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This Mistrustful Moment

A new book attempts to harness rebellious impulses for liberal ends.

Philip Wallach
Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them
by Ethan Zuckerman (W.W. Norton & Co., 304 pp., $26.95)

Ethan Zuckerman begins his new book, Mistrust, with a brief reflection on Shays’ Rebellion. A marker commemorating the event stands not far from his Massachusetts home, and Zuckerman thinks we ought to have a little appreciation for the angry soldiers who, in late 1786 and early 1787, took up arms to insist on receiving the pay they were owed. He thinks Thomas Jefferson got it right when he wrote, in a letter to James Madison in January 1787, that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical.” In the spirit of Jefferson, if not Shays, Zuckerman has written a brief in support of “insurrectionism” and against “institutionalism.”

In the wake of the events of January 6 this is a very strange line to be pushing, and Mistrust is a book whose timing might be considered nightmarish. Zuckerman, a professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who describes himself as part of a loose collective called “Techies for Social Change,” wrote his book in 2020. He is also an unabashed lefty, so there is no reason to think he has the least bit of respect for the men and women who breached the Capitol. Indeed, on January 19, he took to the pages of The Atlantic to insist, “The Capitol Rioters are Giving Insurrection a Bad Name.” That wouldn’t be among the first thousand criticisms that I would level against those who sought to do violence to the Vice President, the Congress, and the sacred halls of our government. For good reason, 2021 seems more likely to be a time when Americans rediscover the need for institutions and the order they can provide. This is not the season for insurrection appreciation.

On the other hand, Mistrust could also be considered quite timely. In the preface, Zuckerman says that he is motivated by a sense that “America might snap” and that “civility, trust, and a collective sense of purpose seem absent” in our public life. The overall dilemma that the book seeks to explore seems only more urgent now than when he wrote: “whether to fix the powerful institutions in our lives or abandon them and replace them with something better, perhaps something entirely different.” Given the wrenching disappointments our leading institutions have given us over the course of 2020, we are at a crossroads and must choose renewal or reinvention.

Zuckerman offers a solid two cheers for those who seek radical change—who, rather than being enervated by their sense of existing institutions’ mediocrity, corruption, or outright failure, are stirred to creativity and endeavor by their faith that things could be better if only we would start anew. Most of the book consists of profile-style celebrations of people who have, in Zuckerman’s estimation, made the world a better place through their use of four “levers” of change, as borrowed from Larry Lessig: law, norms, the market, and code. Most of the norm-shapers he describes are quite familiar: #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, gay rights advocates. His “code” examples are somewhat more exotic, including Moxie Marlinspike and his founding of Signal, the secure communication app.

The section on markets as mechanisms of social change is a bit schizophrenic. As a card-carrying detractor of neoliberalism, Zuckerman is suspicious of markets, especially their tendency to make people lose their sense of what should be treated as a public good. At the same time, he can’t resist embracing a kind of fanboy enthusiasm for Silicon Valley’s way of changing the world, gushing over Elon Musk’s advancement of the electric car and Uber’s disruption of the previously stagnant market for taxi rides. In discussing these kinds of technological breakthroughs, “insurrectionism” can come to seem simply like a talent for creative destruction.

The revolutionary potential of another high-tech project that fascinates Zuckerman is somewhat clearer: Bitnation, a blockchain-based platform that seeks to offer people their choice of a “decentralized borderless voluntary nation.” This instantiation of the insurrectionist spirit is simply too pure for him to resist, and so he voices its sales pitch: “Don’t like the nation you’re in? Pick another one that meets your needs better, for any specific purpose.” In this insurrectionist vision, the fact of inherited citizenship in an existing nation, with all the messy commitments and baggage it entails, is to be regarded as a misfortune. We should all work to hasten the day of our liberation into a world where political and legal entanglements are just as much matters of consumer choice as a Netflix membership—and just as easy to shed.

To Zuckerman’s credit, he is under no illusion that Bitnation is changing the world quite yet. He realizes that what the project has to offer today is aspirational more than real. As exhilarating as its creators’ vision is to him, he is willing to question whether it is an entirely healthy one. Discussing Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), Zuckerman notes that many of those who are most excited about the possibilities of exiting existing arrangements seem to have little interest in voice-based means of change; in Hirschman’s terms, they lack the loyalty needed to work within the system. As Zuckerman notes, “It’s a mark of this mistrustful moment that exit from the jurisdiction of the United States—[which used to be] the country of last resort—is an obsession of interesting and creative thinkers.”

His note of ambivalence about this type of insurrectionism is echoed elsewhere. Although he has built his book around a dichotomy, positioning himself on the side of the insurrectionists, he isn’t committed to coming down hard against all institutionalists. Indeed, sometimes he blurs the lines of his dichotomy, praising “radical institutionalists” (who want to transform institutions from within) and “counter-democrats” (who function as watchdogs over existing institutions). One subsection of the book even bears the heading, “In Defense of the Deep State,” and praises those who are willing to patiently serve institutional values even as political leaders go haywire.

At the end of the day, however, Zuckerman thinks that asking for a grassroots recommitment to institutions that have already lost the people’s trust is wishful thinking. Insiders think the outsiders have no path to real influence; outsiders think the insiders are sure to go native and fail to effect change. They might well be reenacting the old scene between Michael and Kay Corleone: “Do you know how naive you sound, Insurrectionist?” “Now who’s being naive, Institutionalist?”

The covid-19 pandemic has severely tested Zuckerman’s faith in insurrectionism. In an Afterword to the book, written in May 2020, he encourages grassroots actions like sewing masks while admitting that “a pandemic reminds us of the limitations on personal and decentralized responses to a crisis.” When the going gets really tough, there is no substitute for powerful organs of state.

But when a friend asks Zuckerman whether the pandemic had turned him into an institutionalist, Zuckerman says no. As much as the crisis has shown the need for trusted institutions, he says it has also “deepened my suspicions that many of our institutions” are “no longer fit for the purpose or up to the task.” His friend quips, “Ah, you’ve become a resurrectionist.” If insurrectionism is a spirit of uprising, resurrectionism is the desire to see fallen institutions rise up with new life. That’s too clever by half. Is Zuckerman ready to move away from the insurrectionism that he’s spent much of his book praising, or isn’t he?

It seems he’d like to take all that is best in the rebellious spirit while retaining his ability to denounce all that is worst or most dangerous. In his January Atlantic article, Zuckerman insists, “Hunting down our representatives because they won’t overthrow an election doesn’t get us any closer to functional institutions, because it’s not insurrectionism; it’s terrorism.” And he writes in the book that a real insurrectionist doesn’t “smash things and move on” but is fundamentally after some kind of positive change.

But people who are angry enough to want to tear down institutions are not necessarily well situated to think about what should spring up in their place. The smashing may, indeed, be insurrectionism’s main attraction for them. As the analyst Martin Gurri has emphasized, the unifying characteristic of the social-media-enabled populist uprisings that broke out all over the world in the 2010s was their relentless negativity. Zuckerman’s own mode of insurrectionism may be sunny in disposition and supportive of perfectly wholesome forms of social action, but there is no reason to think that he will be typical of the insurrectionists of the 2020s.

Given the reality of insurrectionism as it is actually likely to confront us, how should we face it? Rather than according our sympathies to Daniel Shays and his followers, we would do better to summon the spirit of George Washington in dealing with the Whiskey Rebellion. When faced with an apparent insurrection in western Pennsylvania, the former general raised a federal militia force of nearly thirteen thousand men and marched them into the region. This overwhelming show of force dispersed the threat without any violence; only two men were convicted of treason in connection with the uprising, and Washington eventually pardoned them.

In his State of the Union Address in 1795, Washington told Congress, “It is a valuable ingredient in the general estimate of our welfare that the part of our country which was lately the scene of disorder and insurrection now enjoys the blessings of quiet and order.” In the young nation’s history, quashing the rebellion was a formative event that convinced people they could trust in the effective power of federal institutions. We could do with a little more of that right now. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing if insurrection gets a bad name.

Philip Wallach is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies America’s separation of powers. He is the author of To the Edge: Legality, Legitimacy, and the Responses to the 2008 Financial Crisis (2015).

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