By Sam Wolfe
After a flurry of think pieces from liberal mainstays like Slate, Vox, The Washington Post and even The New York Times, the Oxford Dictionary went ahead and announced that “post-truth” was its word of the year for 2016. Here’s how they define it: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Oh dear. Of all the myriad ways to confirm that much of the country actually does live in a liberal bubble, this is perhaps the most cringeworthy. The argument goes like this: certain political events this year (namely: Donald Trump’s election and Brexit) were the product of irrationality; they were objectively incorrect or stupid decisions based not on facts or reasoning, but, rather, our base instincts. Thus, everything has changed: We have transcended (or perhaps regressed) into a post-fact epoch.
There are so many things wrong with this. Let’s start with the implication that there was once an age (i.e. before we entered the “post-truth” era) in which voters were immune to “appeals to emotion,” in which the voter was a paragon of objectivity and rationality. We have years of research to suggest otherwise. Political allegiances are, for the most part, tribal — that is, the product of other identities like class, race and religion, or based on whomever our parents supported, or based on whomever we instinctively feel like we fit in with.
This tribal instinct is a powerful one, and partially accounts for the unexpected level of support for Donald Trump among white women, whom many pundits believed would shy away from a known misogynist. These women were loyal to the Republican Party and the conservative identity in a way that pollsters who simply asked whether or not they “approved” of the party’s nominee failed to appreciate.
Recent U.S. political history also undercuts this idea that facts matter more than emotional appeal. Ronald Reagan’s disarmingly simple “There you go again” line in the 1980 Presidential debate against Jimmy Carter was an absolute killer. In his gentle disdain for Carter’s rambling, Reagan captured the everyday American: tired of political maundering and in search of something authentic. Carter’s criticism of Reagan’s record fell flat. This is one of many, many instances in which perception has mattered more than policy.
So, in one sense, we have always lived in a “post-truth” era; voters have long been swayed by political messaging and emotional instincts just as profoundly as they have been by policy questions.
But there is something deeper at play here: The term “post-truth” is not merely an analysis of a state of affairs — it is a value judgment. A well-practiced sneer is almost a prerequisite for uttering a phrase like “post-truth.” It suggests that a vote for Trump or for Brexit is such an absurdity as to exist on a distinct plane of reality, unbothered by fact.
I run the risk here of sounding like a Trump apologist — I am not — but here are some facts: A global financial crisis. Two failed wars. Abysmal youth unemployment and glacial economic growth across the EU. The wholesale decline of American manufacturing jobs.
All of this was orchestrated by the technocratic supremacy of the establishment. And look, I sound like a bit of a caricature here because this is a bit tongue-in-cheek; I don’t think that politics is as black and white as an establishment vs. change narrative might suggest and I do not blame the political establishment for everything that has gone wrong. But goodness me, if you can’t find any “facts” that might persuade someone to vote for change then you aren’t looking very hard.
Are there legitimate questions to be asked about the influence of fake news and independent media on our political landscape? Yes. Should Donald Trump be rigorously questioned about facts like how much the deficit will expand under his administration or how he plans to “beat” China without starting a trade war? Of course.
But please think about how it comes across when you tell half the country that they have departed the realm of reality. Think about how it makes the left, already accused of harboring resentment towards rural and Rust Belt Americans, come across. The reasons to vote for a Trump administration — because you were a small business owner finding it tough under Obama, to ensure conservative Supreme Court appointees, because you liked his trade policy — were varied, but most of them were legitimate. A term like “post-truth” is the spawn of the worst instincts of the left; it’s time to drop it.
Contact Sam Wolfe at swolfe2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.