The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

Gurri explains how the internet and social media make the failures of government policies overwhelming apparent and are eroding the legitimacy of our ruling institutions and elites, opening our society up to a nihilist death spiral.

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium

"The Revolt of the Public" is what Tyler Cowen refers to as a "quake book" - I can't see the world the same after reading it. This book is criminally underappreciated, as I write this review it only has 11 ratings on Amazon. Writing in 2014, former CIA analyst Martin Gurri looks out at the world and sees Occupy Wall Street, Brexit, and the Arab Spring and wonders if these populist uprisings are isolated incidents or part of a larger trend (the 2019 edition has an afterword on Trump). The one-liner version is "The internet and social media make the failures of government policies overwhelming apparent and are eroding the legitimacy of our ruling institutions and elites, opening our society up to a nihilist death spiral." There's a lot to unpack there, but Gurri backs it up with incisive and eminently quotable analysis. I'm typically reluctant to get onboard with sweeping theories that explain everything, but his work lies firmly in the tradition of James Scott's "Seeing Like a State" (also heavily influenced by Ormerod's "Why Most Things Fail") and it is my generation that is leading the charge into our nihilist future. Gurri's book encapsulates the elite anxieties and nihilism of my time as a Yale undergraduate (2008-2012) in a way that I haven't seen anywhere else. "They disdained specifics — ideology, policy — but excelled at lengthy menus of accusations" - Gurri gets it. Here's his thesis in his own words:

The failure of government isn’t a failure of democracy, but a consequence of the heroic claims of modern government, and of the constantly frustrated expectations these claims have aroused. Industrial organization, with its cult of the expert and top-down interventionism, stands far removed from the democratic spirit, and has proven disastrous to the actual practice of representative democracy. It has failed in its own terms, and has been seen to fail, and it has infected democratic governments with a paralyzing fear of the public and with the despair of decadence.

You can see why I love this guy!  But he really reeled me in with an unexpected detour into the realm of my 2017 reading theme on the "Integrity of Western Science."  Here's Gurri on the state of modern science:

Much has been claimed for the scientific method, but the only method to which all scientists subscribe is the peer review process. It too has been under strain. Peer review presupposes the existence of independent-minded experts who evaluate manageable data sets. Often, in the age of the Fifth Wave, neither condition applies. Scientists today work in teams, and the subject matter can be so specialized that only a handful of individuals will be able to understand and review the literature. Authors and reviewers can trade places in a chummy circle of mutual admiration and protection. In extreme cases, this constriction of knowledge leads to what one analyst has called “research cartels,” which actively stifle minority or unorthodox views... The peer review process, relic of a simpler time, has thus become progressively less able to guarantee the integrity and legitimacy of research in many fields of science.

Am I dreaming?  Pinch me!  Martin Gurri, you get me.  For those paying attention, there are even whispers of Moldbug in here.  Does this sound like "The Cathedral" to you?

Vast amounts of money have been poured into science and technology research and development: around $400 billion in the US alone for 2009. The price of affluence has been the centralization and institutionalization of research. An iron triangle of government, the universities, and the corporate world controls the careers of individual scientists... Government favor is the single most important factor in science research today. It’s disingenuous to imagine that such favor would be granted without considerations of power and political advantage.

This book is a masterclass on the sources of legitimacy in our social institutions and Gurri's analysis is devastating.  He's got these incredible lines like "Uncertainty is an acid, corrosive to authority," and:

The word “progress” itself has become impolite, an embarrassment. Nobody has a clue which way that lies.

Gurri leads us pretty far into the desert.  Does he give us any hope of escape or survival?  Well, this is the best he's got:

The quality that sets the true elites apart — that bestows authority on their actions and expressions — isn’t power, or wealth, or education, or even persuasiveness. It’s integrity in life and work. A healthy society is one in which such exemplary types draw the public toward them purely by the force of their example.

Sounds a bit like motherhood and apple pie to me, but I suppose he's not wrong.  In any case, this book is required reading if you're trying to understand our moment in time.

My highlights below.

Martin Gurri is a geopolitical analyst and student of new media and information effects. He spent many years working in the corner of CIA dedicated to the analysis of open media.


With his eyes on this altered media space, Martin Gurri saw what was coming. He saw that the elites would be increasingly despised, as more of their mistakes and imperfections became exposed. He saw that the elites would respond to the public with defensiveness and contempt, but that this would only make the public more hostile and defiant toward authority. He saw that the public’s new-found power does not come with any worked-out program or plan, and as a result it poses the threat of nihilism. If the existing order is only torn down, not replaced, the outcome could be chaos and strife.

And let me repeat the other factor that makes this book’s analysis of the Trump phenomenon particularly credible: Martin Gurri saw it coming.

To avoid these extreme outcomes, both elites and the public have to change. Elites will have to cede authority and permit more local variation and experimentation. The public will have to be more tolerant. Imperfections and bad outcomes should not be taken as proof of conspiracy or evil intent.

1: Prelude to a turbulent age

Should anyone care about this tangle of bizarre connections? Only if you care how you are governed: the story I am about to tell concerns above all a crisis of that monstrous messianic machine, the modern government. And only if you care about democracy: because a crisis of government in liberal democracies like the United States can’t help but implicate the system.

A curious thing happens to sources of information under conditions of scarcity. They become authoritative.

And the first significant effect I perceived related to the sources: as the amount of information available to the public increased, the authoritativeness of any one source decreased.

Uncertainty is an acid, corrosive to authority. Once the monopoly on information is lost, so too is our trust. Every presidential statement, every CIA assessment, every investigative report by a great newspaper, suddenly acquired an arbitrary aspect, and seemed grounded in moral predilection rather than intellectual rigor. When proof for and against approaches infinity, a cloud of suspicion about cherry-picking data will hang over every authoritative judgment.

The docile mass audience, so easily persuaded by advertisers and politicians, had been a monopolist’s fantasy which disintegrated at first contact with alternatives.

I’d been enthralled by the astronomical growth in the volume of information, but the truly epochal change, it turned out, was the revolution in the relationship between the public and authority in almost every domain of human activity.

Thoughtful interpretations of the genesis and nature of the change have been written by Yochai Benkler, Clay Shirky, and Glenn Reynolds, among many others.

Using terms for analytic style coined by Isaiah Berlin and borrowed by Joseph Tetlock in his famous study of expert political judgment, I’m afraid that I am a “fox” rather than a “hedgehog.”

There will be a scarcity of saints but an abundance of martyrs. That is the way of our moment in time.

There was, Lippmann brooded, no “intrinsic moral and intellectual virtue to majority rule.”

By the time he came to publish The Phantom Public in 1927, Lippmann’s subject appeared to him to be a fractured, single-issue-driven thing. The public, as I see it [he wrote], is not a fixed body of individuals. It is merely the persons who are interested in an affair and can affect it only by supporting or opposing the actors.

At the individual level, this standing is achieved by professionalization. The person in authority is a trained professional. He’s an expert with access to hidden knowledge. He perches near the top of some specialized hierarchy, managing a bureaucracy, say, or conducting research. And, almost invariably, he got there by a torturous process of accreditation, usually entailing many years of higher education.

Lasting authority, however, resides in institutions rather than in the persons who act and speak on their behalf.

2: Hoder and Wael Ghonim

He represents a type we’ll encounter often in this story of the struggle between grand hierarchies and the public: the gifted amateur, propelled to unexpected places by the new information technology.

In theory, the Iranian regime is a Platonic republic, with wise guardians protecting the moral and material welfare of all. In practice, it resembles a sterile hybrid begot on the mafia by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In consequence, the ruling class confronted what has come to be called “the dictator’s dilemma” — a frequent affliction of authority in the new environment. The dilemma works this way. For security reasons, dictators must control and restrict communications to a minimum. To make their rule legitimate, however, they need prosperity, which can only be attained by the open exchange of information. Choose.

The most famous blogger in the country is ex-president Ahmadinejad. Of course, the regime also blocked many websites, and currently holds the world record for bloggers thrown in jail. At least one of them died from the admonishments of his wise Platonic guardians.

The industrial age depended on chunky blocks of text to influence government and opinion. The new digital world has preferred the power of the visual. What is usually referred to as new media really means the triumph of the image over the printed word.

His own telling of those events, the autobiographical Revolution 2.0, I recommend to anyone who wants to understand, from a very human perspective, the destructive effects of new information on a fossilized political system.

The political system in Egypt rested on pure gangsterism, lacking any ideological justification other than the authority of the men in charge: they alone, it was claimed, possessed the expertise to maintain security, grow the economy, and manage the complexities of a modern government.

Not long ago, a revolutionary was a dedicated professional. To achieve his goal, he needed an organization to conduct command and control, a published program to explain the need for radical change, resting on an ideology which persuaded and attracted large numbers of the public—who would then be formed into a mass movement by means of command and control. Organization, program, printing presses, ideology, mass command and control: this costly, slow-moving machinery, with its need for hierarchy and obedience, could be transcended by a single click of the mouse if Wael Ghonim won his bet.

It was a testament to the power of TV to capture and communicate sincerity: his sorrow when confronted with photos of dead demonstrators was both compelling and painful to watch. Before a mass audience, Wael Ghonim, that extraordinary ordinary person, gave the revolutionaries a face that ordinary Egyptians could identify with. He embodied information which changed the direction of political life in his country. His interview went viral on YouTube, new media compounding the effect of the old. The crowds in Tahrir swelled in size. Four days later, Hosni Mubarak resigned from office.

3: My thesis

The result is paralysis by distrust. The Border, it is already clear, can neutralize but not replace the Center. Networks can protest and overthrow, but never govern. Bureaucratic inertia confronts digital nihilism. The sum is zero.

His arrival confronts the regime with a new threat: the public with a longer reach may gain access to information which subverts its story of legitimacy. In the regime’s worst nightmare, the public actually conceives of an alternative form of government and acts to attain it.

The simplicity and perfect fit between the public’s perception of the world and the regime’s story of legitimacy are gone forever. Under these conditions, the best outcome for the regime is acceptance by the public that the world is too complex to be understood yet too dangerous to be left alone, and must be placed in the care of those whose job it is to manage the nation’s affairs. Examples of mediated acceptance of the status quo are the Soviet Union under Stalin and North Korea today.

Most importantly, it shatters the illusion that his way of life is inevitable and preordained, a first, necessary step toward revolution.

The fall of the mediators, all things being equal, means the end of the regime’s ability to rule by persuasion.

But the rise of Homo informaticus places governments on a razor’s edge, where any mistake, any untoward event, can draw a networked public into the streets, calling for blood. This is the situation today for authoritarian governments and liberal democracies alike. The crisis in the world that I seek to depict concerns loss of trust in government, writ large. The mass extinction of stories of legitimacy leaves no margin for error, no residual store of public good will. Any spark can blow up any political system at any time, anywhere.

Information influences politics because it is indigestible by a government’s justifying story. The greater the diffusion of information to the public, the more illegitimate any political status quo will appear. Homo informaticus, networked builder and wielder of the information sphere, poses an existential challenge to the legitimacy of every government he encounters.

4: What the public is not

The most promising way forward, it seems to me, is to follow N. N. Taleb’s “subtractive knowledge” method of analyzing complex questions. Rather than assert what the public is, I explain what the public is not.

The public is not, and never can be, identical to the people: this is true in all circumstances, everywhere. Since, on any given question, the public is composed of those self-selected persons interested in the affair, it possesses no legitimate authority whatever, and lacks the structure to enforce any authority that might fall its way. The public has no executive, no law, no jails. It can only express an opinion, in words and in actions—in its own flesh and blood. That was what transpired in Egypt. The roar of public opinion precipitated political change, but it was the Egyptian military, not the public, who compelled Mubarak and Morsi to step down. The public can never be the people because the people are an abstraction of political philosophy. The people, strictly speaking, don’t exist.

What broke Lippmann’s heart was the assumption that the people of political philosophy must exist in political reality. He knew that the public was the only candidate available for the job, and, as an astute observer of events, he felt keenly the disproportion between his hopes and the truth. The ideal of the “sovereign and omnicompetent citizen” was unattainable.

Henry Ford and Lenin were Taylorists, each in his way. Both believed in an infallible vanguard commanding a mass of undifferentiated humanity.

Intoxicated by the successes of industrial organization, the founders of mass movements, and their admirers and imitators, sought to reduce political action to pure mechanics. This was true right and left, and regardless of the actual content of the movement’s ideology. The latter was usually a hash of pseudo-science, in any case: racial Darwinism for the Nazis, for example, or “scientific materialism” for Marxist-Leninists. What mattered was control of the masses.

Propaganda was the totalitarian’s admission that his power wasn’t total. Unlike democratic politicians, leaders of mass movements lacked feedback mechanisms: they had no idea what the masses were thinking, and could only hope to inject the desired opinions directly into the brains of their followers. Call it Taylorism for the soul.

This last development can help explain why Lippmann and Dewey got the future wrong: like every other person on planet Earth, they failed to foresee the advent of a personalized information technology.

5: Phase change 2011

Failure typically gets blamed on insufficient support: the CIA, for example, demanded and received a bigger budget after 9/11.

I also believe 2011 first exposed the gulf of distrust between the public and elected governments in many democratic countries. Liberal democracy itself came under attack. Since no alternatives were proposed, the events of 2011 may be said to have launched a fundamental predicament of life under the Fifth Wave: the question of nihilism.

Some form of this riddle confronted the public during every collision with authority in the turbulent year 2011. What next? What structures will replace the old, despised institutions? How should society be reorganized? In every case no satisfactory answer was given.

Pure negation is nothing and leads nowhere. Neither-nor resembles a curse in a fairy-tale because it’s open-ended. Under its spell, a revolutionary can never declare victory, or even glimpse the promised land from a high place. He can only batter away at the established order, until every trace of history has been erased from social life. Then he too, as a child of history, will disappear. So I pose here, for the first time, in the context of the Spanish street revolts, the question of nihilism. By this word I mean the will to destruction, including self-destruction, for its own sake. I mean, specifically, the negation of democracy and capitalism, with a frivolous disregard for the consequences.

It’s worth noting that anarchism is by far the most sectarian movement on the left, with an ideological predilection for individualism and self-expression. The difference between a young anarchist and a young disillusioned liberal was not likely to be noticed by either.

The romance of condemnation, in my judgment, has become the most conspicuous feature of President Obama’s mode of governance. The demonization of millionaires was a rhetorical pillar of the president’s successful 2012 campaign.

OWS’s numbers may have been small, but the message was consequential. It helped tip American politics at the highest level toward pure negation and distrust, eroding the legitimacy of democratic institutions. For this reason alone the Occupy protests belong with the bigger revolts in my investigation of phase change.

Revolution, in 2011, meant denunciation. Actual change was left for someone else.

OWS didn’t influence the president. The arrow of causation moved the other way. President Obama anticipated many of the movement’s rhetorical features during his 2008 electoral campaign, which was one reason so many of the 2011 Occupiers participated in it.

But like rebels in other democratic countries, they effected a strange mental separation between the life they wished for and the structures which made that life possible.

The rioters existed in a world of effects without causes. However dimly, they envisioned a desirable mode of living — one weighed down with mobile phones, video games, plasma TVs — but they vandalized the processes which made that life possible. They behaved as if desirable things were part of the natural order, like the grass under their feet. Detestable systems of authority only stood in the way.

I don’t want to make too much of this. Like dueling naming conventions, the infatuation with V for Vendetta was a symptom, not a cause, of the larger conflict. It revealed an emotional orientation among the protesters: they were self-dramatizers to an extreme degree. The disconnection between their words and their actions, between their understanding of effects and their indifference to causes, can be explained by this trait.

They disdained specifics — ideology, policy — but excelled at lengthy menus of accusations.

The phase change concerned, at the most obvious level, a new capacity to mobilize large numbers of the public and so to command the attention of all political players, from government leaders to the media to ordinary voters. This was a new thing under the sun, and it became possible only in the altered landscape of the Fifth Wave. Digital platforms allowed even rioters who wished to loot London stores to organize and act more intelligently, for their purposes, than the authorities. The consequence wasn’t revolution but the threat of perpetual turbulence. The authorities felt, and still feel, their incapacity keenly.

That was the most profound consequence of 2011: sowing the seeds of distrust in the democratic process. You can condemn politicians only for so long before you must reject the legitimacy of the system that produced them.

6: A crisis of authority

To some indeterminate degree, the public must trust and heed authority, or it is no authority at all. An important social function of authority is to deliver certainty in an uncertain world. It explains reality in the context of the shared story of the group. For this it must rely on persuasion rather than compulsion, since naked force is a destroyer of trust and faith. The need to persuade in turn explains the institutional propensity for visible symbols of authority — the patrician’s toga, the doctor’s white frock, the financier’s Armani suit. Authority being an intangible quality, those who wield it wish to be recognized for what they are.

Even in purely practical terms, persuasion has always trumped compulsion or bribery. The authorizing magic of legitimacy can channel social behavior more deeply and permanently than the policeman’s club or the millionaire’s check. These propositions should be considered truisms, but they are not. Not by the public, which, as we have seen, assumes that every failure of authority must be explained by a collusion of money with power.

Between every decision and its consequences rises an impenetrable veil of uncertainty. The present can only guess at the future — and the track record, as we’ll soon see, isn’t good. Even among experts, the track record is terrible. The reason isn’t false consciousness but the stupendous complexity of human events, which renders prediction impossible.

The crisis of authority hollowing out existing institutions didn’t arise because these institutions prostituted themselves to power or money. That was an explanation after the fact — one that happened to be believed by much of the public and many experts. The fact that needed to be explained, however, was failure: the painfully visible gap between the institutions’ claims of competence and their actual performance. The gap, I maintain, was a function of the limits of human knowledge. It had always been there. What changed was the public’s awareness of it.

Power and money can never be wholly dispensed with: a source of satisfaction to conspiracy theorists. The truly interesting question, on the other hand, is how to explain the crisis of authority and the erratic behavior of the institutions, if there were no conspiracies to account for them.

But certain conditions particular to the event helped amplify the resonance of Einstein’s achievement. It was the first major scientific breakthrough in the age of mass media — and it occurred in a field that was impenetrable to all but a handful of brilliant specialists. When told that people believed only three scientists in the world could understand general relativity, Eddington grew quiet. “I’m just wondering who the third might be,” he explained.

In the century or so since Einstein’s triumph, the practice of science has been transformed. Vast amounts of money have been poured into science and technology research and development: around $400 billion in the US alone for 2009. The price of affluence has been the centralization and institutionalization of research. An iron triangle of government, the universities, and the corporate world controls the careers of individual scientists. Consequently, the ideal of the lonely and disinterested seeker after truth has been superseded by that of the scientist-bureaucrat. Though the various fields of science differ greatly, scientific success, in general, has been defined less by the quality of the findings than by the ability to bring in “research support” — funding for the institution.

Much has been claimed for the scientific method, but the only method to which all scientists subscribe is the peer review process. It too has been under strain. Peer review presupposes the existence of independent-minded experts who evaluate manageable data sets. Often, in the age of the Fifth Wave, neither condition applies. Scientists today work in teams, and the subject matter can be so specialized that only a handful of individuals will be able to understand and review the literature. Authors and reviewers can trade places in a chummy circle of mutual admiration and protection. In extreme cases, this constriction of knowledge leads to what one analyst has called “research cartels,” which actively stifle minority or unorthodox views.

Complicated computer programs have become necessary to array and model the data, and high-level statistical skills are routinely required to assess the validity of any finding. Many scientists, including reviewers, have not been up to the job. The peer review process, relic of a simpler time, has thus become progressively less able to guarantee the integrity and legitimacy of research in many fields of science.

The alpha bureaucrats, ensconced at the top of the pyramid, were Michael Mann of Penn State University for the US, and Phil Jones, head of the CRU, for Britain. The two men nominated each other to awards and pressured colleagues to sign petitions supporting the IPCC orthodoxy. Questions of loyalty and disloyalty, of sustaining the information monopoly of the group, absorbed their emails.

Mann, Jones, and the circle of scientists around them wrapped themselves in the mantle of the peer review process, which the “skeptics” had avoided. They were accredited science professionals, published in legitimate journals. This was their creed, the source of their authority. But since the group largely controlled peer review for their field, and a consuming subject of the emails was how to keep dissenting voices out of the journals and the media, the claim rested on a circular logic.

The emails showed the world’s leading climatologists busily working to organize a research cartel. Peer review was a legitimate source of authority when the process supported their positions. It was compromised, if not malicious, when it offered critics of the orthodoxy a platform. The wish to crush dissenting views, in their minds, had become indistinguishable from the pursuit of truth. In this attempt they ultimately failed, but not, the emails revealed, for lack of trying.

Given that it was the Center investigating the Center, this judgment was predictable.

People on the left believe that science is a tool of Big Business, that scientists are willing to poison us with genetically modified food and torture laboratory animals to earn a bigger profit for their paymasters. This may be an exaggeration, but, as a general proposition, it’s accurate enough. Corporations undeniably pay for and control a substantial percentage of all scientific research. For people on the right, science has become the handmaiden of Big Government, raising climate and environmental scares to justify the imposition of ever more restrictive political controls over every aspect of life. And this, too, while overstating the case, is generally correct. Government favor is the single most important factor in science research today. It’s disingenuous to imagine that such favor would be granted without considerations of power and political advantage.

The revelations in the CRU emails likely drove the public one more step down a path in which its perception of science and the scientist have been radically transformed. The beneficent guardian of truth has become, at best, a self-serving ally of remote elites, and at worst the amoral lackey of money and power.

A fitting place to start is with the life and times of Alan Greenspan, the man who transformed the economic expert into a glamorous, almost mythical figure.

Greenspan’s most significant achievement had been to persuade the elites and the public that the pursuit of material happiness required supervision by a brilliant specialist.

Every institution in the system failed catastrophically, beginning with Greenspan’s Fed, which encouraged a casino atmosphere by flooding the markets with easy money. Investment firms like Lehman Brothers took that money and “leveraged” it, betting $30 for each dollar they actually held in their hands. The rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, designated by the government to assess investment risk, gave the complex, untested subprime securities a AAA rating: when all was said and done, Moody’s had missed the mark by 20,000 percent. The White House and Congress pumped the housing bubble by pressuring regulators to accept ever riskier mortgages. It was a total bankruptcy of the elites — only the public paid the bill.

But it was an extraordinary defense of the performance of the expert class to say that none of them, at any level, had known what was coming.

Yet I suspect that it was equally impossible for a personage high in a structure of authority — a sitting president, a White House economist — to acknowledge, in public, the impossibility of prophecy. Within this contradiction, much about the crisis of authority of the institutions can be explained.

If you pursue this line of questioning, you will soon arrive at a fundamental dilemma. The disasters of 2008 were at bottom a failure of capitalism. The people in authority who were discredited and swept away in the aftermath could be described as the capitalist elite. They had claimed authority over the sources of prosperity, but were shown to be clueless and unsteady. The closest thing to a papal figure in capitalism, Alan Greenspan, now acknowledged that the system failed to grasp how the world really worked.

So my dilemma is how to square the revolt of the public and the crisis of the institutions with the apparent survival of capitalism.

Anti-capitalism was never an alternative to capitalism. It was another path to negation — when pushed hard enough, to nihilism.

The public has imposed a single all-important demand on business, the same as it has done on government, politicians, educators, media, and service providers: that every transaction treat the customer as a person, with active tastes and interests, rather than as a passive and undifferentiated member of a mass. Remember that ugly word, “disaggregation.” Meaning: to unbundle, to unpack — to tear apart. As it was in politics, the disaggregation of the masses has been a revolutionary economic event. It marked the passing of John Kenneth Galbraith’s “new industrial state,” in which Big Business and Big Labor divided the spoils of the modern economy at the consumer’s expense. Today, Big Business faces a radically shortened life expectancy, Big Labor is in full retreat, and the consumer — the mutinous public — is in command.

In Race Against the Machine, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee conjectured that this frenzy of innovation has been a major reason for the stagnant economic growth since 2008. “The root of our problems is not that we’re in a Great Recession or a Great Stagnation, but rather that we are in the early throes of a Great Restructuring,” they argued. “Our technologies are racing ahead but many of our skills and organizations are lagging behind.”

Many of the structures battered by the global struggle between the public and the elites have been captives of single-trial processes, and sought to define success hierarchically, from authority. New initiatives typically have failed — and failure has been typically explained away and doubled down on. The CIA, we saw, demanded and received more money after 9/11. Advocates of the $787 billion stimulus blamed its failure on the insufficient amounts spent. Such arguments persuaded only while the institutions held a monopoly of the means of information and communication: in other words, only so long as they went unquestioned. Today, of course, the public always questions, and will usually find the answer in the information sphere.

I made specific claims using specific types of evidence. I intended to describe what a crisis of institutional authority looked like, and to illustrate a handful of instances, rather than to demonstrate the proposition beyond a shadow of a doubt. So: my analysis could be falsified.

This state of affairs invites counter-revolution by the established order. Again and again, in subject after subject, accredited experts have attempted to regain control over the levers of epistemic closure. At every opportunity, institutional actors attacked the public on the grounds of its uncertainty: for example, the public stands accused of cocooning into a daily me, of conducting a “war on science,” of indulging in unprecedented partisanship, and more. Such nagging gives the game away. The counter-revolution of the authoritative elites has floundered, because the elites are themselves tormented by that terrible splinter of doubt.

You would expect the loss of a stable existence on earth to drive a search for fixity on a higher sphere. If this is the case, a rise in the appeal of fundamentalism will testify to the experience of impermanence. That takes me deep into the realm of subjectivity, but there are empirical hints and signs. In Egypt, we saw, the old regime was initially replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the country’s only fair elections to date. The hard reality in the Middle East is that Islamist groups have prospered wherever secular Arab authoritarians have wobbled. In the US, the more demanding faiths — evangelists, Mormons, Hasidics — have grown at the expense of older institutions which too much resemble the earth-bound hierarchies of the Center. The spread of Christianity in China is among today’s best-kept secrets. For the governing classes and articulate elites of the world, this turn to religion is both appalling and incomprehensible — but this is a denial of human nature. If the City of Man becomes a passing shadow, people will turn to the City of God.

Western intellectuals often dismiss Al Qaeda as a primitivist organization run by blinkered fanatics, but it is nothing of the kind. The group operates at the merciless front lines of the revolt of the public against authority, and its disregard not just for human life but for nearly every structure which binds people together poses again, with some urgency, the question of nihilism.

Liberal democracy has been the chief mechanism for mediating such internal flaws. The question of nihilism, now inextricably tangled with the crisis of authority, will be answered in terms which either affirm or negate the legitimacy of the democratic process. As I move to consider the effect of the crisis on government, this remains, for me, the most consequential and least noticed imponderable of our moment in time.

7: The failure of government

The fiction of extraordinary ambition and mastery has persisted, without irony, in our political language.

I have treated the limitation of government as a function of the limits of human knowledge, not of ideological preference, and in this approach I have stuck close to Paul Ormerod’s brilliantly researched and happily titled book, Why Most Things Fail.

The emergence of the Tea Party movement in 2009 anticipated many of the patterns followed by the insurgent groups of 2011.

If the Republican Party or the Koch brothers could really play Pied Piper to the libertarian masses, why on earth had they waited to do so until after the presidential elections?

Between libertarian and anarchist, it may be, the distance can be reduced to a quarrel about private property.

Unlike the Occupiers, Tea Party adherents swarmed head-on into electoral politics. Here was a difference that made a difference. And unlike the Five Star movement in Italy, the Tea Partiers did not strike out on their own. Instead, they focused their energies into transforming the Republican Party and making it the vehicle for their ideals. Success was partial, but still remarkable: in the 113th Congress, 48 Republican congressmen and five Senators belonged to the “Tea Party Caucus.” Many governors and state officials were also associated with the movement.

What James C. Scott has called the twentieth century’s “high modernist” approach to government routinely gambled on colossal projects designed to bring perfection to the social order.

High modernist ideology was a utopian faith: it assumed that rational planning and scientific knowhow, if imposed on a gigantic enough scale, could eradicate the miseries of the human condition, from tyranny and inequality to hunger and disease. The enemy was history, mother of superstition and disorder. The hero was the expert-bureaucrat, who could wipe the slate clean.

It is too late in the day now for such romance: government has lost the will for heroic effort.

Late modernist government is more like a kindly uncle, passing out chocolate chip cookies to his favorite nieces and nephews. He doesn’t wish to transform them. He just wants them to be happy — most particularly, with him. If high modernism in power was an engine of perfection, late modernism has become a happiness machine. It feels bound to intervene anywhere it has identified groups that were somehow victimized, disabled, troubled, below average, offended, uncomfortable—actually or potentially unhappy. Its actions are the political equivalent of handing out a chocolate chip cookie: government today desperately wishes to be seen doing something, anything, to help, and be recognized for its good intentions. There are no boundaries to intervention, but no epic outcomes either.

Interventionism has substituted a thousand tactics for a single bold strategy. Programs seem scarcely intelligible in terms of their stated purposes, and, like the stimulus, need to be legislated at exhausting length. President Obama’s signature program, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, sprawled over 900 pages of contradictory minutiae: the word “waiver” appeared 214 times. The Dodd-Frank bill that tightened regulation of the US financial system in 2009 covered 848 pages. For comparison, it took 31 pages in 1913 to establish the Federal Reserve, 37 to wrap up the Social Security Act of 1935.

The itch for microcosmic social adjustments is not an American invention. The democracies of Europe surrendered to it first, and with far more conviction. The European Union’s proposed constitution of 2004, for example, contained 400 articles (the US constitution has seven) and 855 pages, in which every conceivable strand of right-thinking opinion was awarded a chocolate chip cookie.

Modern governments have many achievements to their credit. They have built superhighways and helped to eradicate smallpox and polio. But they have promised many more things — nothing less than the good life — and they have asked for increasing control over wealth and power to get there. Failure has been a function of extravagant promises and great expectations.

“Instead of seeking to achieve political objectives, people seek certain physical and moral qualities,” writes Henri Rosanvallon. “Transparency, rather than truth or the general interest, has become the paramount virtue in an uncertain world.”

In May 2013, the IRS admitted that it had targeted President Obama’s political opponents for audits in the run-up to the 2012 elections, and had consistently denied tax-exempt status to groups associated with the Tea Party.

Other traditional government activities, like border control and the postal service, seemed to have embraced failure as their mission.

If the answer is no, however, we face an even more disturbing possibility: that democratic politics are fought over issues that democratic governments have no power to resolve.

Most things fail, because our species tends to think in terms of narrowly defined problems, and usually pays little attention to the most important feature of these problems: the wider context in which they are embedded. When we think we are solving the problem, we are in fact disrupting the context. Most consequences will then be unintended.

The difference is that failing companies go out of business and are replaced by new companies, while government accumulates failure, making it, systemically, much more fragile.

In Britain, where excellent statistics have been kept from the Victorian era onward, the size of the public sector as a proportion of the economy has doubled since 1946, compared to the period 1870–1938. Yet the difference in the average unemployment rate before and after the expansion of government was statistically negligible.

A preference for negation as a political style has begun to spread among the very people who are responsible for the preservation of the political status quo. For this paradoxical development, much of the responsibility, I believe, falls to President Obama, whose sectarianism from the heights brings him back to my story.

Few observers, then or now, have grasped how deeply against the grain of history this approach was. American presidents are supposed to be doers and achievers — masters of legislation, policy, and politics. President Obama seemed uninterested in fitting into that mold. He had risen on a tidal wave of hostility against authority, and he had been smashed down when he, in turn, was perceived to be the authority. The public was angry and disgusted with government. Henceforth he would be the voice of that anger and disgust. The veteran community organizer would embrace and reinforce the public’s distrust of the established order. The president became chief accuser to the nation.

The president was now a denouncer rather than a fixer of problems. He had described a destructive trend, but refused to make any claims of competence over it. The purpose of the exercise seemed to be to align him with the public’s anger on this issue, as he perceived it.

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post chided “Obama, the uninterested president,” complaining that “he wants no control over the actions of his administration.” A satire in the liberal New Yorker hammered at the same point: “President Obama used his radio address on Saturday to reassure the American people that he has ‘played no role whatsoever’ in the US government over the past four years,” it deadpanned.

Barack Obama, I believe, 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.

8: Nihilism and democracy

Here was the overarching feeling of our age: that we were the decadent children of a great generation, and that no way back could be found, no exit from the quicksand into which we were sinking, because that quicksand was us. The natural urge to find responsible parties and assign blame was baffled by the immense number of targets.

That faith has died. I won’t dwell on the cause of death, but will only state an incontrovertible fact: there are no serious political actors today who believe in the reality, much less the desirability, of revolution. In consequence, radical and democratic politics, which shared the same utopian end-point, have lost their directional coherence. The word “progress” itself has become impolite, an embarrassment. Nobody has a clue which way that lies.

Newly risen to education and prosperity, he imagines himself liberated from the past, and has grown hostile to it as to any limiting factor. The good things in life have always been there. They seem detached from human effort, including his own, so he takes them as given, part of the natural order, like the air he breathes. Gratitude would be nonsensical. Mass man accepts the gifts of the system as his due, but will tear up that system root and branch, present and past, if the least of his desires is left unfulfilled.

More accurately than alienation, a radical ingratitude describes the feeling that makes the nihilist tick. His political and economic expectations are commensurate with his personal fantasies and desires, and the latter are boundless. He expects perfection. He insists on utopia.

If the past is acknowledged, that relationship must be one of indebtedness. The Romans littered their homes with carved images of illustrious ancestors. But when, as is the case today, the public rejects history and longs to start again from zero, its relationship to the institutions that sustain it will be one of radical ingratitude. Once privilege is felt to be natural, a matter of birth rather than previous effort, the phantom that is the nihilist becomes flesh in the rebellious public—and any failure, any fall from perfection, will ignite a firestorm of discontent.

Every great institution is justified by a story. That story connects the institution to higher political ideals and ultimately to the moral order of the world. It persuades ordinary people—you and me—that, if we wish to do the right thing, we should act as the institution requires of us. The story bestows the authorizing magic I have called legitimacy.

Otherwise, I may as well shrug my shoulders and say, like John Searle’s determinist at the restaurant: “I think I’ll just sit here and wait to see what I order.”

If modern government, for all its wealth and power, can’t ordain the future of complex systems, what difference can it possibly make whether we, in our smallness, embrace one side or the other, choose this rather than that? All the wounded vanity of our decadent age will be rolled up in that one question.

9: Choices and systems

In the reality interpreted by Ormerod, most things must fail, including ambitious government projects, because the world is too unpredictable and nonlinear. But if that is the case, what difference can a personal choice make? The intelligent reader will at once understand this to be another question entirely: in what social and political environment could personal choices make a difference? The search for an answer is a major thread in this chapter.

The habits of high modernism have led to certain default assumptions: that only the top of the pyramid can impose meaningful social, political, and economic change, for example. Only the highest reaches of government, therefore, have the capacity to choose the path ahead. The rest of us belong to the inert masses. These assumptions were always undemocratic in spirit, but, more importantly, they have been falsified by the experience of the last 50 years. Heroic top-down initiatives have failed, habitually and in their own terms. The masses have awakened to political life in the unruly public, and the tremendous energies released by the Fifth Wave have surged entirely from below. Ideologies justifying hierarchical control over society have faltered, fallen, and begun to go extinct.

Drill down into the networks that have enabled the public to confound authority, and you soon arrive at what I would call the personal sphere. This is the circle of everyday life, experienced directly, in all its local specificity. Here the choices meaningful to an individual get generated: spouse, children, friends, career, faith. Government and high politics fill in the background. To imagine they can ordain or legislate happiness at this level is a modern illusion.

My question concerns the intrinsic necessity of industrial modes of organization to democratic government, and the intrinsic destructiveness of a public organized in digital networks, riding the tsunami of information.

The failure of government isn’t a failure of democracy, but a consequence of the heroic claims of modern government, and of the constantly frustrated expectations these claims have aroused. Industrial organization, with its cult of the expert and top-down interventionism, stands far removed from the democratic spirit, and has proven disastrous to the actual practice of representative democracy. It has failed in its own terms, and has been seen to fail, and it has infected democratic governments with a paralyzing fear of the public and with the despair of decadence.

The nihilist is dangerous in part because he’s right.

The most effective alternative to the steep pyramid of industrialized democracy isn’t direct democracy on the Athenian model or cyber-democracy in the style of Wael Ghonim’s Facebook page. It’s the personal sphere: the place where information and decisions move along the shortest causal links. To the extent that choices are returned to the personal from the political, they can be disposed directly, in the light of local knowledge, as part of an observable series of trial and error. Personal success can be emulated and replicated. Personal failure will not implicate the entire system.

Here’s a contradiction: for all its disdain of politicians, the public has often behaved as if happiness were indeed a gift bestowed by presidents.

The alternative I wish to consider comes in two parts. The first has to do with honesty in our expectations. Presidents can’t handle the economy. They have no clue how to do it. The experts who advise them rarely have what N. N. Taleb has called “skin in the game”: they pay no penalty when they are wrong, as they were, catastrophically, in 2008, and immediately again, with the stimulus, in 2009.

There is a second part to this choice. The standards used to evaluate government projects are also inventions of the industrial age. We, the public, are invited to take sides, to applaud or condemn presidents, based on some statistical abstraction, some number — the gross domestic product, for example, or the unemployment and poverty rates. We saw the unemployment rate used like a baseball score in the controversy surrounding the stimulus. The number shows the public who’s winning the political game. Numbers like the GDP fulfill a rhetorical function. They partake of the prestige of science, appearing superior to the confused jumble of reality as actually experienced. They sustain the high modernist claim that we can know at a glance the truth about vast systems. But we know that we don’t know. The number is an illusion.

playing politics by the number is a frivolous game of make-believe. Politics is nothing like baseball. In the end, the most persuasive story wins, not the highest score.

Abraham Lincoln, who oversaw the most horrific slaughter of US troops in history, is today considered our greatest president.

The best character in the best novel by Dickens, to my taste, is Mrs. Jellyby of Bleak House, who spent long days working to improve “the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger,” while, in her London home, her small children ran wild and neglected. Dickens termed this “telescopic philanthropy” — the trampling of the personal sphere for the sake of a heroic illusion.

Instead, unknowingly, they crossed into N. N. Taleb’s wild “Extremistan,” where “we are subjected to the tyranny of the singular, the accidental, the unseen, and the unpredicted.” In that unstable country, “you should always be suspicious of the knowledge you derive from data.”

Control, however tenuous, and satisfaction, however fleeting, can only be found in the personal sphere, not in telescopic numbers reported by government.

From within the short causal links of that intimate space, I can engage the tangled web of politics and government, form opinions, and act, if I wish, on those opinions. I can join vital communities of interest, and participate in philanthropic activity, including protests on behalf of radical change. I can exult when my ideals triumph on the great stage of the world, and feel despondent when they are defeated. That is allowed. What I cannot do is demand certainty of complexity, or expect that statistical formulas and numbers, accessible only to a chosen few, will have the power to ordain the future. What I should not do is pour a corrosive stream of rejection and negation on a democratic system that has struggled, and mostly failed, to meet my impossible demands and expectations.

The decisive choices, I believe, concern the handling of that perturbing agent, information.

For government to communicate with the public online to any extent, official language must be radically altered in style and length. That is also a choice, and by no means a trivial or superficial one.

That is only one speculative illustration of what might happen if government chose to work its drafts out in the open, online. The legal and pseudo-technical jargon clogging most official communications would also be reduced to a minimum. The current incentives for opaqueness would be replaced by a need for persuasiveness. Bureaucracy would behold itself through the cold eyes of the public. That alone might be transformative.

The point isn’t to pull the public up to the top of the pyramid in some sort of king-for-a-day “e-government” exercise, but to push the output of the elites to the personal sphere, where the public lives and makes decisions.

The failure of government has proceeded in parallel with the devaluation of practical knowledge. Intoxicated with the possibility of perfection, high modernist rulers endeavored to reduce local reality to the administrative grid of their observations.

To any who care to look, it will be apparent, in real time, that the veil of uncertainty clouds the vision of presidents and Fed chairs, no less than that of ordinary men and women. Once that fact is admitted, the loss of magical powers might well be compensated by a gain in legitimacy. I don’t consider this a paradox, only the difference between observing actions based on illusion or reality.

10: Finale for skeptics

If my thesis is true, we have entered a historical period of revolutionary change that cannot achieve consummation. Institutions are drained of trust and legitimacy, but survive in a zombie-like state. Governments get toppled or voted out, but are replaced by their mirror images. Hierarchies are brought low, but refuse to yield the illusion of top-down control. Hence the worship of the heroic past, the psychology of decadence — the sense, so remarkable in a time of radical impermanence, that there’s nothing new under the sun.

I have aimed at the strategic, at the big picture, folding Napster and blogging and “Climategate” into the same insurgency that swept Barack Obama to office and knocked Hosni Mubarak off his pharaoh’s throne. I have portrayed a public in revolt against authority in every domain. So maybe that has been my contribution.

I would look for entities external to government, such as corporations and NGOs, to absorb many of the functions traditionally assigned to the brain-dead institutions. Government could begin to unbundle.

Finally: in the political environment described by my thesis, government must make it a priority to defend itself against the public. I would expect the Chinese regime, for example, to be far more concerned with surveillance and control of the Chinese public than with foreign adventures — and to court risk overseas primarily to manipulate domestic opinion. The same would apply to our own Federal government. It will treat the American public like the enemy and deal with foreign enemies mostly to impress the public.

Years later, Philip Tetlock was to put scholarly integrity around this insight, in Expert Political Judgment. On reading Tetlock’s data, I found myself fascinated but not in the least surprised.

The new prime minister, a leading voice at Maidan, submitted to EU-mandated economic reforms with a despair bordering on nihilism. “We are a team of people with a suicide wish — welcome to hell,” he said. His words were remarkable for their honesty.

Following the horrors of 9/11, Fukuyama and his ideas were derided as triumphalist nonsense. But he was only half wrong. Fukuyama, a Hegelian, argued that Western democracy had run out of “contradictions”: that is, of ideological alternatives. That was true in 1989 and remains true today. Fukuyama’s mistake was to infer that the absence of contradictions meant the end of history. There was another possibility he failed to consider. History could well be driven by negation rather than contradiction. It could ride on the nihilistic rejection of the established order, regardless of alternatives or consequences. That would not be without precedent. The Roman Empire wasn’t overthrown by something called “feudalism” — it collapsed of its own dead weight, to the astonishment of friend and foe alike.

It is always useful to remember history, however: not so long ago, Europe was the world’s leading exporter of anti-democratic ideologies and movements.

I wrote this book, in part, to invite the discussion. I did so in the manner of a man who notices a fire blazing in a corner of a locked room: I don’t want to start a panic, only some sane talk among the occupants about how best to put the thing out.

Afterword: Trump, Brexit, and farewell to all that Reconsiderations:

The Revolt of the Public was first published in June 2014.

But Trump’s predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama, turns out to be a nihilist too — and at least one bewildered commentator has proclaimed (again in the Washington Post), “We’re all political nihilists now.”

The fate of democracy, I believe, is inextricably bound to the fate of the elites in democratic nations. The current elite class, having lost its monopoly over information, has been stripped, probably forever, of the authorizing magic of legitimacy. The industrial model of democracy is dysfunctional and discredited. That is the current predicament. Every step forward must start there.

A more precise phrasing would be: How are legitimate elites selected in a democratic society?

I said that Trump is free of any taint of government or political experience. He’s also ideologically formless — a member of his campaign staff described him, generously, as “post-ideological.” He has been for and against abortion in his time, for example. His supposed nationalism, on close inspection, dissolves into certain rhetorical preferences and the vague demand that the US get better economic deals from the world. The why of Trump’s election is simple enough. A candidate that innocent of qualifications and political direction can be elected only as a gesture of supreme repudiation, by the electorate, of the governing class. From start to finish, the 2016 presidential race can best be understood as the political assertion of an unhappy and highly mobilized public.

The right level of analysis on Trump isn’t Trump at all, but the public that endowed him with a radical direction and temper, and the decadent institutions that proved too weak to stand in his way.

In somewhat slower motion than the Republicans, the Democratic Party is unbundling into dozens of political war-bands, each driven by the hunger for meaning and identity, all focused with monomaniacal intensity on a particular cause: feminism, the environment, anti-capitalism, pro-immigration, or racial or sexual grievance. The schism has been veiled by the generalized loathing of all things Trump: but I find it hard to envision a national party thriving on tribalism and wars of identity.

The news business seemed strangely obsessed with this strange man, and lavished on him what may have been unprecedented levels of attention. The question is why. The answer will be apparent to anyone with eyes to see. Donald Trump is a peacock among the dull buzzards of American politics. The one discernible theme of his life has been the will to stand out: to attract all eyes in the room by being the loudest, most colorful, most aggressively intrusive person there. He has clearly succeeded to an astonishing degree.

Until the turn of the new millennium, the news media had controlled the information agenda. They could decide, on the basis of some elite standard, how much attention you deserved. In a fractured information environment, swept by massive waves of signal and noise, amid newspaper bankruptcies and many more TV news channels, every news provider approaches a story from the perspective of existential desperation. Trump understood the hunger, and knew how to feed the beast.

Like the old Holy Roman Empire, it lacks a true center and a shared reason for being. Nationalists and separatists, anarchists and populists, all tear at bonds held together mostly by inertia. The question, “On what principle must we stay?” receives at best a muddled answer.

The Russian economy is roughly equivalent to Spain’s. GDP per capita has declined in parallel with the oil market, and in 2016 was ranked right below the Caribbean island of Grenada. The Russian population peaked around 1990 and has lost five million since, the result of low birth rates, high abortion rates, and zero immigration. Life expectancy for males compares unfavorably with Rwanda.

Putin portrays himself in a very different light. He belongs to a class that I would call dictatorships of repudiation: al-Sisi in Egypt, Erdogan in Turkey, and the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela are members of the club. The common thread is a rhetoric of defiance and renewal. The dictator is transformed from a murderous predator into a solitary hero struggling against overwhelming odds. The villain confronting him is some hodgepodge of globalized malevolence, with the US typically pulling the strings.

Their struggle is the public’s, at least in this sense: the repudiation of the status quo and the desire to abolish it by fair means or foul.

China and Russia don’t pretend to be rival models to democracy: they are, in fact, old-fashioned industrial-age hierarchies intent on looting their own people.

As I look over the world’s democratic nations, I find little support for the thesis that their governments are becoming more violent or authoritarian. Among the old democracies at least, the opposite is closer to the truth. Democratic governments are terrified of the public’s unhappiness. They understand the crushing existential burden placed by the public on mere politics, and the likelihood of failure, and the certainty that failure will be digitally magnified. Their behavior is the opposite of authoritarian. It’s a drift to dysfunction: to paralysis.

A year in, it’s fairly clear that the actions and policies of the Trump administration are little different from, say, what a Ted Cruz or even a Jeb Bush administration would have implemented.

Trump has mastered the nihilist style of the web. That, to me, is the most significant factor separating him from the pack. His opponents speak in jargon and clichés. He speaks in rant.

The election of Donald Trump can be said to have demolished the intellectual foundations of the news business. The pretense of objectivity had been abandoned for a higher cause. The claim to furnish “all the news that’s fit to print” was now refuted by the failure to grasp the shape and outcome of the contest. No one who followed the news understood the forces at play. None guessed what was coming. Continued consumption of news seemed to lack any justification, other than amusement or habit.

The question was never asked why people would believe fake news over the real stuff. Trust in news as an institution had imploded.

“This is, at bottom, a battle over the truth,” Kurtz concludes. But it’s really a battle for dominance, fought on a darkling plain where truth, when encountered, is used strictly as a weapon.

That is the strong version of a thesis I believe to be generally valid. If fake news had become a salient part of the 2016 campaign, for example, it would have been exposed and exploded. If it wasn’t exposed, it was because it never crossed the public’s awareness threshold. Politically, it did not matter. Post-truth in relation to the web describes a vast and elaborate body of lies, but very little deception and practically no impact.

Consider Matthew d’Ancona’s condemnation of the tactics used by Brexit advocates: “This was Post-Truth politics at its purest — the triumph of the visceral over the rational, the deceptively simple over the honestly complex.” But that has always been the way. All the cunning dictators, like Hitler and Mussolini, persuaded by appealing to raw emotions — but so did the great democrats from Pericles to Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s how human persuasion works.

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked — but that way lies madness.

But what does data look like, devoid of structure? Nietzsche thought the whole thing was a rationalist prejudice. Marxists maintain that truth is a class construct — postmodernists, that it is a justification for power. And the father of Platonic truth was himself a proponent of the “noble lie.”

I want to make my terms very clear. I don’t believe reality is malleable, variable, or constructed. Reality is as unyielding as a policeman’s club. Unlike that club, however, the shared reality of 320 million persons can’t be experienced directly: it’s mediated.

Truth, for the elites, has come to mean that democracy will die in darkness unless the elected president is somehow overthrown.

Truth at the university, Jonathan Haidt notes, is increasingly subservient to social justice.

As we fly ever farther apart, we can only hear each other when we scream. The result (I repeat) has been paralysis for democratic government. In nearly every instance of provocation and violence, officials at every level, elected and appointed, have chosen to play the part of silent observers. No arrests were made in the Berkeley riots. Few persons were arrested in Charlottesville after a day of street fighting—and most were “drunk people.” This, I am persuaded, is where the fuzzy notion of post-truth acquires a club-like reality. The bearers of democratic legitimacy and agents of democratic law have become uncertain of their actual power. The keepers of the grand narratives, of our cosmic truths, appear unable to find a path to right action. The elites in their institutions are petrified by self-doubt.

Among the political left, there has been a robust debate whether to applaud or condemn antifa violence. The authorities that make life-and-death decisions are more concerned with not ending up on the wrong side of history. In the era of post-truth, with reality up for grabs, nobody wants to be perceived as anti-anti-fascist.

As the last righteous person, the nihilist aims to bring this about in the blood of random strangers. He acts out the violence that so many others perpetrate verbally and virtually on the web: he is, in that sense, the avenging angel of post-truth, and the rant made flesh.

The ISIS message resonated with thousands from Western countries who flocked to join the Caliphate. Many knew just a few words of Arabic. A significant minority was of non-Muslim origin. They chose barbarism over boredom, becoming actors in the apocalyptic drama instead of software programmers back home.

The defeat of ISIS demonstrates that when elites act with confidence in a cause that is shared across partisan and social lines, they can easily scatter the barbarian war-bands.

The democratic principle of access to the people in power is at war with the industrial age ideal of rule by remote, disinterested experts: and our representative system is too broken to mediate a settlement.

Yet democracy in a complex society can’t dispense with elites. That is the hard reality of the situation. Much more is involved than a need for specialized or esoteric knowledge. Today’s tastes may run to egalitarianism, but across history and cultures the only way to organize humanity, and get things done, has been through some level of command and control within a formal hierarchy.

If my analysis is anywhere close to the mark, the re-formation of liberal democracy, and the recovery of truth, must wait on the emergence of a legitimate elite class.

The quality that sets the true elites apart — that bestows authority on their actions and expressions — isn’t power, or wealth, or education, or even persuasiveness. It’s integrity in life and work. A healthy society is one in which such exemplary types draw the public toward them purely by the force of their example.

Innovation’s lightning may strike new domains: religion, so far, has remained singularly untouched.

Modern government’s original sin is pride. It was erected on a boast—that it can solve any “problem,” even to fixing the human condition—and it endures on a sickly diet of utopian expectations. We now know better.

The qualities I would look for among elites to get politics off this treadmill are honesty and humility: old-school virtues, long accepted to be the living spirit behind the machinery of the democratic republic, though now almost lost from sight. The reformers of democracy must learn to say, out loud for all to hear, “This is a process of trial and error,” and, “We are uncertain of the consequences,” and even, “I was wrong.”