The events of the summer and autumn of 2016 in both the United States and the United Kingdom have raised fundamental concerns about not only the direction of mainstream politics, but how it operates.
Essentially, in this post I’ll try and show on a broad scale how politics has followed advertising and the media into prioritising emotional response over truth; how Trump in particular has been enabled by social media, and the consequences of all of this for the “truth regime” which we currently live in.
I’m not going to provide exhaustive lists of examples of lies or exaggerations by Vote Leave, Remain or Trump/Clinton – it’s been done better elsewhere. I have however given a few colourful examples. I also haven’t offered any opinion on the actual merit of voting remain/leave.
The term “post-truth politics” was coined in an article by David Roberts for the online newsite Grist in 2010 to describe “a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation).” He described how in American politics an issue becoming bi-partisan is often a signal that it is non-controversial and therefore acceptable to the majority of voters. The Republican Party therefore repeatedly denied Democrats access to this middle-ground by consistently criticising Democrat policy as heavily partisan. This made policy appear controversial regardless of its substance and in turn, the Democrats appeared partisan for suggesting them at all. The perception of the voter was the main priority.
It is a common staple of political science that mass blocks of voters do not gather their facts and considered opinions before finding a party which best matches them; rather, they make connections with parties or groups on values or morality and adopt their various policy stances before considering how to defend their value based positions with fact. The tactic of partisanship, employed equally in the United States and United Kingdom and ably abetted by a politicised media, encourages the voter to remain entrenched behind value driven – or emotion based – positions.
The possibility that a distinction is made by politicians and other public figures between absolute truth and the published truth is not new. During the “Spycatcher” trial in 1986 then Cabinet Secretary Sir Robert Armstrong famously remarked “‘It contains a misleading impression, not a lie. It was being economical with the truth” – an excuse straight from the Sir Humphrey canon.
However, the scale and importance of mistruth employed this year by Donald Trump, the “Leave” and also to some extent by the “Remain” campaigns arguably showed a fresh disregard for absolute truth. That is, scientific truth of fact and reason. Donald Trump’s difficulty with truth is well documented and has continued past his victory. An EU wide survey conducted by the European Commission in 2015 found that 82% of UK citizens surveyed felt they knew “little” or “nothing” about EU practice and policy. This precipitated a Brexit campaign contested fiercely on a battleground of half-truths, bias and misinformation. Post-result, several surfaced almost immediately – no £350m for the NHS; no “taking back control” and no Turkish accession in sight.
In the current political climate, there are many genuine issues on both sides of the Atlantic – TTIP, healthcare, immigration and the future of neo-liberalism. Why then were two crucial votes defined by emotion-based campaigns?
Power of emotion
The answer is long-established in psychoanalysis by basic Freudian theory. Democracy is underpinned by the assumption that the citizen is rational, and will behave rationally in his or her choices when deciding issues of national effect. Freud identified underlying irrational drives in our subconsciousness – aggression and sexuality. The individual, supposedly autonomous and reasonable is in fact subject to a core-level of emotional reasoning. Freud doubted democracy and the ethos of the United States in particular, armed with his theory of the individual’s unseen potential for irrationality. In turn, his proposals were not widely accepted until after the Second World War – before which they were harnessed by the forces of Nazism and the emerging public relations sector. Advertising, as much as nation building or war propaganda, become emotion based. In mass consciousness, the importance of a particular action or product became more important than actual need.
In the 1920s, business advertising realised the power of emotional connection to create a culture of consumption. You buy a particular car, clothes, a brand of cigarettes because you want to feel, or be perceived a certain way. Consumption became the glue of a stable society – producing what Adam Curtis called “happiness machines”. It is no surprise that with the advancement of technology that mass media developed news as a product for 24 hour consumption. As Donald Trump began his campaign he was given incredible media coverage – he was a story. His untruths and controversies endeared him to media outlets who view news as a product – a theory put best by the CEO of CBS, Leslie Moonves in February 2016 – “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Brexit too enjoyed 24 hour television coverage and constant attention in the written press. Indeed, the immigration argument in particular received massive and largely disproportionate reporting by the tabloid press. It was the key emotional battleground and was easily won by the “Leave” campaign despite constant doubt over the truth of anything reported as fact by the Daily Mail, S*n or others. The most infamous example is perhaps the Daily Mail frontpage of a lorry-load of Middle-Easterners with the headline – “We’re from Europe. Let us in!” with the sub-headline “…another lorry load of migrants sneak into Britain”. Of course, the photograph and story were untrue. From January to June, the Daily Mail gave over 30 cover stories to the migrant issue. From January to date, the Daily express has given 136 – an astonishing figure.
The absolute truth of the EU, freedom of movement and immigration from Syria were rendered almost immaterial by the emotion based truth regime created by the “Leave” campaign and tabloid press. Similar treatment dogged “crooked” Hilary. The behaviour of mass media can, I believe, be interpreted in three ways: (1) as honest and well-meaning editorial opinion; (2) as a calculated means to drive audience and sales and; (3) as a calculated reflection of the interests and biases of media ownership and related elites.
The latter is, unfortunately, the most convincing and fits neatly with the long-standing “propaganda model” described in 1988 by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their alarmingly enduring Manufacturing Consent. Below is an excerpt which describes the power of emotion in conveying the policy wishes of elites, which resonates strongly with the coverage given to the sentencing of Thomas Mair, the murderer of Jo Cox MP in the tabloid press this week:
“The quality of coverage should also be displayed more directly and crudely in placement, headlining, word usage, and other modes of mobilizing interest and outrage…Our hypothesis is that worthy victims will be featured prominently and dramatically, that they will be humanized, and that their victimization will receive the detail and context in story construction that will generate reader interest and sympathetic emotion. In contrast, unworthy victims will merit only slight detail, minimal humanization, and little context that will excite and enrage“.
In short, emotion has been recognised by the three major elites – business, media and politics – as the key to mass opinion in the technological age. With instant proliferation of information and the increasing brevity of its delivery format (think – 140 character policies), the construction of readily accessible and meaningful emotional truth regimes may be more important than the absolute truth. It is much easier and more effective to engage with our human underside than explain the benefits of the single market on any infograph, tweet or one-minute facebook ready video.
The 21st century has seen two simultaneous and oppositional develops – the mass availability of information online and the mass streamlining of its actual delivery format. Whilst mass media remains influential and often sets the debate, the narrower confines of social media are undoubtedly the fastest growing political battleground, in which truth and untruth can have stunning and instant impact.
Donald Trump is perhaps the first politician to expose the true potential of social media for direct engagement with his supporters and opponents. Where absolute truth is often limited by the 140 character word-limit, Twitter empowers Trump’s short and often devastating style. It encourages his brashness and allows the delivery of short, concise policy or opinion snippets which are immediately processable by his supporters. Social media also provides free, instant and meaningful channels for supporters to share, debate and canvass for their man – allowing many Trump supporters to rally against what they perceive as an unfriendly establishment and fostering a sense of community. Of course, the irony of Donald Trump is that he is a firmly establishment candidate; but with “post-truth” politics at play, this hasn’t mattered. Emotion is rarely rational.
On television, Trump’s rhetoric style has led linguists to suggest he has a poor attention span; that he is erratic and lacks mental ability. His speeches and answers are certainly effective whether calculated or accidental. He repeats trigger words incessantly – “bad”, “great again”, “crooked”. His language is simple and his style erratic. He begins on one topic and ends on another. Combined with his aggressive pursuit of Clinton, this made it almost impossible for any absolute truths about Trump policy or plans to be dissected meaningfully during the campaign. Crucially, Trump’s continued use of phrases such as “many people are saying” or “believe me” creates an emotional association which engenders an emotional response from his supporters (and potential supporters). Trump’s appeal – his blunt, often offensive style – fits perfectly with the delivery format of social media whilst traditional media either supports him or provides him with massive airtime.
In 1976, the multi-disciplinary academic Michel Foucault briefly aired the typically Foucauldian idea of “truth regimes” in his interview on “Truth and Power”. He suggested that “truth is linked in a circular relation with systems of power, that produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which induce and extend it”.
Essentially, truth – or rather, versions of truth – are created and maintained by systems of power. Power is everywhere, and is linked intrinsically to knowledge, scientific understanding and truth. Power comes from everywhere. It is not exercised by one man, or a secret group in a dark room – Foucault was not a conspiracy theorist. He argued that what we accept as true is constantly redefined by sources of power – schools, government, media and so on.
Thus, each society creates “truth regimes“.That is, each society creates discourses which are accepted as truth and those which are not.
Both American and British politics have been ambushed by highly charged, emotional invective; a “post-truth politics” channelled with devastating clarity by social media and determinedly repeated by elements of the tabloid press. We are a nation “sick of experts”. Our dominant “truth regime” is increasingly a celebration of untruths.
Where does this leave us?
Well… how might Donald Trump put it?
Believe me, because I would know. You know, I’ve thought about this. It’s a big issue. Big big issue. A lot of thinking. And let me tell you, it’s bad. It’s bad. We’ve got to do something about it, start doing things for ourselves. I don’t trust any of them. You shouldn’t. They’re lying to you… bigly.