The Politics of Truth/Facts

Obviously one of the most infuriating things about Trump is his disdain for truth/science/facts. On the first three days of his Presidency outrage had already reached a boiling point over Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s outright falsehoods and Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.” As an educator, I also strongly believe that backing up claims with evidence should be the bedrock of knowledge, argument, and debate. I too am disgusted by this administration’s disdain for facts and the truth.

But (could you feel the “but” coming?), there’s a real problem with our liberal obsession with the politics of facts and truth. As Thomas Frank has argued, the problem with the Democratic party over the last thirty years is that it has completely shifted its popular base from working class people to what he calls the “professional class” — materially well off knowledge workers, academics, journalists and what Joel Kotkin calls, “all-around smart people.” These are good “liberal” people. I am one of these people.

For the professional class, truth and facts matter. They matter a lot. As Frank details, the most important thing to the professional classes is education (specifically where you went to college, and the networks of other smart people that exist among the college educated). When it comes down to it, many of us are quite seduced by the meritocratic fantasy that our lives are really a product of our own education, hard work, and investment. This is why liberal professional folk kept saying the reason to elect Hillary Clinton is because she is so “qualified”. She has “credentials” and “experience.” Of course, the thing we hate so much about Donald Trump is that he is so damn “unqualified.”

Being highly educated means understanding that truth and facts must be adjudicated through rigorous evidence and, if necessary, the scientific method of hypothesis testing. This is perhaps most fully expressed in the politics of climate change; framed as a battle over “science”; a battle between “truth” and “denial”. The sense is: if only the people believed in the existence (the truth) of climate change, then the solutions would be delivered automatically through democratic means. Of course, a more materialist (shhh — Marxist!)view of climate change sees it more as a “class” battle between those who control our energy system (fossil fuel companies) and those who do not and fight for a livable plant (the climate movement). Knowledge and science matters of course, but material interests matter more (do we really think Scott Pruitt in his heart “denies” climate change, or is it just the fact he’s received millions in fossil fuel contributions?).

Overall, for the educated professional classes, truth cannot simply be made up. It must be vetted by experts who have the education to precisely determine what we can count as “true” and “false.” It isn’t just scientists. Journalists too, must “report” the facts objectively. And, most importantly, if politicians are going to make arguments they better be based in fact and truth. For us professional classes, violation of these rules of truth is a frontal assault on our very being and sense of self.

Here’s the problem. The majority of Americans (60%) don’t have a college degree. Frankly, most of these people don’t give a shit about the politics of truth. Most of them are too busy trying to eke out a living to worry about rigor and standards of evidence. Their lives are shaped by the material here and now; questions of scientific facts are not much of a concern. Take climate change again: I would guess most people don’t “deny” climate change. Any human being on the planet can see something has gone terribly wrong with the global climate systems. But, many working class people are resistant to climate policies because they have been convinced that they will harm (tax) their lives. It’s not about the truth or existence of climate change at all. It’s about the material here and now. The “knowledge” of climate change is for the professional classes to figure out.

Even more, they are deeply suspicious of the “facts” they are told by the government, “the media” and, you can be sure, poindexter ‘know it all’ academic intellectuals like myself. They disdain people like us. As Joan Williams pointed out, the working classes in the United States, “ resent professionals but admire the rich.” There is a real populist disdain in this country toward “all around smart people.” We can’t ignore this political “fact.”

So this matters in a purely democratic-political-electoral sense: there are simply not enough of us “all around smart people” to win elections. Our outrage over “post-truth” is right, but I’m not sure it’s a winning political message. More to the point: by focusing so much on “truth” we basically reaffirm why working class people hate us so much. We are always trying to tell them what is true.

Here’s my truth: politics is really not so much about true or false. Politics, as Antonio Gramsci might say, is about persuasion. Politics is about convincing masses of people that your plans/program will deliver material benefits to their lives. Politics is about message, narrative, and resonance. Politics is about feelings and emotions (if anything else, Trumpism shows how dark such a politics can become). Sure, one would hope, that the politics of persuasion most use “facts” as its bedrock. For example, the fact that 8 people now own the wealth of 3.6 billion people (half the planet) is both a “fact” and persuasive that something has gone horribly wrong with our capitalist system of producing and distributing wealth.

Moreover, we can’t get so caught up in screaming “it’s false” when Trump’s “post-truth” machine utters its nonsense. We would do better to ask: why do they say this falsehood? For example, we all understand that Sean Spicer’s statement that Trump’s inauguration has the largest audience ever (or whatever) was false. But, a more important analysis might seek to explain the political purpose of Spicer’s statement. Trump’s entire political “brand” is based on the idea of his “tremendous” popularity. His narrative is based on the idea that he was elected by a mass popular movement (despite losing the popular vote). That narrative/message is completely contradicted by the “fact” that the audience for this inauguration was dismal. Trump is also narcissistic, and coverage of the dismal crowd clearly upset him. So, a political priority for Trump is to simply reject this fact, and to create a new narrative that the “dishonest media” itself was the actual peddler of falsehoods. Kellyanne Conway’s claim about “alternative facts” is so offensive to the professional class certainty about true/false, but to much of the country it makes perfect sense: there is one world of facts presented by the powerful, the government, the media. And, there is an “alternative” world of facts of ordinary people. Alternative facts are more down to earth and grounded in experience. Facts are tainted with power, prestige, special interests and agendas.

The funny thing is that many of my professional class friends so outraged by our “post truth” era, are the same ones who have been “theorizing” (factually?) about the insidious relationship between truth and power. Michel Foucualt’s entire canon can be seen as a critical interrogation of the real, serious problems with institutional power and its proliferation of “experts” and their specific “regimes of truth.” Those “regimes” have surely been central to the justification of prisons, insane asylums, and the multifaceted ways in which scientific knowledge creates numerical sorting mechanisms whose very purpose is to differentiate bodies within larger systems of oppression. More broadly, it has become a truism in critical academic circles that science and claims of objectivity are also a deeply political terrain of struggle. That said, none of us would let this theorization of the “truth-power nexus” create a descent into “relativism” where all perspectives are equally “true” because they come from a particular context or point of view. Even if climate science might be used to advance powerful interests (e.g. the dispossession of peasants to make way for carbon offset tree plantations), I agree that we need to elevate climate science as an important knowledge-system for understanding how the world works (or is not working right now). But it’s also true that we can’t just accept truth and facts as totally unproblematic, objective and divorced from power.

So, don’t get me wrong. I believe in truth and facts. But, it is possible that our obsessive focus on truth/facts is one reason why the professional classes are not able to mobilize a left-liberal coalition that can actually win. if we want masses of people to also believe in truth/facts we need to be in position of political power to convince them that truth/facts can make their lives materially better. We need to get people to believe and have a stake in facts/truth. I do not believe our self-righteous exclamations of “it’s false!!!” will help us achieve this power. We only need to look at who is in power today.