Interview with Martin Gurri, "A Short-Term Pessimist and Long-Term Optimist"

Q&A with the author of "Revolt of the Public"

Few authors in recent times have resonated with reviewers across the political spectrum in the same way as Martin Gurri. The Intercept said of the former CIA analyst’s 2014 work, The Revolt of the Public: “Trump and Brexit Made This Book Look Prophetic.” The Washington Examiner, in a piece called, “The best analysis of 2021 is from 2014,” just wrote this a few days ago:

Gurri identified the underlying dynamics that explain why the Department of Justice is punishing an American citizen for making memes, shaman barbarians stand in the speaker’s chair, and sports fans bully hedge fund managers. The GameStop short squeeze in particular unfolded like a chapter in the book…

Gurri’s book, which outlines the inherent contradictions between traditional hierarchies of power and the demystifying power of the Internet, is compellingly predictive on a number of levels, but it’s easy to see why some mainstream thinkers might look askance. He says things that are obviously true, but that no one wants to hear, the worst possible combination.

Ask any mainstream media critic — say, Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post — what needs to be done to rebuild trust in news organizations, and the answer might be a combination of, “We need to do ideological litmus tests before conducting interviews” and “We need to boycott Fox News,” without so much as a nod to, “We maybe have to stop screwing up, too.”

In politics, media, financial services, medicine even, there’s an institutional unwillingness to admit that their trust problem might in any way be self-inflicted. A central premise of Gurri’s book is that the public, around the world, is reacting to real institutional shortcomings. He even has a chapter called, “The Failure of Government.” At the same time, he finds some of that failure in the habit of setting expectations too high, deceiving the public into misunderstanding “the reality of what democratic governments can achieve.”

In other words, Gurri’s book doesn’t just point and blame, in the manner of most recent political non-fiction. He asks both the justifiably angry public and those working in hated elite institutions to look inward. Voters, while they should demand fairness and strike out against corruption, may also need to readjust expectations for government, and resist nihilistic solutions. Meanwhile, institutions like the news media need to recognize that a recent history of blunders — not just whoppers like the WMD mess, but constant worship at the altar of “experts” like Alan Greenspan, who in crises later prove to be clueless — have cost them dearly.

These problems need to be faced, but Gurri believes they can be fixed. The author on trust, positive change, and optimism:

TK: Can any informational institution be authoritative in the Internet age? Put another way, is the Internet-based media system — which can elevate anyone from Joe Rogan to Alex Jones to network-sized audiences almost overnight — inherently destabilizing?

Gurri: There are no logical or structural reasons why authority could not be earned in a time of information overabundance. The process would necessarily be different from the past, when authority was conferred from above and entailed, as a personal reward, rising a great distance above the public. That world is gone with the wind.  No agreement exists about what should replace it.

We are in the earliest stages of a very messy transformation, but in time, I suspect, the institutions of democratic politics and government will learn to engender trust on a transactional basis within the crowded immediacy of the web. I’m not a particularly imaginative person, but I can easily imagine political parties relying on some combination of Wikipedia and subreddit-style sites, in which ideas and energy from below receive a minimum of governance from above.

Joe Rogan and Alex Jones are surface symptoms of this transitional moment. Their success and destabilizing power have come at the expense of the old hierarchical institutions, managed by elites who simply refuse to accept that the world has changed forever and who insist that legitimacy can only be bestowed from above. When the center grows dotty and delusional, marginal actors with strange ideas will move in and carve off slices of the public’s attention.

TK: Do you think the fears of those “old hierarchical institutions” might be part of the thinking behind the content moderation movement, which seems designed to a) put the "network" under more centralized control, and b) narrow the informational options for the typical news consumer?

Gurri: Content moderation, in my opinion, isn’t really a movement but part of this delusional thinking. The idea is to make the great digital platforms look like the front page of the New York Times circa 1980. It won’t happen. The digital realm is too vast.  There can be no question that, with Joe Biden as president, we have entered a moment of reaction — a revolt against the revolt.  But all the techniques of control wielded by the elites are, like their dreams, stuck in the 20th century and ineffective in the current information landscape.

To take down an opinion, or an author, or a small platform like Parler would have had a shocking impact in 1980, but today is simply swarmed over by similar opinions, authors, and platforms. This is truly a Marshall McLuhan moment, in which the message is the medium, rather than little threads of contested content.

TK: You write that the Border can neutralize, but not replace, the Center. Is this absolute? In other words, has the network you describe permanently undermined the whole concept of centralized authority, or just a particular set of institutional authorities - banks like Goldman, Sachs, the Democratic and Republican Parties, CBA/ABC/NBC, etc?

Gurri: That’s a good question. I don’t believe the paralysis caused by the collision between network and hierarchy is absolute. I think it’s contingent on the structure of the institutions and the behavior of the actors on the political stage. Government can be reconfigured, elites can be replaced by others who behave differently, and the public’s behavior, one hopes, is under our own control. Positive change is perfectly possible.

I have often said that hierarchy is both inescapable — baked into our DNA – and indispensable to getting things done. The sectarian dream of perfect equality in every interaction is a formula for endless argument without final action. But hierarchy can be of various shapes and sizes, and it can be open or closed. We have inherited from the 20th century institutional pyramids that are steep, ponderous, and closed to all who don’t know the secret code. Digital life, which is what most of the public experiences, is flat, fast, and accessible to everyone. Part of the reconfiguration I mentioned before will be to bring the old hierarchies closer in line with the public’s expectations: government will have to be flatter, faster, and more interactive.

TK: You referenced the repeat appearance in protest movements of imagery from "V for Vendetta,” a movie that ends with the destruction of the old regime, and everything else will “take care of itself.” Do you think there's disinterest in the form of future governance among political activists because they're pessimistic about actually taking power? Or is it optimism: if they overthrow established authority, problems will vanish? Or is it the quasi-ironic/nihilistic spirit of these times, where even the most capable people don't like to imagine themselves as power-holders? Where in our society are people trained for actual governance?

Gurri: The posture of negation that edges into nihilism is a function of the structure of the public itself. The public in the digital age is many, not one. It’s fractured into mutually hostile war-bands. The only way to unify and mobilize these groups is to emphasize what they stand against: the system, the elites, the established order.  Governance would require organization, leadership, programs — but all those things would once again divide the public into its component parts. So the posture remains eternally against. Even when protesters win concessions — as in France with the Yellow Vests, for example — they will not take yes for an answer.

Your last question is a very interesting and troubling one. In the digital age, people are trained to express themselves, to perform in a way that will grow their following, rather than to govern. (Think Donald Trump.) Yuval Levin has written that our institutions were once formative — they shaped the character and discipline of those who joined them — but are now performative, mere platforms for elite self-expression and personal branding.  I completely agree. Outside of the military, which still demands a code of conduct from its members, I don’t see where people are trained to govern today.

TK: If so many of the questions in your book are tied to the problem of information and how it's delivered, how big of a role will the news media have in determining our future? A common reaction to criticisms of media within the media business is that we're just not that important, in the scheme of things, at least not compared to banking, medicine, etc. How big of a deal is the loss of trust in the news media?

Gurri: Well, the future is opaque, and I haven’t been granted a prophetic vision, but here’s my take on your question. The news business was adapted to 20th-century conditions and is an endangered species in the present information environment. I think many of the pathologies you yourself have documented are desperate attempts to survive in the digital storm. In the old analog life, the media was important to the elites, and the elites were important to the public. Neither of those conditions apply today.

TK: You speak in the book of being worried for the future of representative democracy. How much more or less bleak does the picture look now, after four years of Donald Trump? It looks possible that his legacy will be the delegitimization of electoral politics, as traditional hierarchies have almost rallied to something like an authoritarian counterrevolution in response to him. If people have lost faith in authority, have elites also lost faith in the ability of populations to hold up their end of the bargain in democracies?

Gurri: First, I hold that Trump was a symptom — an effect rather than a cause.  He possessed an outlandish personality, and that brought its own effects, but one can easily find Trump-like populists all over the world. Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, for example, makes Trump seem like an etiquette book by comparison. Globally, the public is looking for alternatives to the ruling elites, and these populists, by their very outrageousness, are signaling that they are not them.

Second, the elites, as I said before, are stuck in a sterile nostalgia for the 20th century.  They are at war with the world as it actually is today, and I imagine they would love to disband the public and summon a more obedient version. Hence the panic about fake news and the tinkering with control over content.

When Trump won in 2016, the elites refused to accept his legitimacy.  He was said to be the tool of Vladimir Putin and an aspiring tyrant. When Trump lost in 2020, he and many of his followers refused to accept the legitimacy of that election. A Trumpist mob sacked the Capitol building to demonstrate its rage. None of this is good for democracy or the legitimacy of our political institutions.

But let’s look at the big picture. Trump won in 2016, and, in his inimitable style, ran the US government for four years. He lost in 2020 and moved out of the White House to make room for Joe Biden, just as he was supposed to do. Now Biden is in charge.  He gets to run the government. The drama of democracy has generated lots of turbulence but remarkably little violence. The old institutions are battered and maladapted but they have deep roots. The American people may be undergoing a psychotic episode, but they are fundamentally sensible.

With regards to democracy, I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. Not sure whether that’s an analytical judgment, or just an act of faith…

For more on “The Revolt of the Public,” see the forthcoming review in TK.