The thesis of my new book can be gleaned from its title: The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. A hyperactive public, I maintain, has emerged from the dormant masses of the industrial era. Gathered in networked communities, riding on digital platforms, this public has taken command of the information sphere and battered established institutions everywhere.
The consequences are all around us. Proud political structures have been humiliated and stripped of legitimacy. The pillars of an established order that has endured a century and a half visibly totter, and sometimes fall.
Despite all the evidence, I confess that when the book came out I felt a bit like someone afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome: I was shouting incomprehensible profanities in a room full of people talking about something else. The big conversation followed traditional topics. Experts droned on about liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans – about the president, the government, the cozy world of power wielders. Nobody mentioned the public or its relentless assault on the institutions. Few remarked on the crisis of legitimacy, or noticed the faint odor of political decay.
This has changed with startling rapidity. The news media has discovered the chasm of distrust between ordinary Americans and their government. Commentators have assumed an almost mandatory tone of despair about our present moment: an era, they moan, of “great disruption” and “disgust.” Even the New York Times has gotten into the doomsday business.
In bits and pieces, the revolt of the public is going mainstream – and now, perversely, I worry about what this portends for the health of liberal democracy.
“How Did We Lose Our Democracy?”
The ruling institutions are always being surprised. From the bureaucratic heights, the public appears very far away, and trouble will be detected in advance only when internal alarms ring. Under authoritarian regimes, this means mostly never. Hosni Mubarak was ushered to prison in a state of utter befuddlement. Videos of Muammar Qaddafi show him being led to his death in the same condition. Neither had a clue about what had happened to them.
In representative democracies, however, certain elections attract the nervous attention of the elites.
The unruly temper of the public, expressed at the voting booth, has meant a wild gyration of parties and ideologies in power. Whoever is in, the public wants out. Since 2010, Britain, Spain, and France have each reversed the previous electoral mandate. In the US, the last three national elections have alternated contradictory directions.
Now midterm elections are at hand, and conventional wisdom is taking for granted another mood swing, this time in favor of the Republicans. Big media players like the NYT – surprised, as always, to find events rather than elites in the saddle – have gone out among the populace, searching for explanations. What they have learned will sound familiar to my readers: the present crisis of political authority, we are told, is the natural outcome of government failure.
Here is Peter Baker, in what was billed as “news analysis” for the gray old Times:
With every passing week or month it seems some agency or another has had a misstep or has been caught up in scandals that have deeply eroded public confidence. The Internal Revenue Service targets political groups, the Border Patrol is overwhelmed by children illegally crossing the Rio Grande, the Department of Veterans Affairs covers up poor service, and the Secret Service fails to guard the president and his White House.
Now public esteem for the long-respected Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has plummeted with the arrival of Ebola on American shores…
[…] Polling by Gallup shows that since June 2009, in the heyday of the new Obama presidency, public confidence in virtually every major institution of American life has fallen, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, public schools, newspapers, Congress, television news, the police, the presidency, the medical system, the criminal justice system and small business.
President Obama’s collapsing political fortunes are touched on, as well as Congress’s abysmal standing in public opinion. Baker notes, correctly, that “the broader trend precedes Mr. Obama and extends beyond politics” – yet he offers no reason for this remarkable trajectory of institutional failure, beyond an obligatory mention of the “toxic environment” in Washington. But the poison in Washington must have a source. Polarization is an effect: elites fighting ever more furiously over less and less. The cause is uncertain, and the public is beyond caring. American politics today resemble an exceptionally rancorous, penalty-riddled NFL game, played in an empty stadium.
For all its mock horror of partisanship, the news media is a ruthless participant in the game. “What’s not to hate? Start with the politicians on the ballot: a surfeit of dim-bulb partisans pledged to further gridlock,” writes Timothy Egan in the NYT’s “Opinion Pages.” Egan doesn’t hate all politicians equally. He favors the president and the Democrats, and he maintains that only a conspiracy by moneyed interests can bring about the results predicted for the midterms: “Oligarchs hiding behind front groups – Citizens for Fluffy Pillows – are pulling the levers of the 2014 campaign, and overwhelmingly aiding Republicans.”
If Egan’s conspiratorial cesspool faithfully represents the world, then American democracy, as currently practiced, is an illegitimate form of government.
How did we lose our democracy? Slowly at first, then all at once. This fall, voters are more disgusted, more bored and more cynical about the midterm elections than at any time in at least two decades.
So what is the alternative? Egan doesn’t say. He strikes out blindly, without much thought to the consequences. That is typical of our moment. He hates a possible electoral outcome, so he rejects the system that might bring it about. That also is typical, and frequently met with. Egan’s rant rests on an idea that has taken hold among the articulate elites. Since the public is truly that sheep-like and easy to manipulate, the democratic process, under any circumstances, poses a fatal threat to good government.
Distrust of elections is by no means restricted to liberals or Democrats. It burns just as brightly on the other side of the partisan divide. Glenn Reynolds, libertarian and Obama-basher, constantly reminds readers of his blog that victory by Republicans must exceed the “margin of fraud” – perpetrated in this case by Democrats rather than oligarchs.
“Change Is Coming. Big Change”
The Revolt of the Public tells the story of an age that seems stuck in its own ending. The public craves an escape from the status quo, but won’t spell out a new direction. The institutions have been blinded and crippled by the speed of life in the 21st century. Rulers, politicians, and bureaucrats can hear the crowds roaring outside the palace windows, but all they can do is repeat the same old formulas in the hope that things turn out better next time. Change, radical change, seems inescapable, but isn’t: instead a sort of zombie democracy, a political body without a soul, staggers from failure to failure.
Ron Fournier of National Journal agrees with digital politics guru Joe Trippi, whom he quotes as saying, “Look beneath the surface, and you’ll see this is more of an anti-incumbent, anti-establishment year than people realize.” Concludes Trippi: “Change is coming. Big change.” Not today or tomorrow, Fournier acknowledges, but maybe “a presidential cycle or two away.”
Like all who contemplate our peculiar moment, Fournier is struck by the power of technology to alter the social and commercial landscape – and he imagines, as many have, that politics must be next.
I ask you, how long before Americans recognized they’re no less equipped to disrupt politics and government? How long before we stop settling for an inferior product in Washington and at statehouses? When do we demand more and better from the Democratic and Republican parties – or create new political organizations to usurp the old?
[…] Huge majorities of Americans say the country is on the wrong track. They see a grim future for themselves, their children, and their country. They believe political leaders are selfish, greedy, and short-sighted – unable and/or unwilling to shield most people from wrenching economic and social change.
The heart of the matter, Fournier understands, is alienation, not polarization. American voters are defecting from the mainstream parties. The public is leaping out of the past into the dark, into nowhere and nothing: that is my interpretation. Fournier is a bit more sanguine. Disruption of the system is “a matter of when, not if,” he proclaims with apparent cheerfulness. The “Old Guard” he dismisses as “a ship of fools, living on borrowed time.” That’s probably true. But there’s an assumption, never stated, that the public is headed to a positive somewhere, that disruption isn’t just another word for nihilism: and of that, I’m not so sure.
Fournier commits the cardinal sin of the middle-aged: he drops the burden of his hopes on the shoulders of the unsuspecting young. Specifically, he links political change to the millennial generation, which he imagines to be “relatively civic-minded, pragmatic, tolerant, diverse, and less interested in ideology than results.” I have no idea whether anything intelligible can be said about a generation: but these are empty virtues. We learn exactly nothing from them about what millennials would seek to accomplish if, against all odds, they were allowed to influence national politics before the last Baby Boomer gets lowered into his grave.
To Fournier, change has become a good in itself. No doubt he associates it with progress – but that is a terrible failure of the political imagination. Change can take an infinite number of forms, many of them destructive of liberal democracy, tolerance, diversity, and all those millennial values he admires. After all, the Weimar Republic changed. German opinion determined that Weimar had failed beyond repair, and that anything other was an improvement. That brought on Hitler. Barbarians typically enter the city through open gates, left unguarded by citizens who despise their own institutions and are unable to imagine worse. The Dark Ages were the most radical kind of change.
Change must be specified. Democracy should be defended. The impulse to nihilism we must combat in ourselves and confront in others, as a mark of decadence. Candidates for the midterm elections, so far as I can tell, haven’t broached any of these large subjects. Egan calls it the “disgust election.” He’s projecting, and he’s almost certainly wrong. The midterms of 2014, like its immediate precursors, will be a small election, fought with little feeling over small things – another lurch of the zombie, this time, if the prophets are to be believed, to the right.