William Davies is a professor of political economy at Goldsmiths, University of London.
It has become a truism, accepted by liberals and populists alike, that trust in “elites” and “the establishment” is declining across Western democracies today. To bring some nuance to this concern, it’s important to examine one very striking feature of how trust is being withdrawn and redistributed today.
The “elites” that have lost trust most dramatically are those whose professional duty is to provide a recognizable portrait or synecdoche of society at large. What journalists and politicians share is the promise that their words don’t merely convey their personal opinions or interests but are capable of representing the public in some sense. In the form of news broadcasts, reports, official documents or elected parliament, a mirror is held up to society that needs to be faintly recognizable if it is to be legitimate.
Those who retain trust, on the other hand, are figures of action rather than words. They relate to human vulnerability and mortality in some way: doctors, nurses, medical scientists and the military are all responsible for preserving and protecting the human body in one way or another. Anti-vax proponents tend to not focus their aim at professions of care but at an alleged governmental plot to control populations (indeed, the logic of vaccination is necessarily one that works at the level of population, not one-to-one care). Relatedly, one study conducted in Europe discovered that the experience of unemployment leads people to become less trusting of elected politicians but more trusting of the police.
It is a mistake to assume that we are only witnessing a retreat from institutions and public life. On the contrary, populism is inculcating a whole new set and style of commitments and public engagements. How are we to make sense of these trends? Here I want to propose two types of authority, which for purposes of clarity I term “representational” and “mobilizational.” These have been constituent parts of political modernity for over 200 years, occasionally clashing in certain ways. But for numerous reasons, mobilizational authority is currently undermining and challenging representational authority in new ways.
The crisis of representation
As numerous historians and sociologists have detailed, a new way of representing the world was born over the course of the 17th century that was simultaneously political and epistemological. It involved the birth of scientists, statisticians, journalists and policy experts, all of whom were involved in the production of facts of one sort or another. It coincided with the birth of the modern nation-state, which had a monopoly on legitimate violence within clear borders and a duty to sustain a civic-legal order on behalf of the population at large. Put these developments together and you have the components of liberal government, staffed by permanent officials, built upon the collection and analysis of facts and figures and held to account by a critical public sphere, which itself is mediated by professional publishers and editors.
The great benefit of such a system is that most people do not need to get involved in politics or the study of reality. In a population of several million, a tiny minority is involved in law-making, judicial decisions, scientific research, statistical analysis and reporting of news. Meanwhile, most people can stay out of public life, content in the knowledge that their interests are being looked after. Liberal modernity takes potentially controversial questions of truth and justice and hands them over to a small group of specialists to deal with so that the rest of us can live in peace. From the time of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes onwards, the basic compact is that liberal citizens trade shared meaning for security, including prosperity. But for the same reason, there is always a potential vulnerability here that surfaces periodically, as we’re witnessing today.
Firstly, liberal institutions are tacitly dependent on the good character of those specialists, on whom the rest of us depend for our most basic understandings of nature and society. Whether it be a BBC journalist, a civil servant, a climate scientist, a judge or an elected representative, it is assumed that in their public life, they are able to put their own desires and tastes to one side and act on behalf of the public. When these figures speak, it is implicitly accompanied by the injunction “believe me.”
Nothing fuels populism as effectively as the sense of public corruption: the notion that this suspension of private interests is a sham. Today, especially in the age of leaks, social media, systematic scandals and tabloid intrusion, it seems intuitively obvious to many people that public life is a game being played by insiders.
Secondly, scarcely any of these individuals are elected. A common pattern pertains to the judiciary, the media and centers of expertise: a cloistered group of individuals claim the authority to act on behalf of the public on the basis of their credentials rather than their popular legitimacy.
Populists seize on this fact and quickly reframe it as merely a cultural or educational privilege. This accounts for the simultaneously political and epistemic dimensions of the current populist surge: anti-vax movements in Europe correlate to populist voting, while distrust in the media was over twice as high among Donald Trump’s voters as among Hillary Clinton’s.
The new mobilization
The central feature of contemporary populism is that it is anti-representational, both in a constitutional and an epistemological sense. It opposes representative democracy (favoring plebiscitary alternatives) and professional media (favoring social media or simple propaganda). In place of representation, it favors presentation. This is well-exhibited by a phenomenon such as the Gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests), the French mass movement against economic injustice, in which a political entity comes into being with very little representational consensus on aims, objectives or policies but is primarily constituted by its presence on the streets and on social media.
In place of representational authorities, these movements involve mobilizational authorities. Rather than a grammar of “believe me, this is true,” they work via a grammar of “follow me.” Those whose power rests on a capacity to move people (emotionally and physically) make no claim to being honest or trustworthy; the fact that Trump or the Brexit leader Nigel Farage are liars is irrelevant to a person who is committed to following them. Moreover, for those who have decided that the “elites” are all lying to them, the figure who does so flagrantly and shockingly brings a different kind of honesty, a type of whistleblowing courage, that isn’t reducible to factual accuracy. This model of the heroic leader-whistleblower is more recognizable on the right but also exists on the left.
The history of modern mobilization dates back to the French Revolution and the nationalisms that emerged from the Napoleonic Wars that privileged symbols, heroes and music over empirical facts. Modern populist movements offer what liberalism often cannot: common purpose, meaning and physical congregation for a mass of individuals. The question confronting us right now is why this acquired renewed power today and whether it can be channeled toward peaceful ends.
Much of the answer lies in the transformation of our media ecology over the past 20 years that has undermined the status of facts in public life — not so much through replacing them with lies or propaganda (although we see instances of this) but with streams of real-time content and data that are so relentless and voluminous that individuals are increasingly dependent on curatorial practices to orient them. It is not irrelevant that the question on Twitter is who to follow: the internet is a coordination technology, not a consensus technology. By their nature, facts are static entities that fit with modern techniques of the printing press, bureaucracy and critical review. But our contemporary media environment is attuned to speed rather than public credibility.
The breaking of professional editorial bottlenecks around the public sphere has been a crucial factor in enabling the rise of “heroic” leaders who can claim to be shut out of legacy media channels and politics. YouTube and Facebook produce a public sphere in which the frame and focus is itself a constant matter of controversy. In the United Kingdom, arguments rage over what the BBC isn’t telling us and whose interests might be served by this silence. In extreme cases, this is exploited by conspiracy theorists, but even more moderate political controversies now routinely include questions regarding the politics of knowledge and challenges to elite consensus. In many respects, this loss of innocence is unavoidable. The question is what happens if and when liberals accept the charge of their critics and become just another cultural movement among many.
There are various aspects of the representational project that were neglected from the 1970s onward, many of which could be restored with adequate political will. Tighter media regulation, public investment in science for its own sake and support for public-interest journalism and education are all obvious ways in which a shared social reality can be bolstered. People don’t need to be trained in citizenship or national service; they need investment in the conditions of a shared world.
For the same reason, mounting inequality is a severe threat to a representational ideal that assumes people inhabit a common reality as portrayed by economics and statistics. Fifty percent of Americans have experienced no increase in real income since the late 1970s. So in what sense is the story of national progress or growth true for these people?
By the same token, it is worth identifying the areas of scientific and popular consensus that do exist — or to put that another way, the “elites” that retain high levels of trust. In Britain, the National Health Service is a symbol of nationhood, professional judgement, care and expertise that bucks trends toward political and cultural polarization. No profession is more trusted than nurses. Meanwhile, support for populist politicians like Marine Le Pen in France is clustered heavily in areas of lower life expectancy; Brexit was a mobilization of the elderly more than it was of the “left behind.” Political alienation and disillusionment appear to relate to mortality and morbidity in curious ways. Psychologists have found that awareness of our own finitude can trigger a heightened demand for authoritarianism. The physical experience of pain makes us unusually receptive to messages that make sense of the world, in terms of heroes and villains.
But even with some sudden turn to social democracy, the genie will not be easily put back in the bottle. Democracy and authority in the age of the digital platform are qualitatively different, allowing outrage to move virally and unpredictably. Being mobilized offers forms of embodied, emotional experience that being represented never does. Examples include Youth Strike 4 Climate, an international movement of school strikes led by students demanding climate action, and Black Lives Matter, which uses human bodies to jam infrastructure such as highways and airports. As new movements like this have understood, presenting the people in public — especially those most vulnerable — is now as much a part of democracy as representing them.
This essay was commissioned as a part of the Berggruen Institute’s Future of Democracy project.