On the 3rd of June, less than three weeks before the EU referendum, Michael Gove claimed in a Sky News interview that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. In doing so, he appeared to summarise the growing trend of being less concerned with facts and more concerned with emotional reaction and charismatic figureheads within political campaigns. This ‘post-truth’ politics has become something of the new norm, not only in the UK ahead of the EU referendum, but also throughout the US Presidential campaign.
The standout case of public misinformation surrounding the vote to leave the European Union was of course the £350 million per week saving which the ‘leave’ campaign claimed could be redirected to the NHS. The ‘remain’ campaign contested the figure, and in the days following the referendum’s outcome, ‘leave’ politicians then did a U-turn on this claim. On the other side of the Atlantic, 70% of ‘factual’ statements made by Trump throughout the US presidential campaign have fallen into categories of falsehood, according to PolitiFact.
So why has the truth taken a back seat in the contemporary political landscape? Why are people so willing to turn a blind eye to inconsistencies in political discourse?
A large part of this is quite possibly due to the fact that the politicians engaging in this type of public misinformation are claiming to be fighting a more broadly ‘corrupt’ system. Whilst the ‘leave’ campaign argued their case on the basis of combating a ‘broken’ European Union, Trump has repeatedly claimed that the electoral system is rigged. When politicians engage in a rhetoric that undermines the political system they are competing in, they in effect exempt themselves from the rules of that system.
Why are people so willing to turn a blind eye to inconsistencies in political discourse?
Another reason for the diminishing importance of statistics is that people have a new consciousness that ‘experts’ are paid for their expertise. Political campaigns themselves also exploit this to encourage scepticism as to the arguments of their opponents – the ‘leave’ campaign for example repeatedly highlighted that much of the ‘remain’ camp’s statistics came from EU funded research. There is a growing sense that it is no longer the case that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts”, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat senator until 2001 once said. It seems that anyone can have their ‘own facts’, if only they have to funding for experts.
The public also tend to buy into the idea that they are voting for a more seismic change in politics. The promise to “make America great again” becomes a prospect that is able to entice the public far more than concrete policy promises, albeit that it represents rhetoric rather than fact. There seems to be a growing sentiment of disillusionment with previous political models, and politicians are increasingly unsure how to appeal to the electorate. Perhaps public reluctance to allow themselves to be swayed by policy pledges reflects scepticism surrounding the ability of politicians to deliver these promises in a concrete way.
In the current political landscape, people seem to want a change that is greater than policies that may or may not be implemented; they want ideological, political shifts. The way to get the attention of the public is to attack the system so you can negate its rules. The way to convince them is no longer with credible statistics and figures, but with reactionary soundbites. Trump’s victory over Clinton perhaps represents the epitome of this.