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Post-Truth Politics And You

01/11/2016 14:32

Why you should care that facts mean nothing in politics any more

You might have heard the term post-truthism recently.

From Adam Curtis' latest documentary, to Vice, to the Guardian, it's appearing everywhere. 

So the theory goes, that with the rise of Trump and in the age of Brexit, facts as political currency have become devalued and ultimately, no longer a prerequisite of political success.

Now, you may say it was ever thus.

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Indeed, the idea that there existed some halcyon time of truth-telling politics, when our leaders took a daily dose of sodium pentathol and swore on the bible -- a time from which we've now departed -- is clearly a fantasy.

Spin has by and large been a part of politics since Machiavelli told his Prince to be a bit wily, at least. Arguably it goes as far back as Socrates' time. And I'm sure some neolithic version of David Cameron encouraged his hunter-gatherer pals to give him a chunk of their sabre-tooth meat on the promise of a bite of some future, tastier mammoth meat he had no idea how to acquire.

Many would go so far as to say that politics is spin -- it's bending the truth to appeal to the broadest possible cross-section: white lies and gentle coercion towards the greater good if you're being optimistic, a power-grabbing diversion if you're more cynical.

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In British politics, the Blair years saw spin come to the fore, something to which the Tweet above alludes.

Messrs Campbell and Mandelson made it an art-from, and though not desired, it was most definitely a tolerated aspect of the machinations of governing.

Spin implies a soft bending of the facts. In reality, there were many cases of spin that veered towards the wholly untruthful. Most obviously, with Iraq.

Yet whether or not the dodgy dossier was true (clue: the word dodgy tends not to be used in open and shut cases of fact), it still had to engage in the language of facts.

To put it another way, even though the facts were made up, they still had to be presented as facts in the first place, and it was that which acted as justification. The "facts" -- in the biggest quotation marks possible -- drove the debate. Did Saddam have WMDs? If so, how do we respond?

In the Brexit campaign, no such thing was necessary.

Data and arguments were offered tokenistically, on both sides admittedly, but none drove the debate in any way.

Rather, it was sentiment, feeling, passion.

I know not a single person on either side, myself included, who voted on the facts. 

Because it was impossible.

There were no real facts. One argument with data and figures would be countered with another argument with data and figures. 

£350million for the NHS vs £80million a day in subsidies.

Politicians on both sides knew this, and played to it. They knew that the less sense the debate made, the less likely there could be an informed vote, and each side thought that would lead them to victory.

Lack of clarity=confusion=fear.

It just so happens that Vote Leave better exploited people's fears. They played on the fear of 'the other' more effectively than Remain played on the fear of change.

A campaign of spin, this was not. This was a campaign of post-truth.

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Trump has taken that Brexit bluster and magnified it to American proportions.

With vague, snackable, and ultimately unverifiable notions of America being broken, and the offering of noisy yet simplistic policies to fix it, he appeals to that bubbling sentiment of alienation and distrust in the establishment that got Vote Leave's foot in the door. 

He then whips it into the un-PC fervour of hysterical fear and anger that sealed the Out vote.
He plays on the emotions like few since -- need I say it and invoke Godwin's law? 

Facts never come into it. They don't need to.

His voters, and this is not to patronise or denigrate, they don't want to hear facts. They've heard enough facts. As Gove so succinctly put it in a quote for the ages, "people have had enough of experts".

This applies on both sides of the pond.

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Truth then is a commodity rare, yet barely valuable, in politics today.

But why does this matter?

Politicians lie. Death and taxes.

Well, it matters for one key reason:

With no accepted "truth" -- whether this is universal, or simply a shared societal myth -- politicians have the ability to manipulate, dodge and grift in a way that leaves them totally unaccountable.

Get voted in on the promise of cutting income tax? Get in power, and raise it? Doesn't matter. It wasn't a promise. It wasn't true. I never really said that.

This may take it to the fringes of a straw man, and I accept that charge to an extent, but even smaller accusations of abuse of power, of fraudulent acquisition of power, can cause catastrophic issues in a democracy. 

Take the current Prime Minister, Theresa May. A soft remainer prior to the election, now very much a staunch Brexiter, it has come out in recent days that she spoke to a panel of bankers about the perils of Brexit before the vote took place.

Now either she was lying to them, or she's lying to us. But it doesn't matter. It's not going to result in a vote of no confidence. It won't be endlessly covered in the media.

There's no benchmark of truth to hold her against. It could come out tomorrow that prior to the referendum she said Brexit will result in the breakup and destruction of the United Kingdom. By next week's PMQs she'll be telling us that if anything, Brexit will result in the strengthening of the union, and everything will carry on as normal.

There is something fundamentally undemocratic about this. Chameleon politics that offers nothing but a condescending token, a husk of a mandate.

How can any politician that doesn't at least cede some importance to facts ever be held to account?

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Now, perhaps there's some kernel of comfort in this. Come on, let's try to find one.

In a world of no truth, you make your own truth.

Like some politically bastardised existentialism.

If there's no truth, we don't need to buy in to the generational myths that have pervaded within our political dogma -- Socialism doesn't work, regulation is bad, immigration is scourge, wealth distribution is a con -- and instead start to create our own scripture, new rules to live and govern by.

Yes, how very Nietzsche.

Those of us, and I'm talking predominantly on the left, but more accurately, those of us losing right now -- the remainers, the liberals, the dare I say it, compassionate -- must begin to realise that a conversation based on the facts does nothing to convince a public who have 'had enough of experts'.

We need to learn how to translate those facts into a sentiment that tugs on peoples instinctual beliefs and feelings. Now I'm not calling for a return to Blairism by any means, but one thing he managed to do very well was speak a language of emotion, that connected with voters on a deeper level, particularly in 1997 with "things can only get better" etc.

Obama, of course, mastered this art with all his hopey/changey stuff.

That the political reality of these campaigns was only disappointing should not dissuade us from the means.

It is no coincidence that the two biggest victories for non-conservative populism in the last 30 years engineered public sentiment in this way.

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By moving the discussion from the factual to the emotional, we can begin to create a new truth.

If we don't, you can be as sure as anything that our opponents will.
 
Ain't that, indeed, the truth.

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