The buzz-phrase of the moment in political discussion is “post-truth”. Shell-shocked metropolitan liberals are astonished by both Brexit and Donald Trump’s success. How could their own rational analysis not find favour with the electorate? People in the internet age must be no longer capable of recognising the truth.
Both the Brexiteers and Trump certainly created narratives about the future which appealed to people in a positive, exciting way. “Make America Great Again!”
But narratives about the future have always been important, not just in politics but in central banking too. During one of the recurring crises in the Eurozone, in 2012, European Central Bank president Mario Draghi proclaimed he would do “whatever it takes to save the euro”. Quite what he would have done if financial markets had continued to attack the currency is not at all clear. It was, in today’s terminology, a post-truth statement. But it worked. His narrative convinced traders and speculators to back off, and the euro lived to fight another day.
Of course, most elections aren’t fought on sweeping narratives about the future but on rather more mundane issues. Who can now remember, for example, what were the themes in the British general election of 2005, just over a decade ago? Even last year’s election was decided on pretty humdrum everyday stuff. Everyone knew things had been rather grim since the financial crisis, but could Labour be trusted to make them any better? In the marginal seats, the answer to this bread-and-butter question was a resounding “no”.
Memorable elections have been ones in which narratives about the future were important, when voters were asked to believe in a vision rather than dwell on the facts. At the end of the Second World War, Attlee’s Labour Party won a huge victory with its picture of a universal welfare state. In 1964, Harold Wilson overturned a massive Conservative majority with his portrayal of science and technology as the future, which Labour technocrats owned. The example of Mrs Thatcher needs no further description. And in 1997, Tony Blair projected a vision of peace and happiness in “Cool Britannia” – a post-truth concept if ever there was one!
The internet and social media certainly enable narratives so that they spread more rapidly and their noise levels are amplified. But the technology does not of itself create “post-truth”. There are far more dramatic and older historical examples of post-truth politics than the British examples above. Under Lenin and Stalin, the entire population of the Soviet Union lived “post-truth”. The reality of everyday existence diverged spectacularly from the narratives which the Communist Party worked so hard to create, and which so many people really believed.
The Brexiteers and the Trump camp knew how to use the networked society of social media. It is not just the message, but the maths which matters now. They understood which sites and tweeters to target, they grasped how to manipulate Google’s page rank algorithms. Despite their veneer of stupidity and supposed distrust of experts, they were actually much smarter than their liberal opponents.