Sometimes when a word is born, a world is born with it. And ‘post-truth’ may be one such word, symbolising the birth of a politics that returns to the primitive, the primordial and the irrational.
The idea of democracy is in a state of flux. An ordinary citizen doesn’t know how to read the events that unfold around him. He knows that democracy is a relationship between knowledge and power. But what does he do when the power of truth confronts the truth of power? He often confuses the two, creates labels, neologisms and acronyms: but the labels often turn out to be reductionist. Often he takes two contradictory words and hyphenates them, and thinks the two contradictory worlds can co-exist. Or he puts a prefix to indicate a seminal shift in mindsets.
One such commonly used word is ‘post’. It signals that something is over. Thus, we have post-modern, post-industrial, post-Germanic, each signalling a world that is dead. But what is the world that is born?
The Oxford Dictionaries word for 2016 is ‘post-truth’. Coined by American blogger and journalist David Roberts, there is a certain poetry to the term that hides the deeper anxiety of politics, anxieties that pretend to be gestalt shifts when actually they are just confused, tired, mixed-up worries. Post-truth is a traumatic word, a word that pigeonholes beat changes in a democratic society, especially in terms of politics and electoral institutions. As an observer put it, the decline of the humble postbox has liberated the word ‘post’ to perform more courtly functions. Now, the word ‘post’ signals monumental change, an aftermath.
A post-truth society combines facts and illusions in substitutive ways. It is a drama enacted by a population that no longer trusts the old definition of the political. It is the reinvention of trust, which makes society rewrite political facts. Facts are no longer empirical entities, but a kaleidoscopic mix of anxieties, misunderstandings and myths. In this collage of partly-empirical data, gossip is often mistaken for gospel. Then, one has to go beyond the lexicologist to the storyteller to unravel meaning.
For a decade now, politics has become more backstage, more managerial and more technologically fixated. Once sacrosanct ideas such as transparency of information, necessity of participation, power of the public — ideas that made democracy an act of faith and trust — have been eroded. Elections, rights, governance and leadership are becoming empty words. Facts seem like illusions while the latter become facts. The charisma of political leadership is now nothing more than propaganda. It is as if Watergate politics has become the DNA of all politics.
Citizens realised that they had to discount expert views and psephologist interpretations and create their own dialect of politics and populism. With facts hijacked by Rasputins, angry and confused citizens have become Rumpelstiltskins, crabby and critical of politics but determined to grab and create their own vision of the political, however curdled. It’s the ordinary citizen’s attempt to redefine politics as agency that inaugurated the post-truth era, one that is different from the 50s and 60s when the world was divided into capitalist and communist. Post-truth is more populist than ideological, thriving on gossip, suspicions and a sense of alienation from politics.
Brexit was the beginning, half epic, half slapstick, changing the idea of politics as we knew it. The expert, more than the politician, was the first casualty of post-truth politics. First seen as a choice between globalism and localism, cosmopolitanism and colloquialism, Brexit suddenly became a paranoid confrontation between lifestyle politics and livelihood politics, between a technocratic and vernacular idea of economics. Where the upper classes saw professional mobility, the working classes saw the destruction of local economies and the spectre of unemployment.
Significantly, the new politics was not created by a leadership, but by the people’s alienation from the “official” definition of facts. Democracy literally reasserted itself. People redefined politics in a way that made sense to them. Ordinary people chose political facts that they could define and determine, even if the result was a curdled populism. They felt it belonged to them. The psephologist with his class categories looked silly and Prime Minister David Cameron looked the silliest of all. Some experts have created a false dichotomy between progressivism and populism. This could be an accurate reading of the economics, but does not answer why people found politics and political parties alien or suspicious. This is a question that future democracies will have to answer by going beyond the logic of elections. Post-truth politics broke the standard clichés and perspectives of politics. It was the truth of politics that politicians and the media refused to accept.
If Brexit signalled the post-truth era, Donald Trump’s victory was its definitive arrival. Trump was a caricature, a bit of a carnival who became real. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic party saw it coming. He appeared like a drunken peddler offering patent medicines to cure contemporary politics. Next to him, Hillary Clinton looked packaged, sophisticated and predictable. Yet, Trump appeared truer than Clinton.
People had become tired of professional politicians acting as if people did not matter. When politics makes people look laughable, then the people have the last laugh. Hillary was suddenly post-politics, a casualty of an emotional wave that cocked a snook at the establishment. It was if Americans were saying that to make sense, the candidate must first make sense of them. Americans voted for Trump not because he was right but because he sounded right at the right time.
Psephology is helpless before social constructions. The usual logic of politics — facts, experience, professionalism — crumbled before an emotional orchestra. Post-truth politics is a return to the primordial, the primitive, the irrational, and challenges the logic of institutionalism.
The third chapter in post-truth politics brings us to India and the narratives of demonetisation. With a stated goal of battling black money, demonetisation scarcely summons the storyteller, but again the people have rewritten the surreal narrative. They wait patiently at ATMs without criticising the government as an act of patriotism. Waiting at ATMs conveys a different spirit from waiting in ration lines in the socialist era. There is little protest and less violence as the crowd watches the erratic functioning of banks. It is a reaction that one seldom sees — a public contentment because the government has kept its promise to fight corruption. It is sheer theatre, tacit, unstated and widespread; an act of solidarity with state policy. This has come as a surprise to a regime more attuned to vigilante squads that police sexuality and dissent. Once again, the people have behaved in an unexpected way.
Three events in three countries that challenge standard narratives and outcomes. In the first two, a sense of alienation redefined commitment to the political. In the third, a sense of trust has led to unprecedented political solidarity. Politics is unpredictable and new interpretations overturn old facts. Trust is no longer a habit but a cultivated alertness demanding more from the regime and even more from citizens. An African political scientist commented that post-truth societies have until now veered to the Right, and hoped there would soon be a populism of the Left.
I must confess three swallows do not make a summer of post-truth politics. Perhaps the term is premature. But sometimes when a word is born, a world is born with it. Post-truth might be one such word. A performative word that one senses might enact the politics of the future. We have to wait and see if it will be a promising future.