The Flowering of the Post-Truth Era of Politics
It is fashionable – especially for liberal academics – to decry the current state of politics crouching in fear as the beast Donald Trump slouches toward Bethlehem. The center is no longer holding. But just because it’s “fashionable” doesn’t make it any less true. Trump is a unique candidate who represents the accumulated intellectual and linguistic decline that has been fomenting in the background for a few decades.
This undercurrent has been creeping up on the culture but hiding itself in the small interactions of people, commercial culture, and media that structure and reproduce the nature of society. For example, a few of what we thought were ongoing debates or genuine contentions in our political culture that require critical analysis and defensible conclusions have now been either settled or are leaning so far in one direction as to constitute a tide. So, there was once a debate between “bias” and “objectivity” the goal of which was to clarify objectivity or move toward it as much as possible. But we woke up one morning and the tables were turned telling us that objectivity didn’t exist and everything was biased. The only issue was whose bias was going to overwhelm the other. Argument, the foundation of democratic processes and quality decision-making, has been enervated because when everything is considered “just your opinion” or “just the way you see things” then even quality evidence-based argument loses its standing. The best thinking is easy to ignore because there are no standards of objectivity only degrees of bias.
There also used to be a boundary between entertainment and civic life. Even the most insightful political operative did not assume that Trump’s television show “The Apprentice” would be a launching pad for his presidential run. But when exposure and recognition become equivalent to knowledge of history, politics, and policy then appearing on television is just as good. The increasing ease with which exposure is conflated with competence is one of those undercurrents that has finally bubbled to the surface as commercial media, and the logic of its presentation structure, has become the dominant form of information processing and organization.
Additionally, it is remarkable how the public has been separated into fact universes. People live in their own information enclave that includes a collection of their own facts and interpretations – or at least conclusions they believe to be facts. Somehow we got to the point where rather than observing and gathering facts and information and then interpreting upwards toward a conclusion, we start with conclusions and reason downward looking for confirming facts and ideas. We criticize politicians who change their mind rather than respecting them for learning something and adjusting accordingly. It is all part of the post-truth society.
Finally, and by way of one more example, the quality of public discourse (e.g. presidential speeches and advertisements) has shifted shapes so that now it looks more like bloated rhetoric then considered analysis. Trump is of course a good example of a speaker who is so befuddled that he has little left to do but lash out and call names. He reflects a specialized strand of reality, one in which when you are wrong you blame reality rather than yourself. It is the ultimate in the common characterization of Trump as a narcissist.