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.
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.