Across the world, the reputation of elites and their institutions is in free fall. A flood of online information has given the public unprecedented access to elite individuals in politics, media, academia, science, business, and an array of other fields. Thanks to tools like social media, the activist public has greater proximity to its supposed mandarin class than ever before. What this newfound intimacy has revealed has not always been flattering. Many of those who had been held up as elites in their fields have, upon closer examination by the public, been revealed as mediocre, incompetent, buffoonish, and, in some cases, possibly unhinged. At the same time, the public, for all its passion, has also revealed itself to be vulnerable to conspiracy theories, disinformation, and outbreaks of hysteria.
In 2014, a former CIA media analyst named Martin Gurri published “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium.” Gurri had spent his career analyzing the global information environment and could see that something major was ahead. “The Revolt of the Public” predicted that the information revolution unleashed by the internet would end up destabilizing politics and institutions around the world, perhaps for decades to come. A flood of new online information — along with a series of failed wars and financial crises — would conspire to bleed the legitimacy of elite institutions and their representatives in the eyes of the public, likely beyond repair.
Events since the book was first released have made it appear prophetic. This past December, “The Revolt of the Public” was republished with a new chapter, reflecting on the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom.
Below is an interview with Gurri about the consequences of the information revolution on the relationship between elites and the public. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background in government and how it led you to write a book about the relationship between elite institutions and information?
I had probably the least glamorous job in the CIA: I was an analyst of global media. Early on, that was pretty straightforward work, as there was only a small volume of open information to analyze. Every country had their equivalent of the New York Times, a source which set the news agenda. If the president asked how his policies were playing in, say, France, all you needed to do was consult two newspapers for your answer. But around the turn of the millennium, the information environment suddenly went haywire. A tsunami of information arose, in volumes unprecedented in human experience. In the year 2001, the amount of information produced doubled that of all previous history. 2002 doubled 2001 — and this trend has continued ever since.
As that tsunami of information swept over the world, we observed a great deal of social and political turbulence behind it. Angry voices were suddenly heard where before there was silence. At the time, it was an open question whether this was merely virtual anger or if it would have an impact on politics in the real world. When we pointed out the turbulence, and those voices mocking the status quo, we were asked: If the security forces come after them, what will they do — hit the police with their laptops?
“The year 2011 proved to be the moment of phase change, when digital anger passed over into political action.”
The year 2011 proved to be the moment of phase change, when digital anger passed over into political action. That year saw the Arab insurgencies, but also the “indignados” movement in Spain, the “tent city” protests in Israel, and dozens of Occupy movements in the U.S. All these political insurgencies began online. The public we first glimpsed when I was with CIA has since toppled dictators, smashed political parties, and of course elected outlandish populists to high office.
It’s not just government either. An overabundance of information has been subversive of every modern institution, from the news media to the scientific establishment, to the university, and the corporation. All have come under siege and are bleeding authority and legitimacy. My concern, as I wrote the book, was that the public’s loathing of the established order was bound to implicate our democratic system itself.
How has the new information environment changed the relationship between elite institutions and the general public?
The institutions that sustain modern society were established in the industrial age. They are steep, top-down pyramids, with the industrial elites occupying the top of the pyramid, at a great distance from the public. Elites succeeded or failed in part by impressing the public with their expertise but mostly by impressing other elites. Today, due to the new information dispensation, these elites have been brought into close proximity to the public and are exposed to the public’s constant scrutiny. They are all too aware of the public’s anger, aware that they have lost control of the information sphere. The result has been a sort of elite panic and a bleeding away of their authority and legitimacy.
To function properly, industrial institutions, including government, need to have some proprietary control over the information in their own domains — the stories that get told about them. Once this control is lost, and a host of competing narratives about them arise, public trust inevitably starts to evaporate. This is what we see happening all around us. The effect has been a massive crisis of authority.
We have a picture of how this flood of new information has impacted elites, but how has it impacted the public?
Fifty years ago, society was organized according to the industrial model. People were passive recipients of information. It was a top-down system with limited choices or diversity. You could buy two or three different types of cars and get your information from two or three different television channels and newspapers. This system produced a relatively uniform “mass audience” that was suitable for the needs of industrial society.
What we have seen since is a complete breakdown of that system. The loss of control over information has resulted in the breakdown of the mass audience and many of the old ideologies. In its place has emerged a more ideologically diverse and fractious public. The public, which is not necessarily synonymous with “the people” or “the masses,” can come from any corner of the political environment today. It is not a fixed body of individuals and lacks an organization, leaders, shared programs, policies, or a coherent ideology. The public is characterized by negation: It is united in being ferociously against the established order.
What is the response of elites to their loss of trust and legitimacy?
The elite class can respond to their crisis of authority by heading in two opposite directions. And if I were to guess, I would say that they are now heading for the least productive option. They could identify the causes of the public’s anger and work to reconcile the public to the system. This would entail flattening the political pyramid and reducing as much as possible their distance from the public. Unfortunately, this is not happening.
“Elites currently seem to be more concerned with re-establishing their distance from the public than with reforming the system or restoring their own authority. They equate legitimacy with clinging to the top of the pyramid.”
Elites currently seem to be more concerned with re-establishing their distance from the public than with reforming the system or restoring their own authority. They equate legitimacy with clinging to the top of the pyramid. They find proximity to the public frightening and distasteful: No elite figure wants to come near the “deplorables.” They prefer to hide behind bodyguards and metal-detecting machines. Somewhat reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that authority will not be restored to our democratic institutions until the current elite class — what I have called the “industrial elites” — is replaced. As I explain in the book, this can happen quite peacefully.
What I found interesting about your book is that in addition to criticizing the elite, you’re also quite skeptical of this newly vocal public.
When this new wave of information began to rise, I initially thought that I was on the side of the public. But on analyzing the statements and pronouncements of many of the new popular movements, I began to see that they had a distinctly nihilist streak. They were mired in negation towards the status quo, but rarely proposed clear alternatives to the order that they were bashing away at. The Arab Spring, as well as the Occupy movements and the Spanish “indignados,” among others in the West, were movements united on the basis of what they were against. They were far less clear about what they were in favor of or how they were going to build that future. The 2016 Brexit referendum and election of Donald Trump — both of which were based primarily on the angry repudiation of the status quo — provided further compelling evidence of this public sentiment.
Do you think that this was a reflection of naiveté on the part of the public?
“When you abolish history, you lose your memory and it’s like you’ve had a stroke. That condition can lead you to do crazy things.”
My favorite philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, talked about “mass man,” or modern man as being the end product of a long historical process. Previous generations struggled to put him in a place of relative affluence and education, with material comforts and freedoms that were achieved at tremendous cost and usually involved bloodshed at some point. Mass man doesn’t see it that way. He feels that all these material gifts are as natural as the air he breathes. The good things in life are taken for granted. Meanwhile, the smallest desire that goes unfulfilled is a source of outrage. Much of the public’s sentiment today — that impulse to negation — is driven by a failure to understand or remember history. Or if they do remember history, to see it purely as the mother of all injustices and a source of problems that must be now be abolished. If there is one thing I would ask people to do, it would be to study history. When you abolish history, you lose your memory and it’s like you’ve had a stroke. That condition can lead you to do crazy things.
In the book, you also make it clear that you think the traditional left-right spectrum of politics is no longer applicable. Why is that?
I find it so depressing that we can’t get beyond this antiquated political language. These terms originate from the French Revolution and have lost much of their analytic usefulness. Even the terms “liberal” and “conservative” arose out of 19th-century British politics. Is French President Emmanuel Macron on the left or the right? Who knows? Which side of that spectrum is the anti-Macron “Yellow Vest” movement on? Again, no one knows. Even Donald Trump fails to fit into this spectrum. Although in office, he has mostly governed like a conservative Republican, during his campaign he was all over the place — many conservative Republicans hated him. The most you could say was that he had a right-populist coloration, but his proposals did not fit into any clear category. Coherent ideology took second place to a loathing for the established order and a desire to bash at it.
Given the widespread disenchantment with political institutions that you describe, does it seem paradoxical that, in the United States, people are still intensely passionate about candidates and elections?
The public makes demands of politics that are crushingly existential. Many of us used to be more religious, or more community-minded, and we used to have bigger families that we were more closely involved with. I think that today, instead, we find a lot of empty spaces in our lives. We then turn to politics and ask that it provide meaning for our lives somehow. Unfortunately, political institutions have repeatedly shown that they cannot even deliver many of the practical goals that they were designed to fulfill. Modern societies are extremely complex and there are a host of unintended consequences to even well-intended policies. To expect that politics will be able to overcome this complexity and deliver predictable results — while also providing people a sense of meaning and identity — is asking for what cannot possibly be delivered.
The dilemma is that politicians still talk as though they can deliver whatever the public wants. After all, they want our votes. We force politicians who wish to be elected to promise the impossible — to offer us utopia. Once they are elected, when it becomes clear that utopia isn’t coming, the public feels betrayed and is driven to negation and revolt. We treat government like a divinity that has failed, yet we still continue badgering it for existential guidance that it cannot provide. The end result is disenchantment with every form of modern government.
A lot of people tend to see Barack Obama and Donald Trump as being opposites of one another in terms of rhetoric, but in your book, you characterize them as having something in common. Can you explain why?
I think Obama responded to an environment, just as Trump did, in which much of the public views government as failed and corrupt. Obama responded with a highly original political maneuver, by rhetorically separating himself from his office. In his speeches, he would identify and condemn evils in the United States, describing the trampling of the rights of women or an economic inequality that he said was worse than in many third-world countries. In the next breath, he would make clear that he was an outsider, a prophet in the wilderness, who had no part in this failed system or obligation to improve it. Yet he was the president.
Trump is doing more or less the same thing, although obviously in a more extreme and vulgar style. They both take what I call a sectarian approach towards the status quo. Trump calls the established order in Washington “the swamp” and portrays himself as an outsider draining all the corruption out of the swamp. This is a common approach in democratic politics across the world today, since, as I said, politicians are aware that the public feels anger and disenchantment with the existing state of affairs.
I find that the influence of populist politicians over the public has been greatly overestimated. It’s actually the other way around. These populists are mostly the instruments of a mutinous public, rather than the cause or origin of the public’s bad temper.
There are major systemic challenges arising in the world today, such as climate change, that seem like they will require radical responses. How can our political systems respond to major global crises when they’re consumed by their own internal problems?
We shall see. A lot of the sound and fury of the insurgent public across the world has taken place in a fairly placid and non-conflictive environment. The one tremendous outburst of violence and horror has occurred in the Middle East, where ISIS emerged and ended up taking control of a territory the size of Great Britain that was home to millions of people.
Apart from this one region, we have not had a true existential crisis of the system. I don’t know what would happen if we did. The citizen in me has a faith in the American people and democratic system — that if something dire were facing us, we would unite and respond to it effectively. The problem with an issue like global warming is that its most serious effects are predicted decades into the future. A crisis needs to be present and visible to be accepted by everyone for what it is. Galvanizing an effective response to a crisis that will occur several decades down the line requires a level of public trust in the predictions coming from the media and scientific elites that does not presently exist.
You’re not a revolutionary, but you still argue that as a society, we need to replace our current elite and radically reshape government.
“If we select the elites, we can un-select them. When it comes to politics, we can support politicians who fit into the digital age and are willing to compress the pyramid and dwell closer to the public.”
We select our elites all the time, and I don’t just mean politicians. We select cultural elites based on the movies we choose to watch, the artists we follow, and the books we read. All these choices to some degree reflect who the public admires and chooses to raise up to positions of elite influence. So if we select the elites, we can un-select them. When it comes to politics, we can support politicians who fit into the digital age and are willing to compress the pyramid and dwell closer to the public. This would mean supporting candidates who speak the truth as they understand it and who will return to the public once their terms of office are over. They will not go to Washington and become celebrities, at a distance from the rest of society.
A healthy attitude towards government would also recognize that it is a limited tool and that human knowledge itself is limited. There are many outcomes we just don’t know how to achieve and politicians should govern with a sense humility and modesty. We as the public should not train them to promise the impossible, but should expect them to govern by trial and error, rather than by grand theories and “solutions.” We should reject politicians who make claims we know are not deliverable. If I ever hear a politician say, “I was wrong,” that person has my vote.