The electoral landscape in many democratic countries around the world witnesses the rise of a new political culture based on emotions and fear, instead of facts and policy.
The situation is not too new, but continuous economic and social setbacks, especially the rise of unemployment and poverty, since 2008, has exacerbated the recourse to irrational fears and reactions to a gloomy politico-economic reality.
Politicians cater to legitimate fears of a possibly bleak future ahead, among working and middle classes, by brandishing the spectres of migration, greedy Wall Street financiers, crooked politicians, and scheming foreign interest holders.
The significance of these alleged threats is not material, as long as they do the job of confirming the electorate’s worst fears and nightmares. Twisting facts, exaggerating or even inventing them is allowed because what matters is not objective truth, but the reality of the fear, the collective, as well as individual, sense of disenchantment, frustration and rage.
It is the age of post-truth. The prefix post does not so much mean a chronological state after the truth as its absence, its being downgraded to a level where it becomes irrelevant and secondary to the act of emotionally appealing to deep grievances and a sense of insecurity and loss.
Half-truths of Brexiters
Brexit and the US elections, which Donald Trump won to the surprise of pundits, pollsters and global public opinion, provide striking examples of the use of pseudo-facts to twist reality, so that it looks and sounds in line with the fears and anxieties of an already angry and frustrated population.
So much so, that the overuse of the term post-truth by analysts has pushed the Oxford Dictionary to declare it the Word of the Year for 2016.
The Leave campaign supporters in the United Kingdom made promises based on half-truths that the majority of voters not only believed, but shut their ears to warnings from observers and media analysts about the inaccuracy of the “facts” on which the claims were based.
The Brexit campaign supporters claimed that $437m was sent by the UK every week to the EU and that each transfer is enough to build a fully-equipped hospital back home. The figure was not checked for its accuracy. But even if it were true, half of it is returned to the UK as subsidies to farmers, universities, research labs and businesses.
Another false promise concerns curbing immigration, while still expecting the European Union to accept movement of Brits into its countries. A third concerns an alleged swift “disengagement”, while in reality, the operation could take years.
Leaders of the campaign reneged on their promises the day following the success of the Leave vote. Nigel Farrage, former head of UK Independence Party (UKIP), and a strong campaigner for Brexit, declared that the promise to reinvest the money sent to EU in health services was a mistake made by the Leave camp. He had never said that during the campaign because what had mattered then was the passion, the emotional momentum, the collective sense of victimisation.
The Trump phenomenon
Trump is a textbook case when it comes to the use of post-truth. PolitiFact has been fact-checking Trump’s statements over the past 5 years. They found that 70 percent of his claims were mostly false or false, 15 percent half-true and 15 percent mostly true or true.
According to New York Times, Trump claimed that the number of policemen killed at duty rose 50 percent in 2016 while the reality-check shows that their number was 68 in 2015 and 69 in 2016. His claim that crime rate rose 50 percent in Washington DC and 60 percent in Baltimore was based on a study that didn’t include a breakdown by cities, according to the same newspaper.
Trump’s relation to truth is at most elliptic, if not downright and deliberately “industrial”. Truths are supposed to be manufactured and modelled to suit the moment, to meet the aspirations and frustrations of an angry crowd.
For Trump and his campaign, the only truth worth worrying about is the image of a saviour whose facets as a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, patronising, strong and violent figure are only metaphors used to reinforce a carefully crafted sense of will and capacity to rebuild, to fix things, to clean, to render justice to the victims of political correctness, liberal ideas, Washington corrupt elite, and foreign vested interests.
The reason post-truth stood fast in front of media scrutiny is due to a deeply ingrained mistrust towards the mainstream media by conservative circles and groups.
Media is not only supposed to be pro-liberal, but it plays a role in distorting the real sense of conservatism and the real suffering of the middle-class man, the now-famous ordinary half-educated white man, injured in his sense of masculinity and hurt in his identity by feminists, LGBTs, politically correct campuses, and liberal interest groups.
Conservative groups and their various supporters developed their own alternative networks of information using the internet and social media. They developed, what Jurgen Habermas, the German philosopher, would call their own “public sphere” – an alternative space for information sharing, networking and production of ideas and “values” that is deeply anti-mainstream.
Anti-media belief was a rhetorical shield used by Trump’s supporters to protect them against facts and stubborn reality.
The Spanish philosopher, Daniel Innerarity, recently published an opinion piece entitled For a Complex Democracy. Innerarity calls what is happening in most democracies the “negative sovereign”: to vote not to look for solutions but to express a malaise; rejection and refusal have been more important to voters than projects and policies.
This phenomenon has been seen not only in the UK and the US, but also in Greece, Spain and Australia. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Hungary will follow suit sooner, rather than later.
The most significant collateral damage of the rise of anti-media and post-truth was not only the demise of the values of honesty, ethics and responsibility, but the exit of nut-and-bolt policy schemes to remedy the ills of society in place of grand, and probably unfeasible, ideas like building huge walls, deporting millions outside the country and killing predecessor’s policies.
Post-truth is the new political sensibility on the arena of electoral politics in world democracies. It is the new reality we need all to deal with, if we want to save the soul of democracy and its noble mission.
But it’s also a deep cultural mutation that we need to better understand if we want to avoid the horrible spectres of the past, when the same rhetoric led to atrocities hitherto unknown in the history of mankind.