Post-truth politics: how feelings trumped evidence

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C.

Dishonesty in politics is nothing new.

Remember when Nick Clegg pledged to oppose an increase in tuition fees?

When the leave campaign extravagantly promised that the £350 million we send to the European Union will be spent on the NHS?

Or when former president Bill Clinton denied that he was “having sexual relations” with White House intern Monica Lewinsky?

We all know how those situations ended.

Truth and politics haven’t been on speaking terms for decades. In fact, you can probably find that lying is part of the job description for a politician.

In any other scenario, of course, dishonesty would come at a price.

It may be impressive to claim you know four foreign languages, but when you’re sent on an assignment to Russia after claiming you’re fluent, you embarrass yourself and the company.

While this won’t exactly cause the value of your country’s currency to drop or lead to a military invasion, you get the gist.

Although the origin of the term is attributed to American pundit David Roberts six years ago, 2016 has paved the way for post-truth politics.

From Brexit to the US presidential debates, emotions were high and anger was rife.

But it wasn’t directed at the lies told, rather an anger at the political elite.

graphic on 2016 presidential debate showing how long Clinton and Trump spent arguing

And media commentators were looking for ways to label this phenomenon that went beyond “chaotic”.

The term “post-truth politics” is said to mean that we now live in a time where people are no longer influenced by evidence or statistics, but rather emotion.

If the presidential debates tell us anything, it is that when ordinary people are pushed aside and treated as second-class citizens, no amount of fact-checkers can change how they are feeling.

“The political class has risen higher above the population and the population feels more and more estranged from political decision-making,” says Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked online and a critic of the post-truth notion, “which has given rise to anti-politics and [Donald] Trump is riding the wave of it.”

But he adds that this isn’t all down to Trump – it’s not that he created this climate. It’s the result of the political class before him.

Ordinary people are only important as a pawn to get elected. After that, they are told to get at the back of the queue.

O’Neill argues that the political class have become more cut-off from ordinary people, which has caused society to become more technocratic in the sense that it relies on experts rather than listening and acknowledging the concerns of the people they govern.

Trump has benefited from the anti-political environment. From getting that Republican nomination to edging closer and closer to Hillary Clinton in the polls, before finally winning on November 8.

He says all of the right things to appeal to people that otherwise feel excluded from society. His lies are seen as speaking his mind; his jumbled sentences make him more human as he’s not reading from a teleprompter.

graphic on 2016 presidential debate regarding iraq war

His supporters can finally see themselves in a politician that doesn’t act like a politician and is the furthest thing from one: he is one of them.

“He speaks from a type of anger, a resentment that has been brewing for a long time,” explains Will Davies, a reader of political economy: “a lot of his people feel that society is rigged, that things are biased against them and they’re not getting a fair shot.”

He told Artefact that the issue is that experts and economists have ignored people’s feelings of grievance of certain things for decades.

When the public say that they’re not interested in what experts have got to say, they don’t mean that their claims are false but rather that they have a longing for politics that speaks to their sense of injustice and that’s what someone like Trump promises briefly.

“I say briefly because ultimately there aren’t solutions,” adds Davies. “They offer an emotional release for people who desperately want someone to express their alienation to.”

The argument is that emotions take centre stage in post-truth politics and facts become of second importance. In other words: People don’t cheer for percentages.

They cheer at statements they understand and relate to.

“If you go back 20 years, people weren’t consulting Encyclopaedia Britannica every time they forged an opinion on the world” – Will Davies

It’s one thing to claim that unemployment rates are up by X per cent but another to tell voters that you will be the president that taxes companies who want to leave America but still sell there.

Take, for example, Trump’s opening argument in the first presidential debate that car manufacturer Ford was moving a part of the American division to Mexico (true).

He went that little bit further by adding that this will lead to a loss of jobs for hard-working Americans (not true, as confirmed by the CEO of Ford).

But Trump probably only heard that a part of the company would be moving and drowned out the rest.

Politifact found that 70 per cent of what he says is false – though, to be honest, he probably just doesn’t do his research.

And fact checkers can deem his statements completely (or partly) false all they want but his supporters are still sticking by him.

They’re not fussed that he more often than not misinterprets a claim – all they know is what they experience on a day-to-day basis and to them, that’s injustice.

Though that’s not to say that all of his supporters feel this way or voted for him because they’re tired of a political class that just doesn’t listen to them.

Some will inevitably be racist, misogynistic and sexist; all of the things that have made up Trump’s campaign.

And it’s no coincidence that his supporters tend to drown out the fact checkers too, who they think are in cahoots with the political elite.

Davies says that people are sick of politicians who are purely led by data and evidence: “[This] type of politics leaves people rather cold,” he says.

This has been evident with Hillary Clinton as people complain that she acts too much like a politician and robot.

Of course, this in itself is a double-standard: if she was to be emotional, it would be blamed on her hormones and that she couldn’t handle governing a country without breaking down crying every five seconds or storming out of a meeting.

graphic on 2016 presidential debate showing how any times Trump interrupted Hillary

Despite opening the first presidential debate with a nod to her granddaughter’s birthday, she soon enough turned to statistics.

But that’s just her way of doing politics. Is it wrong? No. Is it any better or more superior?

O’Neill argues that “post-truth” is used as an insult to a group of people that disagree with the majority and have a different view.

Furthermore, the theory is biased in itself as it turns the public into an “us vs. them”, with the “us” being the privileged few who have access to facts.

Despite being against Trump, O’Neill acknowledges that even non-Trump supporters admit that Clinton is a deceptive politician; that she is not always upfront and honest.

“The idea that she is the paragon of truth, I just don’t buy that,” he says. “It’s still a mystifying phrase because it implies that one side of the campaign is post-truth and the other side has access to some great truth.”

He doesn’t accept the concept of post-truth politics, adding that politics is not a science because it’s not a simple process of ticking boxes and saying that evidence shows ‘X’ so we must do ‘Y’.

There is more to politics than percentages and bar charts.

“It is necessary in politics to talk not [only] about facts but also about morality, passions, feelings and choice,” says O’Neill, because politics is a much larger game which involves deciding what is the best for the country.

“Democracy and politics is about more than facts and expertise, it’s about what ordinary people feel is the best way forward for their nation.”

Furthermore, there is an issue of purely relying on evidence and statistics.

“The language of numbers no longer seems that objective or scientific,” says Davies. “Politicians throw numbers around so I’m not sure that people hear numbers and see them as the barometer of what’s true and what’s false.”

The theory also suggests that facts have been completely pushed to one side. Yes, emotions are high, but we haven’t completely abandoned the search for truth.

The demand for clarity is as important as ever, especially when someone like Trump is spewing lies like they’re fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Eugene Kiely, director of factcheck.org, told the Guardian that the demand to hold politicians accountable is still there.

“This year our page views are up by 146 per cent,” he said, but this begs the question whether Trump supporters are actually visiting the site.

Likewise, it’s one thing to view these statements, but do they actually bear any weight in the grand scheme of things?

Would they change the point of view of a Trump supporter who sees the lies as the truth and sees him as someone that appeals to their sense of self and beliefs?

graphic on 2016 presidential debate regarding the number of homicides

Moreover, there’s an implication that the politics of the past was honest and transparent.

“Politics has always involved elements of deception and manipulation,” Davies says. “If you go back 20 years, people weren’t consulting Encyclopaedia Britannica every time they forged an opinion on the world.”

He adds that there hasn’t been a complete collapse where people are driven purely by emotion: “People aren’t just strapped in artificial reality machines and making it up as they go along.”

On this side of the Atlantic, multi-millionaire Arron Banks, who donated to the leave campaign, said the issue with Remain was that it was heavily based on facts whereas now you have to connect to people emotionally, which he referred to as the “Trump success”.

O’Neill argues that the term is currently used as a way to demonise those that voted Leave. He says that the idea of a truthful and an untruthful politics sounds grand, but that’s not the case.

Also, with the wide range of fact-checkers available, we are given the choice to be pickier about the truth we want to believe in, i.e. the ones that agree with our ideals.

For example, take this key argument for Brexit: immigrants coming to Britain for employment. Both sides can agree on that.

But Leave translated this to ‘stealing jobs’ from British workers (true, because cheap labour is attractive to employers), while Remain would argue that they give back to the economy more than they take out (also true).

Some people tend to believe the facts that relate to their preconceived assumptions, and this is also influenced by their media consumption.

As Davies says, if you rely on tabloids, that will give you a certain view of the world while social media will be distorted by your friendship circles.

Many Brexit voters were already fed up with the EU and Brussels elite, so you look to facts that justify your opinions.

The role of social media in post-truth politics is also important to consider.

His supporters can finally see themselves in a politician that doesn’t act like a politician.

When a politician messes up and there is evidence (video footage goes down a treat), it will spread like wildfire.

But because social media has a rapid turnover and is ready to move on to the next big thing, it does not give us enough time to digest the information presented to us.

While O’Neill says that social media is a great technological break-through, there’s a danger that it makes everything a sound bite.

“Politicians are obsessed with making everything crunchable in 140 characters,” he says. “We have MPs in Britain who often seem to be more interested in impressing people on Twitter than impressing their own constituents.”

But social media is not necessarily the cause of this because as politicians embrace technocracy over democracy, their suspicion grows of ordinary people; social media moulds itself as a go-to tool.

Davies adds that in a rapid 24/7 media climate, by the time a politician gets caught doing something then it no longer matters.

People aren’t interested in the follow up, so that’s why politicians can get away with half-truths: “As people’s expectations fall you can get away with even more,” he says.

graphic on 2016 presidential debate regarding the amount Trump's father loaned him

And while Trump may not be the best speaker, the most honest or well-researched, he knows how to speak to his supporters.

He plays on existing opinions and vocalises them, making them seem okay in the sense that if a potential president can be outspoken, they can be too.

Brexit and the presidential debates have a lot in common from the outset – particularly the rejection of a political class that is out of touch with reality.

But where they differ is that Brexit was as political as you can get, whereas Trump’s stance is very much anti-politics.

The presidential campaign has shown us two things: the political elite have forgotten how to speak to the citizens they wish to govern and that people have rejected a politics that is robotic.

Is the worst yet to come? If emotions are supposed to have no place in politics, then yes.

But post-truth politics is not necessarily a bad thing, despite the negative connotations.

It has opened the door for debate on how to reshape politics in a way that is universal and is a search for a truth, rather than holding a certain truth to its highest power.

The public haven’t abandoned truth completely; just the idea that the word of the political elite is the truth and only truth.

You don’t have to agree with Trump or Brexit to acknowledge that there is more to politics than percentages and bar charts.

Yes, they’re informative, but it’s a lot harder to relate to a statistic. What would politics be if we are not emotionally invested?

It wouldn’t feel like a democracy otherwise.

Yes, emotions are high, but we haven’t completely abandoned the search for truth.

Politics is supposed to be emotional – there are people in power who are controlling and steering the direction of your future.

And what is worse than being driven by emotion is being indifferent to the state of your country.

Anger and resentment means that people still care; if that was no longer there, that would be something to worry about.

This year has uncovered a flaw in British and American politics, one which Trump has taken advantage of in the latter.

The fact that he acknowledges that ordinary people are frustrated does not necessarily mean that he is the man for the job, but it does mean qualified politicians should be listening to the people and not hiding behind their experts and economists.

It is less of a rejection of truth and more of a rejection of the political elite’s version of the truth; an acceptance that politics has never really been true.

And with every new face that appears as a potential president, people hope that this will be someone that understands them, which to some is more important than a statistic will ever be.

 

 

 


Featured image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr CC. Infographics by Ieva Asnina.