Archive for the ‘post-truth’ Category
This selection of highlights from an interview with Hannah Arendt by the always-excellent New York Review of books is well worth reading in its entirety. This quote jumped out at me:
The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.
Today I’m going to look at Jan-Werner Müller’s short book What is Populism?
This timely volume is invaluable for bringing conceptual clarity to the analysis of populism, an often murky and poorly-defined concept that is, as we all know, having a heyday in Europe and the Americas.
In Müller’s analysis, populists claim a special mandate for speaking on behalf of the people, where the people is clearly understood to mean the real people, or the people who matter, not all of the people.
Populist politicians contrast the “real people” to the tiny elites who have captured governance. For example, from Trump’s inaugural address:
Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed.
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
That all changes — starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.
It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.
In Trump’s view, his victory is no less than an epochal shift from the business-as-usual capture of government by special interests to the restoration of the authority of the “American People,” who were shut out entirely for the last eight years, if not longer.
In other words, the democratically-elected Obama administration did not represent the “real America,” although his electoral victories were much stronger than Trump’s. In fact, not only are Obama’s policies viewed as anti-American, but Trump bizarrely insisted for years that Obama is not even an American.
Müller describes the intersection of the anti-pluralist and anti-democratic elements of populism in the following way:
What distinguishes democratic politicians from populists is that the former make representative claims in the form of something like hypotheses that can be empirically disproven on the basis of the actual results of regular procedures and institutions like elections. Or, as Paulina Ochoa Espejo has argued, democrats make claims about the people that are self-limiting and are conceived of as falsifiable. In some sense, they’d have to subscribe to Beckett’s famous words in Westword Ho: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Populists, by contrast, will persist with their representative claim no matter what; because their claim is of a moral and symbolic – not an empirical – nature, it cannot be disproven. When in opposition, populists are bound to cast doubt on the institutions that produce ‘morally wrong’ outcomes. Hence they can accurately be described as ‘enemies of institutions’ – although not of institutions in general. They are merely the enemies of mechanisms of representation that fail to validate their claim to exclusive moral representation.
Timothy Gordon Ash extends this important analysis in his review of What is Populism? in the New York Review of Books:
The appeal, then, to common sense, is a parallel strategy for negating the role of authority as it has traditionally been understood in democratic cultures, as deriving from experience, expertise, training, evidence, and argument.
This, I submit, is precisely why Trump insists on claiming that he has an overwhelming mandate, in clear defiance of all abundant evidence to contrary. He is claiming that his legitimacy derives from the will of the people in order to justify acting outside of traditional norms and structures, which he regards as impediments to the efficient execution of plainly-warranted action.
Thus, the White House continues to insist that Trump won a “landslide victory,” baldly asserting this again and again in face of obvious and overwhelming counter-evidence, such as the fact that he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes, and came in 46th out of 58 elections in electoral college votes.
To this we add the bizarre spectacle of White House spokesman Sean Spicer contradicting photographic evidence showing that the inauguration had a very poor turnout, leaving baffled editors to write “Not The Onion” headlines like White House press secretary attacks media for accurately reporting inauguration crowds.
Müller’s analysis, I would argue, goes a long way toward explaining why we’re seeing this odd behavior. This is a strategic gesture that serves at least two ends.
First, Trump insists on an overwhelming mandate from the people as a way of grounding his all-encompassing legitimacy and authority in the popular will. Trump systematically delegitimizes traditional norms and institutions and claims unfettered authority for himself as a spokesperson for the people.
Second, by seizing every opportunity to flatly contradict the consensus of the mainstream press, Trump provides more and more evidence to his base that all reporters are liars. As he stated yesterday, “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”
Remember, because populists speak for the people, there can be no legitimate opposition. As Müller put it, anticipating Trump’s many diatribes, “Other political competitors are just part of the immoral, corrupt elite, or so populists say, while not having power themselves; when in government, they will not recognize anything like a legitimate opposition.”
This is why Trump characterizes his opponents relentlessly as disloyal, or enemies, or criminal, or not American.
Repeating accusations about the “lying media” over and over again makes it a leitmotif that his base can easily recognize. Through repetition, it takes on a matter-of-fact quality that allows one to dismiss any assertion by the media, no matter how carefully documented, as just another example of the well-known fact that the corporate media has it in for Trump, and for the “real America.”
In my previous posts analyzing the increasing failure of reason and evidence to serve their traditional roles as the basis for democratic deliberation, I spent considerable time unpacking the idea of common sense, or ideas that are taken to be obvious facts of the world.
Populism thrives on such “common sense.” Its representatives reduce complex social problems to simple models with simple policy solutions, often based on reasserting shared, rigid understanding of the boundaries of the real community. The problem is elites and foreigners, the solution is lock ‘em up and build the wall. It’s common sense.
As Müller observes:
[T]he emphasis on a singular common good that is clearly comprehensible to common sense and capable of being articulated as a singularly correct policy that can be collectively willed at least partly explains why populism is so often associated with the idea of an oversimplification of policy changes.
Dealing with Populism
So how do we deal with populism? To answer this key question, Müller focuses primarily on how to accurately describe, analyze, and engage with populists. One noteworthy suggestion is that mainstream parties and media outlets have often tried isolating them, refusing to engage with populist parties and politicians. This approach, Müller warns, frequently backfires, because it feeds into the central populist narrative that their concerns are ignored and marginalized by the political elite.
Müller also warns against obvious tactics that are likewise self-defeating, such as “proving” that populists are themselves part of the very elite they claim to criticize:
It scores no points to prove that Trump is part of the elite – everyone knows that. What matters is that he’s perceived as part of the “right elite,” and that they will faithfully execute the people’s unambiguously articulated political agenda.
Let’s all take careful note of this important point – we should take it to heart. This approach is a waste of time.
As an alternative strategy, Müller argues for direct engagement on the strength of the issues. In this, he reminds me of Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago, who compared Trump’s populism to that of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Zingales warned that the politics of outrage and protest are counter-productive, pointing out that Berlusconi was only defeated by politicians who disregarded the sideshow, treated him as an ordinary opponent, and focused on issues.
Müller argues forcefully that we must compete with populism by opposing it with better ideas and better action. He wants us to take populism seriously on its own terms and engage it on the policy level. He warns against the “dead end” of trying to understand populism as an expression of anger or frustration by the electorate, or as a political ideology symptomatic of an underlying personality type, such as authoritarian.
These explanations are simply reductive, in his view – that is to say, they do not offer any explanation, they simply explain it away.
He further warns against taking populism as indicative of bad reasoning or poor education, pointing out that these charges actually exemplify the very elitism that populists criticize. We should not try to find pathology in it, but take it seriously as an expression of ideas and beliefs.
I have several problems with this approach. Much as I would like to believe that fundamental issues of political relevance can be decided on the strength of ideas and evidence, the clear fact of the matter is that this has failed to happen in crucial domains.
There is simply no rational basis for anyone to maintain at this point that Obama was not a legitimate president because he is a Muslim – that is false, and, further, is patently absurd and quite racist. When reason and evidence fail to sway people with respect to the basic facts of the world, such as climate change, we have a very serious problem.
I do think we have to take seriously the possibility that populism appeals primarily to people who are not adept at abstract conceptual thinking – this is a large part of the appeal of its conceptual simplicity.
We do have empirical support for this conclusion – for example, see Nate Silver’s lengthy analysis in which he concludes that “it appears as though educational levels are the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016,” with lower education correlating strongly with support for Trump.
I do not agree that explaining populism as symptomatic of frustration or anger, or of particular personality types or processing styles, is necessarily reductive. There is a tradition of ideological analysis called strain theory, for example, that is based on the theory that ideologies are primarily symptomatic of social stresses and frustrations. Such a view can be the beginning of a deeper analysis rather than the end of critical engagement.
We also have to be serious about the degree to which Trump will refuse to engage in dialog with anyone outside of his entourage of cheerleaders and yes-men. In his last press conference, he was centrally occupied by berating the press and refusing to answer pressing questions. I honestly don’t know what engagement with these people would like.
Furthermore, the question that occupies me more and more as I work to formulate my own strategy of opposition is this: If Trump has not plainly shown himself to be a corrupt, incompetent buffoon in the eyes of his base through his own words and actions, what more could anyone else possibly add through any criticism? Trump said at a campaign rally that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” and the available evidence suggests that he’s right.
Nevertheless, fight we must, and I’d like to conclude with a pointed quote from the book which explains why populism is a problem per se, and why we must oppose it, if we believe in democracy:
We might want to say that the real problem with populism is its denial of diversity effectively amounts to denying the status of certain citizens as free and equal. These citizens might not be excluded officially, but the public legitimacy of their individual values, ideas of what makes for the good life, and even material interests are effectively called into question and even declared not to count. As John Rawls argued, accepting pluralism is not a recognition of the empirical fact that we live in diverse societies; rather, it amounts to a commitment to try to find fair terms of sharing the same political space with others whom we respect as free and equal but also as irreducibly different in their identities and interests. Denying pluralism in this sense amounts to saying “I can only live in a political world where my conception of the polity, or my personal view of who is a real American, gets to trump all others.” This is simply not a democratic perspective on politics.
As I hope is clear, I found this book extraordinarily useful, and would very highly recommend it to any interested reader. It’s scarcely over 100 pages long and provides a stellar guide to the strange and ugly terrain that we find ourselves in. This is clearly the political crisis of our current times.
Next time I’d like to look at some rather different takes on populism through the eyes of two of the great European thinkers working today: the French economist Thomas Piketty and the German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas.
I’ve been writing a series of posts looking at the widespread failure of reason and evidence to play their historical roles as the foundations for legitimate policy deliberation. It’s a complex problem that demands an interdisciplinary approach, and so far I’ve considered the issue from the points of view of cognitive psychology and anthropology.
I think one issue that we have to take seriously is the degree to which right wing political actors have intentionally stoked the fires of an extreme paranoia and hostility toward the left, which has been instrumental in fueling the rancorous polarization of the last several years. It would be mere equivocation to suggest there is anything approaching the following statement by Rush Limbaugh in 2009 in the mainstream of the left:
You know, folks, the two universes here — The Universe of Lies, The Universe of Reality — they don’t overlap anymore. And this is even bigger than global warming, which was my point yesterday. It’s about everything that the left is involved in. What this fraud, what the uncovering of this hoax exposes, is the corruption that exists between government and academia and science and the media. Science has been corrupted. We know the media has been corrupted for a long time. Academia has been corrupted. None of what they do is real. It’s all lies! It is all oriented toward a political outcome. It’s bigger than global warming. And of course science has been corrupted here. Science is being used for political purposes.
It always has been, but this is a new low — or a new high, depending on your perspective. But what they have done here is now make it reasonable to doubt everything some scientist says who gets government money from somewhere. And if you know what’s good for you, if you know that they’re leftists, you won’t believe anything they say any time, anywhere, about anything. Their ideas are so hideous, are so insidious, so anti-free market, that they have to dress their ideas up in a phony cloak of compassion: Saving the planet, saving the polar bears, saving the water, saving the earth, saving whatever it is. “Saving the poor,” while they destroy the poor. It just infuriating. So we have now the Four Corners of Deceit, and the two universes in which we live. The Universe of Lies, the Universe of Reality, and The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.
These people aren’t kidding, folks – I first came across this quote on a climate change denial site which cites it approvingly.
For decades, we’ve been living in world where people like Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and Karl Rove have been sounding a constant refrain that liberals are not just wrong, they are evil and uniquely destructive.
The GOP has been greasing the tracks for the last thirty years, and Trump is just the train that happened to come along.
This is my second post in a series examining the phenomenon of “post-truth,” which I broadly interpret as the failure of reason and evidence to serve their traditional roles as the legitimate basis for democratic deliberation.
In Post-Truth and Unreason, we began looking at common sense, which is to say, beliefs that are taken to be perfectly obvious and self-evident.
Drawing from cognitive and developmental psychology, we found that when people deliberate, they relate to their ideas as open, fluid, and tentative. But once conclusions are reached, they are experienced as closed, fixed, and resistant to revision.
Judgments and conclusions are projected onto the external world in a process the psychologist Carol Fleisher Feldman calls “ontic dumping.” They then appear to be empirical facts about the world that are plainly evident for all to see.
Today I want to look more into the problem of common sense, which I very much believe to be at the heart of the intransigent failure of a large block of the American body politic to rationally analyze issues of vital public policy concern, such as global warming.
In short, common sense is where critical thinking stops. Facts that are “perfectly obvious” require no justification, and challenges to such beliefs are not perceived as rational debate, but as symptoms of the deficiencies of the person making the challenge.
The legendary anthropologist Clifford Geertz makes an in-depth analysis of apparently self-justifying truths in his important article Common Sense as a Cultural System. According to Geertz, the key distinguishing feature of common sense is its appearance as self-evident:
Common sense represents matters – that is, certain matters and not others – as being what they are in the simple nature of the case. An air of “of-courseness,” a sense of “it figures ” is cast over things – again, some selected, underscored things. They are depicted as inherent in the situation, intrinsic aspects of reality, the way things go.
Geertz’s central argument is that common sense judgments are not free from theoretical presuppositions or commitments, although they appear to be. Common sense therefore constitutes a cultural system, or part of an interlocked matrix of commitments, beliefs, and values that partly govern thought:
There are a number of reasons why treating common sense as a relatively organized body of considered thought, rather than just what anyone clothed and in his right mind knows, should lead on to some useful conclusions; but perhaps the most important is that it is an inherent characteristic of common-sense thought precisely to deny this and to affirm that its tenets are immediate deliverances of experience, not deliberated reflections upon it. Knowing that rain wets and that one ought to come in out of it, or that fire burns and one ought not to play with it (to stick to our own culture for the moment) are conflated into comprising one large realm of the given and undeniable, a catalog of in-the-grain-of-nature realities so peremptory as to force themselves upon any mind sufficiently unclouded to receive them. Yet this is clearly not so. No one, or no one functioning very well, doubts that rain wets; but there may be some people around who question the proposition that one ought to come in out of it, holding that it is good for one’s character to brave the elements – hatlessness is next to godliness. And the attractions of playing with fire often, with some people usually, override the full recognition of the pain that will result. Religion rests its case on revelation, science on method, ideology on moral passion; but common sense rests its on the assertion that it is not a case at all, just life in a nutshell. The world is its authority.
In order to be properly understood, the underlying theory must be teased out and subjected to critical scrutiny.
The analysis of common sense, as opposed to the exercise of it, must then begin by redrawing this erased distinction between the mere matter-of-fact apprehension of reality – or whatever it is you want to call what we apprehend merely and matter-of-factly – and down-to-earth, colloquial wisdom, judgments or assessments of it.
To summarize these points, contrary to the way things generally appear, the determinations of common-sense reasoning are not free from theoretical beliefs and commitments. They simply appear to the mind in such a way that the underlying theories that deliver their conclusions are masked from awareness. It is, therefore, all the more critical to draw out the theoretical presuppositions that underlie common sense conclusions, and subject them to critical scrutiny.
As Geertz put it:
This analytical dissolution of the unspoken premise from which common sense draws its authority – that it presents reality neat – is not intended to undermine that authority, but to relocate it. If common sense is as much an interpretation of the immediacies of experience, a gloss on them, as are myth, painting, epistemology, or whatever, then it is, like them, historically constructed and, like them, subjected to historically defined standards of judgment.
This analysis rather reminds me of an interesting essay by the German idealist philosopher Hegel, which was translated by Walter Kaufmann as Who Thinks Abstractly?.
In this short essay, Hegel considers the stereotype of philosophers which holds that they spend their days gazing at the clouds, occupied with abstract reflection, and they fail to see the reality right in front of their faces.
This represents a long-standing prejudice that intellectuals are less able to understand the basic lessons of experience than the common folk. One is reminded of the apocryphal story that Thales, the first Greek philosopher, went for a stroll, and, gazing at the stars, failed to see a well in his path and fell to his death.
Or, more to the point, we might think of criticisms directed at the so-called technocratic elites who develop policy on the basis of obscure, suspect theories, presumably coming to conclusions that no ordinary person would come to.
While there are any number of highly-trained imbeciles, I agree with Hegel’s argument that the conventional wisdom on abstract thinking gets the situation exactly wrong. It is precisely the failure to bring critical reasoning to bear that results in abstract thinking, properly understood as seeing reality only in terms of one’s ideas, and the concordant the failure to see the world in terms of its actual manifold character.
In his pointed example, Hegel considers how a murderer appears to the eyes of the public:
A murderer is led to the place of execution. For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer. Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man. The populace finds this remark terrible: What? A murderer handsome? How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome; no doubt, you yourselves are something not much better! This is the corruption of morals that is prevalent in the upper classes, a priest may add, knowing the bottom of things and human hearts.
One who knows men traces the development of the criminal’s mind: he finds in his history, in his education, a bad family relationship between his father and mother, some tremendous harshness after this human being had done some minor wrong, so he became embittered against the social order — a first reaction to this that in effect expelled him and henceforth did not make it possible for him to preserve himself except through crime. — There may be people who will say when they hear such things: he wants to excuse this murderer! After all I remember how in my youth I heard a mayor lament that writers of books were going too far and sought to extirpate Christianity and righteousness altogether; somebody had written a defense of suicide; terrible, really too terrible! — Further questions revealed that The Sufferings of Werther were meant.
This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.
Two ideas are worthy of special attention – first, the “nothing but” of the second sentence. There is a mental act of doubling-down on what is taken to be the salient feature of moral judgment here, and a self-righteous exclusion of all other factors from consideration.
The second related point is that all other human essence in the victim is annulled. That is, it is “perfectly obvious” that a murderer is nothing but a murderer, and any further reasoning into the matter is mere equivocation and moral transgression.
In conclusion, I submit that a necessary condition for political sanity is a willingness to re-evaluate any position or belief whatsoever on the basis of new evidence or new ideas, ideally accompanied by an intentional strategy of constantly revisiting one’s own deeply-held beliefs and subjecting them to critical scrutiny.
Next time, we’ll have a look at how unreason and post-truth take shape as the political ideology of populism, drawing from the analysis of the Princeton historian Jan-Werner Müller.
“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
I could imagine no more persuasive illustration of this maxim than the response by much of the GOP base to allegations of Russian hacking in the election, which to a truly bewildering degree represents a previously-unimaginable display of uncritical party thinking.
(Note: for the purposes of this article, I’m going to take it for granted that credible allegations of intervention in the presidential election by a historically-belligerent power is a serious problem that demands a close look – if you don’t agree with that premise, all I can say is this blog probably isn’t for you.)
A useful illustration of this phenomenon is the comment thread to the Wall Street Journal article Intelligence Agencies Say Russia Ordered ‘Influence Campaign’ to Aid Donald Trump in Election. If you have the stomach for it, it’s worth reading through.
A few representative samples:
“We should have no confidence in these Obama hirelings, all of whom are masters of deception.”
“Confirms that a couple agencies are politicized. I can’t imagine being the head of the FBI, CIA, or NSA, and be subjected to having James Clapper as the President’s mouthpiece for my agency.”
“Big, fat, politically motivated, nothing burger.”
“Too bad she didn’t protect her data better.”
“Hillary supporters are looking for someone to blame.”
Here we are supposedly talking about the intelligent, reasonable conservatives, right? This isn’t Breitbart or InfoWars. But one commenter after another derisively dismisses accusations without evidence or coherent reasoning.
Similar attitudes are documented in the New York Times article “What’s the Big Deal?’ Ask Trump Voters on Russia Hacking Report“, where we learn that concerns about hacking are “sour grapes” from “a bunch of crybabies.” A Louisiana Trump supporter opines “If that’s what it took, I’m glad they did it.”
This raises a very serious question regarding the overwhelming failure of reason and evidence to prevail in this debate.
I’ve stated my core political commitments in my About page; the first is “rational, evidence-based discourse is the legitimate basis for political consensus.” Clearly what we’re observing is a breakdown of that principle to a degree we haven’t seen in decades.
Before we can think about how to address it, I think it’s important to begin by understanding what is happening and why. For that, we can learn a lot from the social sciences.
I would like to start with “the perfectly obvious” facts that I mentioned before. This, more than anything else, is the place where reason and dialog stop.
“The perfectly obvious” is a dangerously under-analyzed mode of thought which is all-too-often either unquestioningly embraced by believers, or uncritically dismissed as being unfounded by non-believers. At this point it should be, well, perfectly obvious that we can no longer afford that luxury.
How do political judgments become fixed in our minds? One way to understand this process is to consider the work of Carol Fleisher Feldman, who researched the ways that people relate to their own beliefs in an ingenious series of experiments . She found that people relate their own conclusions very differently from the way they relate to their hypotheses.
A hypothesis is generally perceived by the holder as something that exists “in the mind.” It is regarded as fluid, open, and susceptible to revision. However, once people reach a conclusion, their judgments are projected into the world and are regarded as empirical facts. They are generally perceived as fixed, stable truths about the world, perceived with a clarity and determinateness similar to our sense perception of objects in our environment. Feldman refers to the process of projecting our conclusions onto the external world as “ontic dumping.”
In other words, our conclusions are “perfectly obvious,” and they appear to consciousness as self-evident facts about the world.
That this psychological disposition has assumed a role in public discourse which now threatens to undermine the central role of reason and analysis in political discourse is, I hope, perfectly clear. To fall back to our principal example, to many a Trump supporter, it is perfectly obvious that what we’re seeing is a politicized witch hunt carried out by Democrats and establishment figures who can’t tolerate their resounding defeat at the polls.
Once political conclusions are reached, they can become extremely difficult to challenge, even with clear factual evidence. In a now-classic 2006 study, Nyhan and Reifler demonstrate in a series of experiments that many people actually become more entrenched in beliefs when they are presented with counter-evidence. The authors would later speculate on the basis of cognitive dissonance theory that people identify with their beliefs, and construe counter-evidence as personal attacks (for example, see here).
There is a great deal more to be said about this topic, many questions to be raised and answered, and a lot of research to be considered. I will return to these questions from other angles shortly.
We must, however, resist the temptation of jumping ahead to the end and formulating quick hypotheses about how to “reach” people and persuade them to take issues like climate change or Russian hacking seriously. That is a far greater problem, and the underlying social and psychological issues are extraordinarily complex.
 These findings are reported in her article “Thought from language: the linguistic construction of cognitive representations,” published in Bruner and Haste’s Making Sense; The Child’s Construction of World.