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Modern Life

Regulars | December 2016

What are Post-Truth Politics?

Most voters assume politicians lie most of the time: a recent poll found that only a fifth of Britons trusted MPs to tell the truth. But in the past it was assumed that politicians would at least try to maintain a semblance of honesty. Now, though, we have entered the age of post-truth politics in which lying has become a deliberate political strategy. As Ian McEwan writes in his new novel, Nutshell, ‘It’s dusk in the second age of Reason.’

What matters, in post-truth politics, is what ‘feels true’, not what is factually correct. Post-truth politics are not based on examining the evidence and drawing up a set of policies for running the country. They are about elevating emotion over reason, playing on voters’ fears and frustrations to secure their support. That makes them much harder to argue against because rational debate is not part of the equation.

Politicians have always exaggerated their positions and disputed each other’s versions of events. But this is something new and more sinister because truth is seen by some as somehow of secondary importance. The purpose is not to create a false view of the world, or to convince an opponent of your own opinion, the aim is to reinforce prejudices. It’s playing the game by completely different rules – a category clash rather than a difference of opinion.

The trend is part of the revolt against so-called ‘elites’ that is sweeping the world after the banking crash. Facts are for experts, myths are for the masses. The rise of social media has encouraged it, with conspiracy theories and misinformation spreading like wildfire on Twitter and Facebook. People follow others like them so their opinions are confirmed rather than challenged by a healthy dose of reality. 

Donald Trump is the high priest of post-truth politics. He scatters around blatant lies about his opponents, promotes conspiracy theories and makes promises he knows he cannot keep. According to his fantasy view of the world, Barack Obama’s birth certificate was faked and Ted Cruz’s father was with Lee Harvey Oswald before he killed JFK. In Trump: The Art of the Deal – a book he claims to have written but actually didn’t – Trump describes himself as the master of the ‘truthful hyperbole’. That’s putting it mildly. But attempts to expose the untruths fall on deaf ears among his supporters. The media have repeatedly challenged the lies with little effect because, as the American writer Clay Shirky put it recently: ‘We’ve brought fact-checkers to a culture war.’ The more brazen Trump is the more it reinforces the idea that he is willing to stand up to establishment power on behalf of the little guy.

The Brexit campaign was a triumph for post-truth politics too. The slogan ‘We send the EU £350 million a week’ – which was emblazoned along the side of the Vote Leave bus – was described as ‘potentially misleading’ by the UK Statistics Authority and ‘not sensible’ by the Institute for Fiscal Studies but the campaign just carried on repeating it. In fact Sarah Wollaston, a Tory MP who was previously a GP, switched sides in protest at Vote Leave’s ‘post-truth politics’. And it worked. The result was an emotional spasm about the changing nature of Britain rather than a considered vote about the facts and figures. Michael Gove railed against ‘experts’ because he wanted knowledge to be sidelined in favour of instinct.

The problem is that a liberal democracy depends on agreeing on some basic facts, even if competing sides argue about what to do about them. Post-truth politics are promoted by populists, but the strategy is also favoured by authoritarians. It was, of course, Joseph Goebbels who said: ‘If you tell a big enough lie and keep repeating it people will eventually come to believe it.’

Rachel Sylvester

This story was from December 2016 issue. Subscribe Now