Post-Truth politics, post-democratic politics

(This was published as a commentary in the March 12 Albany Times-Union)

“Post-truth” has been named word of the year. The subject looms large for America’s political future. It’s not just a matter of occasional innocent misstatements, but of politically weaponizing falsehood.

Gleb Tsipurski (associate professor of history at Ohio State University) writes in The Humanist magazine that if it works for Trump, other politicians will follow his example; if they too succeed, “we’re headed for a downward spiral“ and “the end of our political order as we know it.” This might sound like hyperbole, but Tsipurski is on to something.

Being caught in a lie used to be deadly for a politician. What is so dangerous with Trump is that his fans don’t care, rationalizing away everything. As he put it, he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and lose no votes. This resembles a religious faith impervious to reason. And removing reasoned discourse from politics is not good for sustaining democracy.

We must understand how we got here. Mainstream media has traditionally served as mediator, part of our whole system of political checks and balances. That media role might even have been over-large. Recall how it brought down 2004 presidential candidate Howard Dean for a single utterance (the so-called “scream”).

Dean’s “Scream”

Obviously, the media proved unable to perform such a function with Trump.

Why? Tsipurski says “this system for determining political truths has required an intangible but invaluable resource: the public’s trust.” And that trust has been eroding in the last decade (part of a broader decline in social trust generally).

Past trust in the media was due, in good part, simply to a lack of other information sources. But now alternatives have proliferated, notably on social media and elsewhere on the web. And, crucially, it’s not just the same information differently packaged. To the contrary, it’s often material tailored to flatter the recipient’s pre-existing biases. Or even the now notorious “fake news.” Why listen to neutral NPR (and hear things that challenge your beliefs) when you can get fare that instead bolsters what you already think? And when those “alternative facts” differ from what mainstream media says, it’s the latter that might start seeming problematic. Thus mainstream media loses not only its audience, but its authority and trust.

Further, its effort to maintain an aura of objectivity actually undermines mainstream media’s ability to deal effectively with a politician who lies so shamelessly* – and accuses it of being against him (which of course it is, for excellent reasons). Thus the handwringing over whether to even use the word “lie.” And watch the journalists on a program like PBS’s “Washington Week” struggle to act as though Trump is just another normal political figure. They’ll soberly discuss the putative deep policy implications of a Trump statement (like his one-state-solution line), unable to blurt out that it’s simply ignorance.

So a weakened mainstream media couldn’t do to Trump what it did to Dean. And Tsipurski says Trump has a genius for exploiting such systemic vulnerabilities. Use of alternative and social media, bypassing mainstream media (thereby further enfeebling it), played a big role in his campaign. Exploiting trust-related systemic weaknesses similarly fueled his financial enrichment. The Trump Foundation self-dealing, and Trump University fraud, were prime examples. And trust plays a key role in business and commerce generally: vendors supply goods and services trusting they’ll be paid. That’s how the system works. And Trump exploited it by simply not paying, over and over and over.

Is all this “genius?” Or walking through open doors?

The press’s authority is maimed even more by Trump’s continuing attacks, even turning the “fake news” trope against it. Another of his big lies. Tsipurski likens our unfolding situation to a “tragedy of the commons” – when it’s hard to protect a communal resource against those pillaging it. Here, our shared resource is a political environment where objective facts (disseminated by news media) hold sway, so that rational policy choices can be made. “This intangible yet invaluable resource,” Tsipurski writes, “is being polluted and destroyed by Trump’s post-truth politics.”

He understands his followers prefer to have their opinions uncontaminated by pesky reality. (He himself exhibits that very syndrome.) Better yet to feed them falsehoods tailored to those opinions. But voters need a source for, and to care about, truth and reality, to make rational political choices. Only thusly can their interests truly be served. That’s why Jefferson wrote that democracy depends upon an informed citizenry. But if the public doesn’t get it, why should politicians care either – about facts and about people’s real interests? When they can instead succeed by emotional manipulation and lies?

That’s the road to authoritarianism. It’s the one Putin followed. He destroyed Russia’s independent media, so he could work his “magic” on citizens unfettered by truth or any accountability. And that’s the road Donald Trump openly steers toward.

* Falsely accusing his predecessor of a serious crime is disgusting behavior for a president. A sane adult would simply admit the mistake and move on. Not this stinking turd.

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9 Responses to “Post-Truth politics, post-democratic politics”

  1. Colin Gullberg Says:

    A difficult problem to solve. I teach a course in current issues and I asked my college students where they got their news from. All of them said Facebook (over 100 students). Sometimes they ‘follow’ a news organization but usually they just read (and repost) what their friends post – often fake stories that could be easily debunked. This is equally true among many of my US FB friends (mostly fellow coin collectors). They seem quite incapable of distinguishing real from fake/satire.
    Facebook is now America’s (and perhaps the world’s) #1 source of news and it’s going to have to take that responsibility much more seriously.

  2. J. Michael Harrison Says:

    Social networking is not journalism. I sincerely hope the younger generations have more going on than just repeating gossip and hearsay. With so many in the older generations deeply entrenched in ideological fantasy and denial-ism, fact-based “reality” has already receded substantially from view. In this state of affairs, a lying president who traffics in “alternative” facts is terrifying enough: A full retreat of American youth into a ubiquitous Facebook-based “reality” would certainly dampen the prospects of escaping from our long journey into night.

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  4. Lee Says:

    I have always thought that better ideas (e.g., true ideas) would do better under natural selection than worse ideas (e.g., fake news). After all, truth and reasoning must be helpful to survival, getting ahead financially, good health, and pretty much anything else, right? However, I am now considering the possibility that I have underrated the value of cooperation. That is, weaker ideas or species can do better than those with stronger individuals if there is better cooperation among the weaker individuals. Cooperation advances survival and other important parts of life and is quite truly a positive trait for natural selection.

    When we put the two together, fake news and other subpar thinking along with a large bunch of people that align with them, is that enough to overcome strong truthful ideas? Truth is often complicated and somewhat incoherent and these are negatives in the cooperation game. Current events appear to indicate that coherence and cooperation can be enough to tilt the balance of fitness away from truth, to fake news and below-grade logic.

    In short, I am not at all sure that the long arc of the moral universe bends toward truth and justice. Groupthink may be a stronger bender of the long arc. For ideas and truth, democracy might prove to be a better model than natural selection and survival of the fittest. I worry that the long arc of the amoral universe bends towards the most popular ideas, with truthfulness playing a lesser role.

  5. Frank S. Robinson Says:

    The moral arc WAS bending the right way, for a long time, as human beings just basically got smarter. That was the essence of Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. But for the time being at least the moral arc is bending the wrong way. Certainly in America. I don’t think it’s because bad ideas somehow promote cooperation. Trump supporters are not notable cooperators. Why so many Americans are increasingly walling themselves off from truth and reality is a very difficult subject. (You should see some of comments on the Times-Union version of this blog!)

  6. Lee Says:

    I do hope that you are right. My fear is that the bigger, more uniform echo chamber has more fitness than one stronger with the truth, even in the long term. ☹

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