Revolt of The Public

Martin Gurri’ book The Revolt of The Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium has gotten *lots of praise. For example, Tyler:

I am reading this splendid book for the first time. It basically explains why Brexit and Trump won, and what will happen next. Due to social media, we are disillusioned with our elites, and that will prove hard to reverse. (more)

Here is a summary by Arnold Kling:

The insiders operate within formal organizational structures, such as corporations, universities, and government agencies. These organizations have regular processes for setting goals and making decisions. There is a formal hierarchy, … The outsiders operate without formal organizational structures. They have no planning process. Their tactics are ad hoc. … The outsiders’ credentials, if they even have any, have little relevance. …

Activists who wanted to foment demonstrations against the government had to form organizations and distribute newsletters, where today they can instigate flash mobs using text messages. … Insiders see the existing order as something to preserve and improve upon. Their proposals for reform are limited and specific. They take into account constraints imposed by economic and political realities. …

Outsiders can only articulate what they are against. They can identify flaws in the existing order. But they lack a vision for reform or the skills to govern. … the dominant strategies of insiders and outsiders will lead to an outcome in which government performance worsens, legitimacy declines, and conflict increases. (more)

And one by Noah Smith:

Social media has empowered the public, and that the public is using its newfound power to attack – but not to replace – the dominant institutions of society. … Gurri defines the public as the set of people who are interested enough in a particular issue to pay attention and get involved. … Social media, … freeing [public] from the control of centralized, hierarchical push-media. …

The newly empowered public, he argues, has not focused on building things up, but on breaking them down. The public’s goal is negation – denunciation of respected leaders, derailment of political programs, overthrow of parties or governments, discrediting of institutions, etc. Gurri worries that this constant anti-everything attitude will descend into “nihilism”, and that weakened institutions will be trapped in an eternal stalemate with an eternally raging public. (more)

Here is Gurri himself:

We stand at the earliest moment of what promises to be a cataclysmic expansion of information and communication technologies: the fifth wave. … The fourth wave, now nearly spent, was that of mass media. Its organization was industrial, its orientation commercial or propagandistic, but its most radical innovation – the difference between what transpired before and after – was the demand for a silent public. … That has changed forever. … The public … has largely stopped listening, and it has started talking back. …

The question is what happens … fragmentation, leading almost to disintegration. The mass public was an invention of the mass media. What actually exists is a variegated patchwork of people and groups … Countries not burdened by the despot’s choice have seen the public assume a fractured shape consistent with its actual preferences. In the US, it is probably more accurate to speak of the public in the plural: many publics, speaking with many voices. …

Marginal players have seized on the new technologies to increase their audience and influence – only to collide with political and professional hierarchies horrified by such barbarian invasions into their proprietary fiefs. … The end can only be the discrediting of authoritative elites, … the new technologies have given the power of speech to a silent public, to players marginalized by the media monopoly over the information space. … It’s early days. … Digital natives, riding the fifth wave, will then burst upon the world as breakers of governments and overturners of elites. (more)

The meat of the book is a half dozen case studies of protest movements in the early 2010s, from around the world, wherein vocal & active but otherwise ordinary people complained loudly about a failure they attributed to official institutions. As such protesters were reluctant to create or endorse formal organizations or parties, and were much less interested in policy details, they mostly had limited impacts such as getting people to quit or reversing recent policy changes.

Gurri’s day job is intelligence analyst, and he seems good at that. That is, he’s good at describing concrete events in ways that give the impression that he understands what is going on and could roughly predict what will happen next. Though hard to be sure of that, as he offers no track record of predictions. But the more Gurri generalizes, the more doubts I have. And as the above quotes suggest, he goes quite far in generalization.

First, Gurri claims that the pattern of these early 2010s events shows a fundamental social change from previous decades. But he doesn’t actually show this. He only discusses one prior event, Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs scandal, where he notes that the media and public mostly forgave Kennedy. Yet the public doesn’t scream about most things authorities do today; that doesn’t show a change.

Second, Gurri attributes the changes he sees to lower costs of sharing information. Clearly this is right at the finest scales, in the sense that in these events social media often allowed a very rapid transition from a few people complaining online to large groups shouting in big plazas together. But it is much less obvious that cheaper info is the key cause of a less docile, more complainy, less organized public that is less supportive of formal hierarchies. I do find it plausible that the public is getting more polarized, egalitarian, and complainy over decades, but I see other plausible causes of such trends, if in fact these are real trends. Gurri didn’t convince me that info costs are more than a minor contributing factor here.

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