The myth of post-truth politics

Ignore the experts: why the “post-truth era” is a welcome revolution against the marketisation of everyday life


As we approach a year since the EU referendum, time has done little to help comprehend the motivations of the Brexit vote. It was a move that nine out of ten economists predicted would harm Britain, yet the country’s stubborn electorate chose to ignore them. The turkeys had voted for Christmas, we were told. It was the era of post-truth politics.

Yet like any hastily-coined phrase, “post-truth” risks being over-used to a point where it loses all meaning. The term – used to explain anything from Brexit to Donald Trump’s election – only goes so far before questions arise as to what caused the supposed demise of truth, and why it has been so influential. From explain-all mantra to propaganda tool, “post-truth” conflates a number of factors underlying the greatest upheaval in modern politics into a simple, but unconvincing, narrative: they lied.

Of course, there are the obvious cases. There’s the “fake news”: Trump’s referencing of a fictitious terror attack in Sweden, his accusations of voter fraud and in the United Kingdom, mistruths about £350 million being sent to the European Union each week. There is little contention that these testable claims lack evidence. Feeble journalism has been blamed for their proliferation; with online media and 24-hour news cycles affording little time for anything beyond a “he said, she said” reporting style.

The “dead-cat” strategy

Yet there is also little reason to treat this phenomenon as unique to the events of 2016. Rather, it is better understood as a culmination of a long-standing trend in political electioneering known as the “dead cat” strategy. Employed by the Australian election strategist Lynton Crosby when working for Boris Johnson’s London mayoral and David Cameron’s general election campaigns, it is best summarised by Johnson himself:

“There is one thing certain about throwing a dead cat on the table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point is that everyone will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and not the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

In other words, an accusation repeated with enough resolve has the potential to direct attention away from weaknesses in your own campaign. The technique’s efficacy was demonstrated in 2015 when the Labour leader Ed Miliband was accused of “stabbing his own brother in the back” by a Conservative minister. The allegation dominated newspaper headlines for days and is widely considered to have cost Miliband the election.

Cue Trump. If Crosby had encouraged the flinging of a dead cat on the table, the soon-to-be President-elect had found a cattery, and was putting it to good effect. There was Obama’s birth certificate, Clinton’s emails and a cover-up at the security services. Elements of Britain’s Leave campaign did the same. Scare stories about HIV patients flocking to the UK, an increased risk of terrorism from EU membership and grossly inflated migration statistics all lacked veracity but inspired potential to guide political discourse. The “dead-cat” strategy – repackaged as “post-truth politics” by commentators – was more conspicuous, yet more profitable, than ever before.

A metropolitan catchphrase

Before long, the phrase was everywhere. For many, the UK government minister Michael Gove’s now infamous claim that “people have had enough of experts” became the defining quote of the post-truth age. Others found the electorate’s audacity to ignore recommendations from academics to be evidence of the trend. In America, all of Trump’s claims were held in the same regard as his indulgence of conspiracy theorists. Everything about the political upheaval was credited to a sudden, but unexplained, disdain for facts. Nuance was ignored and “post-truth” was the word of the year.

Yet there was something different about these cases. Not because their assumptions or consequences were any less unsavoury than the “dead-cat” stories, but because they didn’t operate under any mistruths. These weren’t testable claims, and evidence proved insufficient to counter them. It was a different plane of debate entirely. Values were being contested, rather than facts.

Not that our “post-truth” era had noticed the distinction. The journalist Helen Lewis explores the origin of the phrase in a long-read on the topic:

“Blogger David Roberts coined the phrase “post-truth politics,” suggesting voters were more likely to choose a party aligned with their identity and values, and consciously seek out evidence to support its proposals, rather than assess the facts and then choose a party.”

Lewis compared Roberts’ observation to the field of science, where “journalists have [faced] this dilemma when covering issues for which the scientific consensus has not been accepted by commentators”. Her case studies – “the MMR vaccine, climate change, the age of the Earth” – drew from examples where a false equivalence between ideology and evidence had presented unequivocal scientific judgements as contentious, and worthy of public debate.

‘Scientism’ & politics

Lewis’s comparison of science with politics is unsurprising given the increasing status granted to factual, rather than moral or values-based arguments, in recent years. The trend has been termed “scientism” by sociologists.

Best exemplified by the neuroscientist Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape, which argued that the scientific method could answer moral questions, scientism is defined as “scientific arguments treading on intellectual territory — for instance, religion or ethics — on which they don’t belong”. In politics then, scientism is the belief that expert opinion, rather than value-based decisions, should form the basis of political discourse.

Media coverage has long drifted in this direction. Claire Fox, a writer and frequent panellist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze for instance, has observed “a noticeable shift in the arguments made by the programme’s guests”. Rather than “taking moral positions, they prefer to cite stats, show graphs and wave scientific studies, as though the act of doing so concludes the argument”.

The market society

While journalists had increasingly elevated evidence-based discussions to a status above arguments based on principle, one particular field was held in higher regard than others: economics. In perhaps the most definitive example of political scientism, the New Statesman published an article suggesting that nobody was “qualified to vote in the EU referendum unless they had a PhD in economics”.

The Harvard sociologist Michael Sandel has long drawn attention to this change in public discourse. “We’ve shifted, in recent decades, from having a market economy to becoming market societies” he told the BBC in 2013. “A market economy is a tool for organising productive activity. But a market society is a place where everything is up for sale, a way of life in which market values dominate”.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Sandel credits the trend for the dominant role economics now plays in our civic debate. “A striking feature of contemporary political argument is that we aren’t even asking [ethical] questions. We’ve outsourced our moral judgement to markets” he summarised. Four years before the rise of Trump and Brexit, his analysis had come with a warning. “If we don’t have a more morally robust, ethically engaged kind of public discourse, we will not be able to protect attitudes, values and norms – non-market norms – that are worth caring about”.

Sandel judged politics to have become “emptied, hollowed out, managerial and technocratic,” where expert economic opinion had become a surrogate for values-based political judgements. By 2016 the trend was so ingrained in the public psyche that anyone who dare rebelled against it would be labelled as “post-truth”.

Changing ideology

It was the financial crisis of 2008 which had inspired much of Sandel’s work. But it wasn’t just academics who responded to the crisis by questioning economists’ role in civic discourse. The event had restructured the very thinking of our society.

Until 2008, the market society, both practically and culturally, had provided a structure voters could rely upon and trust in, plan their lives around and judge their successes by. Blockbuster films such as The Pursuit of Happyness and Slumdog Millionaire provided neoliberal fairy-tales for us to enjoy, and we were assumed to share the aspirations of their main characters; to find a good life for ourselves, synonymous with – or at least indistinguishable from – becoming rich. Our lives had adopted the same philosophy as our politics, and whichever course provided the most prosperity was deemed the right one. If culture is understood to offer meaning and security to daily life, the market society was at its core.

With the financial crisis, that thinking collapsed overnight. The markets, which we had invested so much cultural and political faith in, had failed and our cultural philosophy had been undone. Yet despite the media furore, the majority saw the important aspects of their lives; health, education, family and community remain intact. For the first time since its inception in the 1980s, the credibility of market society thinking had taken a blow. The public began to question not only economists’ assertions but also their relevance to our lives. All the while, establishment politicians remained oblivious.

Not the newcomers though. New populists on both sides of the Atlantic shunned fear-mongering about economic policy for a bolder type of campaigning, based on identity in a post-market society. “I would rather we weren’t slightly richer and we had communities that felt more united” declared Nigel Farage in a 2014 interview. Contrast that with the Remain campaign’s “Project Fear” strategy, laden with economic projections and statistics. The EU vote came to exist as much a referendum on the market society itself as a referendum on EU membership, and the debate captured this transition. Remain voters still believed economics to be paramount, while Leave voters considered economic opinion to have almost no significance at all.

In America, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message drowned out Hilary Clinton’s policies of economic reform. If “it’s the economy, stupid!” was once Bill Clinton’s famous tool in making sense of voter intentions, 2016 had provided the ultimate test of it. What made the year so remarkable wasn’t the demise of truth, but a decided change of ideology. Time had come on the market society.

The collapse of social democracy

That this upheaval manifested in the success of nationalistic movements was not inevitable, but it didn’t occur by chance. While Trump and Britain’s Eurosceptics had abandoned economic facts, social democrats on both sides of the Atlantic obsessed over market metrics. Growth, deficits and GDP figures dominated their policy briefs. Mostly from academic backgrounds, centrist politicians misunderstood the plight of ordinary voters to be purely economic, and offered nothing for the challenges facing society in other spheres. The dereliction of communities, isolation of the modern workforce, epidemics of loneliness and the harmful effects of an insipid rhetoric of social mobility that equated success with social escapism went unnoticed. Meanwhile, the new populists built growing movements by exploiting unequivocal values, however unsavoury, centred around patriotism, community and traditional identities.

Whether these political upheavals will deliver on their promises seems unlikely, if only because their leaders suffer from a range of conflicted interests. Yet while these new populists were able to exploit a growing discontentment across the West, the response from many politicians – to blame a “post-truth era” – only antagonises a widespread thirst for a values-based political debate.

Approaching another general election, political ‘progressives’ face an enormous decision, leaving two options. They can continue to argue that Brexit was wrong – that it should be mitigated, even avoided, at every opportunity. To do so would be to defend the essence of market society thinking and to ignore the fervent energy rebelling against it, which has already sunken social democratic parties across the West.

The second option is bolder, but also offers more significant reward. It is to argue for a different vision of a society completely, to understand Brexit as a cultural, rather than economic, rebellion and to offer values-based arguments in response. This need not involve conforming to the competing narratives of nationalism and xenophobia, nor should it involve resisting every element of political change, but rather altering the grounds upon which it is discussed. It was never the case that there weren’t progressive reasons to leave the EU, it’s just that they were largely side-lined by economic arguments and left for fringe politicians to advocate.

Neither route is certain; this is unchartered territory. But one thing is clear. The longer ‘progressive’ politicians argue to stem change and defend market society thinking, the longer they’ll isolate the very voters who they should be representing. This isn’t post-truth politics, it’s an opportunity to reframe the emphasis of political debate to one of values, rather than the “managerial and technocratic” business it has become.

2016 may well have been the year of political revolution. If progressives are to respond effectively, they should abandon the myth of “post-truth politics,” join that revolution and actively re-direct it towards positive political change.

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