The road to Margate Pier: politics in the post-truth age

Mmmm yah kiss my oompa loompa post-truth lips (Matt Brown via Flickr)

In just over a week’s time, it is perfectly likely that United States will have chosen a President-elect who won his way to power despite the fact that 78% of the things he says are lies.

Yet he may not have won the White House ‘despite’ his high Pinocchio ratings as much as because of them. ‘Post-fact politics’ has become one of the commentariat’s favourite clichés of 2016, but its intellectual foundation is deeper than Mr. Trump’s pockets and more modern (and more complex) than Ancient Greek demagoguery served up like a three thousand year old takeaway.

A philosophical phenomenon

‘There are no facts, only interpretations,’ scribbled Nietzsche in an 1886 notebook, in what would become one of the precepts of post-modern philosophy. This snappy dictum prefaced a century characterised by discoveries that undermined the very basis of the existence of an objective reality, normative ethics, and free will; the destruction of such fundamental assumptions coming to shape the post-modern age as a relativist age. ‘The world,’ as Schopenhauer put it, ‘is my representation.’

Whilst 21st century states have not torn down — for instance — their criminal justice systems in response (the relativist basis of the judgment that we are better off continuing to live as though such certainties do indeed exist being a splendid irony), a firm philosophical foundation was thus laid for a decline in popular reverence for facts as a basis for decision-making. Yet the political landscape in 2016 hints at the view that attempts to emancipate, where the people were previously oppressed by facts or narratives as part of a wider Gramscian cultural hegemony, have proved counterproductive. Maurizio Ferraris, an Italian philosopher and critic of the nihilistic outcomes of hermeneutics, points out that ‘the advent of media populism provided the example of a farewell to reality that was not at all emancipatory’.

Who dunnit? Leopold and Loeb after the ‘perfect crime’ (Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons)

Indeed, Darrow’s landmark 1924 deterministic defence of Leopold and Loeb, two Chicago students who kidnapped and murdered a schoolboy with no specific motive, was exceptional precisely because post-modern states and their peoples continue to function without account for post-modern thought. We recognise that the appearance of the existence of free will and objective rights and wrongs is so influential that to attempt to live without them would likely be impossible and would almost certainly unpleasant. Nevertheless, precisely because the nature of ‘objective truth’ is indeed illusory, it may be that we are witnessing the first spectacular fall of a great Enlightenment assumption upon the post-modern sword.

A polycephalous phenomenon

How, and why, do such grand suggestions manifest themselves in practice? Why now?

Nearly thirty years of growing prosperity (with some exceptions), which likely shaped expectations of growing prosperity, came to an abrupt end when nearly every ‘expert’ (those stalwarts of the fact industry) in Christendom and beyond failed to spot the causes of the financial crisis that wiped out years of pay-rises for most earners. Gordon Brown had not ‘abolished boom and bust’. The coincidental existence of accusations that politicians may be both incompetent (in not foretelling or preventing the crash) but also devious (in nicking parliamentary expenses, and in an era of constant scandal fed by an irreverent post-Profumo media) should naturally lead to distrust.

Trust me; I’m a politician. Now pay for my duck house (Solent News & Photo Agency)

That these have coincided with an age of increasing political ignorance, the advent of adroit social media algorithms which fuel the validation of self and views through the much-discussed ‘echo chamber’, with a greater division between those with degrees and those without (an American with no college degree finds their income much as it was in 1974), and with the rise of ‘alternative’ media organisations (Kremlin-funded RT pushed five different theories which absolved Russia of responsibility after the MH17 shoot-down), compound to create perhaps the perfect post-fact storm.

Moreover, research has shown that people who seek ‘alternative’ news sources — even if they are correct in their estimation, as in Italy and Russia, that the ‘mainstream media’ is not subject to a sufficient degree of editorial independence — are most likely to believe conspiracy theories. This leaves them most open to the sort of manipulation discussed below.

So, in essence, facts are out-dated, elitist and unpatriotic. We are, in Michael Gove’s now infamous words, ‘fed up of experts’. It is an irony of a scale which befits the peculiarities of our age that, as Secretary of State for Education, he used to employ people to impart knowledge to others for a living.

A politically convenient phenomenon

Yet even if people did care for facts, study after study has demonstrated the existence of a ‘perception gap’ (this polite Ipsos term is a nice way of saying that, on the whole, we are just wrong about most things). And we’re getting more wrong. It is worth considering, with respect to this, whether post-fact politics is not an innocent phenomenon, nor some inevitability of circumstance. Post-fact politics require post-fact politicians. Did Donald Trump propose the wall (which Mexico will never pay for and which wouldn’t work anyway), and the likely impossible deportation of 11m migrants because he thinks it possible? Or because he wishes to use voters’ misconceptions as to the proportion and net contribution of immigrants to obtain power?

Did Matthew Elliot (former CEO of Vote Leave) really want to spend another £350m a week on the NHS (and cuts to income, corporation and heating bill taxes, agriculture, industry, road-building… the list goes on) when he’d previously set up and spent five years at a lobby group which campaigns to drastically reduce its funding, or was he attempting to harness misconceptions about how much the EU costs Britain in order to achieve a wider goal related to many Brexiteers’ more niche constitutional interest in sovereignty?

Mr ‘I ❤️ the NHS’ Brexit in a previous guise as swashbuckling tax-cutter

In the words of Arron Banks, founder of the Leave.EU campaign: ‘The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.’ Politicians, it seems, have discovered how to exploit political ignorance to their own political and personal ends. Pomerantsev’s magisterial 2014 book on the rôle of truth in Putin’s Russia — surely the caricature of the phenomenon — bears a title which captures the zeitgeist of a post-fact world: ‘nothing is true, and everything is possible’.

Ukraine’s nothing to do with me m9 (Kremlin Presidential Press and Information Office)

As for Britain, post-truth politics have now entered the mainstream. Theresa May, for instance, knows very well that research shows that grammar schools contribute to inequality, but aware of their enduring popularity amongst certain target voter types (TVTs; I know them all too well — I worked for the Tories) proposes their reinvigoration as a prop for her social mobility agenda. In not considering EU migrants as net contributors as a factual premise for discussion as to the extent to which controls should be placed on their employment, the government’s tone thereon is also post-truth (Ipsos has shown how wildly perceptions differ from reality on the issue — see above). In pandering to political ignorance she can face up to populist angst, but in failing to confront it she legitimises the modus operandi of the populists. Her predecessor’s same, quiet, cowardice in attempting to play the post-truth game to square populist circles ultimately led to his own demise. Mrs. May will have to hope for luckier stars.

(I am less interested in whether or not immigration or grammar schools are good policy choices than in pointing out that debates around them are — to put it kindly — a good aeon away from being ‘evidence-based’.)

So who is to hold such cynicism to account? Arise Jez, who is scarcely better. Mrs. May, alas, faces an opposition which is populist for falafel-gobblers and irrelevant to much else. That — in his worldview that a capitalist élite fail ordinary workers, and in a style of campaigning which is primarily emotional — he is a populist, is a given, but is Jeremy Corbyn a post-truther in his claims that (against expert opinion) all would be well on the railways if we exhumed British Rail’s sullen corpse? (It would probably still look more appealing than one of their sandwiches.) That £120bn can be found down the back of the tax avoidance sofa to fund his big-spend Britain? (Answers to HMRC on the back of a postcard.) No. He isn’t nearly cynical (nor — some would say — clever) enough. He may be wrong, but he doesn’t try to use other people’s wrongness to further his own political goals. He is post-fact, rather than post-truth, even if many of his supporters joyfully inhabit the post-truth world. Yet — thus far — he is losing the battle against Mrs. May, who has aped his language and whose post-truth tactics are paying off. In 2016, lying big wins big.

Jez I Can… protest against my own decision to remove the Shadow Minister for Mental Health from the shadow Cabinet (less post-truth, more oops) (Alan Collins)

Modern disciples of Gramsci who dreamed that the age of popular tech would castrate capitalist media barons and emancipate the masses should be sorely disappointed; algorithms’ counterintuitive creation of personalised, monist media, the decline and fall in the status of facts, and the increasing ubiquity of relativism, leave the hegemonists newly enfranchised and our consciousness falser than ever. Voltaire springs to mind: ‘those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities’. One does not need a particularly developed understanding of European history to wonder whether the consequences of such an acrimonious divorce of politics from truth are likely to be nasty indeed. That haunting aphorism, ‘nothing is true, and everything is possible’, rings in the ears.

Edward Pinnegar is reading Human, Social and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge. He also writes on aviation history, and is currently working on an authorised history of Aurigny, the Channel Islands’ airline, for publication in 2018. You can follow him on Twitter.