Antiestablishment movements come from a sectarian / “border” that opposes a hierarchical “center” (which seeks to maintain the status quo).

My main disappointment with the book is that after such an insightful analysis of the problem space, Gurri does not himself provide any positive proposals for structural changes that might remedy the situation. He concludes by calling for more humility and honesty in public leaders and asking voters to select better leaders. While both of these would be improvements, I don’t think it’s a sufficient just ask everyone to be better people). Furthermore, Gurri argues it’s impossible to measure the efficacy of large institutions and their leaders because the systems they govern are too complex — declaring bankruptcy on the ability to measure efficacy of leaders and institutions seems like yet another example of the nihilism Gurri pointed out so many instances of in his book.

A few choice passages…

We need structural change — better actors within existing structure will not suffice:

You can condemn politicians only for so long before you must reject the legitimacy of the system that produced them. The protests of 2011 openly took that step, and a considerable segment of the electorate applauded. Like money and marriage, legitimacy exists objectively because vast numbers of the public agree, subjectively, that it does exist. If enough people change their minds, the authorizing magic is lost. The process is slow and invisible to analysts, but, as I have noted, the tipping point comes suddenly — a matter of weeks for the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes. How far down this road existing liberal democracies have proceeded is a matter of guesswork. We still have time to discover that the street revolts of 2011, in V’s words, did “change the world,” and not in a good way.

Authority as a tool for reducing uncertainty (of course I love this one…):

Authority, as I use the term, flows from legitimacy, derived from monopoly. To some indeterminate degree, the public must trust and heed authority, or it is no authority at all. An important social function of authority is to deliver certainty in an uncertain world. It explains reality in the context of the shared story of the group. For this it must rely on persuasion rather than compulsion, since naked force is a destroyer of trust and faith. The need to persuade in turn explains the institutional propensity for visible symbols of authority — the patrician’s toga, the doctor’s white frock, the financier’s Armani suit. Authority being an intangible quality, those who wield it wish to be recognized for what they are.

Industrial age Taylorism as root of current structures of authority:

Current structures of authority are a legacy of the industrial age. The public, when it needs answers, turns to institutions rather than to charismatic individuals. These institutions have been subjected to a Taylorist process of rationalization: they are, without exception, top-down, specialized, professionalized, prone to pseudo-scientific rituals and jargon. To enter such a precinct of authority requires a long and costly accreditation process — years of academic education and apprenticeship. Many are called, few are chosen. The elect believe themselves to be unquestioned masters of their special domain — and so they were for many years. From the middle of the nineteenth to the end of the twentieth centuries, the public lacked the means to question, much less contradict, authoritative judgments derived from monopolies of information.

Persuasion as the source of authority:

Even in purely practical terms, persuasion has always trumped compulsion or bribery. The authorizing magic of legitimacy can channel social behavior more deeply and permanently than the policeman’s club or the millionaire’s check. These propositions should be considered truisms, but they are not. Not by the public, which, as we have seen, assumes that every failure of authority must be explained by a collusion of money with power. And not by many analysts, who embrace some version of the old Marxist concept of “false consciousness” — the idea that the public can be persuaded to heed authority against its own best interests.
False consciousness can be invoked in a world in which the laws of history, and thus the shape of future events, are perfectly understood. Only then, with the tree of causation lucidly in mind, are we allowed to speak of the relation between a sane conscious decision and reality as “true” or “false.” But that is not the world we live in. That is not the human condition. Between every decision and its consequences rises an impenetrable veil of uncertainty. The present can only guess at the future — and the track record, as we’ll soon see, isn’t good. Even among experts, the track record is terrible. The reason isn’t false consciousness but the stupendous complexity of human events, which renders prediction impossible.

Gurri’s proposals for solving the crisis of authority:

It may be more useful to specify exactly what virtues will be required under a new dispensation of liberal democracy. That, needless to say, will take us out of the realm of speculation into pure opinion. Since I am coming to the end of my story, I will, in all diffidence, offer mine.
Modern government’s original sin is pride. It was erected on a boast — that it can solve any “problem,” even to fixing the human condition — and it endures on a sickly diet of utopian expectations. We now know better. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have understood that even the most brutal application of power cannot redeem the human lot. For exactly that time, electorates in democratic nations have, in effect, lived a lie — of which the post-truth era, for all its weird pathologies, is only a second-level effect.
The qualities I would look for among elites to get politics off this treadmill are honesty and humility: old-school virtues, long accepted to be the living spirit behind the machinery of the democratic republic, though now almost lost from sight. The reformers of democracy must learn to say, out loud for all to hear, “This is a process of trial and error,” and, “We are uncertain of the consequences,” and even, “I was wrong.” Elected officials must approximate the ability of scientists and businessmen — and, for that matter, ordinary households — to identify failure and move on. Honesty means that the relationship to truth, as truth is perceived, matters more than ambition or partisan advantage. Humility means that the top of the pyramid looks to the public as a home it will return to rather than a carnivorous species from which to hide. Truth must be spoken even when it hurts the speaker or the audience. Distance must be reduced to a minimum, even at the risk of physical danger.
So I would borrow one more virtue from The Wizard of Oz: courage.
Is this scenario realistic? Who knows? Stranger things have happened. Infections stimulate their own specific antibodies. The era of post-truth and the rant may induce a powerful demand for simple honesty and humility. I’m not forecasting the rule of saints any time soon. That isn’t necessary. Nor am I expecting a revolutionary transformation, in which, say, the president of the United States governs in his pajamas while sitting at his laptop. History doesn’t work like that. The forms and ideals of Enlightenment democracy are still alive in the industrial model. Many aspects of this model will survive and evolve in any future iteration of democracy. The crucial move if we are to surmount our predicament isn’t transformation but reorientation, a turn in direction away from top-down control, bureaucratic power, and the high valuation of distance as a reward for political success. Such a reorientation strikes me as perfectly possible.
In the end, everything will hinge on the public: on us. If Ortega was correct, then we have lost the right to rant about our rulers. Instead, we must go about the job of selecting their successors. We can lavish our attention and our energies strictly on politicians who seem unwilling to lie or simplify or distort to advantage. We can identify and raise up those who refuse to climb above us. That’s one fork in the path ahead: another leads to nihilism. Either way, the choice is ours.

Finally, one of my favorites:

American politics, and I think democratic politics globally, fretted under the shadow of the heroic past. Great projects had been attempted once, and the result had been stability, security, advancement. Today, conditions were deteriorating along many fronts, but the system appeared unable to generate fixes. The economy, for example, was universally believed to be getting worse, but the conversation among the elites and the public alike fixated on the symptoms of decline, on persistent unemployment, on inequality, lack of mobility, the outrageous salaries of CEOs, rather than on policy changes that might turn the situation around. President Obama had consigned his predecessor’s tax cuts to the dustbin of outmoded theories. His effort to engage in large-scale economic policy, the stimulus, had failed on its own terms. Now there was no debate about a new tax cut or a new stimulus. The political process appeared sterile and exhausted, and the politicians were afraid.
Here was the overarching feeling of our age: that we were the decadent children of a great generation, and that no way back could be found, no exit from the quicksand into which we were sinking, because that quicksand was us. The natural urge to find responsible parties and assign blame was baffled by the immense number of targets. In the US, but also in Britain, France, Spain, Italy, right and left governments had alternated, with results that could scarcely be teased apart. Ideologies, political parties, elections — the formal choices of democracy all ended, it appeared, in the same failed place.
Under the circumstances, the system bearing the weight of so many imperfections — representative democracy — began to lose its authorizing magic. This could be seen from the top of the pyramid and from below.
From the top: democratic politics had become the guarantor of individual happiness, yet the voters felt viscerally unhappy about their lives, unhappy, too, with politics and politicians in this hour of decay — any number of opinion surveys, in country after country, attested to this fact.[214] With growing desperation, democratic governments intervened in individual lives to achieve what they claimed were benevolent ends, yet the electorate saw in these efforts little more than usurpation and corruption. The Tea Party and the Occupiers, polar opposites, both had reacted against a government that intruded on everyone and failed everywhere. The contract that bestowed legitimacy on elected officials was being shredded. The politicians understood this, but labored under the conviction, probably correct, that the voters would punish rhetoric that failed to promise heroic improvements. They could, like President Obama, divorce themselves from their positions, but this would only aggravate the hemorrhage of legitimacy.

— Excerpts from Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority.