A specter haunts democratic countries. It has overturned governments, annihilated political parties, and battered the established order everywhere, leaving politicians frightened and demoralized. This specter has a name: the public. It is composed of gifted amateurs, people from nowhere organized in networks that revolve around some abiding interest, typically, in politics, against. The public feeds on negation.
The rise of the public has been a function of the digital revolution. During the industrial age, only the elites could participate in political discussion. Presidents and anchormen spoke, while the public remained passive and silent. With the arrival of digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube, a remarkable strategic reversal took place that saw the public conquer the commanding heights of information and communication. Ordinary people began to produce astronomic levels of information. For the first time in history, they could drown out their betters and impose their own stories on events. The effect has been a bleeding away of legitimacy for governments of every type.
By 2011, a phase change from “soft” information to “hard” politics was at hand. The serial Arab uprisings of that year would have been difficult to achieve without the public’s command of the information sphere. The Egyptian protests that overthrew Hosni Mubarak were planned as an invitation to a Facebook event. The Syrian government’s slaughter of its own people was communicated live to a horrified world in a stream of YouTube videos.
The overthrow of dictators in 2011 sounded like a comfortingly familiar story, but in fact the networked public made few distinctions between democracy and authoritarianism. Spain’s indignados – the word means “outraged” – began their uprising against the “obsolete and anti-natural current economic model” on blogs and Facebook. It ended with the electoral obliteration of the ruling Socialist Party. In Israel, a young woman’s unhappiness with housing costs soon turned from a Facebook invitation to the largest street protests in the country’s history. Even the London riots of August 2011 were digitally assisted. Police grumbled that “social media is now widely used as a planning and communication medium by people intent on causing disruption.”
Events in Ukraine, Thailand, Venezuela, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and elsewhere show that the impulse to revolt has, if anything, gained in intensity since 2011.
What does the public want? In the research I conducted for my book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, I found the ideals and behavior of the public surprisingly consistent across national boundaries. In brief: the public is at war with the established order, but has no clue about what to put it its place. It wants a radical transformation of politics and society, without having to dirty its hands on the machinery of government. The public has no interest in seizing power.
The revolt of the public is thus a post-revolutionary event. It has never embodied a specific ideology, organization, or program. The public today is not an analog of the mass movements of the last century, but something very different: self-assembled networks of people of diverse political views, held together, nearly always, by the power of shared loathing. They stand against: Hosni Mubarak, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, “swinish capitalism,” a government perceived as too intrusive or corrupt, “the system.” But the need to spell out a positive program has invariably shattered the cohesion of the public as a political force.
For nations accustomed to authoritarian rule, the consequences of a public in perpetual revolt can best be judged by the current chaos in the Middle East. In the old democracies like the United States, however, matters stand somewhat differently.
Command of the information sphere has allowed the public to magnify every botched policy, bureaucratic bungle, and personal indiscretion among the political elites. Government, that supposed Leviathan, has become synonymous with failure. Trust in democratic institutions stands at red-alert lows. Presidents, parliaments, political parties and expert bureaucracies, have lost the capacity to inspire either devotion or fear.
Unlike the Mubarak regime, these institutions still endure. The public has no interest in reforming them, and the politicians are too afraid to take risks. The grand institutions of democracy remain outwardly imposing, but they have lost all authority and prestige in the eyes of the public. They survive by a precarious combination of inertia and the public’s unwillingness to produce an alternative, and resemble bodies without souls, staggering, zombie-like, from one misadventure to the next. They exist by default.
So let me conclude with a warning: the democratic process is in danger of self-negation. Each failure of an elected government bleeds legitimacy from the system, erodes faith in the machinery of democracy, and triggers nihilistic gestures from the public. Democracy lacks true rivals as an ideology or system of government. That is not enough. There is a decadence in certain historical moments, an entropy of systems, that makes no demand for alternative ideals or structures before the onset of disintegration. At some point, failure becomes final.