Brexit and Trump’s victory hit the liberal media like a thunderbolt of stupidity. How could voters defy the warnings of so many pundits, wonks, and fact-checkers? Almost unanimously, they answered: We live in an age characterized by post-factual politics. Pushed by major media organizations like Forbes and the New York Times, “post-truth” recently became Oxford Dictionaries’ new word of the year. A recent think piece in Huffington Post labeled “Post-Truth Nation” stated this idea succinctly: “the greatest problem of our future is not political; it is not economic; it is not even rational. It’s the battle of fact versus fiction.”
Liberal writers deploy their own different varieties of post-truth — the social media echo chamber, the prevalence of fake news, the public’s indifference to blatant political lies, or the problem with millennials — to explain what happened in the United Kingdom and the United States this year. They all agree, however, that voters and politicians increasingly deny facts, manipulate the truth, and prefer emotion to expertise.
They also don’t seem to know how we entered this post-fact world or when the factual age, which must have preceded it, ended. Was it in the 2000s, when the whole world debated imaginary weapons of mass destruction before being conned into war? Or was it in the 1990s, when the Lewinsky scandal dominated newspapers, and the United States panicked over superpredators and crack babies? Perhaps it was really Reagan’s 1980s, with its secret, Central American wars, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the denial of the AIDS epidemic. Or maybe we need to go back even further: to Nixon’s not-a-crook 1970s, to George Wallace’s law-and-order 1960s, or to McCarthy’s redbaiting 1950s.
As it happens, the facts simply don’t support the diagnosis that we have suddenly entered a post-factual landscape. Reactionary panics, collective hysteria, and political manipulation have been with us for a long time, and we should be skeptical of claims about the epidemic of Russian-backed fake news or the idea that social media lost Hillary the election.
In fact, liberals’ nostalgia for factual politics seems designed to mask their own fraught relationship with the truth. The supposedly honest technocrats and managers — who enacted neoliberal measures with the same ferocity as their right-wing counterparts — relied on a certain set of facts to displace the material truths they refused to acknowledge.
The 1990s seem to be at the heart of this liberal nostalgia, which, like all nostalgias, concerns a past that never really existed. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the withering away of radical politics, Thatcher’s slogan “There Is No Alternative” became fact. While today Francis Fukuyama’s idea of “the end of history” seems preposterous, for a period, he and Thatcher described the world as it existed: No political questions remained to divide Western elites, and all politicians had to do was sift through the facts and implement the best policies.
The technocratic obsession with facts, however, rests on a post-truth premise. It starts from the belief that economic liberalism’s values — the right to private property, the valorization of self-interest, and formal freedom without material equality — best describe human nature. On this basis, liberal economics devotes itself to realizing human nature in history, defining that movement as progress.
In the 1990s, liberalism retired from Cold War combat and assumed its place as orthodox good governance. Having seemingly won the battle of facts, liberals no longer saw democracy as an arena for debate, but as a market. Their policy products were designed to appeal to the widest section of the electorate while charting a course in line with capitalism’s definition of progress. Relying on fact-orientated methods, like focus groups and voter surveys, they deployed triangulation — a strategy developed by Clinton adviser Dick Morris to position his candidate as above the left-right divide — to claim the political center.
Economic and cultural elites agreed that human resource and diversity management, combined with corporate social responsibility, would solve gender and racial discrimination. The first dot-com bubble and the emerging knowledge economy convinced people that education would eventually make class distinctions obsolete.
Centrist technocrats like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair pioneered this factual society. They preferred discussing the scientific management of the public sector to wrangling with political principles or values. They embraced a false progressivism that was premised on profitability and stopped short of any proposal the political center might object to, no matter how just.
As liberals took over facts, they pushed social conflict to the non-factual realm, to the domain of values. Instead of struggles over domination and exploitation, we got the culture wars. There, progressive values held no sway; they were sold with a sense of moral superiority then betrayed by the spinelessness of triangulation and by policies that undermined the welfare state and organized labor.
Lost in the Facts
The first crack in this factual utopia came early in the new millennium. The right-wing fringe led by Fox News, conspiracy theorists, and televangelists remained marginal until 9/11 threw the United States — liberal and conservative alike — into a patriotic mass hysteria that culminated in two poorly planned wars.
Liberals seemed unable to counter the Bush administration’s deft politicization of the facts. Centrist opposition to the war manifested in tame discussions about UN mandates and proper inspection procedures. Bush adviser Karl Rove stated, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Lost in the facts, Democrats could not propose an alternative.
For embattled liberals, Obama’s election appeared as a return to rationality. But soon after he took office, the Tea Party, climate-change deniers, and conservatives who weaponized elite resentment took fact-twisting to new heights. Donald Trump refused to accept Obama’s birth certificate or the DNA evidence exonerating the Central Park Five; a congressman threw snowballs to disprove environmental science; a purposefully misleading video almost defunded Planned Parenthood.
Liberals found solace in a rising generation of fact-based heroes: Nate Silver used polling data and statistical models to give the political landscape an assuredly quantitative predictability. Vox, headed by Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias, promised to explain to readers how complicated policies would really help them, if they would just take the time to study. Even comedy — epitomized by Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity — began to present itself as factual. For these fact-obsessed liberals, political passion was causing problems that only more rationality could solve.
At the same time, historical events started calling liberal truths into question. The 2008 financial crash revealed the failure of liberal economics. Occupy and Black Lives Matter threw light on structural problems that triangulation and managerialism not only can’t address but refuse to. These events revealed liberal factuality for what it is: highly self-interested and selective, willing to ignore inconvenient truths, and presented as above partisan politics, as the scientific management of society.
The people mourning the age of political truth belong to the extreme center. They are the technocrats and administrators who mistrust the experiences and suffering of regular people with as much fervor as the right-wing fringe. They proclaim their horror at this post-truth conservatism, but they agree on many economic policies. The center has been stretched right, so liberals end up calling for the same reforms, albeit with a human face: pension privatization, school vouchers, charter schools, fiscal austerity during recession, and more and more obscene tax cuts for the wealthy.
The Return of Politics
The presidential election reveals the emptiness of liberalism’s fact-based politics. The Clinton campaign stumbled against a candidate they had deemed the perfect opponent. First, they thought Trump’s vulgarity would do the job for them, then they threw all their weight into revealing his lies.
In all this, they didn’t present a single positive political vision for change, suppressing one important truth: We cannot reduce politics to good management and correct statistics.
Now, liberal centrists have further lost touch with reality, as they nostalgically describe a past where their opponents were more decent and respected their selected facts. Some, in a supreme irony, have even taken to romanticizing arch-reactionaries like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump’s win doesn’t prove that voters hate the truth. It merely shows that enough of them prefer a pathological liar who promises change to a status-quo technocrat who liberal-splains the facts. It’s time to stop blaming fake news and realize why so many believe it. The simple reason is that the mainstream of the political class have squandered people’s trust, by not having their best interests at heart. A return to liberal truth won’t combat the regressive demagogue who now runs the country; only a democratic revival to challenge both Trump’s authoritarianism and liberal managerialism will.
Such a movement would start from the truths most uncomfortable to both conservatives and liberals: People suffer and struggle for better lives; there can be no freedom without equality. Once we recognize that knowledge helps us change reality, facts will remain as relevant as ever.