What happened to our American institutions?
Why do so many people today feel pain and fear around the degradation of our sacred democracy? We can place a considerable amount of blame on our decaying institutions.
We can define an institution as an organization that transcends specific people within the organization and lasts generations. Government institutions, media companies, and Universities comprise some of the most critical American institutions.
We live in a weird time in human history; our institutions have always had flaws, but never before has such an incredible amount of information about the performance and acts of our institutions been so obvious.
Think of all of your beloved institutions: Universities, the executive branch, housing authorities, your favorite news channel. You could find ten different pieces of information on each from today within two minutes; unsurprisingly, there’s a dark side to this. Nassim Taleb argues that more information actually causes more confusion and makes it harder to figure out what’s actually going on.
People feel like something is afoot with our institutions, our government, our democracy. People are angry. People feel left behind. People are scared. We talk past each other. We look around us and see dangerous fringe groups everywhere. We blame our institutions for this.
Here’s the core idea behind the turbulent social times we live in: public mistrust of our institutions is rapidly accelerating, largely if not exclusively driven by information overload and constant noise. This poses a risk to our Western democracy and current social structure. The creation of the next phase of how we organize our society could be up for grabs.
Many different flavors of this core idea have been discussed already, but I’m going to tie together the ideas from different thinkers such as Peter Thiel, Eric Weinstein, Erich Fromm and Martin Gurri, and discuss:
- How our institutions themselves have created the perfect storm for these problems to spring from
- The massive amounts of authority our institutions have lost over just the past decade
- How decisions made hundreds of years ago have left the public out to dry with nowhere safe to turn
- Ideas to help us thread the needle through this (potentially) dangerous conflict
Let’s set the stage for the foundation of these problems with our institutions.
How have our institutions been changing and acting over the past few decades? One of the best thinkers on this topic is Eric Weinstein and his idea of (of course it’s an acronym) the DISC. The Distributed Idea Suppression Complex.
The idea here is simple yet powerful: our institutions have created rules and structures that do not allow new ideas to permeate to the upper echelons of the institution where it can actually be implemented in the world. Think of young scientists trying to get a novel idea published in a journal, or the recent #YangMediaBlackout.
To understand how these structures and the DISC came to be, we can look to Eric’s podcast, The Portal; he discusses how the government bureaucracies, media giants, corporate ladders, and Universities you see today developed their roots and playbooks in the boom years post WW2. Paraphrasing Eric, he argues that the world they created and the rules they made for themselves during that time are no longer relevant. They used to be the gatekeepers of ideas, disseminating specific information at specific times to get their narrative across. This way of operating does not work today; too many people have begun to recognize the falsehoods sent through the institutional system. The amount of information alternatively available is tremendous. Despite this, the institutions continue on DISCing, pretending that they have a monopoly on the best ideas and information.
This information gatekeeping has been necessary during what economist Tyler Cowen dubs the Great Stagnation – the period of economic growth slowdown that began in the 70’s and has continued on until today. How does slowing economic growth exacerbate these simmering problems with our institutions?
Both Weinstein and Cowen have noted that our institutions must continue to lie to the public via squashing ideas and declaring their dominance over information in order to maintain the bloat they built up during the good years. Otherwise, they’d face an immediate reckoning admitting the faults in their current structure. I wrote more about the Great Stagnation specifically here.
So generally speaking: the original structure and rules created by our institutions no longer hold today, and these institutions must act like they do in order to maintain the status quo and affirm decisions they’ve made.
This has exposed their cracks, made especially clear with 21st Century technology, diminishing their hard-won and legitimacy creating authority.
Institutional Loss of Authority
In the book the Revolt of the Public, author Martin Gurri describes the Fifth Wave: a movement enabled by social media and digital information that not only enables the public to fight against institutions (and particularly government) in a new way, but also dramatically reduces institutional authority.
To better understand institutional authority, here’s Gurri:
Authority, as I use the term, flows from legitimacy, derived from monopoly. To some indeterminate degree, the public must trust and heed authority, or it is no authority at all. An important social function of authority is to deliver certainty in an uncertain world. It explains reality in the context of the shared story of the group. For this it must rely on persuasion rather than compulsion, since naked force is a destroyer of trust and faith.
The authority earned by our institutions (from the public) allows us all to live more predictable and comfortable lives. And we trust and respect the information they share with us. Before the Fifth Wave and rise of 21st Century technology, Gurri says:
“A curious thing happens to sources of information under conditions of scarcity. They become authoritative. A century ago, a scholar wishing to study the topics under public discussion in the US would find most of them in the pages of the New York Times. It wasn’t quite “All the news that’s fit to print,” but it delivered a large enough proportion of published topics that, as a practical proposition, little incentive existed to look further. Because it held a near monopoly on current information, the New York Times seemed authoritative.”
But as information has become more accessible and ubiquitous, Gurri realizes:
as the amount of information available to the public increased, the authoritativeness of any one source decreased.
This has important ramifications: media and government no longer maintain absolute authority on information. In other words, if you can get information on subject A from anywhere, information distributed by media or the government just becomes another source amongst many.
This phenomenon, to Gurri, has shown how the Fifth Wave diminishes the authority of our institutions, and again our government in particular. Most importantly: in the past, if institutions made a mistake around a certain decision, oftentimes that mistake or deficiency remained suppressed because of their monopoly in information dissemination.
But the Fifth Wave has exposed the inadequacies of a government that always existed yet could not be seen. And this has rocked the foundations of institutions that rely on our trust for their authority. The lie has been exposed and the authority faces a reckoning. Here’s Gurri again:
The fact that needed to be explained, however, was failure: the painfully visible gap between the institutions’ claims of competence and their actual performance. The gap, I maintain, was a function of the limits of human knowledge. It had always been there. What changed was the public’s awareness of it.
As expected, this newfound knowledge has put institutions in the crosshairs of the public. This backlash has created a standoff between the elites who control the institutions and the public at large, creating massive distrust on both sides. The public does not believe institutions can provide for them or inform them authentically anymore, and institutions refuse to acknowledge this stage change (as we saw above), creating narratives to hand wave away their loss of authority which just fuels the mistrust cycle with the public.
We can actually watch the authority shifting from our traditional institutions to new, surprising places. Gurri narrates the story of Wael Ghonim, a regular Egyptian who created a Facebook page that ended up helping spark the Egyptian Revolution in 2011:
Ghonim may have been the closest digital equivalent to Walter Cronkite: mediator to a disparate virtual public, whose authority was earned daily from below rather than accredited for all time from above.
2011 was a long time ago, and the pace of authority shifting away from institutions has only quickened. Look at the rise of individual writers, who don’t demand authority but earn it. And people pay them for it too! Platforms like Substack that enable people to share their own newsletters have experienced tremendous growth; the gold standard in this individual contributor category is Stratechery, a business strategy site run by Ben Thompson that has become truly authoritative in its niche. Thompson’s massive following and near-celebrity status in business circles has shown how, even in an important information segment such as business and strategy, authoritativeness has been earned from below and even taken away from more traditional mediums like the NYTimes, WaPo, WSJ, and The Verge.
That was a lot of information, so if you’ve taken away anything from this section on our institutions and authority, remember:
- Our large institutions used to monopolize information distribution, and derived their authority from this monopoly. They used this monopoly to ignore and suppress new ideas and maintain the status quo of their structure and operations.
- The Fifth Wave (the rise of social media and digital connectivity with a cell phone in every pocket) has enabled thousands and thousands of alternative information sources to be accessed freely and instantaneously
- This information explosion has simultaneously reduced the authoritativeness of our institutions and exposed the cracks in their operations and narratives
- This has led to both distrust between the public and the elites who control the institutions, and changed the way people and institutions alike earn authority
So now we understand the suppression of ideas by institutions, their loss of authority and the exposing of their clear deficiencies. How do we respond?
Gurri has isolated the most common public response to our government institutions: nihilism. The public combats everything the government suggests with a “tear it all down” mentality. Nothing productive or positive gets suggested.
Here’s Gurri taking the general pulse of multiple countries’ mass demonstrations in 2011, including Spain, Israel, and the US:
If the indignados [the demonstrators in Spain] somehow managed to destroy the system they so deeply despised, they will have extinguished themselves and their movement by eliminating the conditions that made both possible. This is not a riddle or a paradox, but a political pathology frequently encountered in the wake of the Fifth Wave.
Gurri also recognizes something deeper and harder to pinpoint simmering below all of these demonstrations, focusing on the Israeli protests in Tel Aviv in 2011:
Yet, like the indignados, they wished to cut away at their own roots. They wanted to be other than they were. They felt deeply, as one of them put it, that “Something in Israeli society is lacking; something is wrong with our collective priorities.”
The response against the cracks in institutions amongst the public, even across different countries, showed one striking similarity: people started to feel lost and powerless, yearning for meaning and unable to find it in their democratic society.
Back in 2004, investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel identified the roots of this elite/public standoff before it truly began through his essay “The Straussian Moment.” Thiel describes a “deal” cut during the Enlightenment that has lost its power today; the deal in his essay refers to the sweeping of questions of human nature (i.e. many questions asked and answered by religion), under the rug due to their violent nature, and submitting to a State run civilization.
Gurri piles on to this idea of ignoring these important meta-questions when he writes:
Pretty early in the game, the wave of fresh information exposed the poverty and artificiality of established arrangements. Public discussion, for example, was limited to a very few topics of interest to the articulate elites. Politics ruled despotically over the public sphere—and not just politics but Federal politics, with a peculiar fixation on the executive branch. Science, technology, religion, philosophy, the visual arts—except when they touched on some political question, these life-shaping concerns tended to be met with silence.
The Enlightenment has undoubtedly allowed us to grow and create the liberal democracies and societies we have today. It’s also masked underlying problems finally manifesting themselves today.
Of course, the problems of meaning and insignificance and human nature amongst the public is not new. In 1941, at the height of World War II, Erich Fromm wrote his excellent book “Escape from Freedom“, describing our innate fears and anxieties and feelings of powerlessness and insignificance. Fromm writes:
What is the meaning of freedom for modern man? He has become free from the external bonds that would prevent him from doing and thinking as he sees fit. He would be free to act according to his own will, if he knew what he wanted, thought, and felt. But he does not know. He conforms to anonymous authorities and adopts a self which is not his.
Fromm describes that the rising of authoritarian regimes (and in particular the Nazis) took advantage of this inner anxiety within people. They fed on people’s need to submit and conform to something greater than themselves.
Here’s Fromm continuing on this idea:
The state of anxiety, the feeling of powerlessness and insignificance, and especially the doubt concerning one’s future after death, represent a state of mind which is practically unbearable for anybody. Almost no one stricken with this fear would be able to relax, enjoy life, and be indifferent as to what happened afterwards. One possible way to escape this unbearable state of uncertainty and the paralyzing feeling of one’s own insignificance is the very trait which became so prominent in Calvinism: the development of a frantic activity and a striving to do something. Activity in this sense assumes a compulsory quality: the individual has to be active in order to overcome his feeling of doubt and powerlessness. This kind of effort and activity is not the result of inner strength and self-confidence; it is a desperate escape from anxiety.
Throughout the 20th century, when people didn’t know where to turn, they turned to a welcoming authority (however evil) that promised to bestow meaning into their lives.
But in the 21st century during the Fifth Wave, as we’ve seen, our institutions have lost authority and our trust; when we turn elsewhere to find meaning, we find nothing. The cracks in the facade of our institutions have become too great.
On top of this, we’ve lost our ability to to turn to other productive principles or frameworks (in this case, religion) due to their incompatibility with our existing society and institutions. You’ve probably heard it before: God is dead.
We’ve recognized on some deep level these problems but can’t triangulate what to do about it. We demand a “fix” from our government yet can’t articulate what that “fix” is. When government, as expected, can’t deliver, that fuels the ire and mistrust of the public even more.
As Thiel likes to say: we’re at an impasse. And it’s incredibly important that we get out of this impasse in a productive way. It’s unclear what the ramifications (most likely extremely negative) to our democracy and way of life could be otherwise.
Let’s look at some potential solutions that have been proposed by these thinkers.
Conclusion and Potential Solutions
As one solution to our institution problem, Tyler Cowen (in his book The Great Stagnation) has suggested we as a society need to choose more scientists as role models; we need to lionize and worship them the way we do athletes or celebrities. He argues that this would help encourage more people to become scientists and have the institutions around them invest more in their work; in turn, we could expect an increased pace of innovation and accelerating economic growth. In the short term this could work, as economic prosperity usually gives the public a favorable view of government, although it sounds more like a band-aid for the symptoms.
Gurri proposes a similar idea as Cowen: we need people as role models who through their actions, exemplify authority, authenticity, and inspire people. In his own words:
A healthy society is one in which such exemplary types draw the public toward them purely by the force of their example. Without compulsion, ordinary persons aspire to resemble the extraordinary, not superficially but fundamentally, because they wish to partake of superior models of being or doing. The good society, Ortega concluded, was an “engine of perfection.”
Think of someone like Elon Musk who is the “exemplary type” Gurri refers to: someone who pushes possibility to its limits, tirelessly and authentically working to change the status quo in a way that inspires people to want to either be like them or partake in the quest with them. Gurri would probably say though that we need more people like Elon in our bigger institutions: the government, Universities, or media companies. People who want to do good and earn their authority from below just through the living of an exceptional and authentic life.
Alex Danco has a fascinating, completely different and indirect take here in his essay Can Twitter Save Science. Danco discusses the major problems within the current scientific process controlled by Universities and scientific journals; and of course Twitter, the center of the Fifth Wave universe, has created a path around the bureaucracy, where individual scientists can collaborate on and share new ideas without needing to gain entry to any tightly controlled journal. The core idea here is simple: if the operation of our institutions have failed us, how can we bypass them while still getting desirable results? This idea opens up the door for private companies or communities to create productive workarounds to solve problems traditionally owned by our institutions.
From my perspective, I agree with Danco and do think private companies have an enormous opportunity to help institutions rebuild trust with the public. Particularly, our government institutions. Companies can help a government institution manage it’s affairs more efficiently and effectively with better access to relevant data and an ability to execute on important decisions with speed. The opportunity here can also help government change how it conducts its business.
This is not a trivial task. We have 70+ years of established structure and processes in place to push into the 21st century. But the more problems private companies can help a government institution solve, the more it earns the right to solve increasingly important and urgent problems. This creates a chain reaction: the more effectively an institution can operate, the better chance it has to rebuild the public’s trust.
This sounds like a high bar, but it’s really not. Any touchpoint where people interact with the government can be leveraged to rebuild this trust. Imagine if you could renew your driver’s license online without having to go to the DMV; imagine if you could register to vote online; imagine if submitting your taxes was like taking a Buzzfeed quiz. All of these solutions are within the realm of technical possibility. It’s just up to industrious entrepreneurs and companies and NGOs to figure out how to create sustainable systems that make it inevitable for these government operations to improve. The public trust that comes after will be inevitable too.