Like many good books, Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium is about One Big Idea, though the implications take a while to work through. It’s basically a story of how technology and media are changing politics.
Though Gurri does not, I found it helpful to put the idea in economists’ terms: a dramatic increase in the supply of information and media has pushed down its value. For many established institutions, this has meant a decline in influence, as their once-authoritative statements must now compete for attention and truth-value with a growing horde of statements from the margins. The struggles of old-line newspapers, political parties, and governments in the new environment are thus all of a piece:
The grand hierarchies of the industrial age feel themselves to be in decline, and I’m disposed to agree. They evolved to operate on a more docile social structure – one in which far less information circulated far more slowly among far fewer persons. Today a networked public runs wild among the old institutions, and bleeds them of the power to command attention and define the intellectual and political agenda. Every expert is surrounded by a horde of amateurs eager to pounce on every mistake and mock every unsuccessful prediction or policy. Every CRU has its hacker, every Mubarak his Wael Ghonim, every Barack Obama his Tea Party. Nothing is secret and nothing is sacred, so the hierarchies some time ago lost their heroic ambitions and now they have lost their nerve. They doubt their own authority, and they have good reason to do so.
Gurri really won my heart when he brought this insight together with the work of the great anthropologist Mary Douglas, who had an uncanny knack for creating powerful and useful analytical frameworks:
Another way to characterize the collision of the two worlds is as an episode in the primordial contest between the Center and the Border. The terms were employed by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky in another context, long before the advent of the information tsunami, but they are singularly apt for our present condition. “Center” and “Border” can be applied to organizations embracing specific structures, ideals, and beliefs about the future. The two archetypes are relative to each other, and perform a kind of dance which determines the direction of social action.
The Center, Douglas and Wildavsky write, is dominated by large, hierarchical organizations. It frankly believes in sacrificing the few for the good of the whole. It is smug about its rigid procedures. It is too slow, too blind to new information. It will not believe in new dangers and will often be taken by surprise. The Center envisions the future to be a continuation of the status quo, and churns out program after program to protect this vision. The Border, in contrast, is composed of “sects” – we would say “networks” – which are voluntary associations of equals. Sects exist to oppose the Center: they stand firmly against. They have, however, “no intention of governing” and develop “no capacity for exercising power.” Rank means inequality, hierarchy means conspiracy to the Border. Rather than articulate programs as alternatives to those of the Center, sects aim to model the behaviors demanded from the “godly or good society.” Making a program is a center strategy; attacking center programs on behalf of nature, God, or the world is border strategy.
If this is starting to sound a bit like what happened in the primaries last year, that is no accident. Gurri I think provides a useful way of thinking about the realignment of politics made clear by the 2016 election in the US, and the UK’s Brexit referendum:
I was trained, as even the youngest of us were, to think in terms of the old categories: to think, for example, that the direction of American politics depended on the balance between Democrats and Republicans. Yet both parties are, in form and spirit, organizations of the Center. Both are heavily invested in the established order, offering the public minor differences in perspective on the same small set of questions. Surprises in America’s political trajectory are unlikely to come from the alternation of Democrat and Republican. The analyst searching for discontinuities – for the possibility of radical change – must wrench his mind free of the old categories and turn to the subterranean strife of hierarchy and network: in the political parties, between “netroots” activists and a variety of Tea Party networks on one side, and the Democratic and Republican organizations on the other. There, different languages are spoken, potent contradictions can be found. …
The book is consistently interesting, and although he refrains from making explicit predictions it nonetheless often feels quite prescient. Gurri’s blog extends the analysis into 2016, though that piece will make more sense after having read the book.