The Revolt of the Public and how to survive it

N.B. Speculative post, feedback especially welcome.

I read Martin Gurri’s book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, in late 2019. As many others have noted, the book (originally published in 2014) is widely credited with predicting Trump and Brexit, or at least the dynamics that would lead to them. You can find a short summary of the book here, and a longer podcast featuring Gurri himself here.

My crude summary/interpretation is that there was an old political-media structure, in which the newspapers and the politicians had a monopoly on information. Between them, they controlled the narratives about politics and society. The internet has changed this, as people can now access a vast ocean of information, and the elites have lost control. Mistakes by elites are now obvious in real time, and their legitimacy is disappearing. The public revolts and takes to the streets, but it lacks a coherent political program to replace the elites with, so nothing really changes.

When I read the book in 2019, I assumed it was ‘ordinary’ people who would end up on the streets for various reasons over time, like the 2011 Israeli protests and London riots. I thought reading about this phenomenon meant I was inoculated against it, and in any case I’m not the kind of person to end up at an Occupy Wall Street-type protest, nor an Extinction Rebellion one.

But when the coronavirus happened, it was blogs like Marginal Revolution and Slate Star Codex that provided real time correction (and shrewd foresight) to government policy. They’ve shown that fewer people need have died even in the past few months, and pushed for lots of policy changes.

Gurri predicted that the masses would become cynical about government, and I reckon they have. But I didn’t expect this third group: the highly-educated, information-savvy bloggers and economists, who have pushed back against government policy in real time. I didn’t think reading these kinds of sources would make me cynical about government, but they have, which seems obvious in hindsight.

Although the public can see government incompetence like never before, there is no replacement ideology at the ready for them. It’s tempting to think that this constellation of blogs and thinkers on the internet can help. But these individuals can’t be put in charge, writes Scott Alexander, because politics and power would change the calculations they’d need to make; they’d have to try to hold onto their job instead of focusing on being right.

Better ways of governing can’t just be about getting ‘the right people’ into power, then. Alexander makes his peace with it in that post, suggesting that power-conscious officials who are mediocre are perhaps the best we can hope for. I’m sure there are ways that government can adopt the methods of these internet thinkers, like prediction markets, but there are serious political limits to some of those methods even if someone who believes in them gets elected.

So, it doesn’t look like we can put the genie back in the bottle. The elites are probably going to seem much less legitimate indefinitely, and we cannot summarily replace them or burn the system down without risking total collapse. Yet we have to do something.

The best solution we have available is more growth. Growth would cover many of the elite’s sins, and give people something else to think about. That wouldn’t require a complete replacement ideology, but a reordering of culture and budgets towards investment and economic dynamism. Then we’ll be best placed to tackle whatever political problems remain.

Thanks to an anonymous person who reviewed a draft of this.