The Brexit and Trump’s victory delivered a blow on the liberal media like an extinction-sized asteroid of stupidity. How could the voters have failed to heed the warnings of so many smart analysts, diligent experts and rational fact-checkers!? How’s that even possible?
Almost like a chorus, the media were instantly ready with the answer: see, we live in an era that’s characterized by Post-Fact Politics. Pushed forward by media organizations like Forbes and NYT, the term “post-truth” became the word of the year in the Oxford Dictionary. A recent piece at HuffPo coined the term “post-truth nation”, stating that the biggest problem of our time is not political or economic, not even rational – but the battle between fact and fiction.
A pleiad of liberal authors are throwing all sorts of theories about the types and nature of post-truth, and the reason for it: the echo-chambers of the social media, the spreading of false non-news, public indifference to outright political lies, or problems with the millenials. All sorts of explanations for what happened in the UK and US last year. But most of them tend to agree that both the voters and politicians are rejecting facts, manipulating the truth, and giving precedence to emotion over experience.
Most of them don’t seem to understand how the hell we ended up in a world of post-truth, and when exactly was the end of that “era of facts” that’s supposed to have preceded it. Was it in the first decade of the new century, when the whole world was debating imaginary WMDs in the build-up to an infamous war? Or was it in the 90s when the Lewinski scandal dominated the media, and everyone in the US was freaking out about the spoiled hooliganized youth and the drug-addicted babies? Or maybe Reagan’s 80s, with all those secret wars in Central America, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the AIDS denialism? Or maybe even further back, Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” speech of the 70s, or the segregation in Alabama of the 60s, or McCarthy’s red scarecrow in the 50s?
Turns out, actual fact does not seem to support the diagnosis that we’ve suddenly found ourselves in a post-fact dystopia. Reactionary panic, collective hysteria and political manipulation have been with us for much longer than that. Which is why se should be skeptical about any claims of Russia-induced fake news epidemic, or the notion that Hillary lost the election because of the social networks.
In reality, the liberals’ nostalgia for the supposed fact-based politics of yore seems to be designed to conceal their own strained relations with truth. The supposedly honest and impartial technocrats and political managers who were so eager to impose neoliberal measures with the same zeal as their right-wing counterparts, rely on a particular set of facts that are meant to substitute those objective truths that they deem inconvenient and detrimental to their agenda.
Thus, the 90s are at the heart of this liberal nostalgia, which, like most other nostalgia, is about a past that never really existed. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dying off of radical politics, the Thatcherite slogan “There is no alternative” became a fact. Today, even though Fukuyama’s idea of “the end of history” may sound naive and absurd, there was a time when he and Thatcher used to describe the world as if there were no political issues left to divide the Western elites, and all they needed to maintain that utopia was to sift off fact from non-fact, and implement the best policies, respectively.
The technocratic obsession with facts, however, rests upon an inherently false post-truth condition: it starts from the belief that the values of economic liberalism (the right to private property, the supremacy of personal interest, and formal freedom without material equality) describe human nature in the best way possible. Based on this notion, liberal economics was devoted to the historic realization of this view of human nature, which in turn was defined as the ultimate human progress.
As a consequence, in the 90s liberalism withdrew from the Cold War battles, and took its place on the throne as the ultimate “best form of governance”. Assuming that they had won the battle for the truth, the liberals no longer viewed democracy as an arena for debate, but more as a marketplace. Their political products were thus shaped up so that they’d appeal to a wide part of the electorate, while appropriating the very definition of capitalist progress. Citing factological methods such as focus groups and sociological polling, they started implementing a sort of “triangulation”, through which they claimed to possess the political center. This strategy was largely developed by Bill Clinton’s advisor Dick Morris, aiming to position Clinton’s candidacy outside and above the traditional left-vs-right divide.
The economic and cultural elites agreed that managing human resources and diversity, in combination with corporate and social responsibility, would solve the problems of gender and racial discrimination. The first dotcom balloon and the growing economy of knowledge convinced people that education would ultimately make class differences obsolete.
Centrist technocrats like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were among the pioneers of this society of facts. They preferred to discuss the scientific management of the public sector, rather than dealing with political principles and values. They embraced false progressivism based on expedience, efficiency and profitability, and they stayed away from any ideas and notions that the dominant political center would potentially feel uncomfortable with – no matter if those were socially fair.
Now that the liberals had conquered fact, they pushed the social conflict outside and beyond the realm of factology, and into the territory of values. Instead of a struggle for dominance and exploitation, we now got cultural wars. It was a field where progressive values felt invincible. They were being sold with a feeling of moral superiority, and then propagated by the spineless party triangulation and through policies that would ultimately undermine the welfare state and the self-organization of the workers.
The first cracks in this pseudo-fact based utopia started to appear at the turn of the century. Standard-bearers of right-wing propaganda like Fox News, conspiracy theories and TV preachers who used to be fringe pre-911, suddenly crawled onto the surface after the terror attacks that changed the world. The US (both liberals and conservatives) plunged head-on into a mass patriotic frenzy, which culminated in two disastrous wars.
The liberal elites seemed incapable of countering the rapid politicization of fact by GWB’s administration. The centrist anti-war opposition was mostly manifesting itself through tame discussion on the UN peace-keeping mandates, or the most appropriate weapon-inspection procedures. At that time, Bush’s advisor Karl Rove said, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”. Lost in fact, the Democrats were unable to offer a viable alternative to that.
For the liberals, now pressed against the wall, Obama’s election was like a return to a world of rationality. But soon after he was sworn in, the Tea Party, climate denialists, and conservatives who skillfully weaponized the public discontent with the elites, brought the art of fact-bending to new heights (or lows). Donald Trump refused to accept Obama’s birth certificate and the DNA expertise acquitting unjustly convicted African American youngsters; GOP congresspeople would frequently toss snowballs around to disprove climate science; purposefully misleading videos almost brought Planned Parenthood on its knees, etc.
The liberals found solace in the rising new generation of fact-based heroes. The statistician Nate Silver developed models that were supposed to add some quantifiable predictability to the political landscape. The media platform Vox, created by Ezra Klein and Matt Iglesias, promised to explain to the readers how complex policy could help them IRL, if only they could invest some of their time to study it. Even satire, embodied by Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, started claiming to be based on fact. For these fact-obsessed liberals, political passions were a source of problems that could only be solved with more rationality.
In the meantime though, the historical events started putting liberal truths in question. The 2008 financial crisis exposed the flaws and failures of liberal economy. The Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements directed the spotlight to some serious structural problems that political triangulation and managerism were not only imcapable, but unwilling to address. These events showed the true worth of liberal factologism: it was designed to serve the self-interest of the elites, and to base society on a framework of select “truths” that were hostile to those facts that were deemed inconvenient. A system that had the arrogance to claim to transcend partisan politics and be based on scientific principle in governing.
Those people who are now bemoaning the end of the era of political truth, belong to the so called “extreme center”. They’re the technocrats and administrators who distrust the real-life experience and suffering of the ordinary people just to the extent that right-wing reactionaries do. They constantly declare their horror from post-truth conservatism, but they don’t mind a lot of approaches that it adopts to economic policy. Since the center has been hugely tilted to the right, the liberals have found themselves essentially advocating for the same types of reforms and policies like the conservatives, albeit “with a human face”: privatization of the pension system, the reign of market principles in education, financial austerity at times of recession, and more and more tax cuts and convenient legislative loopholes for the wealthy (which they’re all part of).
The last presidential election has shown how hollow the “fact-based” liberal politics really is. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was toppled in a race against a candidate who until the very last moment was considered the perfect opponent. For too long they believed that Trump’s vulgarity would do their job for them. They invested much of their efforts in debunking his lies, while failing to formulate a positive vision for real change. And that wasn’t just neglect – it was purposeful. It was meant to suppress a very important truth – which is that there’s no way to boil down politics to just good management and accurate statistics. Policy and governance is much more than that. It should put the people it’s supposed to be serving first and foremost. It should listen to people before having the pretense to be telling them what’s best for them. But it did none of the above. And it was duly punished for that.
Ironically, now the liberal centrists are even further losing touch with reality, looking back with nostalgia to a past era when their opponents supposedly used to be more “worthy” and more inclined to respect their select truths (which they call facts). Some of them, even more ironically, have dared to paint arch-reactionaries like Reagan and Bush Jr in romantic colors and presenting that image as truth, too.
What they’re failing to understand is that Trump’s ascent is not proof that the voters hate truth. It only shows that a large enough number of voters would rather have a pathological liar who promises unachievable change, than a technocrat of the status quo who shamelessly twists facts through their liberal prism. It’s time to stop blaming fake news and realize why so many people really believe them. The simple truth is that the elites of the political class have squandered people’s trust because they’ve always put their own interests first. That’s it. That’s the whole reason for the current predicament.
A possible future swing of the pendulum back to “liberal truth” won’t make the retrograde demagoguery now ruling society magically go away. That could only happen through real democratic revival, one that would send a challenge both to Trump’s authoritarianism and the liberals’ heartless nepotist managerism.
Such a movement could start with pushing forward the truths that are most inconvenient to the conservatives (whose agenda, let’s face it, is the most immediate threat right now), but then proceed with those ones that are inconvenient for the liberals as well. And because these two groups have largely merged in terms of approach to policy, these truths tend to be the same, with the occasional nuance here and there: namely, that people are struggling big time, they strive for a better life, and for a more just society; and that a just and truly free society cannot exist without social equality. Once we’ve recognized these truths, that knowledge would allow us to change our reality. And that is when facts will really become more important than ever.