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How Elite Institutions Lost Their Legitimacy
Arnold Kling talks to Martin Gurri about how social media has accelerated the erosion of public trust in elite institutions
By Arnold Kling and Martin Gurri
Martin Gurri doesn’t like to make predictions. But if you were lucky enough to read his groundbreaking 2014 book, The Revolt of the Public, when it was first published, you’d have an excellent guide for understanding much of what subsequently happened in the United States and around the world. Gurri’s thesis—that information technology, particularly social media, has helped to dramatically widen the distance between ordinary people and elites—has proven invaluable in explaining not only the election of Donald Trump, but other recent populist events around the globe.
Arnold Kling was one of the first people to see the importance of Gurri’s book. He’s also written his own influential contribution to our understanding of recent social and political trends. In 2013’s The Three Languages of Politics, Kling shows how three different political tribes in the US—liberals, conservatives and libertarians—have been speaking past each other, rather than to each other, helping to increase political polarization.
On Jan. 31, Kling sat down with Gurri at the Mercatus Center to discuss the latter’s views on the push and pull between the public and elites, focusing on three institutions: the academy, journalism and politics.
Gurri, who is a visiting research fellow at the Mercatus Center, worked for many years as a media analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. He currently writes a monthly column for the Mercatus Center’s online magazine, The Bridge. Kling, who is a senior affiliated scholar at Mercatus, is a housing economist who has worked both at Freddie Mac and for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. In addition to The Three Languages of Politics, Kling has authored a number of other volumes, including Specialization and Trade, and is a regular contributor to The Bridge.
This transcript, as well as the audio of the conversation between Kling and Gurri, has been slightly edited for clarity.
ARNOLD KLING: We have a bunch of things in common. Some of them quite random, but one of them is that each of us put an e-book out that we self-published, and each book was kind of ahead of its time. Mine was called The Three Languages of Politics, and I put it out in 2013, and it eventually got picked up by Cato and there’s now a print edition. And that talked about the psychology of political tribalism, and now everyone’s into that. I just noticed that Ezra Klein’s latest book is on that topic. I was on a panel a few weeks ago with Jonathan Rauch, and he spoke first and he said everything you need to say about political psychology, and I said, whoa, what am I going to say after that?
And Martin’s book, he put it out in 2014, right? It was The Revolt of the Public, and that’s about the restlessness of people worldwide. Now I think everyone has noticed that it’s happening in more than one country, these populist revolts. So we kind of have that in common. Anyway, Yuval’s book is about institutions and the decline in institutions. He starts out with every institution has seen this decline in trust, based on polling data. That there has been an information revolution. Am I right that you measured it somehow? At some year there was so much information available, and then in that year it basically doubled?
MARTIN GURRI: Some scholars said U Berkeley tried to measure the total amount of information in the world. This is the year 2003 or something. They came up with—and they measured it in various different ways, in bits—the fact that in the year 2001 information was produced at a volume that was double that of all previous history going back to the cave paintings and the beginning of culture. All right. 2002 doubled 2001. That has more or less been maintained. If you chart it, it looks like a stupendous wave. So you’ll hear me talking about an information tsunami. That’s only partly a metaphor. When you chart it out, it really kind of looks like this enormous wave of information that has crashed on the institutions and is not a revolution, but a turbulence, I would call it.
KLING: Two to the 10th is 1,024. I figured that out before I came here. So that means if there was this much information in 2000, there was 1,000 times in 2010 and a million times that today. I have a different water metaphor—a tsunami. Sort of imagine in 2000 information was the Mississippi River. You knew where it was coming from, you know where it’s going, stays at the same level. And now you’re in the middle of an Atlantic storm, waves coming from different directions, 30 feet high. You have these boats that were built for the Mississippi River, and they find themselves in this storm, and that’s kind of where we are. But that’s not the only aspect of it. I would say the distribution of who has the most information has changed, right?
GURRI: Right, this enormous upswing of information comes from below. Information always used to come from above. And our institutions—political institutions, businesses, the media—were used to a world in which their little cone of information was pretty much controlled by them. I mean, there was some leakage back and forth, but pretty much controlled by them. So they controlled the story that they wanted told. In this Atlantic storm that we’re in, or a tsunami, basically, that’s no longer possible. And a lot of the legitimacy and almost all of the authority that these institutions had in the 20th century has been swept away. Basically, every error, every lie, every confusion, every silly statement, everything that you said today that wasn’t like what you said two years ago, the kinds of things that in the 20th century was kind of papered over because we tell the story the way that makes us look better, all of that is out there now. And it has completely eroded trust in our political institutions, including democracy.
KLING: So let’s start with journalism. When we were growing up, if it was me against the New York Times, the New York Times had reporters in the field, photographers in the field, wire service subscriptions, access to government officials, probably better access to academics. Now we can both look at Google and see kind of the same thing.
GURRI: Well, illustration: The New York Times in a very strange kind of… roll the drums, please… the winner is type of endorsement of the Democratic field, came up with two, somehow—[Elizabeth] Warren and [Amy] Klobuchar—and it was “yawn.” Nobody cared, right? Joe Rogan, totally unaffiliated podcaster whose audience dwarfs not only the New York Times by many, many factors, but any newscaster on television, endorses Bernie Sanders, and it’s controversy for a week, right? It’s people yelling… That mattered. New York Times, nobody cared. It’s a changed world.
KLING: I don’t want to spend that much time on the current politics, but we are a few days away from the Iowa caucus. I guess I’m old-fashioned. I’m surprised that Warren has fallen really below what I thought was her floor if you read the polls. And Sanders has risen above what I thought was his ceiling. I give sort of a social media-type interpretation—and your Joe Rogan example would fit perfectly in this—that when we were growing up, it was the heyday, or maybe even 30 years ago, it was the heyday of the protected politician. You can picture the politician surrounded by consultants and pollsters and spin doctors, and they would make sure that not everything that the politician thought, felt, instinctively reacted to got out to the public. I mean, that was kind of their job, and that was normal. We just expected that. Now, for some reason, with today’s media nobody’s supposed to filter these politicians anymore. I mean, [President] Trump doesn’t get filtered, and I suspect that the reason that Sanders has done better than I expected, and Warren worse, is that she’s more old-fashioned and calculating and he’s what he is. Is that . . .
GURRI: Yeah. When I think the politics of nominating a president in the United States are crazy, I mean institutionally crazy. This is not “revolt of the public” crazy. It’s institutionally crazy. It’s kind of hard to get a sense of what the hell actually is happening there. But if I were to make a guess, that’s exactly right. I think many layers of the public want a disruptor; they don’t like the elite class to feel comfortable and smug. So they elect people like Trump, who that seems to be his job in life, or they settle on somebody like Bernie, who’s a real disruptor. I mean, God help us. He’s what he is and has always been so. Warren is much more of a . . . Well, I think for this election, this is who I’m going to be. And the public can sniff that out in a minute, I think, in this environment.
KLING: And it matters more. I mean, one of the things that I claim is that the smartphone and social media have created a collision between two worlds that when I was growing up were different. I call them the intimate world and the remote world. So the intimate world’s your friends, your family, the people you associate with. And the remote world was politicians, celebrities, extremists, what have you. They used to be quite separate. You only dealt with the remote world—you saw them in magazines or on television or whatever. Now, if you have your smartphone, you can have your picture of your friend, you flip your finger and you’ve got the politicians or the celebrities or the extremists. And I think that somehow that’s changing people’s expectations. I think they maybe have a harder time accepting the filtered, image-managed politician, and they just expect to be able to communicate more directly and sort of see someone who looks like more from their intimate world.
GURRI: Yeah, I think there’s what I call tremendous utopian expectations that the public brings to this strange contest between the public and elites. The elites, we can talk about that later if you want. Or we can talk about journalism now. But the public is basically in “against mode,” and it’s absolutely driven by negation. Very powerfully driven by negation. I mean, you look at these revolts, there were at least 30 of them in the year 2019. I can tell when my book does well because the world is doing badly. So in 2019 with all this turmoil and violence in many places, you looked at a lot of those revolts, and you saw that these were people who are driven by a powerful sense that they wanted to get rid of the status quo but who brought no alternatives to the table, did not have leaders or organizations or ideologies that could be negotiated with and transacted with. So they’re kind of stuck in that mode. And that is what, if you’re a politician today, you have to tap into in some ways, I think.
KLING: So back to journalism. What does that mean for journalism? We’ll show our age, we’re growing up. There was this, what I call a prestige hierarchy in journalism, that the New York Times was above the local newspaper, which is above something else. The CBS news was above your local broadcast or above something else. And again, the public had no role in kind of creating news, which they do now. Nowadays you don’t need the New York Times photographer to find out what’s going on in Hong Kong. You can look at what protestors themselves put up on social media. So I would describe right now we sort of have two equal and opposing narratives. I mean, if you look at impeachment, the narrative is he’s guilty, he should be thrown out of office. And then the other narrative is it’s a conspiracy against him. Things don’t move. Like I said, the New York Times didn’t move the Warren poll numbers and the—
GURRI: Probably helped sink her.
KLING: And then the media have not moved . . . The media that wanted so badly to see this impeachment move forward haven’t been able to move a thing. With Nixon’s impeachment, I think the support for impeachment went from something like 25% right after the election or right as the Watergate story was breaking to 75% right before his resignation. So the media were able to move the story. But now there’s just a collision.
GURRI: Yeah, I mean I’m a skeptic on journalism. I don’t think it exists. If we’re talking about the news business, it was one of the very earliest victims of that information tsunami. It basically got bowled over. And there’s all kinds of economic consequences to that in terms of newspapers going out of business, the number of journalistic jobs shriveling down. I think from the perspective of the institution, what is worse is what you said, that loss of prestige—the thought that I used to tell the story that everybody had to listen to about in a moment like the presidential election, who gets to be president next. Right? So not surprisingly, the news business is exceedingly bitter and resentful of what has happened in the larger world of information. Go look at the content of the New York Times over the last three years. If you can find a single piece that smiles on Silicon Valley, I’ll give you a dollar. I mean, they just don’t like the new technology. They feel it has to be regulated. They feel it has to be taxed. They feel it has to be somehow managed for its fake news. I mean, we are superior, you are inferior. But in the end, I think when you look ahead, we’re talking about scenarios for the future. I have no crystal ball and I will say I’m not in the prophecy business, but it seems to me that Antonio Garcia Martinez, who’s a pretty perceptive guy, has this theory that essentially the big digital platforms that are putting the news business out of business are going to become the mainstream, and they are going to have to reconcile a lot of opposing views and aggregate a lot of opposing views. So they’re probably going to observe the proprieties and make everybody behave themselves because they have to maintain that, kind of like newspapers pretended to be in the 20th century. And the newspapers and news broadcasts are going to revert to what they once were and are in many other countries, which is just very open advocacy for specific parties or ideologies.
KLING: Yeah, that seems to be where they’re reacting. It’s like, in order to get clicks, we’ve got to express outrage about the other side. That seems to be their reaction. Very dysfunctional. If their goal was to maintain their prestige, it’s been a totally dysfunctional reaction in two ways. One is they’ve become extremely partisan and biased, which is not going to help your prestige. And the other is, I think . . . The other type of hierarchy from an anthropological point of view is a dominance hierarchy. So the prestige hierarchy, you respect the people on top of you and you want to copy them. With a dominance hierarchy, you kind of solemnly obey them because they have physical power. Some of these things that you’re talking about the media are doing, they’re dominance moves. We’re going to shut down the tech folks. We’re going to regulate them. We’re going to . . . Anytime you’re making a dominance move, you’re actually kind of lowering your prestige. You’re pulling away; you’re reducing the chance that people are going to respect you and go with you out of prestige. So I think probably the least likely scenario is the one that these newspapers and legacy media want, which is for them to recover their prestige. They’re not doing that.
GURRI: Well, that’s gone forever. And probably rightfully so. I think you can see various ways. I mean, it’s happening in front of us already, right? If you can find a sugar daddy, [Jeff] Bezos for example, hey, you’re set. You can write whatever you want and your salary is going to get paid. So you’re going to have, I think, a lot of these formerly prestige newspaper names be the play things of very wealthy individuals. And I think many of the rest will do what the French do or the British do, which is realize that there are niche partisan audiences. I mean, Trump has made that so obvious. I mean, people who openly hate him can’t stop talking about him because he sells. He just sells. And they’re desperate to sell. Okay. So I mean, the CEO of CNN said it. He got angry and said, “You people keep telling us not to show Trump so much. Whenever we do that, our ratings go down.” All right. That would be another possibility.
KLING: I think you were starting to talk about a scenario in which we revert back to a prestige hierarchy, but the prestige—
GURRI: Will be the platforms.
KLING:—would be the platforms.
GURRI: Yeah. That’s not my thesis. That’s Antonio Garcia Martinez’s. And that is plausible.
KLING: Yeah. I guess I can see sort of two dimensions to the question. Will there be a prestige hierarchy or a dominance hierarchy? I mean, China, it’s a dominance hierarchy. If Warren gets her way of how to regulate what’s news and what’s not news, in theory that would be the United States. So there’s that dimension. Does it get resolved as a prestige hierarchy or a dominance hierarchy? And the other dimension, I think, is sort of, is it single-centered, one narrative that 80% of the population believes? Is it this completely divided narrative, which is kind of what we have now? Or is it complete somehow niche beliefs? No one believes any narrative. Not more than 15% of the population believes any one narrative, and there are a whole bunch of things. Any thoughts on which of those we would end up with?
GURRI: I don’t believe that we ever were 80% of us believe the same stuff. Honestly, I believe that there was an institutional overlay that talked 80% about the same stuff. And then we were forced to kind of deal with that, but all of us by habit. The words that came out of our mouth were 80% that. Okay. But if you sat us down and put us to the wall and said, what do you really think? You find what we have now, which is a lot of networks of thought and opinion, not two, but very many of them, who today of course have every means of expressing themselves and of trying to gain some corner of the battleground that is theirs. So what is happening today, I think, is that. I think what Garcia Martinez’s idea was, well maybe the big platforms can aggregate these networks in such a way that they learn to behave with each other because of internal regulations. The platforms are going to be a lot tighter about maintaining the proprieties. No physical threats or anything like that, which happens all the time online. I mean, if you don’t get a death threat, you’re nobody online. It’s a fact. You just have the slightest salience online, you get a death threat. If you’re a woman, worse. So you can aggregate all of those, you kind of package them together and you make them behave in some way. I mean, I think it’s an optimistic scenario. I think the future is going to be digital, honestly. I mean, talking about the New York Times, it’s a waste of time almost. And we don’t know what’s going to come out of that. We think Facebook is the model, but there, somewhere in the fog of the future, there is an antithesis to Facebook, and we don’t know what that’s going to be. Somebody is going to eat [Mark] Zuckerberg’s lunch sooner or later. I think he’s a smart man, and I’m on Facebook, and I think he does a lot of wonderful things, but there are many things they cannot do. And managing the news, I think, is probably one of them. And so the future, I think it’s going to be digital. I think the prestige factor of the old news sources, unless they do some kind of radical transformation, it’s going to be less and less and less. Right now it’s really belief dependent. If you believe what the New York Times believes in, which is very liberal and very ferociously anti-Trump, then you have prestige. All my in-laws read the New York Times with great relish. But if you don’t believe in that, it’s like, you don’t even bother to read it because what’s the point?
KLING: Sounds like your most likely picture then is sort of a whole bunch of different things. Now that sounds like a very chaotic scenario. You feel like we were knitted together by Walter Cronkite. People talk about the early 19th century and how the country… People probably were not at all on the same page. We didn’t even have mass media, but people lived farther apart in the 19th century. They didn’t have to live with each other. Now we’ve got to live with each other, and you’re saying we’ve got to live with 10 different narratives of what’s going on.
GURRI: Now you’re flipping to another topic, which I don’t think is part of the agenda, but I’m going to sneak it in anyway. My background is Cuban, and when I, as a kid, came to the US, one of the things that struck me as wonderful, nobody talked about politics. Cubans, it would drive you crazy. Well, that’s changed, right? And I think the divisiveness you’re talking about is only important if politics is the most absolutely crucial and central factor in your life. There is absolutely no reason why that should be so. I have a sister that practically still breaks into the shivers about Trump, and I say, “Well, what’s he done to you? Name one thing that has changed.” And the only thing she could name was, “Oh, yeah. I’m making a little bit more money because of the tax break. But look at what he said.” “Yeah, but he hasn’t laid a finger on you, right?” If we can make politics resume what I would consider to be its historic place in American life, which is small, all right? And there are many other things that have to happen for that to come true. This divisiveness is just . . . We had a lot of Methodists and a lot of Catholics and a lot of Presbyterians and Jews, and mostly, we got along together in the past.
KLING: Okay. Yeah. I like that story.
KLING: So let’s turn then to politics. I think that’s another case where the prestige hierarchy has gone away. Again, I’ll just play the old man again. Growing up—
GURRI: Young man to me.
KLING: —Wilbur Mills, J. William Fulbright. For those of you who don’t know, Wilbur Mills was the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee for many years. Fulbright was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They had real prestige. It probably would have been rare for the Washington Post to go a week without quoting them or talking about what they were doing. Now, they can probably go a year without mentioning the House Ways and Means chairman, the Senate Foreign Relations chairman. And the fact that Trump, who had never run for office, never got any endorsements, could just blow by everybody. Sanders, who still won’t commit to being a member of the Democratic Party, is in a good position, as of, again, the polls. We’ll see whether his people actually find their way to the caucus or not. I have a stereotypical view of them that would say they wouldn’t, but I guess if the poll numbers are right, my stereotype can’t be right. So who knows? But is there any hope of a prestige hierarchy coming back in that world?
GURRI: Yeah, I mean, I don’t look at it that way, and I hope not, is my answer. But what they need is not prestige, but authority. What they need is trust, which comes with authority, so that when somebody that we have elected—either all of us or in one district or in one state—speaks to us, we don’t almost immediately assume this guy’s lying or he’s spinning or he’s trying to squirm out of something that I can perfectly tell he’s stuck in because we have probably more information than they have. Because they still live in the 20th century, in Congress. And they have the aides that give them this. We just go online and we know more than they do. So I find that the political class is— you need an elite. You need an elite for everything in a modern society, there’s no question about that. This elite that we have, which you might describe as the Harvey Weinstein elites or something, you know what I mean? There is something about their behavior. The noble part of being an elite, which is, you take on responsibility and you do things for other people and you have a sense of duty and a sense of service, that seems to be gone. They don’t communicate. If they have it, they don’t show it.
KLING: Let me interrupt. That’s actually the point that Yuval Levin makes at great length, that he talks about the institutions used to form people. They created a code of ethics, a code of behavior, and people had to follow that. And now, there are platforms for people. They just say, “Okay, I’m going to use this for what it’s worth to raise my personal brand.” They owe nothing to the institution. The institution owes a little bit to them. Would that somehow be revived? I mean, I think that’s what Yuval Levin’s hope for the future is, that people would once again react to institutions as, “Okay, as a member of this, this is what I’m obliged to do. These are my obligations as someone who is a congressman or something.” Do you think that revives, or that . . .
GURRI: I think, short of structural reform of government. And whenever I say that, people say, “Oh, so you’re a Warren fan.” I go, “No, no, that’s not what I mean at all.” I mean government has to get flatter. Basically, if you read what the people say, that gigantic impulse of negation and anger. Country after country after country, no ideology, mostly. Some of them have vaguely left, some vaguely right, but mostly no coherent ideology and no leadership. But if you read what they’re saying, they’re saying, “There’s too much distance between me and the top, or me and that class. I’m an ordinary person. I elect my neighbor and suddenly he’s climbed up this pyramid. And suddenly he’s looking different, he’s sounding different. And it’s kind of like he’s become a Hollywood star or something.” And some of their predilections, let’s say, are not that different from what you would find in Hollywood. And that comes out in this information environment. That particular moment you were talking about with the chairman and so forth was possible only because the things they did in their personal lives and the things they said in Congress, outside of the record, were never reported. I had a friend who was a Senate page as a young man. The stories he would tell about those days would make anything you can say about politicians today pale. So basically, we now know that these people are the way they are. We need to change that. And I don’t know how it’s going to happen, other than we need new people. We need new people. We need this elite, which is still heavily baby boomer-ish, to make room for fresh faces who are going to be a lot more adept at the digital dispensation, and hopefully have a better shot at finding some kind of the right balance between digital information and political authority.
KLING: I would think that they would require a fair amount of humility.
KLING: Because they don’t know that much more than you or me.
GURRI: Right. Yeah. I guess in my book . . . I asked myself, when I was in the CIA and I was watching this tsunami I’m talking about just going to sweep over the world, and terrible turbulence behind this, I said, “What’s going on? Why should information make that much of a difference?” And the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that these institutions are based on a certain premise of controlling information and of knowing. So if you are a politician, you say, “I’m going to solve unemployment.” Like it’s a mathematical equation. Well, this is a condition that is very complex. Whatever you do, it’s going to have unintended consequences. You could do that when the information was controlled by very few hands, or a few minds. But in today’s world, you cannot do that. You cannot say, “I’m going to solve this problem. I’m going to change this.” Somebody like Trump says that all the time; he’s kind of an old-time figure that way. But that’s got a short shelf life; it’s got a really short shelf life. Humility, I think. There need to be changes in behavior, the way they talk. They talk now like they wear these institutional sets of armor, so basically, not human beings. They’re just some kind of representatives from an institution. They have to come back to being human beings, the kind of thing that Trump and [Rep. Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez do so well. They have to look us eye to eye. The distance can’t be there. When you think about it, that old industrial model of top down control was functional, and we elected these people, but it was not terribly democratic. It really is not. Much of what the public complains about is probably not, empirically, not wrong. It’s just, “Okay, so what do you put in its place?”
KLING: Yeah. Okay. I’m still processing a lot of this. But let me jump ahead to the third institution, the academy. The academy is, I think… has retained more of its prestige than either of the other two institutions. And the evidence for that is, to me… I’ll throw out the admissions scandal. If college weren’t prestigious, people wouldn’t be trying to—
GURRI: Cheat to get in.
KLING: Yeah, cheat to get in.
GURRI: Good point.
KLING: But I think there are some ominous signs, sort of random ones. One is that, I noticed a poll, it was a poll taken of people in their 20s, and they compared it to a poll taken of people in their 20s about seven years ago. So seven years ago they asked, “Is it very important or important or not important to go to college?” I think it was a little over 70% said it was important or very important. And then in just six or seven years, that dropped to 44% among that cohort. That’s really ominous because at some point, suppose that holds. Suppose this cohort of 20-year-olds continues to believe that it’s not necessarily important to go to college. Well, when their children are in high school, they’re not going to be like the parents we know—just all anxious and having their egos and all these concerns about where their kids go to college.
GURRI: Maybe they’ll be happier.
KLING: Yeah. To me, that opens up potential alternatives because we know that there are other ways to educate. The other thing is, you know how newspapers got, in some ways, killed off more by eBay than anything else because they depend on the classified ads. Well, I’m wondering if dating apps could do that to college.
GURRI: That is a great idea.
KLING: Because now, if you don’t go to college and you want to meet somebody, you got a backup plan, whereas you didn’t before. So anyway, I think, for a variety of reasons, I just wonder if college is going to be what it meant to us as parents even.
GURRI: Yeah. Anything I say about academia, I haven’t really researched it in depth or given much reflection, so take it as just that. I’m talking off the cuff here. My sense of it, though, is that what you’re talking about may have the same name, the university or academia, in those 20 . . . Was it 20- or 30-year difference in those two polls? 20 years?
KLING: Well, no, this is just six years’ difference.
GURRI: Six years’ difference.
KLING: Six years’ difference. Yeah. In 2013 70% of 21- to 30-year-olds said, the thing that I either did or didn’t do, go to college, was really important. And then it drops to 44%, seven years.
GURRI: Well, here’s my take on academia, and it may be completely wrong, but that’s just me. I think it’s essentially Patient Zero for what you might call the amnesia retrovirus or something, which is this idea that history and cultural memory are the source of all the injustice and oppression in the world and have to be uprooted and obliterated. This being said by somebody who is entirely the product of that history and that memory defending institutions that are totally justified by the memory of certain principles and events. So you have this strange denial of the thing that created you and nurtured you. It’s kind of like having a stroke—you lose your memory. And so behavior becomes kind of eccentric and confused. And when you read the writings of academics, it’s like they’re terrified of things for no reason in particular. They’re angry at things for no reason in particular. They see things that nobody else sees in the world. And I think that’s had an effect on what you’re talking about. I think that the humanities have absolutely hemorrhaged in a number of kids who want to major in them. I mean, that changed dramatically over the last . . . So maybe that’s the answer because I saw this happening with my daughter going to Virginia schools, which are not that bad for that sort of thing. But you saw it getting progressively more, “We have to control what you say. We have to control what you think. We have to control . . .” Because people get sensitive. And so you create this invented world, whereas, historically, the university was where you went to learn to learn, learn to think a little bit, and learn to write with some sort of style. It was the opposite of what it is now. Now, it’s like, “No, no. Those things are the opposite of what we do here.”
KLING: I like Yuval Levin’s, this is maybe the best part of his book. He describes the university as traditionally having three functions. One is the sort of practical training, giving skills that will be useful for the marketplace. And the other is kind of moral or religious education, going back to Harvard and Yale when they were founded, trying to form the morals of the country in some sense, or reflect them or form them. And then third is to cultivate an elite to lead. What it seems like to him, and to someone like me on the outside, is that they’ve really dropped everything. Well, they’re probably maintaining the skill, practical focus, but they may lose their comparative advantage in that. I mean, YouTube is awfully good at teaching stuff. And they’ve seemed to have, from his point of view and perhaps certainly from my point of view, sacrificed this sort of cultivating an elite leadership and just gone off into this religious direction. I just posted on my blog today, I feel like we’ve got a religion that punishes unbelievers. We have not had religious persecution in this country for 250 years. And all of a sudden, if somebody doesn’t sign the diversity statement at Berkeley, they’re not going to get a raise. They could even lose their job. And that’s just because of what they say. They could be, as John Cochran pointed out, you can be an African American yourself, like Thomas Sowell, who probably wouldn’t want to sign that kind of a statement, and he could be punished for it. There’s some kind of collision going to take place between the history of this country and the rest of the people.
GURRI: There are many pressures working at college. I think one that hasn’t really taken off yet for some reason is a massive online teaching. That could happen at any moment. And at that point, it wouldn’t be good for colleges in many ways because the smaller centers would wither away. Kind of like when suddenly there were recordings of opera, your local guy who sang okay, lost his job because you can now buy some star from Italy. You’re going to have the same thing happen here. That’s one pressure working on it. Another one is this religious zealotry that’s going on, and you could end up with colleges being these massive administrative apparatuses that exist just to sustain that faith.
KLING: Yeah, but you wonder how long they can have money doing that.
GURRI: It’s not sustainable.
KLING: Yeah. And also it’s, again, a case of dominance behavior in an environment where you’ve historically had prestige. And I think it undermines it. If you cancel people, if you shut them down, that’s a dominance move and that actually under . . . And the irony is, what they really want is, they want their prestige back. I think that the people in the humanities have felt, probably for generations, that they’ve been losing their prestige. They want it back. But that behavior is the exact opposite of what will get it back.
GURRI: It’s science envy as much as anything, I think.
KLING: That, which has been there for 50 years or more.
GURRI: Yeah. I mean, personal episode, I actually went to George Mason when I was a young man. I got my undergraduate and my master’s there. It was another institution from what it is now, but in one way, it was very conservative, massively conservative. I mean, really conservative. Old Virginia conservative. We had communists that came and talked to us. I had a Black Panther representative that came. And nobody thought anything of it. The idea of shutting somebody down because, “Well, we’re the guys in charge, and we don’t know . . .” I mean, it was the opposite of that. Try to imagine that happening today. So we have had this narrowing of what’s allowed to be said, this puritanical instinct, which is kind of deep in the American soul, I think. Having come from Cuba, the first thing you notice is that there’s all these things you can’t say. You got to walk on eggshells. It’s asserting itself more powerfully. It’s again, generational. I don’t see how it can be sustained, honestly. I don’t see how you can force a generation of potential students to basically deny what they see with their own eyes, and use certain words, and think certain thoughts that they themselves may not believe in. So, the future is uncertain. I have no idea how you get out of that.
KLING: Yeah. Well, I’m trying to envision a future 10, 15 years from now, what things look like. Does a new hierarchy emerge somehow in education? Do we unbundle some of these functions instead so that people are getting their skills here. People who are trying to develop a moral framework are getting it here. People who are trying to learn the elite do’s and don’ts go here.
GURRI: I think there’s probably going to be some unbundling. There could well be, though, some institutions that see a space for themselves to occupy, to fill those needs that now the universities are kind of shutting down on. I remember in the 19th century in Britain when Oxford and Cambridge were just ossified, just ossified; the center universities became the center of learning. So a university like Edinburgh, for example, was one of the best places to learn science in the world. Charles Darwin began his intellectual journey at Edinburgh. You could have some of the same. You could have the centers from the Orthodox religion start centers of learning that are much more about learning and less about morality.
KLING: Well, yeah. I’ve been following this startup university called Minerva, which only has, I don’t know, maybe a hundred students in a class or something. Very small, but very different. And it’s very top down executed. I’m not sure I’d be that comfortable as a student. It would have some pluses and some minuses. But anyway, they have no buildings. The students reside in different cities in different semesters. So they’ll be in San Francisco, they’ll be in Seoul, they’ll be in— I think somewhere in Indonesia. I mean, just different places, and very tight curriculum in the first year that’s designed to teach various critical thinking skills, but very specific skills that the educators have determined they should have. So anyway, it sounds like… I would much rather send my kids there than to any existing institution. So I actually contacted them and said, “Well, are you guys trying to expand?” And their answer was, “No, we’re going to work with existing institutions, give them some of our tools.” And to me that’s like Henry Ford saying, “Well, I’m not going to build a bigger assembly line. I’m just going to give my ideas to the horse and buggy people and see where they go.” I don’t know. But at some point somebody ought to be able to compete, and maybe they’ll have more of a will to compete.
GURRI: Yeah, I mean the idea of, there are many things that this very churning, new social landscape that we have, mainly because of the new information environment, kind of laid bare to me. And one of them was the strangeness of requiring that young people, at a certain age, disappear for four years into this totally artificial setting, controlled by these people who—they had PhDs, that was their claim to fame—and sit through all these classes. And at the end, you get this degree. And then you’re right back into the real world, where that could help you or it might not. If you’re an engineer, it probably will. If you are a women’s study person, almost certainly not. So I think that model needed tremendous changes. I think that it may be a good thing, what we’re going through right now. Unfortunately, the changes that have become dominant are the moral and religious zealotry. I don’t know if that can be sustained everywhere by everybody.
KLING: All right. Do you have anything else, or should we turn it over to the public?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: First, thank you for doing this. This has been fascinating. Question on the university system because it strikes me that the universities are in a somewhat, many universities at least are in a somewhat different place from, say, journalism or something like that in the sense that they are very much attached to the government. You have public universities, which are directly attached and funded by the state government, and even your private universities, many of which accept federal funds, both federally insured loans and research grants. I’m wondering if you think that changes the calculus in any way, either in how you might think it, change, may come . . . Will the public, if we assume the public will get dissatisfied with what’s happening, is that a lever that you expect the public to pull, or do you think the change, if it’s going to come, is going to come completely outside the system through entrepreneurial disruption?
KLING: Well, I think that the ability of the government to support lots of things is going to go down. Government is going to be this giant pension system. The big challenge is going to be meeting Social Security, Medicare, and in states the state pension funds. I don’t think it’s going to be in a position to continually add funds. I guess on top of whatever other difficulties schools are going to have, they’re going to have financial problems on top of it.
GURRI: Yeah. Actually, I would disagree a little bit with that. My take—and again, it’s a superficial one. I haven’t spent a lot of time at the academy since I got my degrees and got the hell out—is that the academic, for all his many words and bluster, is a very timid person. And a very trend-driven person. He basically goes whichever way the wind blows. I think if there’s a very strong sociopolitical trend in a direction opposite from the zealotry that we’re talking about now, and the government reflects that and many other parts of the public reflect that, you could have many—maybe not all universities—but you could have many universities, the academics, flip so it’s a less one-sided . . . They have always struck me as people who more or less follow trends more than are anchored by principle.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Let me follow that. A recurring theme in my thinking is how the government vs. private dichotomy is muddled these days and that for people interested in liberty, whatever, markets, the dichotomy doesn’t explain the whole story as well as it once did. In the case of universities, I think even if governments were to step away, the accreditation societies essentially act in many ways as cartels. That if a university—a new, bold, different university—wants to do a different model, they’re going to run up against accreditation issues that will be just as effective as the government taking away money. I wrote a piece a couple of years ago on the way that the structure of doctoral programs more or less locks students into, “You’re going to come around to my ideology or you’re not getting your PhD at the end of this, and we’ve set up the rules so you can’t transfer to another university once you’ve really gotten started.” Any thoughts on that? On the nongovernmental cartelization of academe?
KLING: I guess my thought is that that’s a very fragile hold on things. As soon as you get a critical mass of businesses and other institutions that are willing to accept alternative forms of certification, that could fall apart very, very quickly. It seems very solid now but potentially fragile. It’s one of the things that Silicon Valley really tries to attack. They keep proposing different badges and other ways to certify people so that they can get around that. It’s a cartel that a lot of people want to try to work their way around.
GURRI: I 100% agree with that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. Thank you for the talk. This phenomenon of information tsunami and some of the political ramifications—the factionalism, nihilism—it sounds like there’s mixed results. Would you predict or have you observed that certain types of governments are more resilient to this relative to others? I’m thinking is a two-party, first-past-the-post system more resilient than a parliamentary proportional system? Will authoritarian governments, kingdoms benefit relative to others, or does it not shake out, break down that way?
GURRI: My belief is no. That makes no difference. The revolt—and this is where it gets really strange, and it has to do with structure and not with ideology—the revolt really is against modern government as such. Modern government I say was organized pretty much during the industrial age. When you look at the government of the United States, and you lay out the government of Egypt and the government of China, they’re kind of like the same thing. Now, how they got there was very different, and the powers they enjoy are very different, but the structure is the same. I have not found that freer countries, representative democracies, are certainly immune to that. There have been specific . . . What does seem to matter is who’s in charge when the trouble breaks. Most everybody that has been in charge when the trouble breaks reacts badly and usually gets politically blown up. But every once in a while somebody reacts smartly. Okay? [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu had a revolt in Israel that was of enormous proportion for that relatively small country. They had like a million people total in the streets at one time over a number of vague . . . It began with a young woman whose apartment rent was going up in Tel Aviv, and my God, I’m going to have to commute to work. It just blossomed up into this complete . . . What Netanyahu did is he set up this commission with a very prestigious economist and said, okay, they’re going to talk to you guys, and you’re going to now explicitly lay out your grievances. And, of course, chaos ensued, right? This commission came up with a set of proposals, and proposals were enacted. They were not the kinds of things that Netanyahu would have favored, but he bought it, and the thing petered out after five or six months. So individual politicians, if they’re nimble enough, can avoid the worst, but systems seem to make no difference.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Both of you have written eloquently about how modern technology, specifically information and communication technologies, have empowered the masses in various ways for better or for worse to challenge governments and elites. I want to ask you a broader question about the relationship between technologies, modern technologies, and specifically ICT, information communication technologies, and the aggregate size and power of the state. Our own Tyler Cowen wrote a famous piece, an unpublished manuscript, back in 2009 about the relationship between technology and the growth of the state, and argued something that a lot of libertarians don’t like to hear, which is it’s been the leading driver of the growth and the power of the state over the 20th century, communications and transportation technologies. How would Tyler’s thesis and your thesis about technology empowering the masses, giving them greater voice, given the ability to challenge the state, jive with Tyler’s thesis that it actually empowers the state in all new ways to do things to us in our liberties that were impossible in the past.
KLING: I’m sure you’ll have something to say. I guess my first instinct is to look at the nature of the technology. The technology as of 1960 . . . First of all, there’s often a lot of very high fixed costs. So it’s not going to be accessible to ordinary individuals. Maybe that’s the main driver in this whole thing so that it ends up being, very . . . If you own the printing press, you have your freedom of the press, and if you don’t, you don’t in some sense. Now, the cost to me of the equipment to reach millions of people is easily within my reach. Just buy a computer and get it internet access and so on. I guess that’s my first thought, is that you had a technology that just naturally advantaged deep pockets, and the government had deep pockets.
GURRI: Yeah. To me, the proof is in the pudding. When you look at what the elites say, their ideal future is the 20th century. They, themselves, know that the world as it is today is not favoring them in terms of information. [French President] Emmanuel Macron wants to be de Gaulle, and [Chinese] President Xi wants to be Chairman Mao. But you know what? Even in China, there’s tremendous mockery on social media about these kind of pretensions. You can’t do that anymore. You can’t pretend to be almost a divine emperor. That can’t happen. Okay? I would agree with Arnold, I think that the nature of the technologies when that tsunami began, flipped. It used to come down from the top. Suddenly, it was all erupting from the bottom.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question is on the idea in your book that the public has this information about the central government. The central government has failed. They are angry. But they keep, if I understand, they either have a nihilistic response, which is to tear it down and we don’t know what replaces it, or they’re looking back to the central government to fix it. Why hasn’t the public, at least in the US context, considered the possibility of constructive rather than destructive solutions? We have a Federalist system, state, local, third sectors that could be involved in solving some of these problems that the public is upset about. Or do you see it as just simply being a nihilistic response and a destructive response rather than a constructive response?
GURRI: I think there are structural reasons why this has happened. As I envision the sociopolitical landscape today, it really is these networks, war bands, whatever you want to call it. They just kind of roam the land and fight each other, and there’s a lot of the sound and fury out there. But they all share a dislike and a distaste for the status quo, even though they disagree about almost everything else. If you want to unify and mobilize any significant number of them, you’ve got to focus them on what they’re against. That’s true even for specific politicians who are good at tapping into that. I think President Obama, for example, cobbled together a whole bunch of people who hated what had happened with the previous administration and many things that they were unhappy about. The second you win power, you have to impose a positive program, half these people fall away. “That’s not what we elected you for. I thought you were . . .” Because really what you were unified about was being against. In the case of Obama, the fact that he lost Congress after the first midterms was the best thing that could happen because he went right back to being against. There was no way he could pass his sainted grandmother through Congress because it was totally against him. That was very liberating. He went back to being somebody who just condemned and rejected and could gather enough of an array of networks to get himself re-elected.
KLING: You see Trump doing the same thing, saying the Justice Department is corrupt. Whose Justice Department is this? I think it’s always been true that you couldn’t get a cohesive, positive agenda out of a broad public. In the ‘60s a lot of political science talked about obtaining what at least one writer called quiescence. Just keeping the people quiet. What do you have to do to keep them quiet? What do you have to do to have legitimacy, authority, all those things? You mentioned one scenario that we didn’t talk about but which certainly would be favorable toward libertarians, which would be for people to drop this obsession with national politics, which doesn’t do anyone any good.
KLING: If they’re channeling things, channel things locally where there is probably more evidence that they can and will be constructive. That’s an appealing scenario. I’m not sure how we get from here to there.
GURRI: Yeah. And I would add to that. Final answer to your question is that we’ve never really had a public before. What I always like to say is we had this mass audience, and I remember ‘cause again playing geezer here, I was part of it in the old days, and it was like this gigantic mirror in which we all saw ourselves reflected. The whole country was there. Walter Cronkite was speaking. There we all were. That mirror has toppled and shattered, and the public lives in all the broken pieces of that thing. So it’s not like it used to be. Getting all those pieces to agree on anything is not easy, but they’re all against, or most of them.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you, gentlemen. I think that your discussion is fascinating, and I don’t think we’re going to find solutions today. I think it’s going to take a long, long time. I was a child of the second World War, and I’ve been in the United States for 22 years. I grew up in New Zealand. What you’re talking about isn’t exclusive to America. It’s happening all around the world. What I see happening with the information revolution is that we are living in a period of chaos, and order doesn’t come until you get out of that chaos. I think that we’re going to take another 10 to 20 years to have that sort itself out. What I think is going to be important is that people have been more empowered by the freedom of information and the freedom to, as you say it, then be able to communicate with a million people by buying a computer. We can do that now. So I think spontaneous order is going to be a major player in what happens in the future. Just the same as the beginnings of the information revolution were a product of spontaneous order, we’re going to see more of that. If I go to the academy and go right back to the first thing that you said, it’s an issue about trust and why has trust in institutions disappeared? It’s because the institutions didn’t meet the expectations that were created. When that happens, the trust falls off. I think that as far as the academy is concerned, when I came to the United States, you were a bad parent if you didn’t manage to send your child to college. But there are other ways of being educated as you said, and I think a whole lot of families have been deeply disappointed that the investment that they made in academia for their child to get qualifications that would enable them to live a better life, have been extremely disappointing. I think that the academy is behind the rest of society, and I think there’s turmoil coming to the academy that it hasn’t felt yet. It’s based around, it did not meet the expectations of the people who invested heavily in sending the young ones there and not getting what it was that they expected. If we can put good brains together in understanding better how spontaneous order happens, we might have some solutions.
GURRI: Yeah. If I may say something about that, you’re 100% right. We are in the very early stages in this mass migration from the industrial age to something that doesn’t even have a name yet. Okay? 20 years is optimistic. This is generational, I think.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. Very interesting. Martin, I want just to ask you to flesh out what seems to be your central thesis, and that is this tsunami of information that’s radicalized a large part of the public. I may not be typical, but to me it’s like a smorgasbord of information that wasn’t available before. Instead of having to subscribe to 10 magazines and 10 newspapers, I can get it all brought to my desk. I can hop from one to the other, read what I want, get a much wider variety of sources. When I was growing up in the same generation as you guys in the ‘70s, it was the three networks and Newsweek and Time and the Washington Post. They set the agenda and now they don’t. To me, that’s a good thing. Their oligopoly over news has been broken. Why is it that for me, it’s like going from a limited menu to the Golden Corral smorgasbord every night of news and information. I come across an interesting academic paper and boom, I can have it in front of me in eight seconds, whereas before I had to schlep to the library and copy a journal. Why is it that for me it’s just given me more choices and allowed me to be a more informed citizen, but according to your thesis, for millions of people, it’s overwhelmed them. It’s radicalized them. What am I missing?
GURRI: I don’t think it’s done either of those things. I think it has opened their eyes. It has opened their eyes to what is in part . . . And then there are two sides to this. What is in part a more accurate… The process you were talking about has given them more accurate vision of a… Essentially there was an emperor that seemed to believe that it had these magnificent clothes, but it had no clothes. And what learning all that information, being able to basically summon up, answer questions about your president or your representative, whatever… You now realize that what they’re talking about is just what they want you to listen to. But there’s this whole ocean of stuff that usually reflects badly on them in many different ways that you are now privy to. So you’re angry with them. All right? You’re angry with them. The extent and total reason for the anger—we could talk about this for a long time, and I’m sure none of you want to do that. Or want me to do that. But I think in the end there is an almost, I don’t know what I would call it, but a moral aspect to it—something that is important to people’s lives above and beyond politics. I think people have utopian expectations of politics as part of the reason they’re angry. They have those utopian expectations because they don’t go to church. They often don’t have families. They often move around and they don’t have communities. Suddenly they’re turning to politics and saying, give me everything. And there’s always some politician who says: “I can give meaning to your life.” Then, of course, it’s a lie. Right? If you look at the patterns in many countries, the democratic countries, it’s like, I like the left, I like the right, I like the left. You’re always punishing the last guy. Then what happens after a while, the populists start to say, well, I’m neither. And they go, I’ll settle on you then. Okay? If nothing appears, then you have a million people in the street yelling because they’re all angry about the fact that I want meaning in my life and nobody’s giving it to me. That to me… I’m researching that, so take everything I said on that hand with a grain of salt. But I think it’s an important element of what we’re talking about.
KLING: Again, that’s this issue of the importance that people are placing on their political identity now. That’s just a very . . . That’s not something that automatically falls out of the information revolution, but it’s part of the current state. I think maybe we’ll have another conversation on what the prospects are.
GURRI: I think the information revolution, the information tsunami, has a tremendously damaging effect on institutions like religion, the churches, and many of the sources that provided meaning and context and support to ordinary people have been swept away as well. So then the people who want that sense of purpose, they run to politics for it. I think part of what you described earlier, that confusion between… is it the intimate and . . .
KLING: The remote.
GURRI: The remote. Yeah. Suddenly, it’s like, okay, you’re almost like my friend now, Mr. President. Tell me, give meaning to my life.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Last very quick question. So that we all have marching orders, aside from The Revolt of the Public and The Three Languages of Politics, which are of course self-recommending, what are the two or three things that people in here should read to think more and learn more about this?
GURRI: I like Paul Ormerod’s Why Most Things Fail.
KLING: Well, I’ve already mentioned Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build. I’ve been recommending that a lot, but the book I’ve been recommending the most is yours. When I was caught flat-footed after Jonathan Rauch gave his talk, I ended up giving a Martin Gurri talk.
GURRI: You’ll get your 10% check after this.