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.