Martin Gurri on the political implications of communications technology

I have just about finished reading The Revolt of the Public. It is an important book, but not easy to digest. I give Virginia Postrel a lot of credit for boiling it down fairly well, but there is more to it than fit in her write-up.

Back in the 1990s, a lot of people tried to forecast the impact of the Internet on politics. Libertarians thought that it would lead to a more libertarian world. Social democrats thought it would lead to a more social democratic world. I don’t recall any conservative prognostications.

Gurri says it could lead to a more nihilistic world, one in which newly-empowered outsiders tear down elite control structures but are then left with the question, “Now what?”

Gurri says that elite insiders have difficulty coming to terms with the revolutionary implications of the new communications environment. Cue Ross Douthat, trying to explain why he did not foresee the Donald Trump phenomenon.

Now if I wanted to avoid giving Trump his due, I could claim that I didn’t underestimate him, I misread everyone else — from the voters supporting him despite his demagoguery to the right-wing entertainers willing to forgive his ideological deviations.

In fact, I lean toward that view. There was a market niche available, and Trump happened to fill it. Some of it reflects his individual skill, but I am not inclined to put too much emphasis on that.

The point about “right-wing entertainers” is well taken. For years, conservative talk radio personalities have railed against “RINO’s” (Republicans in Name Only) and claimed that if the Republicans stopped nominating me-too candidates and instead ran a real conservative for President they would win. The way that I look at it, anyone who really believed in the need for Republicans to nominate someone reliably conservative would prefer almost any Republican candidate in the race other than Trump. (I am hardly alone in that view.) But it seems that the talk radio hosts are happy to toss prior convictions out the window in order to excite their listeners.

I keep going back to the 1960s. In 1964, Barry Goldwater was nominated by an insurgency, and he got crushed. I think that in 2016 the insurgent candidate with the highest chance of getting the nomination (and I put his chances at well under 50 percent) is not Donald Trump, but Bernie Sanders. And I think that if Sanders is nominated, then he will get crushed.

In any case, Gurri provides the best analytical framework I have come across for understanding current politics, both here and in other countries. Ross Douthat should give it a read.

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17 Responses to Martin Gurri on the political implications of communications technology

  1. Adam says:

    I’m glad you were impressed by the book!

    If you want to read more of his stuff, he blogs about related topics at

    He also has a longer running blog on moral philosophy:

    • I enjoy his fifth wave blog a lot, and will probably buy the book becuase of that. But I don’t really buy into the pessimism.

      Gurri says it could lead to a more nihilistic world, one in which newly-empowered outsiders tear down elite control structures but are then left with the question, “Now what?”

      If this is really what is going on, then it is a sign that the libertarians were more right about the internet than the social democrats were — it is eroding the authority of existing elites and that the elites are falsely seeing this as nihilism.

      The Hayekian script goes like this: powerful people and elite philosophers want to intentionally order the world, and fail to see that the world is really ordered by rational actions dispersed throught society. Thus they see chaos as the only alternative to centralised power structures.

  2. Devalier says:

    Moldbug’s 2007 post on mediocracy seems quite prescient:


    Mediocracy is a problem, no doubt. But it is not the worst thing in the world. One of the main problems with mediocracy is that it depends on centralized control of public information, a control which is rapidly evaporating with phenomena such as home schooling, Blogger, YouTube, etc. Military-grade hatred is not at all hard to find in today’s mediocracies. It is only confined to a marginal fringe by the inertial remnants of old-line journalism, which are rapidly evaporating. And the official universities, which were once at least bastions of moderation, have evolved – for very sensible adaptive reasons – into Universalist madrassas at best, and Petri dishes of Chomskyite political hydrophobia at worst.

    Ergo, I conclude, mediocracy is an extremely dangerous condition in need of urgent treatment. If it survives in its present state, the future holds nothing but Brezhnevist sclerosis, possibly with newer and better iPods. If nothing else, its financial system is quite unsustainable. If mediocracy collapses and we see a new birth of Internet-powered ochlocracy, Chomskyites will be fighting white nationalists in the streets. And the latter, being better armed and trained, will almost certainly prevail. Do you want this? I’ll bet some UR readers want this. I don’t.


    We’re not there yet, but the trend seems quite ominous.

  3. Jeff R. says:

    Sounds pretty perceptive. Not withstanding legitimate disagreements over policy or values or insider/outsider status, I would just add that the general ignorance and innumeracy of the public isn’t helping matters, either. Statistics, for example, like 25% of women being sexually assaulted before they graduate college, are fabricated by activists, disseminated by journalists, and believed by idiots, which then spurs panic and indignation at college campuses across the land, resulting in this bizarre, quasi-official campus tribunal system springing up to adjudicate accusations outside the traditional criminal justice system with all sorts of ad hoc rules and procedures.

    MR had another good example of this from years ago I still remember being mystified by:

    • djf says:

      The problem is that not everyone who believes these phony “facts” – or at least speaks and acts as if he or she believes them – is an idiot. Quite the contrary.

      At some point, it becomes essential to a person’s professional and social status to adopt, or at least not question, a certain narrative. This phenomenon no doubt has always existed, but increasingly the socially mandatory narratives are both false and, when acted upon, destructive.

      • Jeff R. says:

        Well, to clarify, what I had in mind was that quote from the Postrel piece that with free, easy to access information, “the regime accumulates pain points.” It seems to me that in many instances the pain points consist of illegitimate grievances, like with the phony sexual assault statistics, and so the regime is forced to respond to non-existent or at least greatly exaggerated problems. The Ferguson, MO situation was an example of this. The “hands up, don’t shoot” meme circulated quickly and fixed itself in the minds of broad swathes of the public and stayed there despite the fact that it was contradicted by the physical evidence.

        Maybe this is just me but it seems like these illegitimate grievances are accumulating and becoming more widespread.

        • djf says:

          My point was that it is the memes that catch on with the elites – like the “campus rape culture” and “the police are a latter-day KKK targeting innocent black men” and “higher education and business are racist cesspools” – that are being acted upon, to the detriment of the common good. The government or the elite are responding to pitchfork rebellions they sympathize with and, to some extent, have cultivated (e.g. Soros funding the “activists” who turned up in Ferguson). They readily brush off the outrage of the non-elite when they have a mind to do so (supply your own example). The interesting question, IMHO, is how we have arrived at a situation, where the most educated and powerful strata of Western societies become obsessed with memes that are false and plans of actions that are making life worse for most of their own citizens. Perhaps some Gibbon will take a stab at explaining it 1500 years in the future.

  4. R Richard Schweitzer says:

    How the members of social orders come to “look upon” one another – and “others,” has been noted and enlarged upon by Adam Smith (“A Theory of Moral Sentiments”); identified by McCloskey as a principal element in the development of social orders – but always as to how one comes to regard others through one’s “own eyes” and psyche.

    What Gurri seems to be on to are patterns of coming to regard others through the eyes of multiple others, whose “sight” and the impacts of their psyches, are conveyed to the senses more rapidly, in more detail, more difficult to “digest,” by new technologies that have quite different effects on those senses which form individual regards.

  5. Lord says:

    I said the last time around the nomination was Trumps if he wanted it, my surprise was that he does, and by what he says, he really does. I still expect him to be the nominee.

  6. Yancey Ward says:

    The way that I look at it, anyone who really believed in the need for Republicans to nominate someone reliably conservative would prefer almost any Republican candidate in the race other than Trump

    While I don’t really disagree with your assertion, I am starting to understand that it is a case of going with the devil the you don’t know. I keep coming back to the end of Postrel’s review where she states that “some men just want to watch the world burn”. I think it may be more the case that some men want to acknowledge the world is burning.

    • John Thacker says:

      Well, there’s that. But there’s also that Trump pretty accurately represents a strain of politics that was darn successful in the American South for decades. Those voters have largely left the Democratic Party (or else Jim Webb would have gotten some traction as he’s the “thinking man’s Trump”), but also because the Democratic Party left them.

      Some of those people view themselves as moderates, some view themselves as conservatives (but not in the movement sense), but they’re definitely people who have been there for years. Most have moved to the Republican Party, but have (contrary to claims) never really taken it over before.

  7. Kevin says:

    The real question in any election season is whether we can reliably remove our preferences from our expectations. If I like Hillary, I expect her to win and Trump to lose. If I like Trump, I expect him to win and Hillary to lose.

    Neither of my preferences has anything to do with their inherent probability of winning, however, so I find it better to overweight the probability of those I dislike and underweight those I do. That leaves me not counting anyone out, nor anyone inevitable. By doing so, I find I’m more open to news about the race in general, because I’m not filtering it through my preferences as a validation tool.

    Watching so many media outlets tell us who is “electable” and why candidate X “can’t win” tells me the people reporting the news have no such filter attached.

  8. Handle says:

    The way that I look at it, anyone who really believed in the need for Republicans to nominate someone reliably conservative would prefer almost any Republican candidate in the race other than Trump.

    Tactically, sure. Strategically, no.

    There was a seminar at CATO yesterday, “The Economics of Immigration.”

    In response to a question about the negative economic results in France and some other European countries, the panel blamed it on the bad leftist labor regulations in those countries.

    But both CIS and ThinkProgress agree (!) that naturalized immigrants vote Democrat at least 2:1. And today, California is pretty much a one-party state which is not known for its lax labor market regulations, which are getting harder and harder to distinguish from those bad European policies.

    Nobody wants to touch that point, especially Open-Borders Libertarians, but it’s really important if you’re going to go around claiming these huge potential gains in GDP unless of course Democrats become so strong electorally that they actually do what they claim they want to do, which is be more like France.

    And like I said, it’s existentially strategic for the future of any conservative party and any potential that you could get a ‘reliably conservative’ candidate to win, ever again. Over a decade ago Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard that such a thing had already become completely and almost laughably impossible in California. So what about the rest of the country?

    Everyone complains that politicians in democracies go for ‘sugar-rush’ short-term gains at the expense of long-term costs that could go off like time-bombs, but at least after the next election. But few people recognize that this same thing can happen within a single political party, and has now actually happened to the GOP.

    So many GOP voters know that Trump is not the most tactically conservative vote at all, but that even a Pyrrhic protest vote for him may be the only chance in nudging the party’s elite establishment away from long-term suicide.

    • asdf says:

      Short term the only way to win elections is to win the great lakes area/PA. The only way to win that is with working class whites. If you look at Trumps support by geography its highest in the battleground states he needs to win.

      Long term the only way for the GOP to survive is to keep Texas red. The only way to do that is to deport millions of illegals.

      Short or long, Trump is your only shot if you want to win. Any of the other candidates will do little more then win a little under 50% of the vote and gracefully fail in the battleground states.

  9. Andrew' says:

    I’m not Nostradamus so I can’t say I predicted Trump, but my theory has been “presidential candidates get worse.” Is Trump that much worse than Obama? While the great recession was burning Obama was playing the Obamacare violin. Maybe it has to do with “they ignored my concerns and now it’s my turn to get mine!” He’s just a point on the vector, to me. I don’t yet have an “and then they get better” theory.

    As information democratizes, maybe power need to further democratize. Not in the sense of giving voters more power, but in the sense that maybe politicians need smaller jurisdictions to reflect the granulation of information availability.

    But I still hold out hope based on the theory that Trump is a flaming narcissist. He only needs a couple setbacks and if he sees rough sailing ahead he’ll claim victory from bowing out and saying something like he wanted to change the course of the national debate or something of that tack.

  10. collin says:

    Gurri says it could lead to a more nihilistic world, one in which newly-empowered outsiders tear down elite control structures but are then left with the question, “Now what?”

    No, it is more nihilistic world, but the outsiders are not tearing down structures but merely making stupid Youtube (or Askblog) comments and not changing much of anything with the econo-political system. (Name how the three Presidents during the internet era have made significant changes?) I think the problem of a true breakdown of the system is too high to endeavor. Just think the US suffered a huge Financial Crisis in 2008 and please explain to me how the Global Economy has changed significantly.

    Also, please explain how Bernie Sander who is 20+ points below HRC in a three candidate race has any chance of winning outside of HRC health concern. (OK he can win his home state neighbor and gets creamed in the South.) Trump is still an unlikely candidate (My money is Cruz) but he has led the polls for a significant time.

  11. Floccina says:

    A data point:
    I know a Trump supporter well and he is a conservative and have asked him about why he supports Trump.

    1. He feels like he has tried voting for the most conservative candidate (Like W Bush) and they govern just like democrats.

    2. He thinks if we must have big Government maybe Trump a business man can make it more efficient.

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