Politics is people making choices about who gets what, when and how. On what do we base those decisions? Religious faith, tables of statistics, rational analyses, gut feelings?
One cornerstone of our liberal-democratic system is that there exists a professional intelligentsia, and educated elite, who make decisions based on rational analysis of society. These people, who inhabit our civil service as well their corollary the media and press, are entrusted to make some political decisions because they have access to special knowledge training. They are meant to understand the world better than the average person and they will steer a steady course through the storms and tides of periodic financial and social uncertainty. They are truth-seekers. To know the facts is their sole aim, and the reason they wield power in society.
This same authority extends to politicians and political parties. Knowledge of how the world really works – especially understanding of macro-economics – is the currency that our elected representatives trade on. This principle is enshrined in our British constitution (it really does exist). If ministers are found to have lied, especially if they have misled parliament, then the doctrine of individual ministerial responsibility requires that they resign. Politicians may bend or stretch the vérité, but if the get caught at it they can expect to be out on their ear. There may be widespread resentment – hatred even – of MPs, but we grudgingly accept that they know better than we do how markets, share flotations and tariff barriers operate. Knowledge – of truth – really is power.
Many say that the game has changed, however, and that we are living in a newly emerging post-truth era. In this altered political reality public servants no longer need to appeal to objective truth or reasoned analysis to win popularity and power. Instead they trade in emotion, and fact-free rhetoric to gain support from a vocal and dedicated base of supporters.
What basis does the idea of ‘post-truth’ politics have, and why is it in the process of being accepted as the way things really are?
Trump ton of lies
The Republican nominee for the President of the USA is the obvious poster-boy for post-truth politics. Trump’s relationship to what we might reasonably call the truth is non-existent. Trump lies brazenly, makes completely unsupported statements and openly contradicts himself, and his erstwhile allies, without it harming his public standing. Gaffes that would have long-ago sunk any other politicians in the modern era have seemingly no impact on Trump or his candidacy for the US top job. But it isn’t just Trump who plays fast and very, very loose with the truth. Trump is surrounded by those who have long track records of deliberately going against the consensus position that you should stick to the facts in order to make your points.
The right in US politics has been trading in emotion and hyperbole for some time now. Fox news used to come under sustained criticism, most notably from Jon Stewart of the Daily Show for the almost deliberately risible assertion that their news output is ‘fair and balanced’. The increasingly over-the-top rhetoric in the wake of the Tea Party phenomenon centred around some familiar tropes of the American right: the racist questioning of Obama’s birthplace; ‘pro-life’ attacks on abortion rights and denial of man-made climate change. As the extreme, and sometimes conspiratorial narratives of the right became more mainstream the ties between reality and political discourse began to loosen. 9/11 was not an inside job, but that doesn’t stop people watching Loose Change.
The rise of the repugnant Alt-Right and a cavalcade of conspiracy theorists had been fueled by the internet, both as a medium and in the way it reinforces and amplifies shared opinions. The so-called filter bubble not only prevents people from hearing views that don’t agree with their own, but gradually de-sensitises readers and viewers to more extreme views that would be easily repudiated, were they to be subject to robust public discourse.
Lies, damned lies and the Leave campaign
The notorious pronouncement of Michael Gove during the referendum campaign that people were “tired of experts” illustrates how this issue of post-truth is not just an American one. [Gove is fairly straightforwardly called out on this by Faisal Islam from about 1:00 into the clip below.] The Leave campaign quite deliberately tried to tap into a vein of anti-establishment feeling, best illustrated by their omnipresent slogan: ‘Take Back Control’. Never mind that the £350 million figure was shown well before the vote to be inaccurate, or that it was jettisoned the next morning by a worse-for-wear Nigel Farage. Such is the strength of vitriol directed at the ‘experts’ that Trump, Farage and Gove can present themselves as manning the barricades of a people’s insurgency – despite being a property magnate, a banker and a politician, respectively.
On attempt to counter this collapse of faith in the very idea of objective reality is to appoint a new panel of experts. A spate of fact-checking services have sprung up to try and play referee for political debate. Full Fact and Fact Check are the leading examples of this trend. They have a limited impact at present but may become more influential over time. It’s hard to see how they could arrest the general decline however, because they rely on people buying into the idea of political neutrality in the first place, and also have chosen to avoid making editorial decisions. Doing so would make them journalists – a group almost as disliked as politicians.
Change is gonna come
Since the end of the Second World War long-acting forces have been at work, shifting attitudes on everything from gender roles, religious adherence, deference to ‘betters’ and even whether it’s appropriate to go outside without a hat on. Also on the rocks is people’s intrinsic faith in objective, measurable reality. For our current political set-up this is a most serious problem.
The second half of this post – landing next Wednesday – will consider in more detail how that faith was lost, and also why there is hope that we won’t be living this strange post-truth reality forever.