There has been a change in politics in the last twenty years or so, and it’s a reflection of the change in society. And because of it, I think the type of democracy we have doesn’t really work any more.
A great deal has been spoken in these post-Brexit debates concerning how we are now a “post-fact society” or a “non-fact” culture. I think this is a faddy myth. I think it’s a very convenient way of specialist political-nerds like myself to criticise those who vote against us.
But is this something new? I don’t think so. I don’t think we are any more or less factual in the way we make our political decisions than we were ten or even fifty years ago. I don’t think people have ever been particularly fact-based in terms of decision making processes. But we have been given the impression of being more factual in our decision making because of a media and political elite who have, in fact, being doing their job well.
Saying that politicians and newspapers and news media doing their job well is hardly a popular opinion. But I think for years, the political parties and the press have managed to quietly sideline the extremists, the liars, and the egoists. Their nets may well have been a little too wide for many untruths to have been caught, but the big ones, such as the lies of the extreme parties of left and right, and the more bombastic politicians whose egos write cheques their intellects cannot cash, have been found out before they seep into the public eye.
That filter is now at an end. We have seen characters such as Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Boris Johnson and others making untrue claims which have not been filtered and ridiculed by the media and other politicians. We have seen the rise of the far left, and, soon to come, the rise of the slightly-racist-but-bafflingly-respectable far right, which I believe is going to replace Ukip (or is what Ukip will become). And all of them on the ticket of “holding the elite to account”.
So why has it happened? Why have politicians and the media failed in their filtering of the nutty slack? The big difference between “then” and “now” – both terms which are entirely fictional descriptions of a time in the past when things were normal, and a culture in the present which is by no means pervasive – the big difference, if there is one, is that we no longer trust people who are cleverer than we are. We don’t trust experts. The notion of an “elite” has become taboo.
In one of his audio lectures, the theologian Richard Rohr spoke about how we have no mentors. Both individually and as a society, we have fewer people in our society that we will listen to, when they tell us things we don’t want to hear. He speculates the reason for this, whether it was the loss of mentors in the second world war, the rise of the age of questioning in the sixties, the end of modernity etc. But whilst the cause is speculative, it certainly resonates with truth. We have moved from a society which votes for people because of their intelligence, expertise, integrity, to a society that votes for people we would most like to go out for a drink with – people who are like us, because we think they must know best. Hence the move from, say, John Smith, to Jeremy Corbyn; from austere folk such as Edward Heath to clubbable folk like Nigel Farage, from Margaret Thatcher to Boris Johnson. We like the idea of people in the public eye being “like us” rather than better than us.
Is this because we’re now in a “post fact” world? I don’t think so. It’s just that once we trusted people who were really good at discerning facts, and now we insist on doing the job ourselves. We’re not very good at it – and sometimes that’s because we trust people who are really bad at giving us the truth. We have had years and years of the press feeding us bad news stories about politicians – many of which were true. So we trust the people telling us the bad news stories, and not the people telling us the truth – such as more respectable newspapers and media outlets who will give us both sides of a story.
The slow death of newspapers has contributed to their fall from grace as providers of truth. As circulation has declined, so newspapers have become more populist, giving column inches and headlines to those who people want to read about, rather than actual news. So we have learnt to distrust those in authority. What begun in the sixties with iconoclasm has metastasised into an allergy towards authority figures, and a distrust of anyone who tells us anything we don’t want to hear.
Even the broadcast media, who are regulated by offcom and so have some duty to give the truth an airing, have fallen from grace. Often they live by the golden mean fallacy – where if there are two sides to any story they are given equal weight, under the myth that this is somehow “balanced” reporting – instead of grossly distorting the issue. Recently a professor of meterology was pitted against Nigel Lawson, on the issue of climate change. He is as ignorant as any of us when it comes to climate change, has no qualifications, no experience, no reason to be on the programme other than he is a well known name. The professor he was on against had years of experience, a lifetime dedication to the subject, and was more or less beaten all ends up by Lawson’s ability to win a debate, rather than Lawson’s better command of the facts. He won the debate by simplifying it, dumbing it down, and speaking louder and longer.
And that’s the problem. When we don’t trust the experts, the elites, we trust the loudest, the most bombastic, the ones that say exactly what we want to hear. Not because we are now “post fact” but because we are what we always have been – bad at making good choices. We used to trust other people, experts, to make those choices for us, and now that we have lost our trust in them, we’re lost.
They say every country gets the democracy it deserves. When I look at the steaming pile that is our current democracy, it’s disquieting to realise it’s a mirror.