If you are not interested in restoring trust, rightfully earned, in our key institutions, you are a nihilist. You just want to destroy. I suspect that in the dissident spheres, there is one hundred times more interest in tearing down than in building up. Destroying is easy, building is tough.
If I make a video or blog post tearing someone down, it is like to get 100x the viewership of a post or video on building something up.
The recent sacking of the Capitol building can stand as Exhibit A for what transpires in a democracy under conditions of profound distrust. The public, alienated from government and the electoral process that endows it with legitimacy, now stands eternally against, and can, at any moment, coalesce into a nihilistic mob. The institutions, for their part, are unable even to defend themselves effectively. The elites that inhabit them seem clueless and demoralized.
The search for a remedy won’t entail salvation from a messiah or the slaying of a supervillain. Our predicament is structural, not personal. Even so disruptive a figure as Donald Trump should be considered a symptom of a deeper malady that can engender many more Trumps and much, much worse.
Before we can talk about restoring trust, we must understand why it drained away in the first place. I believe that our institutions of government and politics are fatally maladapted to the digital age. These institutions received their form in the 20th century, heyday of the top-down, I-talk-you-listen model of organizing humanity. They are too ponderous and too distant from ordinary people. Legitimacy had depended on control over information: failure and scandal could be dealt with discreetly. Once the digital tsunami swept away the possibility of control, the system lapsed into crisis. Today, elite failure and scandal set the information agenda.
To restore trust, we must reconcile a networked public to the authority of democratic institutions. Since the crisis is structural, a reconfiguration of government is called for: no reason exists why it can’t be made flatter and faster, less like an immobile pyramid and more like an internet service provider. After all, Amazon is an immense bureaucracy, but what the public experiences is fast, reliable service. Government can match that. We know this because it has already begun to do so in places like Estonia and Taiwan. Political organizations, like the parties, which at present resemble Masonic lodges, should look more like Wikipedia or Reddit, where a churn of enthusiasm from below interacts with governance from above. At every step, the distance between the public and its representatives must be drastically reduced. The web entails proximity. If our elites insist on social distance as the reward for political success, the public will be justified in questioning their commitment to democratic principles.