The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri

Summary

  1. I have 3 main hypotheses: 1) Information influences politics because it is indigestible by a government’s justifying story; 2) the greater the diffusion of information to the public, the more illegitimate any political status quo will appear; 3) Homo informaticus, networked builder and wielder of the information sphere, poses an existential challenge to the legitimacy of every government he encounters

Key Takeaways

  1. There is a deep connection between online universities and democratized information that increases unrest and insurgencies
  2. I found strong demographic and behavioral affinities: they are young, middle class, university educated and predominantly white, disproportionately anarchists
  3. The most profound consequence of all the uprisings in 2011 was the sowing of the seeds of distrust in the democratic process
  4. In information scarcity, those who have it become authoritarian, as information increases, authoritativeness decreases. Hierarchy, as a structure, has proven transcendentally inept in dealing with digital platforms…Tremendous energies have been released by people from nowhere, networked, self-assembled, from below. That is the structural destiny of the Fifth Wave – the central theme of my story. Democratic government in societies of distrust can choose to ride the tsunami or to be swamped by it. The latter choice will leave government mired in failure and drained of legitimacy. It will leave democracy, I fear, at the mercy of the first persuasive political alternative. 
    1. Clash of two modes of life: hierarchical/top down and networked/bottom-up
  5. Center can’t hold and the border has no clue how to handle it
  6. Crisis of authority coming from public awareness of incompetence. The authorities now lack control of the narrative and there are now alternative authorities. At some point around the turn of the new millennium, elites lost control of information, and power arrangements began to flip. Assured of the public’s wrath, elected governments have acted, or failed to act, motivated by a terror of consequences. Legitimacy was equated with the deflection of blame, and the aim of governing became to exhibit a lack of culpability.
  7. Difference between companies and governments: The difference is that failing companies go out of business and are replaced by new companies, while government accumulates failure, making it, systemically , much more fragile
  8. There is a democrat’s dilemma that is no less perilous than the dictator’s. Politicians must promise the impossible to get elected. Elected officials must avoid meaningful action at all costs. 
  9. The rise of nihilism 
    1. The nihilist is merely reacting to the pressures applied by his environment: which means, in this case, that he is acting to destroy the environment in which democratic governments are burdened with failure, democratic politics are removed from reality, and democratic programs drained of creative energy, and thus hope
    2. I believe here’s a relationship between our fractured reality and the rise of the nihilist – persons and groups that consider destruction and mass murder to be a form of progress. The nihilist lurks in a broken sliver of truth that is impossible to debate or refute. There, he experiences absolute grievance and the absolute negation of the system, the repudiation of everything that stands and of everyone he encounters. Not just politics, but all of humanity, he holds, must be purified and made new. As the last righteous person, the nihilist aims to bring this about in the blood of random strangers. He acts out the violence that so many others perpetrate verbally and virtually on the web: he is, in that sense, the avenging angel of post-truth, and the rant made flesh
    3. The distance between top and bottom is very great. The chasm of distrust will be difficult to bridge. And as elite fear and loathing of the public has increased, so has the craving for distance and isolation. Elites today have no idea how to speak to the public or what to say to it. They have shown little interest in trying. The hyper-educated individuals who ran the Clinton campaign were utterly indifferent to public opinion: they believed in big data
  10. If structure is destiny, then the personal will trump the political. This is far more robust – personal success can be emulated and replicated. Personal failure will not implicate the entire system…Control, however tenuous, and satisfaction, however fleeting, can be found in the personal sphere, not in telescopic numbers reported by the government. 
  11. So I come to the abiding paradox that defines our predicament. An affluent, well-educated, hyper-connected public is in revolt against the system that has bestowed all this county upon it. The great motive power of the revolt isn’t economic resentment but outrage over distance and failure. Everyday life is increasingly digital and networked.
  12. In the right relation between elites and the public, the former acts as exemplars to the latter. They embody and live out the master narratives. We can think of George Washington returning to his farm after the Revolution as a striking example…The quality that sets the true elites apart – that bestows authority on their actions and expressions – isn’t power, or wealth, or education, or even peruasiveness. It’s integrity in life and work. A healthy society is one in which such exemplary types draw the public toward them purely by the force of their example. Without compulsion, ordinary persons aspire to resemble the extraordinary, not superficially but fundamentally, because they wish to partake of superior models of being or doing. The good society, Ortega concluded, was an “engine of perfection”…Many are called, few will be chosen
  13. The qualities I would look for among elites to get politics off this treadmill are honesty and humility: old-school virtues, long accepted by 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 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…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. 

What I got out of it

  1. Gurri is a prescient and beautiful writer. He makes really important points and will be fascinating to see how networks vs. hierarchies continue playing out