Living in a post-truth world: The last year shows ordinary people are fed up with politics as usual
Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far-right did not happen overnight, they were pit-stops on a journey that began long ago
Listen carefully and the soundtrack to 2016 has been the unmistakable sound of foreheads hitting palms as the political establishment eschewed any culpability for what on earth was going on in politics and instead just blamed the voters for being thick.
And with such a patronising response to the political shockwaves of Brexit and of Trump, no wonder that the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year was ‘post-truth’.
So much easier to blame the stupidity of the electorate than to actually analyse why political appeals to emotion bested fact.
The so-called metropolitan liberal elite has struggled to comprehend many things over the course of 2016: the point of Jeremy Corbyn, why anyone would vote for Brexit or what ideological appeal such an extreme figure like Trump could have, and so instead they have focused on their supporters and jumped to conclusions about what they think and, especially, what they feel.
They have lumped them all together and taken some small comfort in the proposition that they are all the same and must be driven by envy, resentment and questionable dogma.
While it is true that, both here and in the US, less educated white males were seen as the main constituency of what is commonly seen as a phenomenon of populism, it is simply not true that every supporter of Brexit or of Trump thought or felt the same way. And it is a serious error to traduce all that supporters of Brexit and Trump think and say and reduce it to being reflective of a homogenous and inarticulate political expression of their resentment. The truth is that the electorate is far more complicated and sophisticated than the often binary choices they are offered at the ballot box.
But seen through the lens of the old political order; of left and right, of good or bad, the Brexit vote and Trump’s triumph are interpreted as less the vindication of successful campaigning that appealed to a disaffected and dissatisfied electorate who wanted something to change and more as proof that the masses just couldn’t compute facts.
One of the tweets that I responded to during the race for the White House was posted by a respected Scottish academic who poked fun at a wealthy Trump supporter for her lack of taste in the fashion department which he conflated with her support for someone like ‘the Donald’.
How utterly patronising that some arbitrary, middle-class definition of what represents good taste or not should also then reflect on someone’s intellectual capacity to process what makes for good or bad politics.
Of course it was meant tongue-in-cheek, but it also revealed a nasty streak of snobbishness that has infiltrated thinking about the kind of people that Trump or indeed Brexit appeals to and them not quite being ‘the right sort’.
It was redolent of Hillary Clinton’s ill-judged remark made on the campaign trail that half of Trump’s supporters would fit into a “basket of deplorables”.
And it was reminiscent of the lefty snootiness demonstrated by Gordon Brown when he was overheard describing Labour supporting Gillian Duffy as “a sort of bigoted woman” because she raised issues that concerned her about immigration in Rochdale. Brown tried to counter her fears with fact and he failed because for her the fear was real even if her facts were not. That should have been the wake-up call for what was happening in a Britain that Gordon Brown’s Labour Party just didn’t seem to occupy anymore. Duffy was the future but Brown didn’t see it.
And so, Brexit, Trump, the rise of the far-right, these are not things that just happened overnight, they were pit-stops on a journey that Mrs Duffy was already on and she kindly gave us a sneak preview.
Six years later and 2016 was the year when the planets aligned and the marginalised and ignored were given ideal opportunities, both here and abroad, to fight back with a vote that was an almighty abrogation of the political status quo.
Facts didn’t matter anymore because the reality for many was that they didn’t trust the institutions or the politicians that were espousing them. And because they had been lied to before.
Michael Gove was pilloried for saying during the EU referendum campaign that people had had enough of experts but he was right. Who cares about facts when you just want change, any change, even if the consequence is self-destruction?
During the EU referendum, almost the entire global economic, scientific, legal and financial worlds lined up with the ‘facts’ to warn of the consequences of Brexit. And so, when more than half of the country disagreed, the immediate response was to explain them away as racist ignoramuses who let their hearts overrule their heads.
It’s also worth remembering that the day after the EU vote, ‘what is the EU’ was the most common search on Google.
There is simply a futility in trying to use facts to fight raw emotion – we have some experience of that in Scotland – but perhaps the big lesson of 2016, if we want to learn it, is to recognise this one fact, that ordinary people have had enough of politics as usual. Trump caught that mood with one simple but genius slogan: “Let’s drain the swamp.”
But then, it is perhaps no coincidence either that one of the other words to make it into the 2016 top ten lexicon was ‘coulrophobia’ – an irrational fear of clowns.
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