Democracy's Destabilizer: TMI

Bloomberg View , December 28, 2015

For most of Martin Gurri’s 29 years working for the Central Intelligence Agency’s open-media group (now the Open Source Center), the world was very different from the one we now inhabit. “When I started out in government,” Gurri recalls in an interview, “it was a perfectly reasonable expectation that an analyst could absorb all the meaningful political information coming out in a day from even a very developed country like Britain or France. And, of course, now if you tried to do that your head would explode.”

Information used to be scarce. Now it’s overwhelming. In his book “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium,” Gurri considers the political implications of this change. He argues that the shift from information scarcity to abundance has destroyed the public’s established trust in institutional authorities, including media, science, religion, and government.

“Once the monopoly on information is lost, so too is our trust,” Gurri writes. Someone somewhere will expose every error, every falsehood, every biased assessment, every overstated certainty, every prejudice, every omission -- and likely offer a contrary and equally refutable version of their own.

The result is the pervasive distrust that the columnist Anne Applebaum recently decried as “the terrible damage done by Facebook and other forms of social media to democratic debate and civilized discussion all over the world.” Gurri is less nostalgic for the past. Although he describes himself as an “uncomplicated defender of our system of government,” his experience makes him acutely aware of officials’ mutual protection practices, unwillingness to acknowledge uncertainty and rewards for failure. The CIA, he pointedly notes, “demanded and received a bigger budget after 9/11.”

Over history, Gurri argues, information has grown “in great pulses or waves” as technologies have changed -- from writing to the alphabet to the printing press to mass media to today’s digital networks. Each of these great waves has brought with it new institutions and sometimes great political and social upheavals, most notably in the case of the printing press.

We are in the very early days of what he calls the Fifth Wave. Institutions that developed in the age of industrialized, top-down mass media are losing legitimacy while new arrangements have yet to evolve. The challenge is to manage the hazardous transition to a new stage without falling into nihilistic chaos and destruction.

Neither celebrating nor denouncing the collapse of authority, Gurri seeks to understand its implications. He offers a disturbingly convincing model uniting such disparate phenomena as the Arab Spring, the 2011 protests in Spain and Israel, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and, although he doesn’t discuss them, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter and Islamic State.

As information becomes abundant, he writes, “the regime accumulates pain points." By this he means that problems like police brutality, economic mismanagement, foreign policy failures and botched responses to disasters "can no longer be concealed or explained away." Instead, "they are seized on by the newly empowered public, and placed front and center in open discussions. In essence, government failure now sets the agenda.”

Yet the public’s expectations for government are at least as great as before. And those high expectations -- not merely for justice or prosperity but for happiness and meaning--engender even greater anger.

“The public now takes it for granted that government could solve any problem, change any undesirable condition, if only it tried,” he writes. “The late modernist urge to intervene, with its aimless meandering, has been interpreted by the public as either tyranny or corruption -- never, somehow, as the ineffectual pose of a kindly uncle.” In short, “The public has judged government on government’s own terms, but added bad intentions.” The result is a crisis of legitimacy.

Central to Gurri’s analysis is the contrast between the once-authoritative “center” and increasingly vocal “border sects,” a dichotomy he adapts from the 1983 book “Risk and Culture” by the cultural theorists Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky. Sects coalesce in opposition to the center; they are, Douglas and Wildavsky wrote, “essentially critical of some defined other part of human society where power resides.” A sect’s message is one of negation.

In Gurri’s view, digital communities form sectarian publics whose only shared agenda is opposition to the status quo. Negation holds their coalitions together. If the Tahrir Square “protesters had sought to replace the regime with a specific set of people, programs, and principles, the weak bonds of the digital world would have been insufficient,” he writes. “But that’s not what brought out the variegated Egyptian public to the streets. They just wanted to get rid of Hosni Mubarak.” Once they succeeded, they couldn’t govern.

Lacking a clear positive agenda, a sectarian triumph creates a vacuum. The coalition breaks down or, standing outside the give-and-take of politics, simply loses interest.

Something like that happened to Barack Obama, Gurri argues. Obama ran against the status quo not only in 2008, when he was the insurgent, but in 2012 when he was the incumbent. Positioning himself as “a denouncer rather than a fixer of problems,” he identified with the public’s discontent and distanced himself from the workings of the federal government, eschewing responsibility for its mistakes and misdeeds and abandoning the give-and-take of political negotiation.

Obama, Gurri suggests, “represented a new and disconcerting development in democratic politics: the conquest of the Center by the Border, and the rise of the sectarian temper to the highest positions of power.” It’s easy to imagine a President Ted Cruz, representing a different brand of border sectarian, pursuing a similar approach.

Then there’s Donald Trump. By stoking magical thinking about what government can do, elite distrust of what the public wants, and sectarian rage at government failures, Trump feeds the nihilism that makes this period of transition so perilous. Some men just want to watch the world burn.