The term “post-truth politics” is starting to become an emotional comfort blanket for those people unwilling to examine the reason for legitimate electoral failure
In these interesting times, a lot is being made of the idea that we live in a supposedly “post-truth” or “post-factual” society, where political debates take place and elections are swung not on the basis of evidence and rationality but rather on the basis of bluster and superstition.
Even those of us who supported either Brexit or the election of Donald Trump (this blog was strongly in favour of the former but against the latter) should acknowledge that there is a degree of truth to this criticism of the modern media landscape. As this Buzzfeed article makes clear, when there is a whole industry comprised of people producing inflammatory, fake pro-Trump news articles to earn ad revenue from the clicks of credulous partisans eager to have their existing biases confirmed, something is clearly awry.
But it is also true that dismissing electoral losses as the result of dumb people being duped in a lamentably post-factual world – just as some Trump supporters prepared for defeat by insisting that losing to Hillary Clinton could only be the result of a shadowy conspiracy – is an emotional comfort blanket too easily seized by people who don’t want to do the hard work of understanding why their own ideas were rejected by the public.
I recently attended the debate marking the launch of the 2017 Orwell Prize in London, where the panel – including Polly Toynbee and the excellent Christopher Snowdon – debated the role of the media and of “experts” in the recent EU referendum. Snowdon gives an excellent summary of his own remarks here, and concluded his speech:
Lying may be more morally objectionable, but bullshit is more common and it is just as damaging to public understanding of the world we live in. My argument is not that we are living in a truthful age. On the contrary, there is bullshit everywhere but deliberate political lies make up a very small portion of it – and that portion is not growing.
As long as people have an appetite for having their biases confirmed, newspapers will continue printing bullshit. As long as people think they can get away with it, they’re going to mislead the public. I don’t think we live in the post-truth era because I don’t think there was ever an era of truth. We are still in the pre-truth era and probably always will be.
As the other panellists – Toynbee most forcefully, of course – lamented the way in which the Evil Murdoch Press had supposedly manipulated its uniquely gullible readership with lies and disinformation while Evil politicians like Michael Gove encouraged people to ignore the pro-Remain advice of self-described “experts”, thus causing Brexit, I felt the need to take a stand. So at the appropriate time I seized the microphone and pointed out that wheeling out expert after expert to repeat the establishment line that Brexit would ruin the British economy (as though none of these experts didn’t let their personal biases and preferences colour their opinions) made all other aspects of the decision secondary considerations.
Sky News and the BBC had an endless parade of self-described experts talking about the theoretical economic consequences of Brexit, yet hardly any time was given to experts on governance, democracy, history or constitutional matters. At some point a decision was made that this debate would be All About Economics, and nothing else. One can dispute the dismal predictions of the Remain campaign’s economic “experts” – this blog certainly did – but at least we discussed economics. There was barely a proper discussion about democracy or the constitutional implications of staying or leaving the EU.
This was unfortunately taken by the debate’s moderator to mean that “feelings matter too”, which is not what I was saying at all. My point was that qualitative facts are every bit as important as quantitative ones, and often even more so. I would have expected more sympathy for my viewpoint – among the trendy-lefty, pro-Corbyn crowd at the event were countless people who clearly spend much of their time railing against free markets and capitalism, yet who seem to unquestioningly believe that the slightest potential threat to future GDP growth would make seceding from the European Union in pursuit of democratic renewal a calamitous idea.
When it comes to British membership of the EU, the Remain campaign’s Project Fear spoke only about numbers (and skewed ones at that), with only the occasional bit of fluff about “friendship ‘n cooperation” thrown in as a rhetorical garnish. My point was that in voting for Brexit, it is not that the British people disregarded the numeric facts entirely, but rather that they cared more about other, qualitative facts. Facts to which the Remain campaign never sought to acknowledge, let alone tackle.
The facts vs emotion reduction which met my contribution to the Orwell debate and which now colours nearly all of the media coverage of our supposedly “post-truth society” is therefore a bit too simplistic. There are quantitative facts but there are also qualitative facts – truths which are not based on emotion or hunch or prejudice, but which nonetheless cannot be added up in an Excel spreadsheet, slapped on an infographic and shared on social media.
I voted for Brexit because I believe that the EU actively harms and undermines the democracies of its member states, by deliberate design. I marshalled many facts to back up this position during the campaign – from primary and secondary historical sources, the stated positions of current EU leaders and various other proofs. Just because they are not quantifiable and I could not declare (for example) that leaving the EU will make Britain 11.2% more democratic and give the people 8.4% more control over the decision makers does not make the facts on which I argued my case untrue. And reducing those qualitative facts about democratic control, accountability and the known history and trajectory of the EU as mere “emotion” unfairly diminishes those facts.
When Brexiteers present quotes from EU “founding fathers” speaking of their vision for a federal Europe and tie them to quotes and draft bills from contemporary EU politicians pushing towards the same goals, these are facts. They are not quantifiable, but they are solid facts, much more than mere emotion. And they deserved to be considered and engaged with, yet by and large they were not during the campaign.
Modern politics has become excessively numbers driven. But when the Overton Window is so narrow, the range of policy options so constrained and politics largely reduced to the technocratic management of our public services then that probably becomes inevitable. And we must counter this trend by giving more of a focus to narratives and general principles again. That will lead to greater political engagement.
At present there is far too much self-satisfied criticism of “post-factual politics” in which defeated pro-EU supporters express alarm that people supposedly ignored the only facts available to them and made irrational decisions against their own self interest, and this is not so. There were other, unquantifiable facts which moved people to vote for Brexit. And these pivotal criteria deserve to be acknowledged as legitimate facts, not dismissed as mere emotions.
It is easy and comforting to believe that one’s own side thinks and acts according to reason, logic and evidence while one’s opponents are moved by base emotion, superstition or prejudice. But the divide is very rarely so clear.
And if the “post-truth politics” crowd do not soon realise this and practice some humility, that emotional comfort blanket could all too quickly become a funeral shroud when they next face the electorate.
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