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. (
European conversions from paganism to Christianity were, except in the earliest days of the religions, largely elite-driven affairs. Peasants, unable to read the Bible and unconcerned about getting along with foreign Princes, often resisted it, and it would take several generations before the remnants of paganism were stamped out. I'm sure the rulers of those societies could have noticed around the time that was happening that suddenly the peasants were being more rebellious, questioning their teachings when they had previously accepted them without complaint.
The simplest explanation for "the revolt of the public" is that elites adopted a form of radical egalitarianism that the people have not yet embraced. If people were becoming more rebellious as a rule, you'd expect to see it in areas other than voting behavior, such as in the workplace. But you don't.
I agree with your skepticism, Robin. However I can give one aspect of the story that I think is important.
Gurri is frustrated by complaints that are against but not for anything. I think for the most part such complaints are performative, they exist to make the performer feel better and to rise in status in their peer group. Such silliness has always existed, but social media gives a certain personality type a way to live this performative lifestyle much more aggressively than before. And this aggressive performance can then be trumpeted by those who wish to trumpet it, from late night comedians to lazy journalists to the next Steve Bannon.
In other words I don't think Social Media is showing anything especially new or important about humanity, how it behaves, and what it wants. But it IS providing a new (and mostly destructive) set of options for political entrepreneurs, from excuses for setting the agenda, to distractions from currently problematic issues, to establishing saliency in the mind of the short-term voter.
Especially when so much is actually based on misinformation. While these can have some immediate and short term effects, only that which becomes embodied in institutions have any lasting effect and those that don't soon fade and fail, ending up on the fringes or forgotten.
Ok. I think we’ve now got to the heart of what we disagree about. Suspect we’ve reached a point where we’ve clarified what we disagree about as much as we could. And won’t change minds if we continue. Appreciate your time and your blog as always. Thanks!
Not clear what it means to claim we'll see more "nihilistic revolt" if we don't know concretely what exactly that tends to lead to. And even if that was clear, not clear that it is caused by more faster info.
I think Gurri would agree with your point. Gurri's thesis is that the public is in a somewhat nihilistic revolt. He does not make the larger claim of predicting what the outcome of this will be. But I think his insight is sill valuable even if not predictive. He provides a reason elites are losing their hold on the public, and it has to do with technology of communications. This hints as what the plausible possible solutions might be. In fact I would argue that the reformation was only one of many possible outcomes of Gutenberg. Catholicism could have been revivised by leveraging the printing press and absorbing the lessons from it. Or Protestants could have completely destroyed the original catholic church. Likewise the current revolt has many plausible outcomes. but if Gurri's thesis is correct, it provides an underpinning frame on which to speculate, and excludes many other possibilities. So for example it removes the argument that Trump is sui generis, and Facebook and Russia are to blame for every single bad political outcome we've seen in the past couple of years. Which is an exaggeration to be sure. But within what I see on twitter.
You and perhaps Gurri seem to think that "against authority" is a simple one dimensional axis. There are a great many actions which can be seen as against or for authority depending on how they are framed. If you had to predict what people would do "against authority" in response to the printing press, it would have been hard to predict most details of Protestantism. It is also hard to predict today what we will do tomorrow if we act more "against authority".
What effect? The effect of the revolt of the public against authority. The thesis of the book.
More gossipy information about elites leads to disdain and questioning of authority. For the Reformation, it created Protestantism, individuals reading the bible for themselves and deciding for themselves what the bible meant. Not the church. The current internet parallel is loss of faith in elite institutions, and elite leadership, as it became harder to forge a single narrative driven by a consolidated mass media. Everyone can have their own pet theories, pulled from a limitless supply of news/gossip published by anyone with no gatekeepers. Now the elites are seen as not worthy.
At heart this seems a temporary thing. A style mismatch between what internet media favors and what current elite are good at.
What Gurri calls the industrial elite requires a certain Kennedy bay of pigs/Clinton lewsinky style of denial of err. With getting the mass media on board behind the scenes.
In the internet era it's far harder to hide flaws, so the modern internet era leaders need to be more emotive and flexible. Just as Kennedy was good on TV, so must Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez be good on facebook and twitter. Once the transition is over, maybe all will be fine again. With our elite matched to the style induced by latest tech for communications.
Effect on what exactly? Some effects are more plausible than others.
Gurri doesn't dwell on it, but his best example (in my view) is Gutenberg and the Reformation. I find the causality of that completely plausible. And in fact non controversial. Conventional wisdom for historians.
Now of course the marginal cost decrease going from manuscript to printing press is bigger in absolute terms then from cable/radio/TV/newspapers to internet. So internet is << than Gutenberg.
That is to say, I think dismissing the gutenberg/internet effect is wrong. But fair to argue how big it is relative to other things such as revival of forager norms as we get wealthy.