If there’s a word that sums up the past decade of politics, it might be “revolt.”
A revolt against elites. A revolt against liberal democracy. A revolt against the status quo. The seminal events of the 2010s felt like a collective “no” to the entire system.
In 2014, a book called The Revolt of the Public was published without much fanfare. The author was Martin Gurri, a former CIA analyst who spent most of his career studying politics and the global information landscape. The book has since become a favorite of Silicon Valley types as well as people interested in technology and politics (an updated edition was republished last year).
From our perch at the end of the decade, Gurri’s book reads like prophecy. He argued that the digital revolution would transform the information space and empower the public to participate more and more in politics. That empowerment would create an impulse to revolt against the dominant institutions of society — government, media, the academy, etc. — and the elites who run them.
He concluded that that would leave us in a state of perpetual rebellion in which an unhappy public would continually scream for the destruction of the established order without any sense of what comes next. The danger is political nihilism, where everyone knows what they’re against and no one knows what they’re for.
If that doesn’t accurately describe the present state of the world, it’s not far off. So it’s probably worth reexamining what Gurri was thinking when he wrote the book, and why he believed this decade would be defined by a revolt against authority.
With the decade coming to a close, I decided to reach out to Gurri to talk about what went wrong and why, how this period compares to previous periods of upheaval, and what he thinks is on the horizon.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
I’m curious what you saw when you were working as an analyst at the CIA in the early years of this decade that made you think, “Whoa, we’ve got a problem here.”
Well, my job was to analyze the global media, and for a very long time every country had its equivalent of the New York Times, what you might call an authoritative source. So if the president wanted to know how his policies were playing in France, I could go to one or two newspapers and find out.
But then things started to go terribly wrong. There was a constant tsunami of information that arose from this digital earthquake called the internet and social media. There was so much information in the world, so much contradictory information, that if you were an analyst you had no idea where to start looking or how to confirm anything. It was just unprecedented in human experience.
Why is an explosion of information so politically destabilizing? I suspect some people might see more information as a good thing.
What I can say is that once we saw this tsunami of information unleashed in the world, we quickly noticed that it tracked with ever-increasing levels of social and political turbulence. The question is, why?
When you look at the form of modern government, when you look at our structures of power, our institutions, we tend to think of government as something that was created in the 18th century by the founders. But the truth is that it was shaped in the Industrial Age. It has an industrial form and it’s very top-down. It is very hierarchical. It has an almost religious faith in science and expertise.
And a system like this requires a semi-monopoly of information for the domain of each institution. Government needed to control political information, and the politicians and the media all kept a pretty tight circle of information. These are the gatekeepers that decide what’s worth knowing and how it’s known, and for all the downsides of this system, it did keep a lot of ignorance and error at bay.
So what this tsunami of information did was take away the control of these gatekeeping institutions, and I think that initiated a crisis of authority for nearly all of them. And you could see this happening all across the world in the early parts of this decade. Governments couldn’t control information and more extreme things started to happen, more chaos was unleashed.
In your book, you say all of this produced a mass revolt of the public against the elites or against authority. What does that mean, exactly? And what are people saying “no” to?
The “no” is important. But it’s also important to be clear about what we mean by “the public.” The public isn’t “the people.” You’re a political theorist, you know the “the people” is basically a category of political science and political philosophy. They’re not the masses.
There used to be something called a “mass audience.” And that meant [that] there were massive numbers of people all essentially looking into a gigantic mirror in which they saw themselves reflected. So most people were consuming the same content and there was a common denominator.
The digital revolution has shattered that mirror, and now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass. So the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically mutually hostile. It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.
And this leads to a revolt ...
Well, my argument is that now the public only really unifies around what it rejects. This has profound political consequences. People can’t organize around a common idea or worldview, but they all seem to agree that they’re pissed off and they’re against ... the system.
So this 20th-century Industrial Age-model of democracy, where rulers are at a distance from the public, is gone. Now it’s embarrassingly clear that the rulers, the elites, don’t really know what’s going [on] or what they’re doing. And at the same time, the public has no shared organization, no common leaders, no ideology.
Instead, we have a divided populace united only by its disdain for the status quo. That’s a very destabilizing situation, and it’s what I was anticipating when I wrote my book.
Why did all of this come to a head in this decade? Is this just about the digital revolution and its consequences?
It’s mostly that, but we shouldn’t take the digital revolution to just mean social media. We have a system built on the control of information that has increasingly lost its ability to control information. Governments, the scientific establishment, the media — all of these institutions are essentially in a state of crisis.
The government in particular has always needed to control the political story told about itself. In the 20th century, when [former President John F. Kennedy] made a terrible mistake in the Bay of Pigs invasion, there was still a rallying around him. Ultimately, he acknowledged his mistake and his popularity went up.
People trusted presidents in those days because they had limited access to information, and the information they had made them mostly trustworthy. That world is long gone, and the trust people once had in their government has collapsed.
Did the elites invite this revolt on themselves? In other words, are we in this place because the people in power were unable or unwilling to adjust to facts that were right in front of their noses?
I’m increasingly frustrated with the elites. Look, you can’t run a modern society without some sort of hierarchy. Let’s get real. It can’t happen. So that means that you cannot run a modern society without some sort of elite class. So whatever the public is doing, it’s never going to end up in a perfectly flat society in which we all rule ourselves in some protesting way.
So we need structure, we need institutions, we need elites. But I’ve been astounded by how clueless so many of these elites are. Because of what I do, I’ve interacted with lots of important people, and they simply don’t get it.
The 20th century was so comfortable for them. They stood at the top. They talked down and nobody talked back. They want to return to that world and it can’t happen. So the elites are in a reactionary mode. They feel like the internet is this horrible thing. It has to be regulated back into the 20th century.
But that’s pure fantasy.
I want to linger on your earlier point about the public only rallying around the thing it’s rejecting. People obviously want change, but most have no idea what that would look like. There are no serious alternatives to the global liberal order — at least no serious democratic alternatives — and so we seem stuck in a highly unstable period of transition with no sense of what’s on the other side.
Is that how you see it?
It’s so important to remember that we’re in the very early stages of a profound transformation from the Industrial Age to something that doesn’t even have a name yet. These things take time, and you or I may not even be around when this transition is finally complete.
But yes, the danger is that right now the public only has one modality: negation. We’re saying “no” to the system. But if you push hard enough without a vision of what comes next, or even any interest in what comes next, then it becomes nihilism, destruction for destruction’s sake. And that can sometimes seem like a form of progress, but it’s very dangerous.
So a lot of people today fear fascism or authoritarianism, but what I really fear is nihilism. And yet we’re still at the very beginning of this era. While it may seem disastrous and destabilizing now, in 50 years or 100 years it might look totally different.
What’s interesting is that despite this protest and revolt, the global power structure remains mostly in place. All of this disruption hasn’t resulted in anything like a revolution in the conventional sense of that word.
Do you think that will change?
I don’t deal in prophecy, but I would say that there have been power structures that have collapsed — it’s just that they’ve collapsed into chaos. When you look at Libya or Syria or Lebanon today, there isn’t a revolution that swept through those countries, there isn’t really an alternative source of power, an alternative hierarchy ready to take over like the Bolsheviks in 1917. It’s just chaos.
I think the idea of revolution sort of died between 1989 and 1991. And while I’m not the biggest fan of revolutions, I can at least say they provided a direction for people and institutions. Today, if you use the word “progress,” you get laughed out of the room.
We have no idea what progress even looks like or what direction to go.
Does this last decade remind you of any previous period in history?
Disruption and turbulence happens in cycles. I’ve heard this decade compared to the ’60s, but my contrarian take is that this is actually a worse situation in some respects. I’d compare this moment to 1848.
In 1848, the French government basically tried to put the lid on the revolution and recreate the old system, the old regime. And it all blew up. And it blew up all across Europe. It unleashed a whirlwind of chaos and revolutionary conflict. And all of this was happening as the world was beginning to move into the Industrial Age.
The thing about the ’60s, which I lived through, was that there was at least a fairly clear sense of what people were against but also what they were for. There were positive ideals and goals and projects. People were aiming for something. I think we’re missing this element today, and it worries me for all the reasons I stated earlier.
And to be clear, there are plenty of amazing things happening right now. We still live in a wildly affluent society and I don’t want to discount that. But our government and our institutions have not adapted to the digital age, to this new world, and that’s extremely worrisome.
So will the system adapt? Will it reorganize itself? Or are we headed for even darker times?
The honest answer is I don’t know. The gut feeling I have is that we will get new elites. And I think the dynamic between the public and elites will change because the new elite will understand that there is advantage to be had in being closer to the public and not in disappearing at the top of the pyramid.
The only thing we can be sure of is that things will change. And look, it’s entirely possible that things will end up in a better place. Whatever one thinks of Industrial Age democracy, the truth is that it wasn’t all that democratic. There were hundreds of layers between the average person and people in power.
That’s not how democracy is supposed to work, but we accepted it. It worked well for a while. But the informational environment today is such that that kind of system can’t survive. This is a different era and it will require a different model of democracy.
Let’s hope it’s a better one.