Over the past month, protests have swept across France. What began as an objection to the fuel tax became violent displays of general outrage. These are the surface symptoms of a deeper crisis of authority in Europe’s political order. The “yellow vest” movement lacks leaders, programs, or an ideology. But the protesters know what they stand against: the government, the system, above all the young French president, Emmanuel Macron, avatar of the elites. And who are the elites? They are the men and women who run the institutions of modern society. There is a sense that this group has lost its bearings – that it has retreated an immense distance away from the concerns of ordinary people.
Loathing elites has become the most potent political force in Europe. It mobilized the “Brexit” vote in Britain, and just squeezed Prime Minister Theresa May through the wringer of a party no-confidence vote for botching negotiations with the European Union. It visited a series of electoral humiliations on German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose tenure may be counted in months rather than years. In France, it has driven popular support for the yellow vests: at its peak, it reached 80 percent by one count. Everywhere, it has shattered the political coalitions, right and left, that governed the continent since World War II, and raised to prominence new parties and persons nominally attached to the right or the left but always fractious, sectarian, “populist.”
What is a populist? Ambitious people have moved into the gap between the public and the elites. They’ve tended to be unpolished outsiders, vulgar and abrasive in their rhetoric. Populist is an elite term. It seems to imply that certain opinions are popular when they shouldn’t be. Populists of a nationalistic strain have won elections, handily and repeatedly, in Hungary and Poland. In Italy, two very different populist parties, cats and dogs together, share in running the most popular government in Europe, with 68 percent approval ratings. (By comparison, Macron’s approval numbers have plummeted as low as 23 percent.) Elites ascribe these victories to demagoguery: populists win elections by misleading the public. The reverse of this proposition is more nearly correct. Populist parties and politicians are riding, sometimes uneasily, on the wild kinetic energies surging from a mutinous public.
And what is the public? It is a creature of the new information landscape. Not long ago, elites in government and media could silence outsiders by the simple expedient of denying them an audience. Today, information has slipped the leash. Amateurs have taken control of the conversation. The hordes that swarmed into the Arc de Triomphe began their march on the digital steppes – in their case, Facebook “anger groups,” in which hundreds of thousands of French citizens vented their hostility to Macron’s government. Behind the anger groups stood people from nowhere, who had been quite invisible to the elites: bricklayers, truckers, therapists, workers and the self-employed of small-town and rural France.
The same process has been repeated elsewhere in Europe. The public has taken command of the information sphere, and political life has tumbled into turbulence and unpredictability. As early as 2011, the indignados of Spain, having organized for months on Facebook, attracted millions of ordinary citizens to their street protests. (In their rejection of leaders and positive programs, and their utter disgust with the status quo, the indignados and the yellow vests bear a strong family resemblance: both are almost ideal archetypes of the kind of movement I described in The Revolt of the Public.) In 2016, the Brexiteers dominated the digital discussion, even as Britain’s respectable media, in its entirety, supported remaining in the EU. Both of Italy’s populist parties have a powerful online presence. The largest of the two, the Five Star Movement, began with a blog by a former comedian who called himself Beppe Grillo, after the “Jiminy Cricket” character in Pinocchio. Grillo straddles the three domains that absorb the public’s attention: entertainment, politics, and the web.
The public has learned to speak about politics in the style of the web: the rant. Populists have naturally followed suit. Violent language and political incorrectness trigger elite fury, and so reward the populist ranter with that most valuable currency, attention. An impenetrable wall of noise presently surrounds every political decision. Leaks and rumors, facts and opinions, truth and falsehood, poured out in massive volumes, inspire a permanent sense of uncertainty and frustration. No statement is beyond dispute. No outcome is ever final. To this day, Remain voters in Britain – like Clinton voters in the US – are unreconciled and wish to litigate the results.
The insurgents are vague on details but sharply focused on the big picture. They want the pyramid flattened, and their rulers brought into closer proximity. The elites, in turn, are embedded in arrangements reached over a century ago during the industrial era, which enshrined top-down decision-making made by accredited experts with pseudo-scientific pretensions. The elites think mathematically, in terms of a single rational “solution” to each political “problem.” The public’s voice, erupting from below, they find not only disagreeable but deranged. Whatever isn’t settled from on high always comes as a surprise. The indignados’ arrival on the streets startled Spain’s political establishment. The Brexit vote shocked Britain’s. The new Italian government horrified Europe’s elites. The yellow vest protests caught Emmanuel Macron utterly unprepared. The gulf between the public and the elites is very wide, and probably getting wider.
Europe’s politics, as a result, tremble on the verge of a nervous breakdown. From Sweden to Spain, the status quo is everywhere under attack. If it endures, it will be in an enfeebled condition. Increased fragmentation and even disintegration are possible, as the public in regions like Scotland and Catalonia hacks away at the ties that bind the nation-state. Yet there are few proposals for reform on the horizon. The left calls for more government intervention and redistribution of wealth. The right wants more nationalism and less immigration. These are worn-out ideas, and they can be imposed on an anarchic digital culture only through compulsion. It may be that the European elite class, now permanently under siege, will arrive at the opinion that compulsion is necessary. A more hopeful possibility is that the turmoil and anguish currently gripping the continent represents one stage in a necessary, if painful, process: the replacement of the industrial elites by a younger generation that will align democratic politics more closely with digital expectations.