By Paul Malvern |
In recent months, an alliance of business and cultural Left journalists has warned of a new and dangerous threat to democracy. That is, the phenomenon of ‘post-truth politics’ in which right-wing politicos are supposedly abandoning logic and facts in favour of emotional appeals that pander to the worst instincts of citizens. This misuse of public discourse, we are told, divides society and fosters racism, sexism, and a dozen other ‘isms’. It makes rational debate well-nigh impossible. And it causes those simple souls that make up the electorate to jump to rash conclusions and stray from the heretofore solid consensus on such issues as immigration, crime, trade and climate change. According to these modern-day Cassandras, this misuse of public discourse, if left unchecked, will ultimately destroy democracy and damage civil society.
Strong words to be sure! But are they right? Are we witnessing a new low in political discourse? And do recent trends reflect a growing irrationality on the part of the public?
To address these questions we need to first look at what is meant by post-truth politics, how politics has been waged in the past, and whether or not current political discourse does in fact indicate a sharp decline in political morality and voter IQs.
Politics as a Form of Warfare
For politics has never been a particularly moral or honorable pursuit – often more closely resembling a blood sport than a meeting of minds. Nor have many of those engaged in public affairs ever been strongly attached to the truth. For while facts, well thought out ideas, and solid policy proposals do occasionally find their way into election campaigns, their importance is almost always secondary. Like it or not, elections are usually won using emotional appeals that either play on the heartstrings of voters or scare the pants off them. Once in power, governments continue to practice emotional manipulation, realizing that it is the royal road to staying in power. It may not be pretty. But that’s how the system works – and all of the players in this great game know it to be true.
That being the case, the recent tut-tutting by left-wing and establishment spokespersons about the rise of post-truth politics seems more than a little odd. Especially since they themselves have long been doing all of the things they now loudly condemn in their conservative rivals. For while the term may be new, the activities it describes are as old as humanity itself.
Take, for example, the word ‘demagogue’ – a term of disdain leveled at populist politicians. It comes to us from the ancients Greeks, who knew a thing or two about how to manipulate others through the skillful use of rhetoric. As did the Roman lawyers and rhetoricians who followed them, which included such notables as Cicero and the man who would later become Saint Augustine. More recently, totalitarians of all political stripes have made their own special contribution to the science of lying and deception – excellent examples being Hitler’s use of ‘the big lie’ and the Russian doctrine of Maskirovka, which uses lies and deceit to achieve military and political objectives. Not wishing to be left behind, our supposedly democratic West has made its own special contribution to the art of deception and manipulation – drawing heavily on insights gleaned from social psychology, advertising and mass-marketing.
In short, that’s the way the game is played and the way it has always been. The Left does it. The Right does it. And even those not usually thought of as political use these techniques to get their point across – a good example being the dreaded airplane press conferences Pope Francis holds to discuss such matters as the evil character of air conditioners and the sin of failing to recycle.
So if that’s true – namely, that relying on emotional manipulation rather than hard facts is the way of the world - why have left wing journalists and those toiling for elite publications such as The Economist2 and The New York Times3 suddenly decided that the use of these communications ‘black arts’ is a new phenomenon that threatens the very soul of democracy?
The answer to that riddle can be found in two words – ‘Trump’ and ‘Brexit’ – words which send a chill though the hearts of corporatists and borderless society advocates everywhere. For up to now, globalization, crony capitalism, social engineering, and big, bureaucratic government have had a relatively easy go of it - at the governmental level, internationally and at the hands of those journalists driven by ideology or a desire to be on the winning side. So it’s not surprising Brexit and Trump are seen as illogical and dangerous by those who have benefited up to now from the silence of their fellow citizens. And while these two movements may be troubling on their own, they appear even more threatening to elites when seen as portents of even more powerful push-back in the future. For such movements, if not nipped in the bud, have the potential to dramatically change the way wealth and power are held – which is why some sort of ideological counterthrust by “our betters” was to be expected.
What is Post-Truth Politics?
One criticism is that post-truth politics jettisons facts in favor of a crass emotionalism that panders to and inflames the worst instincts of the electorate. Another is that it divides society by encouraging anger and bigotry. And perhaps most telling – if only because of what it says about those leveling the charge – is the accusation that the media mislead the public through the use of a false balance in which the views of ignorant and marginal individuals are given equal weight to those of true experts in their respective fields.
Let’s look at each of these accusations to see if they do in fact hold water.
Increased Emotionalism and the Abandonment of FactsContrary to what critics may believe, using powerful emotional appeals to get your way while at the same throwing truth out the window is hardly a new phenomenon. We all do it at one time or another – mainly because it works so well as a technique of persuasion. So it should come as no surprise that politicians and public figures throughout history have used these underhanded rhetorical tricks to seize power and control others. And history is replete with examples of how otherwise decent individuals have succumbed to the temptation to manipulate other people’s emotions while at the same time suppressing inconvenient facts.
Sadly, some examples even involve otherwise noble institutions that should have known better. Take, for example, that treasure of human civilization - the Christian Church – which for two thousand years has brought the saving message of Jesus of Nazareth to a world sorely in need of having its rough edges filed off. While even its harshest critics would have to agree it has done a great deal of good, it nevertheless has from time to time fallen off the wagon, so to speak, and got down in the mud with everyone else. One particularly notable example of this is that 16th and 17th century theological bar-fight called the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, in which Catholics and Protestants went toe to toe with a violence that seems odd, given that both sides claimed to love their enemies. Rather than addressing issues calmly and rationally, as befits scholars and saintly clerics, both sides instead employed particularly toxic forms of rhetoric, which, when combined with large armies, power-drunk rulers, and money-hungry generals, produced the pan-European holocaust we now call the Thirty Years War.
Of course, this recourse to emotionalism and violent speech is not just a Christian failing as seen by the French Revolution which broke out a century and a bit later – an event which showed that atheists can also speak harshly and act badly, given half a chance. For the inflammatory rhetoric of the French Revolution led to a vast reign of terror in which many quite literally lost their heads when suspected of being less than enthusiastic about the violent overthrow of everything they had known and loved. Nor does the 20th century give many examples of moderate language being employed to calm tense situations. And not to be left behind, 21st century politicians and activists continue to show a less than strong attachment to calm, rational political discourse – as demonstrated by their rapid recourse to charges of racism, sexism, homophobia and islamophobia when faced with a contrary point of view.
In light of this long history of rhetorical violence by otherwise sane human beings, one would have to conclude that the blunt speech of Trump and Brexit supporters is far from a new phenomenon. Rather it is simply a continuation of behaviour that has been with us from day one of human civilization. Big business and left-wing critics may complain, but they have only themselves to blame if populists are now taking a leaf or two out of the Saul Alinsky playbook – given that they themselves have been only too willing to use emotion in place of facts when it worked to their advantage. Take, for example, the recent political history of Canada where a stodgy – and admittedly difficult-to-like – policy wonk was replaced by a former high school drama teacher who as Prime Minister now uses feel-good rhetoric and bare-chested selfies to push a policy agenda that is long on sentiment and short on hard, fact-based analysis.
Nor do the mainstream media in the U.S. and Canada fare much better as seen by their performance during the current U.S. Presidential Election cycle where the appearance of bias has further damaged the public confidence in the Fourth Estate.
While political partisans frequently claim media bias against their candidate, the 2016 Presidential Election is unique in that it may actually be true. For there is a growing sense among journalists on both side of the political divide that the U.S. Main Street Media is indeed out to get the Republican candidate, Donald Trump. Such a claim could be dismissed if it were just the Right levelling the charge. But in this election journalists on the Left are also claiming to see bias against Trump. And many see that as a very good thing indeed.
A good example is the interview of left-wing investigative journalist, Glenn Greenwald, in which he stated, “The U.S. media is essentially 100 percent united, vehemently, against Trump, and preventing him from being elected president. I don’t have an actual problem with that because I share the premises on which it is based about why he poses such extreme dangers.”4 A similar point of view was expressed by New York Times media reporter, Jim Rutenberg, who stated that, “Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator last year to announce his candidacy.5 Helpfully, Rutenberg explains the source of this flight from objectivity – which is fear pure and simple, and in particular fear of what a Trump Presidency might look like. And acting on this fear many journalists are skewing coverage – a practice which is certain to damage the integrity of the electoral contest and journalism itself. For, as Rutenberg sees it, “Covering Mr. Trump as an abnormal and potentially dangerous candidate is more than just a shock to the journalistic system. It threatens to throw the advantage to his news conference-averse opponent, Hillary Clinton, who should draw plenty more tough-minded coverage herself.”6
All of which sounds very much like the post-truth politics these same journalists decry in others.
Dividing Society and Encouraging Anger and BigotryAnother accusation is that populists such as Trump, the AfD in Germany, Marine Le Pen in France, and Brexit advocates in the UK are dividing society and encouraging anger and bigotry.
To my mind this charge also falls flat upon closer study since all of these countries have been badly divided for many years – long before the supposed rise of post-truth politics. These divisions, while always quite serious, were not as obvious in the past as they are now in part because a spotlight was never turned on them and dissident voices and calls for action were largely suppressed by elites and their media allies.
And contrary to what post-truth politics critics might wish to believe, anger and bigotry are not new – and definitely not confined to the Right or populist movements. Rather they are a more or less permanent feature of humanity flowing from Original Sin – that hard-to-accept concept which asserts that human beings are flawed in a way that only God can fix. Post-truth critics may not believe this. But the reality is there for all to see – if only we are honest with ourselves. Accepting this sad reality inevitably leads one to conclude that the only real solution to anger and bigotry this side of the Apocalypse is for each of us to take a long, hard look at ourselves and tackle our own brokenness rather than try to fix those with whom we disagree.
False BalanceFinally, there is the matter of what elite opinion-leaders call false balance or false equivalency.
The idea here is that the media, by seeking out all points of view, are doing the public a disservice by giving credibility to people who don’t know what they are talking about. According to such critics, the public needs to be protected from bad or false ideas – and they, the critics, are just the people to do that. Canadians are, of course, used to such soft censorship – being frequently treated to the spectacle of mainstream media people totally unable to find any credible socially conservative spokespersons for input when dealing with hot-button issues. While this list of opinions that dare not speak their name has traditionally included socially conservative views on abortion, feminism and sexuality, this intellectual no-go zone has now expanded to include climate change, trade policy and immigration - with other countries now getting in on the fun. A good example of this internationalization of thought-crime suppression includes one of my former favorites, Deutsche Welle, the German state media, which increasingly seems little more than a mouthpiece for Angela Merkel and German elite opinion. And even that great old lady of journalism, the BBC, has found itself falling victim to elite groupthink – having recently announced that it will no longer give equal time to climate change skeptics.7 In explaining its decision, the BBC Trust cited “the need to avoid giving ‘undue attention to marginal opinion”.8 (Translation: those views not currently approved of by the British establishment.)
To their credit not everyone in the establishment press has been fooled by this veiled attempt at censorship. A good example was an excellent piece by Liz Spayd, the Public Editor for The New York Times. Addressing reader demands for softer coverage of Hillary Clinton’s faults and a tougher line on Trump, she notes that, “The problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking. What the critics really want is for journalists to apply their own moral and ideological judgments to the candidates.”9 And she ends her piece with the damning conclusion that, “Fear of false balance is a creeping threat to the role of the media because it encourages journalists to pull back from their responsibility to hold power accountable. All power, not just certain individuals, however vile they might seem.10
Unfortunately for Ms. Spayd, few of her colleagues in the establishment media agree with her, as seen by highly critical articles that appeared in response to her piece – a good example being the New York Magazine writer who called her comments ‘disastrous’.11 All of which suggests that using charges of false balance to suppress views contrary to elite opinion is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Summing UpSo is the phenomenon of post-truth politics real? And does it represent something we should be concerned about?
My own sense is that it is indeed a problem – but not in the way corporate and media elites understand it. Let’s start with the part that isn’t a problem – that is, the outbreak of blunt speech by folks on the Right (e.g. Brexit and Donald Trump) and on the Left (e.g. Bernie Sanders and the formerly powerful Occupy Wall Street movement).
For many in global and national elites, these movements are troubling and need to be suppressed or canalized in a harmless direction. But are they really so negative? Or are they simply the early signs of a democratic revival in which large segments of the population formerly shut out of public debate are about to finally get their day in the sun. My money is on the second explanation since it seems clear that democracy can only work properly if everyone has a chance to be heard. For if large swaths of our citizenry are denied free expression of their point of view, the resulting sense of grievance can only fester and grow – and ultimately be expressed in ways that most of us would find extremely unpleasant.
A good statement of this truth comes from one of the least likely proponents of democratic theory, former Chinese leader, Mao Tse-tung, who famously declared, "Let a thousand flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend".12 While it is true that Mao never put this adage into practice – quite the contrary in fact – he nevertheless was on to something. For it is only by opening up important issues to freewheeling public debate that we can ever hope to come up with policies and programs that make sense.
One obvious roadblock to this, however, is the view elites have of themselves and those they govern. According to this elite view of the world, they themselves are totally rational people who rely on facts and empirical data in making decisions, while we – the great unwashed – are narrow-minded bigots easily swayed by emotional manipulation. Were such a sharp dichotomy true, it might well make sense to restrict decision-making to a small number of well-educated people capable of dealing rationally with public policy. The problem is that we - the people - are neither stupid nor irrational. And they - the elites - are far from totally rational beings who make decisions solely on the basis of facts. This is a truth borne out by a significant body of social psychological research which shows that the most highly educated people in society are often more resistant to changing their minds when presented with new information, in part due to their greater reliance on ideology.13
That takes care of those accusations which are simply partisan fluff and elite snobbery. Now let’s look at the part that is real – namely, the low level of political discourse generally and the lack of any real participation by ordinary citizens in the governmental process.
To begin with, it is important to emphasize that manipulation, spin and the rejection of facts in favour of emotionalism are neither new nor something restricted to the Right or populist movements. Rather they are as old as humanity itself – with all sides of the political spectrum seemingly unable to resist the temptation to cut corners in order to gain power.
Even so, it is distressing to see what passes for rational debate on a wide range of vitally important issues. It is maddening to observe the constant spin and blatant propaganda that oozes from many of our most influential sources of information – such as government, the media and the educational system, to name just a few. And it is troubling to see large segments of the population demonized and marginalized (such as those who hold traditional views on the sanctity of life, morality and marriage) simply because their point of view is currently out of sync with elite opinion.
This is clearly something that cannot continue. And the recent rise of populist movements, the decline in trust in the media and public institutions, and the rise of the Internet as an important news source all suggest that help is on the way.
Perhaps more importantly, history and the way things work in the universe are also on our side. For, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said back in the 5th Century BC,” Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.”14 Times change – and so do opinions about morality, important social institutions such as marriage and family and the sacredness of life. Just now the elite consensus favors a social liberal – at times even nihilistic – vision of humanity and society. In 30 or 40 years it will be something quite different. So those of us who have a more positive vision of human beings and society need to use this period in which the tide of popular opinion is against us to prepare for better times. For the one thing that doesn’t change is the Truth. And ultimately the Truth does win out - even though it may take some time for that to happen.
 “Carl von Clausewitz”. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_von_Clausewitz
 “Post-truth politics: Art of the lie”. The Economist. September 10, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21706525-politicians-have-always-lied-does-it-matter-if-they-leave-truth-behind-entirely-art
 William Davies. “The Age of Post-Truth Politics”. The New York Times. August 24, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/24/opinion/campaign-stops/the-age-of-post-truth-politics.html
 Isaac Chotiner. “Is the Elite Media Failing to Reach Trump Voters?” Slate. July 28, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/interrogation/2016/07/glenn_greenwald_on_donald_trump_the_dnc_hack_and_a_new_mccarthyism.html
 Jim Rutenberg. “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism”. The New York Times. Aug. 7, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/08/business/balance-fairness-and-a-proudly-provocative-presidential-candidate.html
 Jenna Iacurci. “Climate Change Skeptics Dumped by BBC to Create ‘Balance’”. Nature World News. July 9, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/7972/20140709/climate-change-skeptics-dumped-by-bbc-to-create-balance.htm
 BBC Trust. Trust Conclusions on the Executive Report on Science Impartiality Review Actions. July 2014. Retrieved from: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/our_work/science_impartiality/trust_conclusions.pdf
 Liz Spayd. “The Truth About ‘False Balance’”. The New York Times. September 10, 2016. Retrieved from:http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/public-editor/the-truth-about-false-balance.html?_r=0
 Jonathan Chait. “New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd Writes Disastrous Defense of False Equivalence”. New York Magazine. September 12, 2016. Retrieved from: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/09/times-writes-disastrous-defense-of-false-equivalence.html
 “Mao Says: ‘Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom...’" HISTORYCENTRAL.COM. Retrieved from: http://www.historycentral.com/asia/MaoSays.html
 Toby Young. “The truth about ‘post-truth politics’”. The Spectator. Jul 16, 2016. Retrieved from : http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/the-truth-about-post-truth-politics
 “Heraclitus”. Wikiquote. Retrieved from: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Heraclitus
Photo credit: Michael Vadon Donald J. Trump at Marriott Marquis NYC September 7th 2016 via photopin (license)