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Book Review: The Revolt of the Public, by Martin Gurri

Summary:
If you do not read "The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium," by Martin Gurri, you will not be sufficiently prepared for the world to come. Well, you probably won't be anyway. No one will! But this book brings together a startling number of important threads of contemporary politics, geopolitics, public affairs, and media, and weaves them into a coherent, comprehensible, and very plausible narrative. And it does so far better than any other book, blog post, or Twitter thread that I have seen attempt to deal with these issues (including my own modest foray). So buy this book and read it. Why This Book Is Great The basic thesis of the book is that social media has empowered the public, and that the public is using its newfound power to attack

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Book Review: The Revolt of the Public, by Martin Gurri

If you do not read "The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium," by Martin Gurri, you will not be sufficiently prepared for the world to come.

Well, you probably won't be anyway. No one will! But this book brings together a startling number of important threads of contemporary politics, geopolitics, public affairs, and media, and weaves them into a coherent, comprehensible, and very plausible narrative. And it does so far better than any other book, blog post, or Twitter thread that I have seen attempt to deal with these issues (including my own modest foray). So buy this book and read it.


Why This Book Is Great

The basic thesis of the book is that 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. Citing examples from the Arab Spring revolutions to the Indignado protests of Spain to Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, Gurri pegs 2011 as the year where the new paradigm of viral, explosive discontent first asserted itself. 

Importantly, Gurri defines the "public" in a weird, idiosyncratic way. It's not the people as a whole, so it can't be represented by opinion polls. It's not the "masses" of the mid 20th century, since it's not organized into hierarchical mass movements coordinated by leaders. Instead, Gurri defines the public as the set of people who are interested enough in a particular issue to pay attention and get involved. Thus, the public is actually a different set of people in each situation.

(Gurri's public is somewhat similar to my own conception of the "Shouting Class", but not quite the same. The Shouting Class are the set of people who are always vocally upset about one thing or another, due to their own personal life dissatisfaction, natural argumentativeness, desire for attention, or other factors that can't be assuaged or mollified by any change in the structure of the world. Gurri's public often includes these people, but often also includes non-shouters who genuinely care about one particular issue or are moved to action by viral enthusiasm instead of their own natural predilections.)

Social media, Gurri asserts, has both empowered and emboldened the public, freeing it from the control of centralized, hierarchical push-media. The age of Walter Cronkite has given way to the age of the Twitter mob and the Facebook protest organizer. But 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. The events of the 2010s have certainly conformed to this description. And the book, the first edition of which was released in 2014, looks especially prophetic when viewed from the vantage point of 2019. All the trends Gurri describes have only intensified.

The usefulness of this book is in drawing parallels between a bunch of things that might seem unrelated (and as a former CIA analyst, that's Gurri's specialty). If the many explosions of anger and activism since 2011 were fundamentally about specific issues - the Tea Party about taxes, the Women's March about sexism - then you might expect the anger to recede as the issues get successfully addressed. But if Gurri is right, these things are fundamentally about a technology - social media - and the way it changes power relations between the public and elites, then we can expect today's explosions of anger to be followed by others tomorrow, and then others the day after tomorrow, and on and on and on. 

Gurri may not convince you - in fact, if he does, you're probably not enough of a skeptic - but he will give you a new framework with which to usefully think about the political chaos of the modern world.

That said, there are some limitations, omissions, and missteps in the book (as there are in every book). Here are the biggest things I think Gurri left out:.


More Than Two Futures

Near the end of the book, Gurri allows for the possibility that his big thesis might be wrong. But he demands that readers choose between his hypothesis and the "null hypothesis" - i.e., the exact opposite of every trend he describes. If he's wrong, Gurri asserts, the world will proceed toward greater centralization, greater hierarchy, greater trust in and respect for authority, etc. etc. 

But this is a false choice. Gurri's vision is complex and multi-dimensional, not a univariate hypothesis that can be tested against a null. It's perfectly possible that Gurri's description of the world will hold true in some respects but not in others. For example, it may be that elites and institutions never regain their aura of Olympian invincibility, but that the public becomes more constructive over time, eschewing nihilism and pushing for big utopian visions like the Green New Deal. Or it might be that elites never become effective or respected, but successfully implement systems of total social control similar to the one China is trying to implement. Or it might be that elites never recover their power and effectiveness, but the public gets tired of outrage and finds something else to do, leaving society in a comfortable stasis.

There are many possible futures, not just two. 


Underrated Public, Underrated Elites

Gurri takes a very even-handed approach toward the public and the elites. He criticizes the former for its inflated expectations and destructive nihilism, while taking the latter to task for failed grandiose promises, tone-deafness, and exclusion of outside voices. But my impression is that he is a bit too hard on both.

Recent protests in the U.S. have not all been nihilistic. Occupy Wall Street probably contributed some popular energy to the push for financial reform, which culminated in the Dodd-Frank law. The Black Lives Matter protests, which Gurri mostly doesn't touch on, may have led to needed police reforms in many cities. In Tunisia, the Arab Spring led not to bloody civil war, but to the first green shoots of liberal democracy. 

Meanwhile, elites have not failed as badly as Gurri describes. The era of desegregation, civil rights, and the Great Society saw massive, permanent decreases in the black poverty rate (and modest decreases in the white poverty rate):

Book Review: The Revolt of the Public, by Martin Gurri

During the mid 20th century, the era Gurri describes as High Modernism, the U.S. government also built the interstate system and helped create the early internet, in addition to implementing Medicare. Other rich country governments successfully implemented government health care systems that to this day are highly effective and relatively cheap. Government research pushed forward the frontiers of science and technology in ways too numerous - and too important - to count.

More recently, efforts by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations led to modest but real decreases in poverty. Even after Obama was checked by a Republican Congress, his Clean Power Plan helped start a transition from coal power to natural gas and renewable energy. Gurri excoriates the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve for failing to stop the Great Recession, but it's notable - and at the end of the book, Gurri even admits - that things never degenerated into another Great Depression. The system may not have worked perfectly, but it worked

In other words, the public often gets things done, and government often gets things done. Gurri is too hard on both. 


So Why the Rage?

Gurri accuses the public of nihilism, and that accusation often seems right - especially when it comes to Twitter outrage mobs and the more radical political movements that have fought each other in the streets since 2017. But he doesn't really explore the reasons for this rage. He mentions elite failures - the Iraq War, the persistence of poverty, the Great Recession. But he also characterizes the public as being generally drawn from people whose personal circumstances are not so dire. So why are people so mad?

One possibility is that we're dealing with a "revolution of rising expectations". This is the theory that an era of steady progress leads to ingrained expectations of continued progress, or even accelerating progress. So whenever the inevitable slowdown or minor reversal arrives, a generation with great expectations explodes in rage at the future visions that suddenly seem denied to them. Last September I wrote a Twitter thread applying this idea to disappointed educated young people and the rise of the socialist left in America. The process might apply more generally. It might have been the success of modern societies and their elites, rather than their failure, that set the public up for disappointment and rage.


This Might Have All Happened Before

Gurri declares 2011 to have been a "phase change" in human relations, and portrays modern social media outrage and protests, and the chaos they cause, as something new under the sun, crucially dependent on information technologies that have never existed before. But the events he describes sound strikingly, even eerily similar to those described in another book I read recently: "Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789-1848".

"Phantom Terror" describes how, in the wake of the French Revolution, the governments of Europe became extremely paranoid about the existence of conspiracies they believed were fomenting revolution. They implemented police states, but could find no such conspiracies. Yet revolutions happened anyway - spontaneous, grassroots revolutions, culminating in the upheavals of 1848. Some governments fell and were replaced, most endured, and the character of European governance largely persisted even though institutions and their legitimacy seemed permanently weakened. And all of this without any centralized hand or elite conspiracy driving the revolutions - just a bunch of spontaneously materializing mobs. Sound familiar? 

Another pair of books I read recently were "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" and "Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence". These books described the political upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s - smack dab in the middle of the elite-dominated industrial age. These were years of chaos. Hundreds of riots, striking every major American city. Widespread protests. High-profile assassinations. Thousands of (mostly non-fatal) terrorist bombings every year, very few coordinated or directed by any organization or hierarchy. And this chaos repeated itself throughout Europe, and in much of the rest of the world - witness China's Cultural Revolution. 

These were two former eras, one far in the past, one recent, in which spontaneous activism and popular rage led to widespread rejection of elites and endemic political chaos. And yet in each case, the public didn't need Facebook or Twitter to revolt - all it needed were pamphlets, independent newspapers, books, or that ultimate information technology, word of mouth.

So the Revolt of the Public might not be such a new thing under the sun. Instead, it might be a recent manifestation of a recurring phenomenon - a periodic eruption of popular discontent. Such a cycle might be driven by improvements in information technology - the printing press, telephones, radio, blogs, and now social media. Each time information technology improves, it might lead to an explosion of chaos and rage while elites and institutions struggle to adapt. But each time in the past, the slow-moving engines of government, business, and media have eventually figured out how to put the lid back on public rage. It may turn out similarly this time. 

More historical perspective might have also affected Gurri's predictions and recommendations, which he delivers at the end of the book. Gurri predicts a compression of society's hierarchical pyramid, and recommends that governments adopt a combination of localism and responsiveness. But over the last few centuries, as information technology has improved, government has tended to move in the opposite direction - toward greater control, greater intrusiveness, and greater projects of centrally directed social change. In the 1400s, government was highly localized and parochial, with the exception of the occasional conquering army. Why should we expect to go back in that direction? Instead, should we not expect Even Bigger Government and Even Higher Modernism to eventually assert itself as the antidote to social media rage? 


In Conclusion

These omissions in the book should only emphasize how thought-provoking it was, and how interesting and useful of a framework Gurri has created for evaluating the modern world. I'm not repudiating Gurri, but riffing on him. I'm sure if you read this book, you'll find yourself doing the same.

So grab a copy of "Revolt of the Public". In these turbulent times, it provides a much-needed map.
Noah Smith
Noah has been a finance professor at SUNY Stony Brook, an economics PhD student at the University of Michigan, an academic editor in Japan, and a physics major at Stanford. He is currently hard at work on solving all the problems of the world. So don't be surprised when all your problems suddenly vanish.

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