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

Brief reflections on the Brexit vote

boris johnson

Boris Johnson

That the British vote to leave the European Union is a textbook example of the revolt of the public I take to be beyond dispute.  The Conservative prime minister strongly opposed the exit initiative, as did the Labour and Social Democratic opposition, the archbishop of Canterbury, most respectable news media, and a long line of foreign heads of state beginning with Barack Obama.  Given the thunderous pro-Europe chorus of establishment voices, the vote against became a matter of because rather than despite.  Caught in the grip of a glacial established order, ruled by elites who appear to offer few alternatives, the British public opted to break some crockery.  Nobody has a clue about what happens next.

Britain – the “United Kingdom” – is an interesting country.  As the sharp old class differences have abated, all other differences have been magnified.  The official ideology of British institutions is multiculturalism, the glorification of diversity.  How much this has contributed to the fragmentation of national identity would be a worthwhile topic of research.  Ethnic and religious minorities remain alienated.  The Muslim population in particular has produced perpetrators of domestic terror and Islamic State atrocities – we are still haunted by the video image of “Jihadi John,” beheader to the Caliphate, with his thick London accent.  The Brexit vote in a sense was aimed at Jihadi John and his kind.  Whether this was driven by love of country and its civic traditions or by racism and xenophobia very much depends on where you stand.

The England of the pub and the football field has struck a blow against the Britain of the institutions.  In parallel, the border has used the triumph of Brexit to resume its conflict against the center.  Scotland is governed by a party committed to leaving Britain much as Britain is now committed to leaving Europe.  The Scottish prime minister insists that her region will remain in the EU, and has already promised a new referendum on exiting the UK.  In yet another circle of British political hell, the parties are splintering to pieces.  The Labour chief, Jeremy Corbyn, is an unreconstructed Marxist class warrior who makes Bernie Sanders look like milquetoast.  He may lose his post over the referendum.  David Cameron, the very picture of a bland Tory establishmentarian, has resigned as prime minister, and his probable successor is Boris Johnson, who was Donald Trump before Donald Trump was a thing.

Although opinion polls showed a tight contest, elites in Britain and Europe have been shocked by the results.  Elites are always surprised by untoward events.  “In 1,000 years, I would never have believed that the British people would vote for this,” exclaimed a baffled Labour MP.  Such a radical disconnection from the public, even more than immigration or terror, helps to explain the revolt from below implicit in the Brexit vote.  Anti-Brexit propaganda featured two themes:  a prophecy of economic doomsday if Britain departed from Europe, and an accusation of moral idiocy, of racism and yahooism, lodged against those who advocated departure.  These tropes have been resurrected in the wake of the vote.  Favorite stories portray Brexit voters regretting their foolish impulse or asking, in confusion, what the EU actually is.  But it is the elites who cling to a virginal ignorance about the vast distance separating them from the public.  Next time, they are certain to be surprised again.

The fate of Europe is slipping away from the grasp of this purblind and demoralized class.  Greece has been kept inside the EU fold at great cost in money and human misery, just because departure was declared to be a cataclysm.  But if Brexit is possible, Grexit is a trivial affair.  Anti-EU parties of the left, like Podemos in Spain, and of the right, like the French National Front, stand on the threshold of power.  Exotic political figures, cast in the mold of Boris Johnson and Marine Le Pen, may soon come into their own, and break what remains of Europe’s crockery.  Countries divided on the EU question, like Netherlands, have taken note of the British precedent.  There will be calls for more referendums, more division, more exits.  From the center of this ramshackle Union, Angela Merkel, dowager empress, gazes on the ruin of all her dreams and works.  Her political death is not yet imminent, but she has lost control, and is at the mercy of events.

I am not persuaded that Brexit will trigger the end of the world.  The elites will gnash their teeth and rend their garments.  That’s a natural reaction, but only from their perspective.  Britain will have to endure many adjustments, some of them painful.  The world will scarcely notice the change.  This is not a question of war or revolution.  It’s more like giving up the family’s membership to the country club.  The grandees of Europe will be tempted to punish the British for breaking ranks.  This is the proper strategy if they wish to keep other countries from bolting, but the blood of the Euro-elites runs thin, and I doubt they have the ruthlessness to pursue it.

The higher meaning of Brexit is as indicator of a great secular reversal.  The institutions that bind the world together have entered a process of retreat and disintegration.  Since the end of the Second World War, these institutions have taken for granted the virtues of expansion and integration.  The Cold War gave this idea the zeal of a crusading faith.  The UN had to absorb every mini-nation tossed up by conflict or decolonization.  The six-nation Common Market must grow into the 28-nation EU.  NATO and the various free trade regimes underwent a similar outward push.  The future was to be decided by a sort of institutional manifest destiny.

What has changed is not that a limit has been reached.  The underlying reasons for expansion and integration are now totally in doubt.  The unspoken assumptions have been exploded.  The institutions themselves can be observed staggering about, zombie-like, having lost confidence in their legitimacy and their mission.  The end of the Cold War removed any sense of urgency.  The decline in prestige of liberal democracy has blocked the last unifying ideal.  Powerful centrifugal forces are thus in play.  In the Levant, they have shattered that most sacrosanct of institutions:  the nation state.  The same fate may soon be visited on Europe.  It isn’t only Scotland that hopes to exit the UK – Catalonia wants out of Spain, and Flanders would happily tear Belgium in half.  The question “On what principle must we stay?” receives a muddled answer, or no answer at all.

A globalized system is held together by shared ideologies and the will of the great powers.  But we are now ideologically exhausted, and the last great power, the US, appears exhausted as well.  Disintegration is one result of the decadence of this system.  That decadence, in turn, is the consequence of massive institutional failure.  Britain’s break with the EU may be remembered as a minor grating sound within this long, withdrawing roar.

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Democracy and dictatorship in a nihilistic age

US President Barack Obama (R) meets his

The Malady of Our Time

We stand on the threshold of a new age that refuses to become manifest.  It’s as if the geopolitical clock were stuck at a minute before midnight:  the old forms, the ideologies and institutions of the twentieth century, with startling rapidity are losing their hold, but nothing has arisen to take their place.  A surly public, in frustration, has taken to smashing at the established order without regard for alternatives.  Its desire is to end once and for all this hour of decadence.  The effect has been disorder.

My concern is with liberal democracy, of which I am an uncomplicated supporter.  There can be little doubt that existing democratic institutions around the world are buckling under the stress of our turbulent moment.  They, too, are losing their hold.  Intellectuals who once exalted democracy as the highest good now appear utterly demoralized.   “Liberalism,” broods Roger Cohen in the very liberal New York Times, “is dead.”

The question that emerges from all this is whether political life is slouching toward dictatorship:  whether authoritarian forms of government are better able to handle, or will somehow benefit from, the growing nihilism of the public and ongoing wreck of the institutions.

That question, unpacked, is really two.  The first concerns the possibility that only a dictatorial regime like China’s can retain control of a fractured society and usher in the next phase of human history.  The second question is implicit but, I believe, decisive:  it places in doubt the ability of modern government as such, under any system or ideology, to survive its collision with the digital age.

China:  The Dream of an Enlightened Dictator

xi jinping

Xi Jinping

The elites’ loss of faith in democracy is directly proportional to their heightened loathing of the public.  According to Cohen, the public is susceptible to “greed, prejudice, ignorance, domination, subservience and fear.”  It worships political thugs like Donald Trump in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.  It erupts into Tea Parties and Occupations that upset the steady progress of history.  The elites, in brief, have come to doubt that their pet projects can be implemented democratically.  They are shopping for alternatives.

“There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy,” Tom Friedman famously declared, also in the pages of the New York Times, “and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.”

The implication is that extraordinary times require an extraordinary cession of power to enlightened authority.  That’s the classical form of dictatorship.  The Roman dictator wasn’t a despot.  He was granted immense power to deal with a crisis, and his legitimacy flowed from the exceptional magnitude of the threat.  Dictatorship in this sense was a state of exception, a parenthetical episode within the republican tradition, in which the survival of the nation took precedence over all other considerations, including the rights of the citizen and party politics.

Marx conceived of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” along these lines.  It was an exceptional seizure of power at the supreme crisis of the class war.  Friedman’s admiration for Chinese “autocracy” followed from the same principle:  he believed it could “just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move society forward in the 21st century.”  The crisis dictated the terms of governance.

So we must grasp the nature of the present crisis, before we can consider the justice of the appeals to dictatorship.  Since I have written a book on the subject, I will point the reader in that direction and quickly move on.  In brief:  across history, the elites and the institutions they manage have held a near-monopoly of information.  Their story was always the story.  In our century, however, the spread of digital platforms has reversed the information balance of power.  The public now commands the strategic heights, while institutional failure sets the agenda.  Without that near-monopoly over information, it turns out, even the mighty organs of modern government lose their legitimacy – then their authority – finally begin a rapid process of disintegration.

A crisis caused by disruptive information will require a special kind of dictatorship:  one that can censor content and compel the public to move forward into the twenty-first century.  That is clearly what Friedman advocated.  Others in the old democracies have sidled toward this ideal:  the legal concept of “hate speech,” for example, allows some European countries to criminalize opinions that are offensive to the elites.

But this approach immediately runs into the dictator’s dilemma.  If censorship and compulsion are the answer, why not make North Korea under the Kim dynasty, or Cuba under the Castro brothers, our model?  The reasons are obvious.  Far from ushering in the great new age, these rulers resemble Lenin in his mausoleum, moldering in a mummified version of the twentieth century.  Friedman preferred the “reasonably enlightened people” of the Chinese regime.  In the dictator’s dilemma, China, for Friedman, represented a sort of golden mean between democratic nihilism and totalitarian book-burning.

China’s overseers call their form of government a “people’s democratic dictatorship”:  opposites are thus reconciled in a phrase.  The state has erected a massive apparatus of censorship and repression, including an “internet police” said to number in the millions.  Controls over politics and media have grown harsher in recent years.  Bloggers now receive long prison sentences for criticizing government policies.  Journalists are imprisoned for leaking official documents.  Even high-ranking members of the Communist Party are being purged and punished in what is, purportedly, a campaign against corruption.

Whether such tactics aim to move Chinese society forward into the twenty-first century is open to question.  More cynical interpretations are available.  The Communist Party has suffered the ideological equivalent of a blow to the head:  it has forgotten every argument justifying its rule except the will to power.  The people in charge are straining for ideals on which to anchor their legitimacy.  China’s president, Xi Jinping, is maneuvering to increase his personal power at the expense of the Party’s.  Each of these hypotheses is consistent with hardened repression.  All portray a regime driven by doubt and division rather than visionary confidence.

There are no stopping-places in the dictator’s dilemma.  The concept of an enlightened dictatorship, with just-so repression, is a fantasy for the op-ed section of the New York Times.  Reality is about awful choices.  The regime in China survives on economic prosperity, which demands the free flow of information.  But the economy is wobbling – should that information be allowed to flow?  President Xi has been hectoring the Chinese media about “properly guiding public opinion,” particularly with regard to the economy.  He sounds like a politician on the defensive, in spin mode.  China’s elites are riding a tiger and know it.  Whatever the future brings to this antiquated power structure, it is unlikely to lead the parade into the twenty-first century.

Russia and Egypt:  The Pose of Heroic Repudiation

al sisi

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

Another avenue of escape from liberal democracy might be labeled the dictatorship of repudiation.  Putin’s Russia is one example.  Al-Sisi’s Egypt is another.  Both men erected regimes on the claim that they were rescuing the nation from a false liberalism dominated by hostile malevolent forces.

Call it an old-fashioned formula with a millennial twist.

For Putin, the Enemy is the US-led West.  It aims at nothing less than the “disintegration and dismemberment” of Russia.  Al-Sisi finds his villain in the Muslim Brotherhood, whose government he toppled – a movement inspired by “the most extreme terrorist mentality that would have burned down our land if it could.”  These rhetorical excesses are interesting only because they seem to have worked.  Russia and Egypt remain formal democracies, but in both countries a majority of the public has been persuaded that an existential threat exists, and that it justifies the grant of dictatorial power to the president.

Despite governing with self-righteous brutality, Putin and al-Sisi retain levels of popularity and support that should be the envy of any American politician.  Many factors play into this strange circumstance, including control over the story told by national media – Russian media loves to portray the scrawny Putin in the guise of an action hero, for example, while Egypt’s journalists can write without blushing of al-Sisi’s “flawless appearance” and “Herculean strength.”  Yet much tighter controls over information have done nothing to enhance the image of Xi Jinping and his Chinese Communist Party.

The difference, I think, lies in the relationship to our frozen moment in history.  Putin and al-Sisi believe, probably sincerely, that they are engaged in a war to the death against an established order imposed by the Enemy.  They aim to slay the dragon of national decadence and bring to an end this unhappy age.  To some extent, therefore, they can tap into the explosive political energies released by the revolt of the public:  by the rage and despair over the way things stand felt by ordinary people in Russia and Egypt.  Their struggle is the public’s, at least in this sense:  the repudiation of the present and the desire to abolish it by fair means or foul.

In contrast, Xi was born to a ruling caste that has been in charge for two generations, and, like comfortable elites everywhere, contemplates with fear the next turning of the page of history.  Xi’s anti-corruption campaign may be an attempt to strike the pose of repudiation:  in truth, however, the aspect presented by the regime in China is that of a serpent devouring its own tail.

Despite its alignment with the public’s mood, the dictatorship of repudiation is best understood as a series of national episodes, lacking the ideological coherence to transform itself into a serious rival to liberal democracy.  Putin’s justifying crisis in Russia is nothing like that of al-Sisi in Egypt, for example, and neither is available for export.  The thrust of repudiation, too, has a retrograde quality.  The dictator has been forced to assume the crushing burden of modern government.  He is now a solver of social and economic “problems” that he has no clue how to address – a bringer of happiness to a hyper-informed and contentious public.  Failure can be blamed on the Enemy only for so long.

The economies of Russia and Egypt, under stress for years, now teeter on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Putin, the action hero, is at the mercy of the world commodities market.  Al-Sisi, for all his Herculean strength, must go begging for handouts from the Gulf oil kingdoms.  One possible future for either regime might resemble the colossal wreck that is present-day Venezuela.  Even if the way ahead is less dire, the structural reality of the dictatorship remains unaltered.  Putin and al-Sisi struggle helplessly in the coils of our nihilistic age.  They are not masters or exploiters of it.  Both men long for a return of the glory days of the Cold War:  their future is in the past.

The Democracies and Their Dilemma

None of this should be construed as a vindication of democratic government.  It too is stumbling spectacularly, on center stage, under the eyes of an astonished public.  Elected officials appear disoriented and demoralized.  Intellectuals dream of a despot who, being enlightened, will follow their instructions.  The public distrusts and berates the government, yet expects miracles from it.  That is the democrat’s dilemma, every bit as fatal as the dictator’s:  to win at the electoral game, a politician must promise the impossible, thus ensuring failure in office.  In the new information landscape, failure will be magnified and shouted from the digital rooftops until nothing else is heard.

The dynamic is global, even if the effects very much depend on national and local circumstances.  In Egypt and Russia, as we have seen, weak democracies have toggled to de facto dictatorships.  The same holds true for Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand.  In Brazil, the democratic system appears cracked to the foundation.  The choice there is between the rule of corruption and a procedural “coup” by parties that lost the last election.  In Mexico, the political elites, desperate to avoid a Brazil-style holocaust, universally agree on the need for reform:  yet the reality of violence, a weak economy, and corruption remains unreformed.  In the Middle East, chaos and sectarianism, rather than democracy, have reaped what was sown in the Arab Spring of 2011.

In the old democracies, electorates have alternated mainstream parties right and left, and found few perceptible differences in outcome.  Frustrated, voters have turned to those who have no stake in the system.  That’s the higher meaning of Trump and Corbyn, of the National Front in France and Syriza in Greece:  they are clubs in the hands of a mutinous public, with which to strike at the machinery of representative government.

Once elected to office, however, the carriers of nihilism face their own version of the democrat’s dilemma.  They can continue to smash at the institutions, which will also shatter the economy and so obliterate their popularity, or they can transact with the established elites and so obliterate their credibility.  Alexis Tsipras of Greece, who has tried both approaches, has yet to discover a way out of the labyrinth.

The new-style anti-system politicians, for all their tough talk, are much more likely to repeat their predecessors’ weakness and failure than to consolidate a dictatorship or compel, by a triumph of the will, the resumption of history.

The Panama Papers:  A Stress Test of Systems

iceland demo

Anti-corruption protests in Reykjavik, Iceland

The “Panama Papers” are a trove of over 11 million leaked documents detailing how Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm, has instructed elites around the world in the art of hiding money overseas.  Here is the revolt of the public at its purest:  an acid bath of information dissolving the legitimacy of the persons and institutions involved.  The responses, too, resemble a laboratory experiment testing the possibilities available to modern government in its destructive struggle with the information sphere.

The leaked papers opened a window on the hidden overseas wealth of many family members of the Chinese leadership.  Among those playing the financial shell game was a brother-in-law of that relentless anti-corruption campaigner, Xi Jinping.  The documents also implicated friends and associates of Vladimir Putin in secretive multi-billion-dollar offshore transactions.  On the democratic side of the ledger, it was revealed that the wife of Iceland’s prime minister had sheltered her considerable wealth in the Virgin Islands.

China and Russia dealt with the information effects according to the imperatives of their dictatorial styles.  Wide-open Iceland, meanwhile, took the news straight up and absorbed the consequences.

While never a serious threat to China’s ruling elites, the revelations exemplified the dilemma that bleeds out their legitimacy like an open wound.  The question was how to retain control of the story in an age of massively redundant information.  The regime answered as it always has, with silence and censorship.  Nothing was said about the disclosures.   Officially, they never happened.  The public was invited to share in the fiction.  The notorious internet police was unleashed on Chinese social media.  Any mention of the Panama Papers was scrubbed.  For denizens of the Chinese web, the search term “Panama” delivered “no relevant results.”

For Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, the release of the Panama Papers offered a magnificent opportunity to blame the Enemy.  The whole episode, he claimed, was “one more attempt to destabilize the internal situation [and] make us more accommodating.”  The US government was of course responsible – specifically, USAID.  To support that charge, he sourced Twitter and Wikipedia.  It was Putin at his most Soviet, dealing in ritual accusations rather than persuasive rhetoric.

Matters took a very different turn in Iceland.  The leaks showed Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson – a young, popular, unusually successful politician – engaged, through his wife, in a financial conflict of interest.  That information became public April 3.  Gunnlaugsson tried to tough out a storm of criticism, but by April 5 he was gone.  The scandal has shaken Icelandic politics.  With national elections looming, the once-marginal Pirate Party holds a strong lead in the opinion polls.

The asymmetric effects of the Panama Papers on dictatorship and democracy can be interpreted any number of ways.  I could argue that China and Russia neutralized the virus of information by means of censorship and repudiation, whereas Iceland became infected until its government succumbed.  State power and deception, on this account, can browbeat or dupe the public out of its hyper-critical mood.  All it takes is a grant of authority to the government proportional to the crisis.  An age of dictators, then, must follow the nihilism of decadent democracy.

Or I could insist that the dictator’s dilemma holds.  The Chinese and Russian publics are perfectly well informed about their rulers, but have chosen not to strike at the moment.  They might do so tomorrow or the day after – once the bleeding out of legitimacy reaches a critical point.  Iceland, by contrast, brought the public into the discussion and made a clean break with the past.  Instead of suffering the death of a thousand cuts, in the style of Hosni Mubarak or Nicolás Maduro, democracy has the capacity to flush the noise out of the system:  a quality N. N. Taleb would call anti-fragile.

To the extent that such interpretations fixate on the either-or of democracy and dictatorship, all of them, let me suggest, will miss the larger point.

The Future and Its Possibilities

For all the received wisdom in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, it isn’t specifically democracy that is broken – or dictatorship either.  It’s the monstrous machinery of modern government as a whole.  The crisis of authority, I mean to say, is structural rather than ideological, and implicates models and ideals of governance inherited from the industrial age:  top-down, steeply hierarchical, staffed by accredited experts, worshipful of “data” and “science,” disdainful of the ignorant masses, and yet, at bottom, a utopian enterprise.

This describes, with equal accuracy, the government system of China and that of the United States.

If my thesis is correct, the paralysis and frustration that weigh so heavily on our moment will not be surmounted until political institutions align more closely with social practice.  In the digital age, this can only mean a flattening of government structures.  That’s what the nihilist impulse has sought to do, however blindly.  The public, wielding a Donald Trump or a Jeremy Corbyn in hand, aims to batter the ruling institutions down to eye level, just to see what happens next.

Dictatorship today rests comfortably within the top-down, we-talk-you-listen model of modern government.  To align it more closely with the public would violate its guiding principle – and, in practice, impede or even endanger one-man rule.

Democracy, however, can have no principled objection to bringing power down from the heights, closer to the public.  It’s remoteness that requires an explanation.  Democracy was organized differently before the distancing reforms of the twentieth century.  It can re-form again.  Developments in two tiny democratic nations suggest how that might come about.

Estonia has redesigned its national government around a digital “X-Road” that forces simple, transparent interactions with the public.  Filing taxes, for example, takes only three clicks of the mouse.  The Pirate Party of Iceland has gone a step further.  It offers a vision of government as a transactional platform, in effect synching up office-holders with the public in a shared decision-making space.

It’s easy to dismiss these reforms as sterile political mutations in insignificant backwaters of the world.  I find myself wondering whether they represent something larger:  the first faint glimmer of that much-awaited next stage of human history – and, it may be, the future shape of democracy.

The subject is big enough to deserve a separate discussion.

Posted in democracy, the public | 2 Comments

The revolt of the public and the rise of Donald Trump

Donald Trump

The Political Apparition

Like the phantom at the feast, Donald Trump materialized at the head of the Republican presidential race without anyone quite knowing how he got there.  Once we overcame our embarrassment over his unexpected arrival, however, we haven’t been able to stop talking about the man.  He needs to be explained.  A veritable army of professional Trump explainers has thus been mustered into action.  He needs to be criticized.  A raging mob of Trump debunkers now howls by torchlight under the castle walls – comparing him, quite literally, to Frankenstein’s monster, but also, of course, to Hitler.

The extraordinary obsession with the higher meaning of Trump is as bewildering in its own way as his success.

It so happens that a number of people whose opinions I respect have brought up The Revolt of the Public in connection with the Trump phenomenon.  Virginia Postrel, Arnold Kling, and Tyler Cowen, among others, have suggested that Trump’s abrupt appearance on the threshold of power becomes less perplexing in the context of the sociopolitical conflict I described in the book.  Unhappily, I’m inclined to agree:  and that entails the responsibility to draw out the implications.

If, as I suspect, Trump is a blunt objet trouvé, an accidental instrument wielded by the public against the political institutions of the industrial age, then two additional propositions are likely to be true.  First, the public’s temper has moved much closer to nihilism than anyone not wholly deranged by conspiracy theories could have imagined.  Second, the disintegration of the institutions of American democracy has proceeded much faster than I, at least, would have thought possible.

The trouble with such assertions, of course, is that we’re dealing with a fast-evolving, vastly complex set of human relations, caught in the fever heat of political conflict, amid the muddle of events.  Analysis is hardly likely to be conclusive.  What follows, then, is not finished analysis, and is only indirectly another attempt to classify Trump as if he were an exotic new species of insect blown in from the rain forest.

My subject is the sickness of democracy in our country, which appears to have taken a dangerous turn for the worse since I wrote the last pages of The Revolt of the Public.

The Empty Vessel

A meticulous study of Donald Trump’s biography, statements, and policy “positions” will reveal no hint of political direction.  It’s not that Trump is contradictory or incoherent.  He’s ideologically formless.  His claim to business competence is nullified by inherited wealth and several bankruptcies.  His supposed nationalism consists of complaining about countries in which he has invested his own money (“I love China, but…”).  He’s going to make America great again – yet that’s a wish, not a program.  A run at the US presidency has been concocted out of a disorganized bundle of will and desire.

A candidate deprived of direction can only drift on the stream of public opinion.  Or to flip that around:  the dizzying rise of Trump can best be understood as the political assertion of a newly energized public.  Trump has been chosen by this public, for reasons I’ll have cause to examine, and he is the visible effect, not the cause, of this public’s surly and mutinous mood.  To make him into an American Hitler or a world-historical figure of any sort, let me suggest, would be to distort reality as on a funhouse mirror.

The right level of analysis on Trump isn’t Trump, but the public that endows him with a radical direction and temper, and the decadent institutions that have been too weak to stand in his way.

The American public, like the public everywhere, is engaged in a long migration away from the structures of representative democracy to more sectarian arrangements.  In Henri Rosanvallon’s term, the democratic nation has devolved into a “society of distrust.”  The reasons, Rosanvallon argues, are deep and structural, but we also have available a simple functional explanation:  the perception, not always unjustified, that democratic government has failed to deliver on its promises.

The public, I mean to say, cares a lot about outcomes and not so much about the legitimacy of the ballot box or the authority of elected officials.  And if the outcomes demanded are a tangle of contradictions that divide the public, the sense of being betrayed and abandoned by “protected classes” is shared across large majorities of mutually hostile persuasions.  The landscape in a society of distrust tilts steeply toward repudiation:  everyone, at all times, wants to stand against.

For this descent into reflexive negation, President Obama bears a measure of responsibility.  To the president, the democratic process is legitimate if, and only if, it promotes the advancement of progressive ideals.  Otherwise democracy is really manipulation.  In the heat of partisan battle, with the outcome in doubt, he has felt free to lash out at the system for being corrupt, racist, sexist, socially and economically unjust, and unworthy of his support.

By shrinking democracy to partisan dimensions, the president has extended an invitation to mayhem that far more radical characters than Barack Obama could hardly refuse.

Among them are the social justice warriors who have sought to budge the president leftward and now incline to Bernie Sanders.  The logic of the moment, however, more fiercely agitates Tea Partiers, evangelists, “alt conservatives,” and others on the right who find the status quo intolerable.  These groups tap into energy flowing away from the preferences and even the personality of the sitting president.  Repudiation, in their case, takes a special form that benefits Trump:  the search for the anti-Obama.

As for the specific issues under debate in the primaries – immigration, the economy, terrorism – their importance to the public is uncertain.  Exit polls have jumped all over the place.  Take Trump’s apparent signature wedge issue:  immigration.  There’s little evidence that it is an abiding obsession for Trump voters, and some evidence that it falls somewhat down the list of their concerns.  The same holds true for economic problems and terror.  These topics can hold the public’s attention, but don’t seem decisive to its voting choices.

My guess is that they are tokens of distance – of that sense of betrayal and abandonment by the institutions of government.  Ordinary people, for example, are not allowed to maintain that immigration might be connected to crime, or job loss, or terrorism.  Such opinions are condemned as racist and placed beyond the pale of political discussion.  If you happen to hold them, you are effectively silenced.  A majority of Trump supporters agree with the following statement:  “people like me don’t have any say in what the government does.”

Distance is decisive.  The transcendent aim of the revolt of the public, everywhere around the globe, has been to smash the elites and the institutions down from the protected heights, by whatever means necessary, regardless of the consequences.  So far, the US presidential elections of 2016 appear to be no exception.

The Lord of Attention

The attitudes just described are pervasive.  They cut across ideological and demographic boundaries.  Their relevance to the rise of Trump should be placed in perspective, however:  he has received slightly more than a third of the 20 million votes cast in Republican primaries so far.  He hasn’t yet been anointed maximum leader of the revolution.

But he is, politically, a stranger in a strange land, a man from nowhere who may soon become standard-bearer for the party of true world-historical figures like Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower – who may, conceivably, become president of the United States and so the most powerful person in the world.  Such fantastic improbabilities lead us to the obvious question.  Granted the zeitgeist of negation and repudiation, the failure of the institutions and the bad mood of the public:  why Donald Trump?

I’m not a fan of cosmic, single-cause explanations.  Let me offer instead a hypothesis about what I believe to be the most significant factor in the public’s reconstruction of Trump into a phantom of revolt.  The hypothesis comes in two parts:  one an indisputable fact, the other a lot more speculative.

The fact is this:  since June 2015, when he announced his candidacy, Trump has received massive, probably unprecedented, levels of media attention.  Though he has spent less on media ads than his Republican opponents, he has benefited from coverage so vastly more intense that the other candidates, by comparison, have suffocated from lack of exposure.  When it comes to television coverage, for example, the primary election season at times has felt like a contest between Trump and silence.

trump media chart 2The same disproportion held true in digital media.

trump web chart edited

So the question we should pose is what the effects might be of such immoderate levels of attention.  Academic scholars, as it happens, have studied that question for decades.

According to media agenda-setting research, volume of discussion about a topic must climb above a specific awareness threshold before it can enter the consciousness of the public.  Below that level the topic simply doesn’t exist.  The charts show Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump’s chief opponents, drowning deep below the awareness threshold.  They and their messages were largely nonexistent to the public.

To the degree that volume of discussion rises above the awareness threshold, the topic discussed becomes increasingly important to the public.  A Palestinian victim of violence, for example, will appear more important than a Congolese victim, because media coverage will favor one and ignore the other.  If this principle is valid, and I believe it is, then in 2015 Donald Trump exploded into the consciousness of the American public as an event of cosmic significance:  a media Big Bang.  The political consequences were equally explosive and are not in doubt.

trump media chart 1

The media fixated on Trump for a pretty straightforward reason:  he represented high ratings and clickbait.  The news business is desperate for an audience and willing to trade whatever remains of its authority for that mess of potage.  The web is an eternal shouting match between sectarian war-bands hungry for attention:  the outrageous Trump, as object of digital frenzy, lifted their game to a whole new level.

Media people pumped the helium that elevated Donald Trump’s balloon, and they did so from naked self-interest.  This has been widely noted – by now, it’s the favorite Theory of Trump among the commentariat.  Although true so far as it goes, it begs a whole series of questions:  for example, just how did Trump become such a magnet for high ratings and clickbait?  Why the fascination?  What separates him so sharply from the other candidates, in the eyes of both the public and the media?

Here we come to the more speculative bit of my hypothesis.

In American politics, Trump is a peacock among dull buzzards.  That should be apparent to anyone with eyes to see.  The one discernible theme of his life has been the will to stand out:  to attract all eyes in the room by being the loudest, most colorful, most aggressively intrusive person there.  He has clearly succeeded.  The data above speaks to a world-class talent for self-promotion.  The media noticed, and just kept the cameras aimed at the extravagant performance – allowing Trump to represent himself to the public, a rare commodity for a politician.  And the public, in its mood of negation, its hostility to the established order, also noticed.  Trump lacked a political past.  He was glamorous and a winner – he looked different and acted different.

He also sounded different from other politicians.  The most significant factor separating Trump from the pack, I believe, is rhetorical.  Trump is a master of the nihilist style of the web.  His competitors speak in political jargon and soaring generalities.  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.”  Without batting an eyelash, he will compare an opponent to a child molester.  Such rhetorical aggression is shocking in mainstream American politics but an everyday occurrence on the political web, where death threats and rape threats against a writer are a measure of the potency of the message.

The “angry voter” Trump supposedly has connected with is really an avatar of the mutinous public:  and this is its language.  It too speaks in rant, inchoate expression of a desire to remake the world by smashing at it, common parlance of the political war-bands that populate Tumblr, Gawker, reddit, and so many other online platforms.  By embracing Trump in significant numbers, the public has signaled that it is willing to impose the untrammeled relations of social media on the US electoral process.

I’m amazed by the rapidity with which this moment has arrived:  that we have come to it, however, will surprise no one who has been paying attention.

The Conquistador of Ruins

Trump has warned of “riots” if he is denied the nomination, but this seems unlikely.  The public that picked him up and now wields him like a sledgehammer against the status quo has never been deeply involved in his campaign.  There have been few spontaneous Trump events, websites, or online riffs – nothing equivalent to “Obama girl,” for example, or the social media activism that inspired protests in Spain, Israel, Venezuela, and elsewhere.  A Trump “occupation” sounds like a contradiction in terms.  Beyond the demographics of his supporters, Trump himself is the occupier:  he’s taken over all the available political space.  The news media aims its cameras at him, personally, because he’s the one who delivers the audience.  In social media, Trump has utilized his Twitter account, which had millions of followers before he became a candidate, to dominate digital buzz by the sheer outrageousness of his personal style.

The Trump uprising is less an eruption from below than an improvised performance, a demonstration of what is now possible for the public to accomplish.  Italy’s Five Star Movement, which became the second-largest political party behind a popular entertainer and blogger, Beppe Grillo, may serve as a reasonable parallel.

Put differently, the Trump candidacy is a test of democracy in America in 2016.  The public is agitated and willing to vote for this strange and formless man.  It is not directly engaged.  The structures of democracy, on the flip side, appear to be near collapse.  What should have been a brutal collision against unyielding institutions has turned into a strut over a landscape darkened by colossal ruins.  The news business is dying and desperate.  The primary elections are a crazy quilt of contradictory rules.  The Republican Party, by all appearances, is more of a historical memory than a living organization.

Donald Trump, anti-establishment wrecker, has been fortunate in his moment.  In 1960, 1980, even 2000, there would have been an establishment to oppose him.  In 2015, the putative establishment champion was Jeb Bush.  He had been away from elected office for nine years, “a longer downtime than any president elected since 1852 (and any candidate since 1924).”  The Republican worthies who endorsed and promoted him had been out of office for an average of 11 years.  If this once was the party’s establishment, it’s now a claque of political corpses.  The Bush candidacy, in brief, was a dance of the dead, and the Republican Party, at the national level at least, stands revealed as a ruinous graveyard over which nearly anyone, fitting any description, can lay claim.

The Revolt of the Public has been accused, with uncertain justice, of advancing a bleak vision of our political reality.  In that spirit, I want to conclude with a dismal observation.  At present, the leading candidates for the presidency are Trump and Hillary Clinton.  One is a reckless smasher of institutions.  The other is a fossilized specimen of the remote and protected elites.  Both are creatures of the society of distrust, divisive to an extreme degree.

So my observation is this:  regardless of who wins, the 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be just another episode in the grinding social conflict and disintegration of industrial forms that have defined our age.  Nothing much, I fear, will be decided.

Posted in democracy, the public | 62 Comments

Portrait of the nihilist as the sum of our negations

[I am re-posting this chapter of  The Revolt of the Public because it seems all too pertinent to our present electoral moment.]

What is this uncanny beast, born of the Fifth Wave and now stalking into the uncertain future?  After all the talk of public and authority, of network and hierarchy, where – you ask – does he fit in?

Above all, he is seized and animated by a very particular feeling.  I will characterize this feeling more explicitly later:  here, let me begin by saying that it partakes of alienation.  The world of the nihilist does not belong to the nihilist.  It belongs to the forces of selfishness and to repulsive people.

He considers his elected government to be a thing apart, and beneath contempt.  That is the view from below.  George W. Bush told him that the invasion of Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction, but none were found there.  Barack Obama explained to him that the stimulus would cap unemployment, but millions more lost their jobs.  Jose Luis Zapatero refused even to mention the word “crisis” to him, while economic disaster ravaged Spain.  I called these episodes failures of government, but that is not how the nihilist sees them.  He thinks his rulers are liars and cheats, and he fills the web with angry rants on the subject.

He can do that because he’s extremely well connected, in the current sense of that word.  He’s Homo informaticus run amok.  At the high end of his communications skills, he might be a hacker in Anonymous, vandalizing Sony’s corporate database.  At the low end, he could be a young rioter coordinating a looting expedition on his messaging service.  The nihilist comes to life through his digital devices.  Without them he would sink to a condition identical to nothingness:  he would be silent.  Instead, he is fantastically well informed about those few odd topics that obsess him, and he produces a torrent of hard-core negations posted about the world around him.

Being connected, the nihilist is networked.  He can link to others just as destructive as him, and bring them together in a flash of real-time mayhem.  And there are always others:  the nihilist isn’t one but many.  He belongs with the public when he’s interested in an affair, as sometimes he is, but his predilections are sectarian to an absolute extreme.  He is morbidly, monstrously, against.  He imagines he would be happy, if the society in which he lives were wiped out tomorrow.

In politics, this impulse pushes him way beyond rejection or revolt.  The nihilist is a political black hole, allowing no light or mass to escape his violent embrace.  Yet he’s not a professional agitator, as he surely would have been in the last century.  He’s a private person, an amateur in politics moving among other amateurs.  Nihilism, in him, isn’t a full-time job – it’s a latent condition.  It erupts on a case by case basis.  The fuse might be lit by some news on his Twitter stream about the war in Afghanistan or the flood of immigrants into his country.  Or he might just reach a tipping point in that all-consuming feeling that partakes so much of alienation.  Then he becomes what he is:  an agent of annihilation.

In the assembly of protesters, his is the loud, irreconcilable voice.  In the peaceful demonstration, his is the hand heaving a Molotov cocktail through the shop window.  In confrontation with police, he is eager to shed blood.  In online forums, he is fertile with ideas to hack, expose, paralyze the institutions that run the world.  He is the bomber, the random shooter:  a terrorist without a cause.

I could go on.  He is possessed by a fuzzy but apocalyptic sense of doom, for example.  The world, he holds, is going to wreck and ruin.  To push it along is the best thing.  The government could fix everything and solve our problems if it tried – for all his alienation, the nihilist is convinced of that, and the most persuasive evidence he has of government corruption is that life keeps getting worse.

But enough:  I want to get to the heart of the matter.  I am arguing here that the nihilist haunts democratic politics like a specter portending disaster, but I don’t believe the most significant factor pertains to what he is, or what he thinks, or even what he has done.  The disquieting truth about his emergence is where he comes from.  The threat to the future, if there is such, originates in his past.

The nihilist benefits prodigiously from the system he would like to smash. He’s not marginalized – not a street person, not a forsaken soul, not a persecuted minority.  He stands in a very different relation to the established order than did, say, an industrial worker in Victorian England or a Catholic in Communist Poland.  He’s not a sufferer in any sense, whether relative to historical standards or to the world today.  On meeting him, you would not recognize him as someone alien to you.  Talking to him, I would not necessarily think that he’s a different type of person from me.  In the way such things get reckoned today – statistically, in the gross – he is you and me.

The mortal riddle posed by the nihilist is that he’s a child of privilege.  He’s healthy, fit, long-lived, university-educated, articulate, fashionably attired, widely traveled, well-informed.  He lives in his own place or at worst in his parents’ home, never in a cave.  He probably has a good job and he certainly has money in his pocket.  In sum, he’s the pampered poster boy of a system that labors desperately to make him happy, yet his feelings about his life, his country, democracy – the system – seethe with a virulent unhappiness.

Feelings of this sort compelled Daphni Leef to pitch her tent on Rothschild Boulevard to demand the destruction of “swinish capitalism.”  She came from an affluent family.  She was a film school graduate and held a job as a video editor.  Compared to most people anywhere or anytime, hers was a privileged life.  Yet she seethed with a sense of injustice because he couldn’t afford her old apartment.  She felt the system was fundamentally rapacious, and she would bring it down to shorten her commute.  “We all deserve more,” was her one commandment.  In the clouded mind of the nihilist, that “more” stretched infinitely toward utopia.

Similar feelings drove the “neither-nor” indignados to turn their backs on representative democracy.  Historically, Spain had recently emerged from poverty and military dictatorship, and the current generation, even after the crash of 2008, was the wealthiest, best educated, and socially and politically freest the country had known.  Yet those who raised the banner of “neither-nor” seethed with an irreconcilable feeling of grievance:  like Leef, they felt they deserved infinitely more, and were willing to tear down a system that had failed to give it to them.

“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship.  “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

So here we have a privileged class in revolt against itself.  Here we have the beneficiaries of democracy loathing democracy and clamoring for its demise, even without an alternative in sight.  Like the character in the cartoon, the nihilist hates the knotty branch on which he sits, and conceives the idea that it should be sawed off.  Does he know he will plunge to earth and break his neck?  Maybe he does know:  nihilism is a suicide pact.  Or, possibly, does he think he will levitate on the air, defying the laws of gravity?  Maybe he does think this way:  nihilism is a call for the obliteration of history, and, at its most obdurate, a declaration of war on cause and effect.

I ask you to ponder the words of the young indignada I just cited.  She said her parents were grateful for electoral democracy.  Her generation was the first to make a virtue of ingratitude.  José Ortega y Gasset, a fellow Spaniard, once discerned a “radical ingratitude” in the type of modern person he called “mass man” and portrayed as the spoiled child of history.  Mass man is heir to a long and brilliant past.  The good things in life in the world he was born into – security, freedom, wealth, vacations to warm places – are in fact the outcome of a specific historical process, but mass man doesn’t see it that way.  Newly risen to education and prosperity, he imagines himself liberated from the past, and has grown hostile to it as to any limiting factor.  The good things in life have always been there.  They seem detached from human effort, including his own, so he takes them as given, part of the natural order, like the air he breathes.  Gratitude would be nonsensical.  Mass man accepts the gifts of the system as his due, but will tear up that system root and branch, present and past, if the least of his desires is left unfulfilled.

The nihilist is by no means identical to Ortega’s mass man, but both share certain family traits.  More accurately than alienation, a radical ingratitude describes the feeling that makes the nihilist tick.  His political and economic expectations are commensurate with his personal fantasies and desires, and the latter are boundless.  He expects perfection.  He insists on utopia.  He has, in Ortega’s words, “no experience of his own limits,” at least not as something he should accept in good grace.  Every encounter with the human condition, every social imperfection and government failure, triggers the urge to demolish.  Fortified by the conviction that he deserves more, he feels unconquerably righteous in his ingratitude – a feeling sometimes validated by late modernist governments bent on the promotion of universal happiness.

All this matters only diagnostically:  as a symptom of a sickness of the system.  The way I have characterized him, the nihilist looks to be a blurry figure, a part-timer lacking a program or an organization.  He might be networked but he is also nameless.  The riddle he poses is whether, in any sense, under any combination of events, he could gain enough momentum to damage or wreck the democratic process.

The answer shouldn’t be difficult to arrive at.  Follow the thread of this book to one possible conclusion, and you will be there.

The nihilist, it seems to me, isn’t necessarily an alienated individual, a clever “V” figure behind a Guy Fawkes mask, bent on blowing up the status quo.  A lone-wolf attacker like Anders Breivik, who killed 77 random persons in Norway because he hated immigrants, is only a glimpse, a warning, of more horrific possibilities.  From the evidence of the preceding chapters, it should be clear that the bundle of destructive impulses I have called the nihilist represents a latent tendency in the public in revolt.  Potentially, he is a multitude.  Under certain conditions, he could be you.

Every public in the story I have told mobilized from a privileged position.  That was true materially, politically, morally.  None were paupers.  None were pariahs.  The public was constituted in this condition:  it did nothing to achieve it other than appear on the scene.  The protesters in Tahrir Square were the sons and daughters of the well-off Egyptian middle class.  They were born to privilege.  The indignados, offspring of the first generation in Spain to rise out poverty and tyranny, cherished the ambitious expectations of a privileged class.  Tea Partiers, Occupiers, protesters in Turkey, Iran, Venezuela, Ukraine – all wielded negation as a birthright.  Command of the information sphere, distinguishing feature of our moment, was bestowed on the public by companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Born to privilege, the public must maintain some relationship to the institutions and individuals that raised it out of necessity and bondage.  If the past is acknowledged, that relationship must be one of indebtedness.  The Romans littered their homes with carved images of illustrious ancestors.  But when, as is the case today, the public rejects history and longs to start again from zero, its relationship to the institutions that sustain it will be one of radical ingratitude.  Once privilege is felt to be natural, a matter of birth rather than previous effort, the phantom that is the nihilist becomes flesh in the rebellious public – and any failure, any fall from perfection, will ignite a firestorm of discontent.

I called this a latent condition.  Latency has been sometimes actualized – this book can be read as a series of variations on that theme.  From above, governments have failed habitually, and are doomed to fail while they continue to promise the impossible.  The public, from below, has seized on each failure to batter the ruling institutions, on occasion with a nihilistic contempt for the consequences.  In between, attempting to mediate the conflict, stand the clumsy mechanisms of representative democracy.  The answer to the riddle of the nihilist, I said, wasn’t particularly difficult to arrive at.  Those who worry about the future of democracy – and I count myself in that number – have good reason to do so.

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Foreign policy in the age of the Fifth Wave

refugee riot.jpg

Foreign policy during the industrial age was conducted in great secrecy between governments which claimed to embody the nation.  For the purposes of global politics, the US government was the United States.  In reality, of course, elites and large bureaucracies ran the government:  but their will was the general will, and their interests became ipso facto the national interest.

From this claim of identity flowed the extraordinary powers of modern government.  It held all the meaningful information on any foreign policy question, and it could, at a moment’s notice, as a chit in the global game, mobilize entire populations and requisition the material resources of the nation.  The model was top down, like factory management.  The bottom of the social pyramid largely acquiesced in the symbolic claims of the top.  Most Americans a generation ago would have agreed that, when dealing with the world, their government was the United States.

The assumptions and conditions that made this system possible have been swept away by that colossal cataclysm I call the Fifth Wave of information.


Secrecy is gone.  In the age of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, negotiations with foreign governments must be conducted before a surly domestic public.  Every point yielded brings an avalanche of criticism – but so does failure to conclude a deal.  The situation resembles that of the heroes of Star Wars, who are stuck between the crushing walls of a compactor.  Governments escape from this dangerous predicament by seeking isolation from their publics or dealing in bad faith.

In the old system, revolutionary regimes turned foreign policy into a propaganda weapon.  Today, relations between perfectly conservative governments must often be conducted on a propaganda footing.

The legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the public is gone.  The old social contract depended on a silent, passive public.  That time is over.  The public, which now commands the strategic heights over the information landscape, looks on government and sees only failure, and interprets failure in terms of elite conspiracy and corruption.  On foreign and domestic policy alike, nothing can be hidden and nothing is forgiven.

The ruling elites are demoralized and unwilling to lead where no one will follow.  Their natural instinct is to pretend to “do something” while maintaining a defensive crouch.  The French government’s “war” against the Islamic State and the US government’s unsigned “agreement” with Iran exemplify this pattern.  In both cases, theater has trumped reality, and worst-case scenarios have been pushed to the future, to become someone else’s headache, rather than being dealt with now.

The traumatic crack-up with the elites has driven the public to levels of hostility and negation that border on nihilism.  Governments will be tempted to follow the same dangerous path in foreign affairs:  targeting enemies for the public to rally against.  Vladimir Putin has done so with Ukraine, Adbel Fattah al-Sisi with the Muslim Brotherhood:  the two men are hard authoritarians responsible for broken economies, yet both are immensely popular – at least as of the present moment.

In the chaotic aftermath of the Fifth Wave, foreign policy will be driven by tactical considerations within a combustible environment.  Timid governments that favor theatrical postures will tempt aggressive governments engaged in enemy-mongering.

The dissolution of the top-down model means that no government can know the fateful hour when the public will secede.  None wish to put the matter to the test:  mobilization on an industrial scale hasn’t occurred for decades.  At the same time, mobilization on a micro and tribal basis is a fact of everyday life today – sometimes virtually, in advocacy groups like the Save Darfur Coalition, but just as often in bloody reality, as a glance at the horrors in Syria and the Islamic State should illustrate.

This ability of small-scale units to mobilize is a symptom of a deeper, more consequential change.


Even the integrity of the nation is gone.  The public in the industrial age was herded into masses that obliterated significant differences of interest and opinion.  Elites insisted on a particular standard of identity:  either national or alien, that is, belonging to people and places under their jurisdiction or to those beyond their reach.  Since they monopolized power and attention, the arbitrariness and artificiality of the system was noticed by few.

But elites and the institutions they control no longer monopolize much of anything.  The great reversal in the information balance of power has allowed the public to fracture along the lines of its true interests, and to pursue, with obsessive dedication, its favorite causes.  Vital communities, organized around some topic of abiding passion, form, dissolve, and re-form at the speed of light, without regard for national borders or national governments.  Often, the shared fascination concerns events in the world.

The political war-bands mobilized by these causes ride the digital whirlwind, but also have at their disposal the machinery and technology of the industrial age.  They can communicate and organize instantly across the globe, and they can travel there in large numbers if they so wish it.  To their eyes, the world looks very unlike the geopolitical map:  nothing is fully national, nothing is really alien.  In their minds, the line drawn by the elites between foreign policy and domestic politics has lost all meaning.

British, French, and Belgian nationals are among the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who have joined the Islamic State.  They belong to a vital community that cuts across borders on behalf of a transcendental cause.  In the old days, they might have done so clandestinely.  Today, they post jihad selfies.  Their actions take place on center stage, where all can see:  for Europe’s governments, they represent an internal security crisis and a foreign policy catastrophe in the Middle East.

Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan nationals are in the hundreds of thousands streaming toward Europe.  Panicked governments and media in the continent have labeled the wanderers “refugees” – but the term, I think, is misleading.  This human tidal wave has been mobilized at the micro level, among local communities that ride the cell phone and digital communications to evade the flimsy barriers erected by European governments.  The people involved aren’t passively pleading for refuge:  they self-righteously demand satisfaction for their cause.  Demographically, they appear identical to the east-bound IS fighters – young and mostly male – only headed in the opposite direction.  Their sudden appearance inside Europe’s borders, result of a foreign policy disaster, may well shatter whatever remains of the European Union’s political integrity.

The forces of negation have driven ruling elites to seek shelter in transnational and international organizations that serve as scapegoats for failure.  Elites have also tried to restore their broken authority by striking poses of moral superiority, as in the immigration question, or by pretending to stand between the public and doomsday, as with climate change.  The public is having none of it.  The flight of national governments into transnational hiding-places has ignited a powerful and contrary movement among the governed.  The war-bands at the vanguard of this movement have been labeled “nationalist” – but this too is a misleading term.

Groups like the Sweden Democrats and UKIP are uninterested in the greater glory of the nation.  They have no wish to see Sweden or Britain cut a more heroic figure in the world.  Instead they stand firmly against.  They are against the EU.  They are against immigrants.  Above all, they are against their national elites, whose pious vacillations they perceive to be self-serving and public-destroying.

That’s how vital communities are mobilized today:  by negation.  They rally forever against.  Pushed to the extreme, negation becomes nihilism – the barbarian’s faith that destruction is a form of progress.  The jackhammering of antiquities by the IS, and the soccer hooliganism of Golden Dawn in Greece, are just two of many current examples of this temper in action.

I find it hard to imagine that such suicidal urges can come anywhere close to the levers of power in democratic countries.  However, a resurrected Caliphate once seemed like a zealot’s pipe dream.  Given enough failure from the top, a radical convulsion at the bottom must be considered a possibility.  Since revolution, on the mass movement model, is now obsolete, doomsday by absolute nihilist negation will assume the aspect of a political ideal.


While elites temporize, the initiative has passed to an unruly public.  The only consequential battles over foreign policy occur between vital communities on the warpath in pursuit of a sacred cause.  Such advocacy is often conducted in coordination with foreign groups and in defiance of national policy.

Pro-Palestinian students at elite US universities have sought to punish Israel, a US ally.  Pro-Israeli groups maneuvered an address to Congress by the Israeli prime minister, against the wishes of the sitting American president.  The incapacity of central government to impose its will on events could scarcely have been more clearly demonstrated.

As the solidarity of the nation fractures along a thousand slivers, the authority of government bleeds out of a thousand cuts.  Government still offers a stage for elites to strut on, and acts as employment service for millions:  but it’s a body without a soul.  In global politics as in much else, the actions of government often resemble those of a movie zombie:  a loud but aimless staggering about that often achieves the opposite of what was intended.

Government agents patrol the border but somehow the “alien” hordes pour in.  Government officials inspect visa applicants but miss the irreconcilable enemy.  The female shooter at San Bernardino received three separate background checks from immigration officials, and then was waved in.  François Hollande called for “vigilance” after an Islamist attack in Paris, but a second attack came and was ten times deadlier.

Governments are responsible for the established order of the world – the framework of nations – but order has collapsed in the Middle East, and nations there are cracking apart, in blood and misery, before the advance of sectarian war-bands.  The butcher’s bill was 100,000 deaths for 2014 alone.

In fact, the world order cobbled together in 1945 and 1991 has been battered beyond the possibility of repair.  Now there is only world disorder.  The US government, protector and guarantor of the old system, is consumed by its own negations and in full retreat from responsibility.  The European democracies are also in flight from a dangerous world.  The void has been filled by governments adept at enemy-mongering – Russia, Iran, North Korea – and by a vast patchwork of vital communities infused with a zeal for holy war.

A new system of global power is thus likely to be more hostile toward the democratic principle.  But no new system is in sight, nor do the laws of history mandate that one emerge.  Deepening and prolonged disorganization is a possibility.  Such a chaotic geopolitical environment would favor small, fast units of action over lumbering institutions.  It is that confrontation, in any case, that imparts to our moment its peculiar turbulence and unpredictability.

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