The revolt of the public and the “age of post-truth”

With Elites and With the Truth, It’s Complicated

Three years ago I remarked that the public was engaged in a messy divorce from the elites who run the great institutions of the industrial age.  That bit of scandal is by now notorious.  The elites, with more to lose, have come to regard the intrusive public as little better than a barbarian horde.  They know that a complex society can’t be managed without expertise, and long to return to a past in which the expert’s dictates went unquestioned.  Their watchword is “resistance,” but their dream is reaction.

The public, however, has so far proved irresistible, and the breach appears irreconcilable.  Established institutions, the political process, the economy, “the system,” all look to the public suspiciously like a lottery rigged in favor of the perpetual winners:  a class of insiders who manage to be both self-righteous and self-serving, arrogant and failed.  The terms of the divorce would send the lot of them packing.  This attitude is being called “populism” – a fraught word, rarely used by the populists themselves, connoting a politics of anger and negation played out on a minimalist ideological stage.  You can have populists of the right, like Donald Trump, or of the left, like Bernie Sanders.  What brings them together is a determination to do away with the present order of things, and an indifference to what comes after.

But something even stranger is going on.  We are told, by impeccable sources, that the public is experiencing a traumatic rupture with the truth.  The post-election panic over “fake news” has hardened into a theory of universal self-deception.  The public has somehow slipped out of touch with reality and ushered in a “post-truth” era.   Blame has been placed on social media, the news media, politicians, even on the troublesome public itself:  but the consensus view is that that ours is a moment of deep moral and cognitive confusion.  “Blatant lies,” one observer claims, have become “routine across society,” so that “politicians can lie without condemnation,” while according to another report facts are now dismissed when felt to be “negative,” “pessimistic,” or “unpatriotic.”

I find it interesting that every corner of our dismal political landscape is happy with this proposition.  For liberals, “post-truth” is the only possible explanation for Donald Trump’s somersault to the presidency.  At some point, liberals believe, fake news metastasized into false consciousness:  hence Trump.  For conservatives and libertarians, the phrase aptly describes an information environment dominated by the liberal news media and entertainment industry.  The main difference between “pre-truth” and the present, conservatives maintain, is that the other side is now bringing up the subject.

So here we have the public stumbling into two terrible relationships – with the elites and with the truth – at the same time.  The obvious question is why.

The answer, of course, is that the two relationships happen to be one and the same.

The Crisis of Authority and the Bonfire of the Narratives

The revolt of the public assumes that elites deal mainly in power and money.  That is a prejudice of our materialistic age.  In a healthy society, the supreme task of the elites is to elucidate the master narratives binding together the regions, classes, and ideologies that make up a modern nation.  At Gettysburg, for example, Lincoln conjured the potent magic of the words of the Declaration of Independence:  “all men are created equal.”  Those words, he asserted, were the “proposition” to which our country was “dedicated.”  If he was right, then slavery was a cruel violation of the American scheme.  A century later, speaking in front of Lincoln’s temple in Washington DC, Martin Luther King would return to the story of the Declaration:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  If that was true, Jim Crow became untenable.

The great shared narratives unfold in a space dominated by moral principle far more than political advocacy.  Biblical and pseudo-biblical language is often deployed, even in our disbelieving age.  Rhetorical success – as Jonathan Haidt has shown – involves the use of parables and metaphors rather than mathematical analysis.  Thus if Saddam Hussein is Hitler, he has to be stopped at all costs.  But if Iraq is Vietnam, the US should never get bogged down in that quagmire.

At the human level, narratives serve as connecting tissue between elites and ordinary people.  All of us, high and low, turn to the same sources when we decide what it means to be, say, a “boss” or an “employee” in the context of being an “American.”  Disputes over principle and policy are inevitable, and can be fierce, but will be constrained within the boundaries of an account that is morally intelligible to the public at large.  In this way, the chaotic swirl of events gets compressed into a field of common understanding:  what might be called a shared truth about the world that informs both personal attitudes and political action.

All of that is gone with the wind.  The digital age has proved to be an extinction event for long-standing narratives.  As the public has gained access to information and communication platforms, elites have progressively lost the ability to mediate between events and the old shared stories.  Elite omissions and evasions, falsehoods and failures, are now out in the open for all to see.  The mirror in which we found ourselves reflected in the world has shattered.

No established authority remains to settle questions of fact.  In that sense, the interpretation of reality is up for grabs.

A World in Pieces and the Flight to Symbolism

The mirror is broken, and the great narratives are fracturing into shards.  What passes for authority is devolving to the political war-band and the online mob – that is, to the shock troops of populism left and right.  In these single-minded groups the pressure is intense to redefine reality into a sectarian morality play, particularly with regard to the enemy.  For a feminist true believer, the seemingly placid American campus is a vast crime scene of rape and abuse.  To a Tea Party zealot, the clumsy interventions of modern government resemble the murderous tyranny of a Caligula.   Events are perceived symbolically, almost cinematically – think V for Vendetta – so that evil, in its most monstrous forms, is invariably shown to be in command.

Examples of the enemy’s depravity are a cause for rejoicing.   They justify the fevered existence of the war-band.  Wild accusations get trumpeted by factional media like Jezebel or Breibart, and are often picked up by mainstream news.

Here, I believe, is the source of that feeling of unreality or “post-truth” so prevalent today.  Having lost faith in authority, the public has migrated to the broken pieces of the narratives, shards of reality inaccessible to all but a chosen few.  Scattered and orphaned, it has sought to cobble together a transcendent truth out of pure will and a very subjective longing for justice and redemption.  Truth now has an inside and an outside.  The initiated understand the symbolic code.  Those outside the tribal patch, however, appear to speak nonsense:  they are blatant liars, raving lunatics.  Hence Selena Zito’s famous judgment that Trump’s followers take him “seriously but not literally,” while his antagonists reverse the terms of the equation.

The president, as I noted, has been the object of much of the talk about “post-truth” – and not without justification.  While, so far, his actions in office have been surprisingly conventional, his rhetorical style is something else.  When he speaks of voter fraud, of the size of his crowds, of the unemployment and murder rates, and on many other topics, Donald Trump can’t resist the urge to bend reality to his theme.  The world, it appears, assumes whatever shape he wills.  As might be expected, his opponents have condemned him as a deliberate liar.  Let me put forward another thesis, one I consider more probable but no less problematic.  The president may just be a creature of our shattered age:  he speaks, symbolically and subjectively, to the chosen who take him seriously (but not literally), from inside a shard of Trumpian truth.

It’s only fair to say that this malady is most virulent among those who most deeply loathe President Trump.  “Social justice warriors” have fortified their subjective sliver of the world into a “new religion,” according to Haidt.  These young people, weaned on smart phones and the web, share an exaggerated narrative about oppression in the US, and wish to purify our society until only their transcendent truth is fit for polite talk.  Deviant perspectives, even in history or literature, make them feel frightened and angry.  The response is to hide in “safe spaces” or to shut down the offending speaker.  Since Trump’s election, the “warriors” have resorted to violence to silence Republican and conservative opinions.  In their actions I discern the possibility of a bleakly illiberal future, in which national narratives are thrown into the bonfire without regret, and the war-bands impose their claustrophobic visions by means of threat and fear.

The Collapse and Indispensability of Elites

The recovery of truth requires the restoration of trusted authority.  At the moment, that is nowhere in sight.  The narratives that bind us together have broken to pieces.  The elites who were keepers of these stories have lost the public’s confidence past any hope of redemption.  They strike poses of mastery and control, yet deliver mostly failure and decadence.  The public has judged them to be empty vessels, and many of them, in their secret moments, would probably agree.  I don’t deal in prophecy, but I find it hard to see how this elite class can endure as a cohesive group into the middle age of the Millennial generation.

Let’s grant that the divorce gets finalized.  What comes next?

Maybe chaos.  Complex systems can fall into turbulence and remain in that condition permanently.  The collapse of elite authority could ignite a rolling conflagration, in which every aspect of social and political life is turned into a battleground.  That would be the nihilist’s hour.  If it ever arrives, even the broken shards of narratives will appear too big, too inclusive for an atomized culture, and our supposed “age of post-truth” will be considered, in hindsight, as a time of supreme self-confidence and certainty.

My guess is that American institutions, and the narratives that sustain them, are adaptable enough to survive the crisis.  On the far end of the turbulence, the system will be reconstituted along somewhat different lines.  It is impossible from here to predict the character of the new organizing principles – but it’s safe to say that the radical egalitarianism favored by anti-establishment movements will not be among them.  Authority will not devolve from the elites to the public.  This for a simple reason:  the public doesn’t really exist.  The word signifies a divided and unstructured mass of opinion, a bottom-up surge of contradictory repudiations, a war of the war-bands:  any claim to authority by any part will be demolished by the rest.  Stable interpretations of reality seldom arise from a free-for-all.

I feel reasonably certain, in any case, that the public has no interest in taking on such responsibilities.

A complex society can’t dispense with elites.  That is the hard reality of our condition, and it involves much more than a demand for scarce technical skills.  In all human history, across continents and cultures, the way to get things done has been command and control within a formal hierarchy.  The pyramid can be made flatter or steeper, and an informal network is invariably overlaid on it:  but the structural necessity holds.  Only a tiny minority can be bishops of the church.  This may seem trivially apparent when it comes to running a government or managing a corporation, but it applies with equal strength to the dispensation of truth.

So here is the heart of the matter.  The sociopolitical disorders that torment our moment in history, including the fragmentation of truth into “post-truth,” flow primarily from a failure of legitimacy, of the bond of trust between rulers and ruled.  Everything begins with the public’s conviction that elites have lost their authorizing magic.  Those at the top have forsaken their function yet cling, illicitly, to their privileged perches.  Only in this context do we come to questions of equality or democracy.

If my analysis is correct, the re-formation of the system, and the recovery of truth, must depend on the emergence of a legitimate elite class.

Elites as ‘Exemplars’ and the Impulse to Hierarchy

How does one group replace another at the top of the pyramid?  Analysis of social change is burdened with many preconceptions regarding economic determinism, the rights of minority groups, the rise and fall of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat, and so forth.  Rather than take a stand on these weighty topics, I prefer to start with a simpler problem.

How is a legitimate hierarchy formed?

The great Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset would respond:  Quite naturally.  In every group and walk of life, Ortega observed, there are individuals who appear admirable to the rest.  By the rightness of their actions and expressions, these individuals become “exemplars” – they are “selected” by the majority as models of humanity.  This is not a matter of fashion or passing trends.  In all that counts, it’s a reorientation in the depths.  The highest conceptions of public and private life are manifested in living persons, not abstract principles.  The many who hope to better their lot aspire to be like these superior few.

In the world according to José Ortega y Gasset, hierarchy arises out of a natural impulse for self-improvement, and is legitimate when, in a very interesting way, it is “selected.”

He held the process to be the driving force of history.  The “reciprocal action between the masses and select minorities,” he wrote, is “the fundamental fact of every society and the agent of its evolution for good or evil.”  Ortega’s “masses” we now call the public.  “Select minorities” are the admirable few:  elites who, at their best, lavish their creative energies on the effort to sustain and enrich the fabric of contemporary life.  They are truly superior artists and technologists, preachers and politicians.

In the right relation between elites and the public, the former act as exemplars to the latter.  They embody and live out the master narratives.  (George Washington returning to his farm after the Revolution is a striking example.)  The quality that sets elites apart – that imparts authority to their actions and expressions – isn’t power, or wealth, or education, or even persuasiveness.  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, the bottom aspires to resemble the top, not superficially but fundamentally, because it wishes to partake of superior models of doing or being.  The good society, Ortega concluded, was an “engine of perfection.”

In a sickly society, conversely, elites fear the public and seek to flatter and deceive it – they display popular tastes and attitudes, then barricade themselves behind a wall of bodyguards and metal-detecting machines.

The Recovery of Authority and the Search for New Elites

Relations between top and bottom, Ortega insisted, were “reciprocal.”  Elites are in some sense selected by the public.  If we were to ask how that selection works, Ortega would reply:  “By aspiration.”  When elites fail the test of exemplarity – when, as is the case today, they repel rather than attract – they are un-selected.  They are stripped of legitimacy and authority.  A vacuum is created that strange new types seek to fill.  As Donald Trump’s teleportation from reality TV to the White House shows, the change can occur with astonishing rapidity.

President Trump, however, is a prisoner of the public’s repudiations, of the attempt to impose a pleasingly narrow symbolic framework on unpleasant reality.  The president, I said above, perceives the world from a fractured place.  He is not the one we have been waiting for.  Legitimacy necessarily depends on a shared interpretation of events – and to be shared, to be perceived equally by contradictory perspectives, a story must go light on the symbolic and the subjective in favor of the empirical and the concrete.

To the extent that Ortega’s diagnosis fits the symptoms of our present malady, it indicates the way to the cure.

As members of the public, we are not helpless.  We retain the power to select and un-select, and we wield that power constantly – not only in our votes and political donations, but in the books we read, the television we watch, the performances we attend, the products we purchase.  We can replace a failed elite class with another that is worthier of our aspirations.  Fundamental change is possible, and can come peacefully and quickly.  That’s the good news.

The great question is where and how to find a “select minority” that embodies honesty in life and work, and draws the public, by force of example, toward that virtue.  According to the terms of Ortega’s analysis, until that connection is made we must expect the clash of partial creeds – and its consequence, the “age of post-truth” – to linger destructively among us.

Posted in democracy, the public | 6 Comments

Cui bono, Donald Trump edition

money-changer

I am a Donald Trump profiteer.  His baffling rise to high office sold a lot of copies of my book, The Revolt of the Public.  People were desperate for explanations, and I, as always, had several in hand.  Mind you, I never mentioned Trump in the book, which was published in 2014.  I wrote about information, the public, and the collapse of authority.  I described the forces that Trump was about to ride to the top.  At least, a few smart writers have said so – and who am I to quibble?

My position as profiteer naturally inclined me to wonder:  who else has benefited from Trump?  I know that’s a tricky question, if only because our political life at the moment resembles the food fight in Animal House.  If you utter the monosyllable “Trump,” someone is sure to squirt catsup into your eyeballs.

But I ask the question in all analytic innocence.  Who benefits?

The anti-Trump side of the food fight has a ready answer:  Trump benefits, bigtime.  Why else would a man who rides a golden elevator get into politics, except to make more money?  “Donald Trump is absolutely going to use the presidency to make money,” we are told by Alex Shephard at The New Republic.  “How much will Trump profit from the presidency?  It could easily be in the billions,” reckons Ray Fisman at Slate.  “Trump’s effort to profit from the presidency gets underway in earnest,” reports Aaron Rupar at ThinkProgress.  What is being hinted at here, with understatement typical of our times, is a felonious conflict of interest leading to an impeachment that will hurl the high-flying Trump, like Icarus, into the muck.

That may well happen.  Trump’s personal finances are an incomprehensible morass to most Americans – certainly, to me – and we may all wake up tomorrow to that political End of Days so devoutly prayed for by his opponents.  Yet such a happy catastrophe, while possible, at present lies over the horizon of events.

The same applies to future winners in the New Budget Lotto – outfits that will be awarded hundreds of billions in contracts under rubrics like “defense” and “infrastructure.”  That money hasn’t been allocated yet, much less spent.

But there are groups with distinct political perspectives that are benefiting from Trump’s election now, even as I type these words – and they are not the ones you might guess at.

ACLU, for example, is benefiting a lot.  The organization, nominally nonpartisan, published an open letter on November 11, warning “Dear President-elect Trump” that if he persisted in his “unlawful and unconstitutional” proposals, he would “contend with the full firepower of the ACLU.”  That firepower will be purchased with new-found wealth.  In five days, 120,000 individual donors dropped $7.2 million into ACLU’s coffers – “the greatest outpouring of support…in our nearly 100-year history,” according to the group’s executive director.

By comparison, the same five-day period following the 2012 elections produced 354 donations totaling less than $28,000.  For the ACLU, President Trump is the equivalent of a golden elevator, while President Obama was a financial disaster.

Planned Parenthood is benefiting.  Threatened with de-funding by the new administration, the group has received “an unprecedented outpouring of support.”  Less than a week after the election, some 80,000 individual donors had written checks to PP.

The Sierra Club is benefiting.  Its executive director believes that President Trump “threatens fundamental freedoms, protections, human rights, and environmental safeguards for millions of people.”  That’s the kind of talk that brings in money:  according to one source, Sierra Club “nearly quadrupled” its previous monthly donation record.

I could multiply at will examples of anti-Trump nonprofits that seem to be profiting mightily from Trump.  The Muslim political advocacy group CAIR, for one, has received a “simply unprecedented” number of volunteer applications.  The Center for Reproductive Rights tweeted shortly after the elections that 500 new supporters had offered to pay monthly donations.  Not surprisingly, new entities and websites have sprung up to share in the bounty.

Anti-Trumpism might be described as capitalism with an angry face.  It has already worked an astounding economic miracle by making the desert that is the news business bloom again.

For his media punching-bags, President Trump favors the New York Times and CNN.  Both were doing poorly before his election – both have been thriving since.  The president delights in characterizing the “failing” NYT as a purveyor of “fake news.”  But behold:  every presidential insult makes failure less likely.  True, the newspaper’s advertisement revenues remain on a downward path, but paid subscriptions – particularly online subscriptions – are “wildly” up.  The reason is the man in the White House, at least according to the paper’s executive editor.  “Trump,” he maintains, “is the best thing to have happened to the Times’ subscription strategy.”

CNN has earned the proud designation of “very fake news” from the president.  He added:  “I want to turn in CNN for not doing a good job.”  Trump has said many other uncomplimentary things about the network – which, as we should expect by now, has ignited a ratings boom.  CNN’s audience is up 51 percent over last year among adults between 24 and 54 years old.  To be fair, this is part of a post-election great leap upward by cable news.  Fox is up 50 percent.  Even the anemic MSNBC – the Fox of the left – is up by 30 percent.  If anti-Trump is a potent economic force, Trump tout court, to media friend and foe, has been the tonic to rejuvenate an aging and outmoded industry.

Those are the facts.  If you look for those who, like me, have profiteered from the rise of Trump, you will find included in that number his fiercest opponents in the nonprofit advocacy world and the news media.  I don’t pretend to know the higher meaning of this, though I will say that it seems curious, and no doubt adds to the feeling, endured daily by many Americans since the election, that we have slipped into a looking-glass world.

I do have a few observations.

If I am a young professional working for Planned Parenthood or the Sierra Club, I face a dilemma.  My principles inform me that Donald Trump is the Great Satan, to be wiped off the face of the earth.  However, my career – my hopes for a raise, a promotion, an eco-touristic vacation to the rain forests of Costa Rica – depends on the continuation and intensification of Trump.  The longer he stays, the eviler he gets, the better I do.

Is there a name for this type of dilemma?  I believe there is.  It’s called “conflict of interest.”

The situation is compounded for the news media.  With regard to Donald Trump, what does the New York Times really want?  If, as conservative critics insist, the newspaper is driven primarily by ideological concerns, then it should aim to cover the next Watergate, and so be rid of this meddlesome president.  But if the NYT is a business like any other, with a bottom line and a need to show a profit, then its stake-holders might wish for a long, long ride on the Trump gravy train.

Which is it?  Again, I have no idea.  But with a dash of Machiavelli thrown in, the two options need not be mutually exclusive.

The fact that established institutions have felt compelled to berate a newly-elected president, and benefited materially from it, shows how deeply the way of the web has penetrated the real world.  Aggression garners online attention.  Persistent and outrageous aggression will build a following.  Every incentive pulls you toward the promotion of outrageous antagonists as worthy objects of aggression.  The ideal is perpetual combat with the most extreme opponents, aggression on aggression, outrage against outrage.  To a casual glance, this will resemble the behavior of two scorpions in a bottle.  A closer look will reveal a finely-tuned symbiotic relationship, in which both players benefit so long as they continue to move ever farther out, to opposite extremes.

President Trump, of course, is the undisputed champion of this game.  He built a national following by berating the likes of the New York Times and CNN.  He benefits politically, if not materially, every time the news media, or ACLU, or the Sierra Club, attack him – and the more outrageous the attack, the bigger the political payoff.  He makes sure, therefore, to poke the beast regularly, and keep those attacks coming.

So here is my story in a nutshell.  The president’s attackers, who have profited enormously from the attacks, helped to raise him through these same attacks to the highest pinnacle of political power.

In our looking-glass universe, if you squint a bit, it all makes perfect sense.

Posted in democracy | 4 Comments

2016: A hard rain

Four Hairmen of the Apocalypse: Trump, Johnson, Wilders, Grillo

Four Hairmen of the Apocalypse: Trump, Johnson, Wilders, Grillo

The Tipping-point of Revolt

In 2016, a furious political tempest ravaged the democratic world.  Popular politicians – presidents and prime ministers – were toppled from on high and hurled into oblivion.  Exotic creatures, originating far from the old mainstream, were raised to prominence and power.  Seemingly permanent structures, like the European Union, began to crack apart.  The two great institutions that hedge our lives, modern government and the nation-state, under the hard rain of events were shown to be increasingly helpless, dysfunctional, and disorganized – and not only in the bloody Middle East.

None of this was new.  The storm didn’t begin in 2016.  The crisis of the institutions was the theme of The Revolt of the Public, published in 2014.  A grinding subterranean struggle was already evident, then, between a networked public and the elites who control the great hierarchies we have inherited from the industrial age.  From another perspective, it was a war between information and power – one that power, inexplicably, seemed unable to win.

I wrote at the time that a “phase change” had occurred in 2011, when the revolt of the public – and the radical change it implied – became more than talk.  That was the year of Tahrir Square, indignados, Occupiers, and much else.  But we have traveled a long way since, and 2016 feels like a tipping-point.  What was once unacceptable is now commonplace.  Where silence was enforced, a throng now roars repudiation.  Persons and ideas deemed deviant by the elites are everywhere “normalized.”

In 2016, without question, the revolt of the public became visible.  At some point between the “Brexit” vote and the election of Donald Trump, mainstream players woke up to the fact that the established order was falling to pieces around them.

Since that melancholy hour, the babble about elites, populism, globalism, nihilism, and failure has been relentless, yet scarcely audible above the tempest of change.

The Ravages of Distance and Failure

Many reasons have been proposed for the events of 2016, most of them related to the public’s unhappiness with the global economy and the open borders it requires.  I think this confuses a token instance with the underlying cause.

“The public” subsumes the hyper-educated multicultural Millennials who made a thing of Bernie Sanders, as well as the protectionist working class whites who put Trump over the top in places like Pennsylvania and Michigan.  Fractured and many-minded, the public, in truth, is unified only by the force of its negations:  but these transcend specific political or economic grievances to reach a nearly absolute judgment against the status quo.

The mood of rejection is driven by information, distance, and failure.  Governing elites have lost control of the information sphere, and stand naked before the public.  In fear and loathing, under the pretext of managing utopian programs, they have withdrawn ever higher into hierarchies they have made ever steeper.  In a very real sense, the public isn’t alienated from government:  it’s the other way around.  Once this move is made, politicians are hostage to real-world outcomes – and having promised “solutions” to intractable social and economic conditions, they can only deliver failure.

Elite failure sets the agenda for an informed public.  Officeholders, bureaucrats, elections, the whole creaking machinery of democratic governance, bleed out authority.  At length a tipping-point arrives, and the storm breaks.

We can watch this dynamic at work on the potent issue of illegal immigration.  At street level, where the elites rarely show, immigration is experienced as a failure of border control.  Possibly a million undocumented persons enter the US each year.  Refugees are pouring into Europe in ever larger numbers.  Much of the public feels that the migrant tide threatens their jobs, safety, and culture.  They expect the government to intervene and stop the influx.

But on this question government has ascended an astronomical distance away from the governed.  Ruling elites absolve themselves of any responsibility for border control, and treat illegal immigration as a test of moral purity.  Angela Merkel invited a million predominantly Muslim refugees into Germany and, by extension, the EU.  Embracing immigration was a “humanitarian duty,” she asserted.  Opposition was judged by its most immoderate voices, those of “rightwing extremists and neo-Nazis.”  It was from similar moral heights that Hillary Clinton famously dismissed “half” of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables…racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”

Even to entertain a second point of view was considered abhorrent.  The subject was taboo, and governments sometimes invoked “hate speech” laws to silence wayward opinions.  In December 2016, Gert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigration Dutch Freedom Party, was convicted of inciting “discrimination and group offense.”  Wilders had asked his audience whether they wanted “fewer Moroccans.”

From the perspective of a mutinous public, government could not stop the immigrant flood and would not speak to its profound concerns about the consequences.  It was distance and failure all around.  The sense of abandonment generated powerful political energies, motivating many to strike at the elites with whatever weapons were at hand.  Trump and Brexit, opposed by every established institution, were two such weapons.  Marine Le Pen and the National Front may soon serve a similar function in France.  As for Gert Wilders, his conviction made him the most popular politician in the Netherlands – where he may well become the next prime minister.

For the political and media elites, this was beyond astounding.  They thought they had imposed a silence, where the crash of thunder was deafening.  Distance had sustained the illusion that they – the guardian class, perched high on the power pyramid – were still in command of the information sphere.

The War of Information and Power

Trump is being told that he should give up his Twitter account.  The institution of the presidency must swallow him, some believe, much like the whale did Jonah.  Little will be left of Donald Trump the man.  President Trump will emerge in iconic splendor, now and then, from the belly of the beast, and the information emitted by this august trans-human will be cloistered, gated, intraneted, fact-checked, policy-reviewed, and doctrinally safe.  He will sound like one in a line of similars who have gone before.

The institutions of the industrial age have always been skittish about spontaneous speech.  It tends to slip out of control.  Trump’s tweets thus trigger a sort of institutional agoraphobia with regard to information.  They have been condemned as “unpresidential,” “weaponized” speech, “fake news,” a “national security threat,” but also an attack on “freedom of expression” and “freedom of the press.”  He and they should stop, on command, right now.

These aren’t reasoned arguments, but cries of anguish from a broken monopoly startled and unnerved by the success of a politician who had slipped the leash.  That was the story of 2016.  Information flows swept over the landscape, again and again, beyond the reach of authority.  The political effects inspired elite shock and horror, again and again.

The Brexit vote shocked and horrified.  Every institutional source of information in Britain, from government and media to the church, stood aligned on the “Remain” side.  Participants in such an alliance could not imagine how they might possibly lose – and a generation ago, they would have been right.  But on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, “Leave” activists outnumbered, out-posted, and out-energized their opponents.  This was 2016.  The referendum became a weapon in the public’s hand.  Prime Minister David Cameron was the first of many casualties.

Similar votes in Colombia and Italy shocked and horrified.  Colombian opponents of the treaty with the FARC insurgent group were said to have had a “much more organized and extensive social media campaign” than supporters of the government position.  Italy’s constitutional reform, proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, had the universal support of print and broadcast media, and spent far more money on advertisement.  But this was 2016.  Anti-establishment groups like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League dominated digital media.  The vote against reform approached 60 percent, and Renzi was gone with the wind.

Street protests of immense proportions against the elected presidents of Brazil and South Korea induced shock and horror.  Mobilization took place largely on social media.  This being 2016, both presidents were impeached – provoking, in Brazil, something like a holocaust of the political class.

So it went.  Trump’s electoral victory was naturally the most horrifying shock of all, but that of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines brought an even more outlandish character to the presidency.  On the debit side of the political ledger, François Hollande, president of France, found himself so unpopular that he gave up any hope of re-election.  The prime minister of Iceland resigned in disgrace after the hack of the Panama Papers. The elected leaders of Greece, Spain, and Venezuela, at the end of 2016, clung to power by their fingernails.

Random forces and local context determined the specific shape of these events:  but I believe they all shared something in common.  Democratic institutions, as currently structured, require a semi-monopoly over political information.  To organize the application of power, democratic governments, parties, and politicians must retain some control over the story told about them by the public.  The elite fixation with “fake news,” like the demand that Trump drop out of Twitter, are both a function of the fact that institutional politics live and die by gatekeeping.

It’s too late in the day for that.  Trump will continue tweeting, so long as he finds it useful.  The public, rather than government or media, will decide the legitimacy of the news.  The institutions have lost control of information, and are engaged in a catastrophic process of dis-organization.

Everywhere in the wild storm of 2016, information meant negation, and negation – the public’s fury and disgust – swamped established systems of power.

The Meaning of Negation

With the triumph of Trump and Brexit, a corner was turned in the revolt of the public.  In both cases, the public voted against.  No coherent ideology or program stood behind that impulse.  A Trump staffer has described the president-elect, generously, as “post-ideological.”  Brexit, supported by right and left, will be implemented by a mushy-center Tory cabinet that is deeply divided on the question.

Revolt must be given content and meaning, and turned to some positive direction.  That drama is about to unfold.  Starting January 20, the Trump administration will deal in concrete action rather than vague campaign slogans.  The task won’t be to “drain the swamp” or “make America great,” but to tame a monstrous, intrusive government and a bureaucracy that feels existentially threatened by the outcome of the elections.  How this will be accomplished in a post-ideological way is anyone’s guess.

The Trump vision is of a return to a golden past – a time when bold presidents proposed big, blanket “solutions” to national “problems.”  But that past is mostly invented, and anyhow there’s no going back.  The public today has fractured into a thousand shards of opinion.  Any attempt to cover all under some blanket solution will alienate most.  That was Barack Obama’s fate with the stimulus and health care reform.

President Obama assumed so remote a stance from government that he felt comfortable repudiating and condemning it.  That was the secret of his personal success.  Trump seems cut from different cloth.  He’s the doer, the swashbuckler:  the protagonist of every scene.  He may find success as master of highly visible tactical victories.  To the extent that he has promised large-scale economic and social change, he will find himself a hostage to forces over which he has no control.

The new administration was born out of the storm of 2016, and will confront the same disruptive factors of information, distance, and failure.  Information just means that President Trump will conduct his business under the eyes of a surly public.  There will be nowhere to hide – no hope of secrecy, no appeals to spin or propaganda.  Failure, like success, will flow from the same unpredictably random source as ever.

Most malleable to political action, and therefore most interesting, is the question of distance.

The communication aspect of distance is what Trump has sought to overcome by tweeting.  Social media offers the president-elect a “direct pipeline” to the public, over the head of a hostile news media establishment.  Trump has seized the opportunity with typical abandon – and, if the howls of the media are any indication, with some success.  But social media is a reducer of distance only in the sense that a battlefield reduces the distance between enemy units.  The political web feeds off a cycle of attack and response, the point of which is to gather the largest possible mob, and make the loudest possible noise, on your own behalf.  And that is what Trump does, very skillfully.  His tweets trigger a fierce reaction in opponents – very much including the media – and in turn muster his supporters around him, fully armed for battle.  It’s a ritualistic show of force, and not a single mind is changed.

Still, a tweeting president is a new thing under the sun:  an experiment to watch with interest in the coming months.

Any elimination of distance must deal with hard structural reality.  It’s not about direct pipelines from on high.  It’s about flattening the pyramid.  Trump appears to have settled on a cabinet of “outsiders” instead of the usual establishment types.  This will make no difference to the perception of distance.  The outsiders will climb on their high perches and interact with the public mostly through multiple levels of insiders beneath them.  The distance will stay the same.  Every failure will continue to be compounded by a detached and unforgiving public.

I doubt that flattening government institutions is even a thought in the president-elect’s head.  This is a man who strives for bigness in politics, and loves to name towers after himself.

The Unbundling of the State

The 2016 elections may prove decisive on this front, nonetheless.  The fragmentation of our political life, long apparent, suddenly became Topic One after the vote.  Shocked elites began to speak of the Divided States of America.  In that spirit, Democratic state and city governments proclaimed their defiance of the electoral outcome.  “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight,” said California’s Jerry Brown.  Earlier he had promised to “build a wall around California” if Trump won.

Trump’s big mandates from on high will collide with Brown’s wall in California, a state Clinton won by more than four million votes.  The immediate result will be conflict – a reverse version of the guerrilla war waged by Republican governors against the Obama administration.  Yet mapped to the larger quarrel of the public with the elites, this partisan tussle looks pregnant with practical and ideological possibilities.   If the federal government is an agent of polarization, state and local government, as well as certain private entities, can be rallying-points of community.  The negation of the nation-state must mean either anarchy or devolution to the city-state.

Already urban and media elites, old apostles of centralization, are rediscovering the virtues of federalism.  The case is being made that both left and right can preserve their peculiar values only by embracing something called “localism.”  Since we dwell in separate valleys of culture and politics, we should empower these to the fullest extent consistent with national unity.  In one possible future, all democratic countries will be Switzerland.

The pieces of the unbundling nation-state will have flatter hierarchies and a greatly reduced distance between public and power.  That’s a simple matter of numbers.  The public will push harder against local magistrates, and local interests will loom larger in national decisions.  We can get a sense of how this works by looking to Italy, where the newly-elected mayor of Rome, member of the Five Star Movement, killed the city’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics.  The enraged mandarin at the head of the national Olympics committee called the decision “demagogic and populist.”  He lives in a city of palaces and hierarchies – the mayor, in the Rome of trash removal and sewage disposal.

The rise of local power would make it possible to digitize government on the model of Estonia, something that, for many reasons, lies beyond the reach of gargantuan-sized national bureaucracies.  Official information will then be flattened to the level of the web – that is, of everyday life.  Our personal and official identities will begin a process of synchronization to a degree scarcely possible since “the masses” entered history near the end of the nineteenth century.

From these speculative heights, we can glimpse more sweeping changes.  Once government goes digital, it becomes feasible to alter its structure, even to redirect its purpose.  As imagined by the Pirate Party of Iceland, government can evolve into more of a transactional platform – part Facebook page, part Amazon marketplace – and less of an all-knowing solver of problems.  Political expectations would be drastically adjusted.  So would the relationship of information and power.  Direct democracy, in the form of referendums, would be invoked regularly, to good ends and bad.

With such heady notions, we have strayed beyond the furthest probable consequences of 2016.  That storm, however, is by no means over.  The hard rain keeps falling still.  If I were captain of the global airliner flying into 2017, I’d make the following announcement:  Fasten your seatbelts, there will be turbulence ahead.

Posted in cataclysm, democracy, the public | 7 Comments

The news media: Surveying the wreckage

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The Pretense of Objectivity

The ideology of news makes two moral claims:  that it is complete, and that it is objective.  News, in other words, provides consumers with just the right amount of information necessary to function as citizens, and it does so from an Olympian perspective, devoid of political bias or special pleading.  Neither claim is empirically grounded.  Both rest on the special place given to “the press” in a democratic system.

In the 2016 presidential campaign that culminated with the election of Donald Trump, that special place was surrendered and the two claims were falsified, beyond doubt and possibly beyond repair.

Self-evidently, the content of news is arbitrary and trivial rather than complete.  News is whatever gets produced by the news business.  The blind spots cover far more territory than the field of vision.  The focus is fuzzy and easily distracted.  In 2003, as US forces fought their way to Baghdad, the New York Times was publishing an extensive series of front-page articles about a Georgia country club that refused to admit women.  So that was news.  CNN, in turn, has dedicated hours of air time to the likes of Michael Jackson and the “runaway bride.”  That became news, too.

The claim of objectivity is just as unrealistic and more dangerous, because it leads into a labyrinth of self-righteousness.  No one today believes in the objectivity of the news.  The typical complaint is about political bias, and the prevalent charge is that the news favors liberal causes.  That is probably correct.  For reasons that can be glossed over here, the news tilts left – but by no means is that the most damaging distortion of content.

Far more consequential, in terms of failed objectivity, is the journalistic tone of moral contempt for politicians, officeholders, and the democratic process in general.  News is a rhetorical style, a form of persuasion:  and the rhetoric of political coverage pours out toxic levels of cynicism and distrust.  People in politics are assumed to be liars and cheats.  As long ago as 1992, when Thomas Patterson asked “several of the nation’s top journalists” why they chose to portray the presidential candidates as liars, the usual response was “Because they are liars.”  Candidates are depicted as making promises they never intend to keep.  They say things that are incredibly ignorant or insensitive – often self-detonating by means of the dreaded “gaffe.”  Elections are decided by money rather than a gullible electorate, in any case.  Elected officials, the wise consumer of news must conclude, are pawns to powerful but unaccountable interests.

The effect of all this is to create an immense moral distance between those who cover politics and those who practice it.  Reporting on politics is like reporting on organized crime.  The journalist’s duty is less to convey the words or deeds of the players than to lay bare the hidden horrors of the system.  For many years, this rhetoric of cynicism was churned out behind the veil of objectivity.  With the nomination of Donald Trump, it came triumphantly out of the closet and became a legitimate form of discourse.

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The Wages of Distrust

Trump was seen as a candidate of a very different kind.  Structurally speaking, he came from nowhere.  His background and behavior were unacceptable.  He said things that should not be said, and said them in ways news producers found offensive.  The claim of objectivity turned into an obstacle to the exposure of Trump.  In effect, it was abandoned.

Here is a front-page headline in the New York Times (August 7):  “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism.”  The article itself seemed to argue that a higher duty made the norms invalid.  “If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, your reporting is going to reflect that,” it stated.  NYT’s political editor was quoted rattling off a list of Trump offenses and adding:  “that demands coverage – copious coverage and aggressive coverage.”  CNN went back to the word “dangerous” to characterize statements by Trump to the effect that the election was rigged against him.

Examples of news people lining up in opposition to Donald Trump can be multiplied at will – and it wasn’t just a question of open criticism.  Well-known journalists in both print and broadcast media colluded with the Clinton campaign to maximize the chances of Trump’s defeat, as was revealed in a hack of the campaign manager’s emails.  Indeed, the most damaging personal revelations against Trump weren’t dug up by Democratic Party operatives, but leaked by NBC News to the Washington Post.

Cynicism and contempt had pervaded political coverage before Trump.  The final step into the labyrinth – abandoning even the pretense of objectivity – was, in truth, a small one.  No doubt people in the news business believed that they had aligned with justice and righteousness, to stop a dangerous man.  They certainly thought their side couldn’t lose.  That the news media was now part of an elite-driven “institutional front” against the vulgarian Trump passed unnoticed by those involved.  Yet that was exactly how a significant portion of the public perceived the affair.

The public has inherited the rhetoric of distrust and disdain from the news – but with a difference.  It’s now aimed at every center of authority, very much including the news business itself.  From the moment it acquired a voice, the public displayed a radical suspicion of “mainstream media.”  Early bloggers engineered Dan Rather’s resignation from “60 Minutes” and CBS News, for example.   Trust in news at the start of the 2016 elections stood at 19 percent, a record low.  The two political parties, though in shambles, had better numbers.

The anti-Trump fervor of the news media merely replicated, to an extreme degree, the cynicism and moral superiority that had alienated the public in the first place.  An interesting question is whether it achieved the opposite of what was intended:  whether it helped rather than hindered Trump’s election.  Trump had the luxury of campaigning against unpopular media elites.  He got to cash in on the massive levels of distrust in news as an institution.  The result was described by one source as a “neutering of mainstream media,” while another observer judged that the media “played a crucial part in Trump’s election by bashing him.”

Measuring information effects is tricky business.  What we know with certainty is that the 2016 elections involved the wreckage of many venerable political institutions, victimized by a public in revolt – and that none was more broken in credibility and legitimacy and morale than the news.

The “Fake News” Delusion

The election of Donald Trump can be said to have demolished the ideological foundations of the news business.  The claim of objectivity had been abandoned for a higher cause.  The claim of completeness was now shattered by the failure to grasp the shape and outcome of the contest.  No one who followed the news understood the forces at play.  None guessed what was coming.  Continued consumption of news seemed to lack any justification, other than amusement or habit.

Dazed and demoralized, media figures sought haphazardly to explain the disaster.  They were not good at the game:  a profession that is literally in broadcast mode shouldn’t be expected to excel at self-scrutiny.  Some wished to reclaim the mantle of completeness by launching expeditions to that dark continent, Trump Land.  “As The Times begins a period of self-reflection, I hope its editors will think hard about the half of America it seldom covers,” wrote the NYT’s “public editor” on the morning after.  Others like Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor and unabashed Clinton promoter, complained angrily that the escape from objectivity hadn’t traveled far enough.  “I blame my profession for failing to inform the public it serves,” tweeted Jarvis, equating disagreement with ignorance and information with the defeat of the detestable Trump.

The self-critical mood didn’t last.  Eight days after the elections, BuzzFeed posted a long, sloppy analysis piece that made the following assertion:  “In the final three months of the US presidential election, the top-performing fake news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets.”   Of the top 20 fake news stories, 17 were said to have favored Trump or attacked Clinton.  Four days later, the NYT picked up on the subject.  There followed an extraordinary flowering of media exposés about fake news, most of them suggesting that fakery had helped Trump win the election.  This was capped by a Washington Post article purporting to have uncovered “sophisticated Russian propaganda” that spread fake news during the elections to attack Clinton, help Trump, and undermine “faith in American democracy.”

If fake news deluded the masses into electing Donald Trump, and sophisticated Russians were responsible for the fake news, then an explanation for 2016 had been found that absolved the news media:  a way out of the labyrinth.  But such things never happened.  To anyone who follows information effects, fake news is a sideshow, a byproduct of our chaotic information landscape.  Its impact, while difficult to measure, probably comes close to zero.

With regard to fake news, I can sum up what is relevant to my theme by answering two simple questions:  Why? and So what?

The why question gets at causation.  Fake news can exist only because of the failure of traditional news to retain the trust of the public.  It is an effect, not the cause, of that loss of trust.  The cynicism with which the news regards the political world, voters included, has been turned against the news.  People “like” a story from an unknown website about Pope Francis endorsing Trump because, to those people, all producers of information appear equally corrupt.  In this crucible of distrust, the term “news” as a category of information – never crisply defined – now sounds strangely old-fashioned.  Where all sources are equally tainted, everything is news and nothing is.

The so what concerns the impact of fake news.  For all the frenzied discussion of the subject, no effort has been made to measure that impact.  There have been no studies linking fake news to voter opinion or behavior in 2016.  For reasons both substantive and methodological, I doubt that connection will ever be made.  The relationship between information and human behavior is exceedingly complex – but we seldom change our core beliefs because of a story we read online.  That’s so whether the story is true or false:  on the question of influence, too, the distinction between fake and real news tends to disappear.  Though much criticized for allowing lies to spread on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg had the weight of evidence on his side when he stated:  “Voters make decisions based on lived experience.”

The Thermidorian Reaction of the Institutions

The subject of lies on the web is a touchy one for the news media, which purports, as a corollary to its moral claims, to interpose many fact-checkers and layers of review between the journalist and the public.  Against this self-description, the web comes off as the mother of all lies.  Anyone can say anything and publish it.  No penalties are incurred for peddling falsehoods, even intentional ones.

That’s the media portrait of its destroyer.  A different sense of the matter has been advanced by Andrey Miroshnichenko.  For the latter, a “Viral Editor” is eternally at work on the web:  a “distributed being of the internet,” composed of every user, who performs many of the same functions of fact-checking and review claimed by the media.  The digital universe, Miroshnichenko holds, is not indifferent between truth and falsehood.

If a lie is significant, it will circulate until it reaches witnesses and experts who will denounce it, because they know the truth.  If a lie is insignificant, no one will denounce it; but it won’t circulate.

Every example of a lie on the Internet, actually, is an example of disclosure of this lie.

That is the strong version of a thesis I believe to be generally valid.  If fake news were a salient part of the 2016 elections, they would have been exposed and exploded.  If they weren’t exposed, it was because they never crossed the public’s awareness threshold.  Politically, they did not matter.  It was only after the fact, and out of the trauma of a shattering repudiation, that the news media tried to explain its failures by positing a parallel universe of counterfeit news and Russian manipulation.

Escape into delusion is not a good portent.  With Donald Trump now president-elect, the public has triumphed, but the institutions remain unreconciled – and news people appear eager to lead the reaction.  A prominent journalist called the election outcome an “existential crisis” for her profession.  The implication is that it must be reversed.  A Trump administration must either be co-opted or destroyed if the news media, as an independent force, is to survive.  From the ranks of “not my president” street events in New York, Jeff Jarvis would passionately agree.

Yet the dream of Thermidorian reaction is another delusion.  The attempt would end in fratricidal mayhem, with the institutions of American democracy devouring one another.  If, as so many news types insist, Trump is at heart a dangerous authoritarian, then the media’s assault on the democratic process – its vociferous embrace of all-or-nothing politics – will serve the next president well.

Posted in death of news, democracy, influence, newspaperss, the public, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

After the elections: The great unraveling

As their opponents see them...

As their opponents see them…

Candidates From the Lab

We already know the most significant truth about the 2016 presidential elections:  that it is yet another brawl in the running global conflict between an alienated public and the institutions and elites that manage the established order.

The two candidates are almost laboratory specimens for each side of the struggle.  Donald Trump is the anti-everything, not-a-politician politician, whose outlandish statements horrify opponents but bemuse his considerable base of support.  At his best, Trump expresses the legitimate frustration of the public with institutions that promise the world yet deliver mostly failure.  At his worst and most typical, he is the political equivalent of the vandal in the museum, willing to rip apart traditional arrangements and commitments because he has no clue about their value.

For her part, Clinton is the very model of a modern time-server – a politician whose features have congealed into an institutional mask and whose statements are a hymn to the status quo, to the vast reassurance of her followers and predictable outrage of the antis.  At her best, she represents the voice of grown-up responsibility touching US commitments at home and abroad.  But at her worst and most typical, Clinton behaves like a divine rights monarch in search of her electoral Versailles, above the law and mere bourgeois morality.

The visual propaganda of both sides is telling.  Trump opponents invariably show him with mouth wide open, hair flying, out of control.  Those hostile to Clinton portray her as a frozen mask, scarcely human, a serpent’s stare.  Both images are caricatures.  Neither is entirely false.

The Establishment Isn’t

The horse race aspect of the contest, so absorbing to the news media, will be decided in the context of the larger struggle.  Clinton embodies a hierarchy that has lost favor with the voters.  She is supported by many, beloved of none.  Her best hope is to allow Trump to show himself unworthy of the public’s trust.  Scare tactics or contemptuous mockery have only solidified his standing with his base.

Trump, by contrast, rode the wave of public dissatisfaction to the Republican nomination.  He must now persuade a much larger and more diverse public that he is a weapon in its hand.  His main obstacle is himself:  even a mutinous public expects a president to think before he speaks.  His best hope is to maintain a relentless focus on negation, on the repudiation of the ruling elites.  To the extent that his personal history, with its multiple “lives of the rich and famous” episodes, has been a central issue to the campaign, he will have failed to connect with the interests of the fractious public.

If we have learned anything from this electoral season, it’s that the great unraveling of the institutions has gone faster, further, and deeper than most observers – myself included – had supposed.  The rise of Donald Trump has been conventionally explained as a grassroots revolt against the Republican establishment.  But that can’t be, because there was no such thing.  The “establishment,” if it ever existed, had cracked to pieces before Trump arrived:  we just hadn’t noticed.  Jeb Bush’s risible impersonation of an establishment candidate only proved the point.  Bush lacked a following, barely had a pulse at the polls, and could claim nothing like an insider’s clout.  He was endorsed by a crowd of gray-headed seniors who averaged 11 years out of officeThat was what passed for an establishment.

So far as the Republican Party is concerned, Trump’s candidacy must be viewed as a moment of revelation and acceptance – more of a burial than a revolt.

The Democratic Party has endured a similar collapse in authority.  Barack Obama crushed a true establishment – fronted, as it happens, by Hillary Clinton – back in 2007.  Since then, the president and his immediate circle have felt no debt and little allegiance to the party hierarchy.  In the 2016 Democratic primaries, more than 40 percent of the vote, and all the militant passion, went to Bernie Sanders – an old, white, dull, marginal Independent.  Many of his voters view Clinton as a cog in the system they despise.  Any untoward event after her election will propel them to the streets.

In somewhat slower motion than the Republicans, the Democratic Party is unbundling into dozens of political war bands, each focused with monomaniacal intensity on a particular cause – feminism, the environment, anti-capitalism, pro-immigration, racial or sexual grievance.  This process, scarcely veiled by the gravitational attraction of President Obama and Clinton herself, will become obvious to the most casual observer the moment the Democrats lose the White House.

Enter the Mutants, Raging

A catastrophic turbulence is sweeping across the landscape, brought about by the new information dispensation:  what I have called the Fifth Wave.  American democracy has not been spared.  From the commanding heights of the information sphere, the public now batters the grand structures of power and politics until little remains of their legitimacy.  Political parties, we just observed, are disintegrating.  Trust in government has fallen near record lows.  Trust in the news media is at an all-time low.  Forty percent of the American electorate lack confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.

Into this institutional vacuum strange new forms have swarmed, mutant offspring of the old left and the old right.  These are the children of negation and sectarianism, full of theatrical anger, shouting for the downfall of the elites and the established order while giving no thought as to who or what is to follow.  They excel at those extreme, self-righteous postures that set the tone for US politics today.

Identity rage, once the province of tenured professors, has become the official ideology of the Democratic Party.  White identity politics, hard to distinguish from old-time racism, is a significant online presence in the Republican presidential campaign.  The contending forces bear scant resemblance to the geographic coalitions that disputed our national elections in the past.  They have become unmoored from history – quite willfully, too, since the past is perceived by them to be the birthplace of injustice.  The thrust of political passion, here and everywhere, is toward a republic of purity and virtue:  a blank slate.  The voices of moderation and keepers of our political traditions have been cowed into silence.  They have nothing of interest to say in any case.

At least, all of the above would be true if one removes Hillary Clinton from the equation.  Clinton resembles a stiff and formal icon of the elites and the old order.  She might be compared to the last Byzantine emperor, watching with mute incomprehension as the infidel hordes approach the city walls.

Despite my apocalyptic framing of the story, the 2016 presidential elections are unlikely to bring about Armageddon, final battle between good and evil.  The contestants are of an entirely different order, and my guess is that few, if any, of the points in dispute will be settled by the vote.  The quarrel between public and elites will not pause for Inauguration Day.  While the future direction of the struggle is uncertain, we do know what is at stake:  every aspect of the democratic process, of economic activity, of our place and power in a fractured world.

The twenty-first century, in brief, is up for grabs.

Posted in democracy, the public, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Brief reflections on the Brexit vote

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Boris Johnson

That the British vote to leave the European Union is a textbook example of the revolt of the public I take to be beyond dispute.  The Conservative prime minister strongly opposed the exit initiative, as did the Labour and Social Democratic opposition, the archbishop of Canterbury, most respectable news media, and a long line of foreign heads of state beginning with Barack Obama.  Given the thunderous pro-Europe chorus of establishment voices, the vote against became a matter of because rather than despite.  Caught in the grip of a glacial established order, ruled by elites who appear to offer few alternatives, the British public opted to break some crockery.  Nobody has a clue about what happens next.

Britain – the “United Kingdom” – is an interesting country.  As the sharp old class differences have abated, all other differences have been magnified.  The official ideology of British institutions is multiculturalism, the glorification of diversity.  How much this has contributed to the fragmentation of national identity would be a worthwhile topic of research.  Ethnic and religious minorities remain alienated.  The Muslim population in particular has produced perpetrators of domestic terror and Islamic State atrocities – we are still haunted by the video image of “Jihadi John,” beheader to the Caliphate, with his thick London accent.  The Brexit vote in a sense was aimed at Jihadi John and his kind.  Whether this was driven by love of country and its civic traditions or by racism and xenophobia very much depends on where you stand.

The England of the pub and the football field has struck a blow against the Britain of the institutions.  In parallel, the border has used the triumph of Brexit to resume its conflict against the center.  Scotland is governed by a party committed to leaving Britain much as Britain is now committed to leaving Europe.  The Scottish prime minister insists that her region will remain in the EU, and has already promised a new referendum on exiting the UK.  In yet another circle of British political hell, the parties are splintering to pieces.  The Labour chief, Jeremy Corbyn, is an unreconstructed Marxist class warrior who makes Bernie Sanders look like milquetoast.  He may lose his post over the referendum.  David Cameron, the very picture of a bland Tory establishmentarian, has resigned as prime minister, and his probable successor is Boris Johnson, who was Donald Trump before Donald Trump was a thing.

Although opinion polls showed a tight contest, elites in Britain and Europe have been shocked by the results.  Elites are always surprised by untoward events.  “In 1,000 years, I would never have believed that the British people would vote for this,” exclaimed a baffled Labour MP.  Such a radical disconnection from the public, even more than immigration or terror, helps to explain the revolt from below implicit in the Brexit vote.  Anti-Brexit propaganda featured two themes:  a prophecy of economic doomsday if Britain departed from Europe, and an accusation of moral idiocy, of racism and yahooism, lodged against those who advocated departure.  These tropes have been resurrected in the wake of the vote.  Favorite stories portray Brexit voters regretting their foolish impulse or asking, in confusion, what the EU actually is.  But it is the elites who cling to a virginal ignorance about the vast distance separating them from the public.  Next time, they are certain to be surprised again.

The fate of Europe is slipping away from the grasp of this purblind and demoralized class.  Greece has been kept inside the EU fold at great cost in money and human misery, just because departure was declared to be a cataclysm.  But if Brexit is possible, Grexit is a trivial affair.  Anti-EU parties of the left, like Podemos in Spain, and of the right, like the French National Front, stand on the threshold of power.  Exotic political figures, cast in the mold of Boris Johnson and Marine Le Pen, may soon come into their own, and break what remains of Europe’s crockery.  Countries divided on the EU question, like Netherlands, have taken note of the British precedent.  There will be calls for more referendums, more division, more exits.  From the center of this ramshackle Union, Angela Merkel, dowager empress, gazes on the ruin of all her dreams and works.  Her political death is not yet imminent, but she has lost control, and is at the mercy of events.

I am not persuaded that Brexit will trigger the end of the world.  The elites will gnash their teeth and rend their garments.  That’s a natural reaction, but only from their perspective.  Britain will have to endure many adjustments, some of them painful.  The world will scarcely notice the change.  This is not a question of war or revolution.  It’s more like giving up the family’s membership to the country club.  The grandees of Europe will be tempted to punish the British for breaking ranks.  This is the proper strategy if they wish to keep other countries from bolting, but the blood of the Euro-elites runs thin, and I doubt they have the ruthlessness to pursue it.

The higher meaning of Brexit is as indicator of a great secular reversal.  The institutions that bind the world together have entered a process of retreat and disintegration.  Since the end of the Second World War, these institutions have taken for granted the virtues of expansion and integration.  The Cold War gave this idea the zeal of a crusading faith.  The UN had to absorb every mini-nation tossed up by conflict or decolonization.  The six-nation Common Market must grow into the 28-nation EU.  NATO and the various free trade regimes underwent a similar outward push.  The future was to be decided by a sort of institutional manifest destiny.

What has changed is not that a limit has been reached.  The underlying reasons for expansion and integration are now totally in doubt.  The unspoken assumptions have been exploded.  The institutions themselves can be observed staggering about, zombie-like, having lost confidence in their legitimacy and their mission.  The end of the Cold War removed any sense of urgency.  The decline in prestige of liberal democracy has blocked the last unifying ideal.  Powerful centrifugal forces are thus in play.  In the Levant, they have shattered that most sacrosanct of institutions:  the nation state.  The same fate may soon be visited on Europe.  It isn’t only Scotland that hopes to exit the UK – Catalonia wants out of Spain, and Flanders would happily tear Belgium in half.  The question “On what principle must we stay?” receives a muddled answer, or no answer at all.

A globalized system is held together by shared ideologies and the will of the great powers.  But we are now ideologically exhausted, and the last great power, the US, appears exhausted as well.  Disintegration is one result of the decadence of this system.  That decadence, in turn, is the consequence of massive institutional failure.  Britain’s break with the EU may be remembered as a minor grating sound within this long, withdrawing roar.

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Democracy and dictatorship in a nihilistic age

US President Barack Obama (R) meets his

The Malady of Our Time

We stand on the threshold of a new age that refuses to become manifest.  It’s as if the geopolitical clock were stuck at a minute before midnight:  the old forms, the ideologies and institutions of the twentieth century, with startling rapidity are losing their hold, but nothing has arisen to take their place.  A surly public, in frustration, has taken to smashing at the established order without regard for alternatives.  Its desire is to end once and for all this hour of decadence.  The effect has been disorder.

My concern is with liberal democracy, of which I am an uncomplicated supporter.  There can be little doubt that existing democratic institutions around the world are buckling under the stress of our turbulent moment.  They, too, are losing their hold.  Intellectuals who once exalted democracy as the highest good now appear utterly demoralized.   “Liberalism,” broods Roger Cohen in the very liberal New York Times, “is dead.”

The question that emerges from all this is whether political life is slouching toward dictatorship:  whether authoritarian forms of government are better able to handle, or will somehow benefit from, the growing nihilism of the public and ongoing wreck of the institutions.

That question, unpacked, is really two.  The first concerns the possibility that only a dictatorial regime like China’s can retain control of a fractured society and usher in the next phase of human history.  The second question is implicit but, I believe, decisive:  it places in doubt the ability of modern government as such, under any system or ideology, to survive its collision with the digital age.

China:  The Dream of an Enlightened Dictator

xi jinping

Xi Jinping

The elites’ loss of faith in democracy is directly proportional to their heightened loathing of the public.  According to Cohen, the public is susceptible to “greed, prejudice, ignorance, domination, subservience and fear.”  It worships political thugs like Donald Trump in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.  It erupts into Tea Parties and Occupations that upset the steady progress of history.  The elites, in brief, have come to doubt that their pet projects can be implemented democratically.  They are shopping for alternatives.

“There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy,” Tom Friedman famously declared, also in the pages of the New York Times, “and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.”

The implication is that extraordinary times require an extraordinary cession of power to enlightened authority.  That’s the classical form of dictatorship.  The Roman dictator wasn’t a despot.  He was granted immense power to deal with a crisis, and his legitimacy flowed from the exceptional magnitude of the threat.  Dictatorship in this sense was a state of exception, a parenthetical episode within the republican tradition, in which the survival of the nation took precedence over all other considerations, including the rights of the citizen and party politics.

Marx conceived of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” along these lines.  It was an exceptional seizure of power at the supreme crisis of the class war.  Friedman’s admiration for Chinese “autocracy” followed from the same principle:  he believed it could “just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move society forward in the 21st century.”  The crisis dictated the terms of governance.

So we must grasp the nature of the present crisis, before we can consider the justice of the appeals to dictatorship.  Since I have written a book on the subject, I will point the reader in that direction and quickly move on.  In brief:  across history, the elites and the institutions they manage have held a near-monopoly of information.  Their story was always the story.  In our century, however, the spread of digital platforms has reversed the information balance of power.  The public now commands the strategic heights, while institutional failure sets the agenda.  Without that near-monopoly over information, it turns out, even the mighty organs of modern government lose their legitimacy – then their authority – finally begin a rapid process of disintegration.

A crisis caused by disruptive information will require a special kind of dictatorship:  one that can censor content and compel the public to move forward into the twenty-first century.  That is clearly what Friedman advocated.  Others in the old democracies have sidled toward this ideal:  the legal concept of “hate speech,” for example, allows some European countries to criminalize opinions that are offensive to the elites.

But this approach immediately runs into the dictator’s dilemma.  If censorship and compulsion are the answer, why not make North Korea under the Kim dynasty, or Cuba under the Castro brothers, our model?  The reasons are obvious.  Far from ushering in the great new age, these rulers resemble Lenin in his mausoleum, moldering in a mummified version of the twentieth century.  Friedman preferred the “reasonably enlightened people” of the Chinese regime.  In the dictator’s dilemma, China, for Friedman, represented a sort of golden mean between democratic nihilism and totalitarian book-burning.

China’s overseers call their form of government a “people’s democratic dictatorship”:  opposites are thus reconciled in a phrase.  The state has erected a massive apparatus of censorship and repression, including an “internet police” said to number in the millions.  Controls over politics and media have grown harsher in recent years.  Bloggers now receive long prison sentences for criticizing government policies.  Journalists are imprisoned for leaking official documents.  Even high-ranking members of the Communist Party are being purged and punished in what is, purportedly, a campaign against corruption.

Whether such tactics aim to move Chinese society forward into the twenty-first century is open to question.  More cynical interpretations are available.  The Communist Party has suffered the ideological equivalent of a blow to the head:  it has forgotten every argument justifying its rule except the will to power.  The people in charge are straining for ideals on which to anchor their legitimacy.  China’s president, Xi Jinping, is maneuvering to increase his personal power at the expense of the Party’s.  Each of these hypotheses is consistent with hardened repression.  All portray a regime driven by doubt and division rather than visionary confidence.

There are no stopping-places in the dictator’s dilemma.  The concept of an enlightened dictatorship, with just-so repression, is a fantasy for the op-ed section of the New York Times.  Reality is about awful choices.  The regime in China survives on economic prosperity, which demands the free flow of information.  But the economy is wobbling – should that information be allowed to flow?  President Xi has been hectoring the Chinese media about “properly guiding public opinion,” particularly with regard to the economy.  He sounds like a politician on the defensive, in spin mode.  China’s elites are riding a tiger and know it.  Whatever the future brings to this antiquated power structure, it is unlikely to lead the parade into the twenty-first century.

Russia and Egypt:  The Pose of Heroic Repudiation

al sisi

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Another avenue of escape from liberal democracy might be labeled the dictatorship of repudiation.  Putin’s Russia is one example.  Al-Sisi’s Egypt is another.  Both men erected regimes on the claim that they were rescuing the nation from a false liberalism dominated by hostile malevolent forces.

Call it an old-fashioned formula with a millennial twist.

For Putin, the Enemy is the US-led West.  It aims at nothing less than the “disintegration and dismemberment” of Russia.  Al-Sisi finds his villain in the Muslim Brotherhood, whose government he toppled – a movement inspired by “the most extreme terrorist mentality that would have burned down our land if it could.”  These rhetorical excesses are interesting only because they seem to have worked.  Russia and Egypt remain formal democracies, but in both countries a majority of the public has been persuaded that an existential threat exists, and that it justifies the grant of dictatorial power to the president.

Despite governing with self-righteous brutality, Putin and al-Sisi retain levels of popularity and support that should be the envy of any American politician.  Many factors play into this strange circumstance, including control over the story told by national media – Russian media loves to portray the scrawny Putin in the guise of an action hero, for example, while Egypt’s journalists can write without blushing of al-Sisi’s “flawless appearance” and “Herculean strength.”  Yet much tighter controls over information have done nothing to enhance the image of Xi Jinping and his Chinese Communist Party.

The difference, I think, lies in the relationship to our frozen moment in history.  Putin and al-Sisi believe, probably sincerely, that they are engaged in a war to the death against an established order imposed by the Enemy.  They aim to slay the dragon of national decadence and bring to an end this unhappy age.  To some extent, therefore, they can tap into the explosive political energies released by the revolt of the public:  by the rage and despair over the way things stand felt by ordinary people in Russia and Egypt.  Their struggle is the public’s, at least in this sense:  the repudiation of the present and the desire to abolish it by fair means or foul.

In contrast, Xi was born to a ruling caste that has been in charge for two generations, and, like comfortable elites everywhere, contemplates with fear the next turning of the page of history.  Xi’s anti-corruption campaign may be an attempt to strike the pose of repudiation:  in truth, however, the aspect presented by the regime in China is that of a serpent devouring its own tail.

Despite its alignment with the public’s mood, the dictatorship of repudiation is best understood as a series of national episodes, lacking the ideological coherence to transform itself into a serious rival to liberal democracy.  Putin’s justifying crisis in Russia is nothing like that of al-Sisi in Egypt, for example, and neither is available for export.  The thrust of repudiation, too, has a retrograde quality.  The dictator has been forced to assume the crushing burden of modern government.  He is now a solver of social and economic “problems” that he has no clue how to address – a bringer of happiness to a hyper-informed and contentious public.  Failure can be blamed on the Enemy only for so long.

The economies of Russia and Egypt, under stress for years, now teeter on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Putin, the action hero, is at the mercy of the world commodities market.  Al-Sisi, for all his Herculean strength, must go begging for handouts from the Gulf oil kingdoms.  One possible future for either regime might resemble the colossal wreck that is present-day Venezuela.  Even if the way ahead is less dire, the structural reality of the dictatorship remains unaltered.  Putin and al-Sisi struggle helplessly in the coils of our nihilistic age.  They are not masters or exploiters of it.  Both men long for a return of the glory days of the Cold War:  their future is in the past.

The Democracies and Their Dilemma

None of this should be construed as a vindication of democratic government.  It too is stumbling spectacularly, on center stage, under the eyes of an astonished public.  Elected officials appear disoriented and demoralized.  Intellectuals dream of a despot who, being enlightened, will follow their instructions.  The public distrusts and berates the government, yet expects miracles from it.  That is the democrat’s dilemma, every bit as fatal as the dictator’s:  to win at the electoral game, a politician must promise the impossible, thus ensuring failure in office.  In the new information landscape, failure will be magnified and shouted from the digital rooftops until nothing else is heard.

The dynamic is global, even if the effects very much depend on national and local circumstances.  In Egypt and Russia, as we have seen, weak democracies have toggled to de facto dictatorships.  The same holds true for Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand.  In Brazil, the democratic system appears cracked to the foundation.  The choice there is between the rule of corruption and a procedural “coup” by parties that lost the last election.  In Mexico, the political elites, desperate to avoid a Brazil-style holocaust, universally agree on the need for reform:  yet the reality of violence, a weak economy, and corruption remains unreformed.  In the Middle East, chaos and sectarianism, rather than democracy, have reaped what was sown in the Arab Spring of 2011.

In the old democracies, electorates have alternated mainstream parties right and left, and found few perceptible differences in outcome.  Frustrated, voters have turned to those who have no stake in the system.  That’s the higher meaning of Trump and Corbyn, of the National Front in France and Syriza in Greece:  they are clubs in the hands of a mutinous public, with which to strike at the machinery of representative government.

Once elected to office, however, the carriers of nihilism face their own version of the democrat’s dilemma.  They can continue to smash at the institutions, which will also shatter the economy and so obliterate their popularity, or they can transact with the established elites and so obliterate their credibility.  Alexis Tsipras of Greece, who has tried both approaches, has yet to discover a way out of the labyrinth.

The new-style anti-system politicians, for all their tough talk, are much more likely to repeat their predecessors’ weakness and failure than to consolidate a dictatorship or compel, by a triumph of the will, the resumption of history.

The Panama Papers:  A Stress Test of Systems

iceland demo

Anti-corruption protests in Reykjavik, Iceland

The “Panama Papers” are a trove of over 11 million leaked documents detailing how Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm, has instructed elites around the world in the art of hiding money overseas.  Here is the revolt of the public at its purest:  an acid bath of information dissolving the legitimacy of the persons and institutions involved.  The responses, too, resemble a laboratory experiment testing the possibilities available to modern government in its destructive struggle with the information sphere.

The leaked papers opened a window on the hidden overseas wealth of many family members of the Chinese leadership.  Among those playing the financial shell game was a brother-in-law of that relentless anti-corruption campaigner, Xi Jinping.  The documents also implicated friends and associates of Vladimir Putin in secretive multi-billion-dollar offshore transactions.  On the democratic side of the ledger, it was revealed that the wife of Iceland’s prime minister had sheltered her considerable wealth in the Virgin Islands.

China and Russia dealt with the information effects according to the imperatives of their dictatorial styles.  Wide-open Iceland, meanwhile, took the news straight up and absorbed the consequences.

While never a serious threat to China’s ruling elites, the revelations exemplified the dilemma that bleeds out their legitimacy like an open wound.  The question was how to retain control of the story in an age of massively redundant information.  The regime answered as it always has, with silence and censorship.  Nothing was said about the disclosures.   Officially, they never happened.  The public was invited to share in the fiction.  The notorious internet police was unleashed on Chinese social media.  Any mention of the Panama Papers was scrubbed.  For denizens of the Chinese web, the search term “Panama” delivered “no relevant results.”

For Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, the release of the Panama Papers offered a magnificent opportunity to blame the Enemy.  The whole episode, he claimed, was “one more attempt to destabilize the internal situation [and] make us more accommodating.”  The US government was of course responsible – specifically, USAID.  To support that charge, he sourced Twitter and Wikipedia.  It was Putin at his most Soviet, dealing in ritual accusations rather than persuasive rhetoric.

Matters took a very different turn in Iceland.  The leaks showed Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson – a young, popular, unusually successful politician – engaged, through his wife, in a financial conflict of interest.  That information became public April 3.  Gunnlaugsson tried to tough out a storm of criticism, but by April 5 he was gone.  The scandal has shaken Icelandic politics.  With national elections looming, the once-marginal Pirate Party holds a strong lead in the opinion polls.

The asymmetric effects of the Panama Papers on dictatorship and democracy can be interpreted any number of ways.  I could argue that China and Russia neutralized the virus of information by means of censorship and repudiation, whereas Iceland became infected until its government succumbed.  State power and deception, on this account, can browbeat or dupe the public out of its hyper-critical mood.  All it takes is a grant of authority to the government proportional to the crisis.  An age of dictators, then, must follow the nihilism of decadent democracy.

Or I could insist that the dictator’s dilemma holds.  The Chinese and Russian publics are perfectly well informed about their rulers, but have chosen not to strike at the moment.  They might do so tomorrow or the day after – once the bleeding out of legitimacy reaches a critical point.  Iceland, by contrast, brought the public into the discussion and made a clean break with the past.  Instead of suffering the death of a thousand cuts, in the style of Hosni Mubarak or Nicolás Maduro, democracy has the capacity to flush the noise out of the system:  a quality N. N. Taleb would call anti-fragile.

To the extent that such interpretations fixate on the either-or of democracy and dictatorship, all of them, let me suggest, will miss the larger point.

The Future and Its Possibilities

For all the received wisdom in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, it isn’t specifically democracy that is broken – or dictatorship either.  It’s the monstrous machinery of modern government as a whole.  The crisis of authority, I mean to say, is structural rather than ideological, and implicates models and ideals of governance inherited from the industrial age:  top-down, steeply hierarchical, staffed by accredited experts, worshipful of “data” and “science,” disdainful of the ignorant masses, and yet, at bottom, a utopian enterprise.

This describes, with equal accuracy, the government system of China and that of the United States.

If my thesis is correct, the paralysis and frustration that weigh so heavily on our moment will not be surmounted until political institutions align more closely with social practice.  In the digital age, this can only mean a flattening of government structures.  That’s what the nihilist impulse has sought to do, however blindly.  The public, wielding a Donald Trump or a Jeremy Corbyn in hand, aims to batter the ruling institutions down to eye level, just to see what happens next.

Dictatorship today rests comfortably within the top-down, we-talk-you-listen model of modern government.  To align it more closely with the public would violate its guiding principle – and, in practice, impede or even endanger one-man rule.

Democracy, however, can have no principled objection to bringing power down from the heights, closer to the public.  It’s remoteness that requires an explanation.  Democracy was organized differently before the distancing reforms of the twentieth century.  It can re-form again.  Developments in two tiny democratic nations suggest how that might come about.

Estonia has redesigned its national government around a digital “X-Road” that forces simple, transparent interactions with the public.  Filing taxes, for example, takes only three clicks of the mouse.  The Pirate Party of Iceland has gone a step further.  It offers a vision of government as a transactional platform, in effect synching up office-holders with the public in a shared decision-making space.

It’s easy to dismiss these reforms as sterile political mutations in insignificant backwaters of the world.  I find myself wondering whether they represent something larger:  the first faint glimmer of that much-awaited next stage of human history – and, it may be, the future shape of democracy.

The subject is big enough to deserve a separate discussion.

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