My talk at Bard: “Democracy in Dark Times” and the revolt of the public

 [Below is the text and slides of the presentation I delivered October 12 at Bard College, New York, at the invitation of Roger Berkowitz, director of Bard’s Hanna Arendt Center.  The occasion was a conference on “Crises of Democracy:  Thinking in Dark Times,” hosted by the Center.  I have invoked the author’s privilege of refining the text to make myself sound more articulate than I really was.  I have also inserted links to the quotes whenever possible.]

My subject is the tectonic collision between a networked public and the old hierarchical institutions we have inherited from the industrial age.

I worked in the corner of CIA that studies global media.  There, around the turn of the new millennium, my fellow analysts and I watched a tsunami of digital information swell and build and then crash over the landscape, leaving little untouched. At first we were mesmerized by the sheer volume of the thing.  The sum of human information, which since the days of the cave paintings had grown in a stately, incremental manner, was now roughly doubling every year.

But it was the effects of the tsunami that mattered.  Human relations were being transformed:  social and commercial relations first of all, but in time, and in consequence, power relations as well.  We could see fierce old dictatorships losing control over their own stories.  A surprising number of them collapsed.  Democratic governments became terrified of the public, and with good reason.  The wave of information resembled an acid bath of negation.

Information, it turned out, has authority in proportion to its scarcity – the more there is, the less people believe.  That is the theme of my story today.


So what do I mean by authority, and why is it in crisis?  Before we get to the revolt of the public, let’s reflect on its target:  the old dispensation.

For around 150 years, authority resided in the great institutions of the industrial world:  modern government, of course, but also the corporation, the labor union, the university, the media, the scientific establishment.  The elites who mediated between these institutions and the public were the keepers of truth and certainty.

How was this possible?  Well, first of all, no alternatives existed.  Each institution held a semi-monopoly over the information in its own domain.  When Walter Cronkite, face and voice of a great institution, CBS News, told us “That’s the way it is,” we had no way of falsifying him.

Now, the human race has been organized hierarchically since we attained meaningful numbers.  The industrial mind just made the pyramid bigger, steeper, and more efficient.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was one of the great prophets of industrialism.  He preached “scientific management,” and that has always been the mantra of the industrial elites:  that they are scientific.  Their authority is derived from esoteric knowledge that the public lacks.  In Taylor’s system, that knowledge justified control over every step of the manufacturing process.  His ideal worker was a sort of robot programed from the top.

Politics followed a parallel path.  In the great mass movements and totalitarian dictatorships that arose after the First World War, the individual disappeared into the masses.  Democratic governments became both more intrusive and more remote.  Policy-making devolved to a class of experts with Taylorist pretensions and utopian ambitions.

Politicians made, and make to this day, extraordinary claims of competence:  that they can command the transactional swirl of the modern economy, for example, or engineer social equality, or win a “war” against poverty (or crime, or drugs, or cancer).  Juscelino Kubitschek, democratically elected president of Brazil, promised to compress “fifty years of progress in five” by building Brasilia – that hyper-modern City of Man.

The reality is that democratic governments have been pounding away at the same projects for over a century.  We know by now what they can do well and what they can’t.  They can build highway systems and they can eradicate contagious disease.  But they can’t fix whatever is broken in the human animal.  They can’t deliver utopia.  Whenever they tried, they failed.

Brasilia failed to deliver 50 years of progress in five. The wars against social conditions such as poverty and crime ended with the enemy standing pretty much where he had been when hostilities began.  Most of the grandiose projects of the 20th century failed on their own terms – but the story told about these efforts wasn’t one of hubris and failure, but of a soaring ambition to improve the human lot, of reaching for the stars.

So long as the elites held the commanding heights of information and communication, they were the only authority in town.  Once the tsunami fractured that monopoly, the elites as a class, their authority, and the institutions they managed, all lapsed into crisis.


The forces that swept away the old dispensation came almost entirely from below.  They represented the voice of the gifted amateur, of the articulate non-elites.  In terms of institutional standing, the individuals responsible were often insignificant persons – people from nowhere.  Shawn Fanning was 18, an unknown kid, when he released the first version of Napster in June 1999.  The shock of that beta release sent a mighty institution, the music industry, into a downward spiral from which it has yet to recover.

Hossein Derakhshan, better known by his blogname, Hoder, was an ordinary Iranian twenty-something who, in September 2001, succeeded in adapting blogging software to the requirements of Farsi script.

The consequences were remarkable.  Tens of thousands of Farsi-language blogs materialized in Iran.  Many commented on political news, advocated feminism, criticized the corruption of regime officials.  Poor Hoder spent six years in prison for “insulting the sanctities” of the Islamic Republic.

Wael Ghonim described himself as “an ordinary Egyptian,” and so he was in many ways.  He created a Facebook page and, in the form of a Facebook Event invitation, called for the protests that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.  Over a million Facebook users viewed the invitation.  Around 100,000 said they would attend.

Ghonim was thrown in prison during the protests, then was released and negotiated with by government ministers who clearly believed he was an important revolutionary leader.  Symbolically, that was true.  He embodied the tsunami.  But empirically he was a political nobody whose claim to fame was that he administered a Facebook page.


With Wael Ghonim and his kind, we come to the hero of my story – or maybe the anti-hero, depending on your perspective.  What is the public, and why – if I may quote old Mel Brooks – is it revolting?

First, let’s specify what the public is not.  It isn’t the people, or the masses, or the crowd.  It isn’t a fixed body of any kind.  It isn’t even one – it’s many.  I should rightly say “publics” – but that sounds terrible, so I don’t.

The public was formed by the dissolution of the industrial masses and their migration away from the center toward vital communities that represented their true interests and obsessions all along.  In many cases, the journey has led to distant islands of personal identity.  Information has been the catalyst – the perturbing agent – in this process.  The tsunami is really the public, asserting its opinions and tastes.

Digital platforms provide the public with its organizational form:  the network.  Nothing within the bounds of human nature could be less like hierarchy.  Digital networks are egalitarian to the brink of dysfunction.

Walter Lippmann, whose definition I used, tells us that the public is “merely the persons interested in an affair.”  That affair can be trivial – cute cats, Taylor Swift, Star Wars.  But when the public engages in politics, it’s to promote some specific cause, to right a specific wrong, to tag some specific event or person or policy with the correct modifiers.

Online political communities were spawned by the traditional right and left, but are not interested in working out coherent ideologies.  They care, passionately and obsessively, about their particular affair.  Anti-globalists, for example, care about the tyranny of corporations.  Anarchists and libertarians care about the tyranny of government.  Neither imagines that they are espousing a system of ideas that might be opposed by a different system of ideas. They think that they know truth, and that their opponents must therefore be liars and cheats.

These groups are born in negation – friction with the status quo brings them into being, and they exist to attack, condemn, repudiate.  Negation binds a network and transforms it into a political force.  You stand against Mubarak, for example, or Obama, or capitalism.  Once the oppositional impulse is spent, there’s very little left.  If you asked an indignado or an Occupier or a Tea Partier what they stood against, you would get long, long lists of grievances.  If you asked what they stood for, you’d get throat-clearing noises and generalities like “social justice” or “the Constitution.”

Any form of organization, of command and control, is offensive to the egalitarian spirit of the web. Digital networks resemble barbarian war bands that roam the political landscape looking to win honor and fame in heroic combat with the enemy.  The weird dynamics of the web makes verbal violence – ritual rage – the only acceptable rhetorical posture.  Every political controversy ends in personal abuse and death threats.

Extreme actors on opposite sides rejoice in finding each other.  They can engage in loud and vicious combat, attract attention, drown out moderate voices.  There’s perverse satisfaction, almost happiness, when the people you oppose perpetrate some horror.  It proves beyond reasonable doubt that they should not be allowed to exist.

The public has bought into the exaggerated claims of competence of the politicians.  This is very strange, very central to our predicament.  Even as the public repudiates modern government, it imposes fantastic expectations on it.  On the one hand, government is the instrument of self-serving elites.  On the other, it must deliver not only social justice and freedom but personal fulfillment and even identity.  Political failure – which, given the expectations, is inevitable – evokes intensely personal feelings of injury and anger.

Mind you, the carriers of this anger rarely belong to marginalized groups.  They tend to be young, university educated, highly articulate, owners of digital devices, masters of the information sphere.  Their rage, in fact, is informational:  Facebook and YouTube and Twitter torment them with a world full of unbearable things.

The web exists in a state of nature. Things are said and done there just because they can be said and done.  A great deal of hypocrisy is therefore baked into those political communities that are born online.  The rage is mostly rhetorical.  The death threats are mostly a grab for attention through outrageous behavior.  But when negation and repudiation play the part of ideology, when rage, stoked to the max, is the default rhetorical posture, when attention is the highest value and is earned by the intensity with which opponents are demonized – then we shouldn’t be surprised if individuals cross the hazy frontier between the virtual and the real, materialize among us, and begin to shed blood.

The two nice-looking young men on the slide, between them, murdered 126 innocent strangers and wounded and maimed many more.  They represent the nihilist:  the public as destroyer of worlds.

The question has been posed at this conference whether we are witnessing the rise of authoritarian or fascist governments.  Among the old democracies at least, I believe the opposite is closer to the truth.  Democratic governments are terrified of the public’s unhappiness.  They know that heroic actions are expected of them, but also that every initiative will be savaged and every failure amplified.  Their behavior is the opposite of authoritarian.  It’s a drift to dysfunction:  to paralysis.

Yes, there are Nazis among us.  They are one byproduct of the public’s escape to sectarian islands of identity.  These people with their tikki torches look pretty amusing – but they are no joke.  One of their number, all of 20 years of age, plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and hurting many others.  So far as is known, the perpetrator wasn’t acting on orders from his fuehrer or from anyone else.  He acted on an impulse:  the impulse to kill and to destroy.  Given our structural realities, I don’t worry too much about the authoritarian or the fascist.  I worry about that young man:  about the nihilist who believes, with passionate intensity, that destruction and slaughter are by themselves a form of progress.

And maybe we should all worry whether the nihilist impulse has gained a broad enough acceptance with the public to make itself felt in the highest reaches of power.


Donald Trump has been good to me.  He has sold a lot of copies of my book.  Still, I suspect he’s the reason we’re here, talking about democracy in dark times.  Hillary Clinton may be the very model of an entitled elite – but if she had won, few here, I’m guessing, would have had cause to raise apocalyptic political scenarios.

Why?  What’s so terrifying about Trump?  Well, he’s Frankenstein’s monster.  He’s Hitler.  He’s Mussolini or maybe Augusto Pinochet.  These things have been said.  Allow me to take a somewhat more analytical approach.  I see Trump as an episode in the revolt of the public.  Only in that context, I believe, could such a strange figure rise so far so fast.

Trump is a peacock among the dull buzzards of US politics.  The one discernible theme of his life is the will to stand out: to attract all eyes in the room by being the loudest, most colorful, most aggressively intrusive person there.  No question that he’s succeeded.  By every measure I have seen, Trump sucks up our attention to a staggering degree.  He’s less Adolf Hitler and more P.T. Barnum – only the circus is himself.  This aligns him with a public that often confuses personal fantasies with practical politics.

Trump has mastered the nihilist style of the web.  That, to me, is the most significant factor separating him from the pack.  His opponents speak in jargon and clichés.  He speaks in rant.  He attacks, insults, condemns, doubles down on misstatements, never takes a step back, never apologizes.  Everyone he dislikes is a liar, a “bimbo,” “bought and paid for,” the equivalent of a child molester.  Ian Buruma has written that this sort of abuse is “what aspiring dictators have sought to do.”  But dictators don’t deal in tweets.  Trump is in the style of our moment:  a man from nowhere, with no stake in the system, ignorant of history, incurious about our political habits and traditions, but happy to bash and to break old and precious things in exchange for a little attention.

Rhetorical aggression defines the political web.  By embracing Trump in significant numbers, the public has signaled that it is willing to impose the untrammeled relations of social media on the fragile forms of American democracy.

I want to leave you with a question:  what I call the cosmic Trump question.

Imagine a world in which an insignificant person with a talent for self-promotion decides to enter an election because all the cameras are there, with no thought of winning, and is catapulted to the presidency by historical forces over which he has no control, and which he does not in the least understand.  What follows?

Well, if you think Trump is Hitler, you can relax.  He’s not.  You can quit the resistance and go to the ballpark.  Trump doesn’t need your help to fail.

But if you’re me, tracking the trajectory of this structural conflict between political elites who are bleeding authority and a public that is stuck in negation – if you’re me, you worry that in a few years we might look back on these dark times and think of Trump as the good old days…

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The web as school of manners: a beatific vision

John Perry Barlow

What is the school of manners of the rising generation?  There can be no doubt about that.  It’s the web.  Physically, we are still encased in the formalities of the industrial age.  But these are empty gestures:  meaningless rituals muttered in a dead tongue.  Like all forms devoid of substance, they are passing away unnoticed and unmourned.

Fifty years ago the boss wore a suit, white shirt, and a necktie.  His name was “Mr. Smith.”  He lurked in a large, frightening office, like the school principal.  To be summoned there was cause for existential anguish.  Today men in suits are considered at best inauthentic, at worst outright scoundrels – lawyers, probably, or politicians.  The boss is really a “team lead,” may sport tattoos and piercings, and wants to be called “Tiffany.”

The web flattens and equalizes.  Everyone appears to stand in a similar relation to everyone else, everywhere.  That is an optical illusion, but it’s a powerful one, difficult to shake off.  And there’s a seed of truth at its core.  Relative to the top-down hierarchies we have inherited from an earlier time – to a corporation, for example, or a government agency, or a university – the web is an egalitarian space.

Early on, idealists saw in “Cyberspace” the promised land of liberation.  Without physical presence, there could be no tyranny or exploitation.  Existing relations of power and property would be erased upon entry, and all would share equitably in the dominion of mind and spirit.

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind.  On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone.  You are not welcome among us.  You have no sovereignty where we gather.

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks.  I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.  You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.

[. . .] We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace…

With the cold clarity of hindsight, it would be easy to mock that beatific vision written 20 years ago.  Far more instructive, I think, would be to ask:  what if the vision had come true?  If the web, as a school of manners to a generation, had forged a “civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” what would it look like?


By “manners” I mean the outward expression of personal character.  Character itself I take to be some combination of habits and ideals solidified by experience.  Many today would argue that manners, so seemingly obsessed with placement of forks and accuracy of titles, is too trivial a subject to be worthy of attention.  What matters, these people hold, is that behavior remain true to the authentic inner person.

I will not enter into that debate.  Manners, for my purposes, will be considered to be the social forms assumed by individual humanity, regardless of what transpires in the depths.

What social behavior would be consistent with a “civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace”?  One aspect leaps out at once:  it’s free, and values freedom very highly.  John Perry Barlow, author of the “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace” cited above, claimed to speak with the authority of “liberty.”  He has broken loose from the “tyrannies” that oppress the physical world.  He speaks his mind.

But the freedom is of a specific kind.  It’s the freedom of hardy individualists who are exploring a vast undiscovered continent:  the freedom of the American frontier.  (Barlow became a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.)  With so much room around them, cyber-citizens expect to be left alone.  They won’t tolerate a boss or the government telling them what to do or say online.  That will foster eccentricity, but personal beliefs, “no matter how singular,” will be tolerated and accepted.

A second kind of freedom is implied in the “Declaration” and spelled out in the catchphrase, “information wants to be free.”  A civilization of the Mind must make the products of the Mind freely available.  Copyright laws that award corporations the “intellectual property” of creative individuals are null and void on the web.  Music, TV shows, movies – the cyber-citizen is free to pay for them or pirate them, as he wishes.  Government secrets and decency bans also have no force online.  These are the tyrannies of the physical world.  It’s good manners to trample on them.

Cyberspace demands a radical willingness to share without charge one’s intellectual output, and allows whoever is interested to dabble with and modify that output.  To complain about pride or profit in authorship is bad manners.  Information wants to be free.  The model might be Wikipedia, the “free encyclopedia,” which claims over 31 million “registered users,” over 120,000 “active users,” and 1,262 “administrators,” all of whom write and edit “without pay.”  The utopian expectation, rarely stated, is that this approach will inspire an uninterrupted march towards the truth.

There’s no shame attached to making money, however.  Anyone on the cyber-frontier who develops a useful innovation deserves his profits.  Amazon and Google are much admired.  Both empowered customers at the expense of existing institutions, by moving transactions to the web.  Hostility is aimed at the hierarchies of brick and mortar, and the men in suits who act like institutional tools.  It’s crazy cool to work in Mountain View.  It’s a disgrace to work in Walls Street – or, for that matter, Bentonville.


Manners in our virtual civilization, then, would put on display a sturdy self-reliance, generosity in sharing, a volunteering spirit, appreciation of innovators, and an utter distrust of government, bureaucracies, financial institutions, “mainstream media,” and the whole array of power and wealth as structured by the industrial age.

A subject – one, in fact, that has come to permeate and dominate Cyberspace – is missing from the list.  Politics is missing.  The early techno-utopians were deeply interested in politics, though in a way that appears unsettled to the twenty-first century mind.  Barlow, for example, is usually labeled a “libertarian,” yet he was an active Republican for much of his life, while remaining a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and best friends with John F. Kennedy Jr.  No doubt he expected the political parties to make their case and raise funds online.  In chatrooms and blogs, cyber-citizens would debate the candidates as well as one another.  But all this seemed of secondary importance.

In the beatific vision of its founding fathers, Cyberspace was largely a liberation from politics.  Governments, those “weary giants of flesh and steel,” had become tyranny on an industrial scale.  They insisted on top-down control, and they existed to propagate that control to the most intimate aspects of life.  Cyberspace, too big and wide open for elections even to be possible, was conceived as a refuge of individual freedom.  Citizens would gather around communities of interest.  They would do their own thing, in their own style and language, and ignore the rules imposed by political authorities.

National politics assumed significance mainly when the federal government threatened the freedom of the web.  The “Declaration” was drafted in response to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which Barlow characterized as an “atrocity,” placing “more restrictive constraints on the conversation in Cyberspace than presently exist in the Senate cafeteria.”  The anti-regulation reflex endured for many years thereafter, and may not yet be dead.  Cyber-citizens almost destroyed Godaddy, and forced the company to reverse its position, for initially supporting the Stop Piracy Act of 2012.

Otherwise, parading partisan obsessions was considered revolting manners in the civilization of the Mind.


How was conflict to be dealt with in Cyberspace?  That, of course, in cruel reality, has turned out to be the tragic flaw of the virtual world.  Everyone screams and rants.  That is the normal tone of discourse.  Everyone is angry at someone.  There’s a roar of enraged demands for retractions, apologies, humiliations, firings, even assassinations.  We “of the future” know this now, but one would expect the first digital frontiersmen, in their search for utopia, to provide the means to manage violence in an untamed environment.

It clearly wouldn’t be the US government.  Nor would it be the Wikipedia model of adjudication by an “administrator” class.  That is still top-down governance, however gently enforced.  Cyber-citizens, Barlow asserted, could never have, and would never want, a cyber-government.

Though I haven’t seen the answer spelled out, I feel reasonably certain of what it would sound like.  The digital frontier didn’t need a federal marshal or a local posse to keep the peace.  It had no use for judges or adjudicators.  To be consistent with the primacy of personal freedom, social order would have to rely on a code of personal behavior:  in a sense, on manners.

“Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means.  We are forming our own Social Contract,” wrote Barlow in the “Declaration.”  He added:  “The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule.”  The vision of Cyberspace as a vast and empty region enters strongly into this.  Pioneers are encouraged to live out their beliefs, “no matter how singular.”  When beliefs collide, and the conflict is irreconcilable, a true individualist is expected to walk away, leaving others to the consequences of their beliefs.

A whole book of manners in the face of conflict can be inferred from Barlow’s “Principles of Adult Behavior.”

Vigorous, foul-mouthed debate is acceptable.  Any attempt at compulsion is an abomination.  That a mob of cyber-citizens should seek to punish an individual for his beliefs about, say, homosexuality, would have appalled the utopian fathers of the web.

We may flatter ourselves into thinking that these idealists were hopelessly naïve – that we, who have the benefit of hindsight, are sadder but wiser.  The web, as all can see, resembles the state of nature more than utopia.

I favor a somewhat different explanation.  According to Frederick Jackson Turner, the American frontier was “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”  At any moment, in any given place, the needle could move in either direction – a fluidity exploited in Western films like “High Noon” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  For a techno-utopian like Barlow, the new digital environment, like the old frontier, presented a series of dangers, adventures, and opportunities to be confronted at the individual level:  a test of character.

So far, on the evidence, we are failing the test.

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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 | 16 Comments

Cui bono, Donald Trump edition


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


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.


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