"We have entered an age of post-truth politics." So declared the New York Times last month. They are, of course, not alone in seeing things this way. On this side of The Pond, events like Brexit underscore disillusionment with experts and politicians alike, leading to the widespread feeling that we're living through an era of "post-truth politics". The spread of misinformation on social media only adds to this.
There's no doubt that appeals to emotion and identity are trumping rationality in a number of areas. Yet there is a danger that in diagnosing the symptom (a lack of truth) we skate over the root cause, which is a lack of trust. 'Truth', after all, will not be returned to the debate by confronting people with hard facts; it will only come through re-building confidence in the institutions, sources, individuals and channels through which those facts are dispersed. Until this happens anecdotal evidence and internet hearsay will prevail.
So how do we go about this? With trust in the government to act in our best interests having halved in the last thirty years, it's a tall order. But a few clues about where to start with this mammoth task can be found in Phil Cowley and Rob Ford's brilliant new collection, More Sex Lies & the Ballot Box. The book, which comprises 51 short chapters of psephological myth-busting and truism-testing, is compulsory reading for political science nerds everywhere.
Within it are three key lessons for anyone who wants to see the post-truth tanker turned around.
The first comes in Harold Clarke's chapter, which looks at research into what people think of politician parties in general (rather than of one particular political party or another). Almost all of the negative associations are to do with trust. 41% say political parties don't offer genuine choices, 58% say they aren't straightforward about the real problems that exist, and a whopping 75% say parties don't do the things they say they will once in office. Events like the 2009 expenses scandal or the Panama Papers may have doubtless exacerbated things, but Clarke's chapter suggests that a huge reason for low political trust is a sense of democratic impotence among citizens, rather than a weariness with scandal or corruption. Consulting and engaging with citizens can play a key role in addressing this, giving citizens a stake in decisions, and providing transparent explanations when things go wrong.
The second lesson comes from Cowley himself, whose chapter compares trust of MPs as individuals to trust of the political class in general. He writes that, although people are unlikely to feel as much bile towards their own MP as they do towards MPs per se, there are "vanishingly few people who 'hate' MPs in general but 'love' their local representative". Pointing out that, in any given seat or ward, there'll often be a majority who didn't vote for the winning candidate, Cowley writes:
trust in politicians isn't like trust in your local GP or your local bus service or in a supermarket. It's a political judgement, one driven as much by the views of respondents as by the performance of the MPs.
This is a hard finding to digest, but it's an important one. Members have a key role to play in winning back trust for politicians and institutions. They can provide a personalised, localised rebuke to the types of national stereotype that damage trust. But Cowley's chapter shows that to do so they need to have the dynamism and political range to engage with the constituents who didn't elect them as well as they do with the ones that did.
The final lesson can be found in Ben Seyd's chapter, which looks to explain the psychology behind our loathing of politicians, and how this has developed over time. It finds that trust in politicians, while always pretty low, has got steadily worse. Seyd attributes this to two elements of the human reasoning faculty. Our negativity bias means that we prioritise the bad things we hear about politicians over the good, leading to a steady accumulation of cynicism. And our confirmation bias leads us to discount information that contradicts our existing world view - meaning that once political cynicism is embedded, it's increasingly magnified.
Seyd's chapter ends on a positive note, pointing out that politicians in other countries have successfully maintained trust. Yet its abiding lesson is that once political organisations or individuals have lost the confidence of those they serve, it's hard to win it back. Lip service in the form of press releases of tick-box surveys won't do. Councils, government agencies and others trying to turn around the trust tanker will need to genuinely change how they do things, involving citizens in decisions and trusting them to get those decisions right.
More Sex Lies & the Ballot Box is based on detailed academic research which is usually paywalled. To mark the book's publication, several academic publishers have kindly agreed to make the data behind some of the key chapters free-to-view for a limited time. TCC has teamed up with Phil and Rob to provide a library of these publications, so they're all in one place. Click here to make the most of them!
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