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Status anxiety

The truth about ‘post-truth politics’

Of course conservatives aren’t making purely rational decisions. Neither are leftish intellectuals

16 July 2016

9:00 AM

16 July 2016

9:00 AM

The departure of Andrea Leadsom from the Conservative leadership race was a blow to pundits who claim we’re living in an age of ‘post-truth politics’. According to Michael Deacon, the Telegraph’s political sketchwriter, she was an ideal candidate because she embodied the ‘anti-factual’ mood of the country. ‘Facts are negative,’ he wrote, parodying the attitude of Leadsom’s knuckle–dragging supporters. ‘Facts are pessimistic. Facts are unpatriotic.’

To be fair to Deacon, whose sketches are often very funny, he noted that ‘the war on truth’ is being fought as energetically on the left as it is on the right and singled out a group of die-hard Corbynistas who believe their man is the victim of a ‘Zionist’ conspiracy. But most commentators who wheel out the phrase ‘post-truth politics’ are on the left and use it to sum up their opponents’ cynical disregard for the norms of democratic debate. Indeed, it was coined in 2010 by an American pundit called David Roberts to describe the success of Republicans in Congress. They don’t try to win support for their policy positions by making evidence-based arguments — a form of grown-up debate that only Democrats engage in, apparently. No, they exploit the knee-jerk emotional responses and tribal loyalties of their followers. If the Democrats are in favour of a policy, then it is the duty of all good Republicans to oppose it, and to hell with the facts. Since Roberts coined the phrase it has become a cliché and scarcely a day passes without some left-wing sage attributing the rise of Donald Trump to this shocking debasement of political discourse.


It goes without saying that the losing side in the EU referendum are great believers in the ‘post-truth’ hypothesis. According to this theory, their factual arguments, complete with block graphs and pie charts, were no match for the ‘nativist’ pleas of right-wing politicians and ‘the Murdoch press’, which exploited irrational fear of ‘the other’. Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution is the following quote from Aaron Banks, the multimillionaire who bankrolled Leave.EU: ‘The Remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact. It doesn’t work. You’ve got to connect with people emotionally. It’s the Trump success.’

It’s all nonsense, of course. Not the claim that conservatives are more influenced by emotional appeals than they are by rational argument, which is obviously true, but the educated elite’s conviction that they are only ever swayed by reason. It is a sign of their vanity and self-righteousness that they regard themselves as the embodiment of J.S. Mill’s democratic ideal, selflessly engaged in a search for the truth, when all the evidence — yes, evidence — suggests they’re even more tribal than those of us on the right.

This was the eye-opening discovery of Jonathan Haidt, professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of The Righteous Mind. Five years ago, at a conference of several hundred social psychologists in San Antonio, he asked members of the audience to raise their hand according to which political tribe they belonged to. Eighty per cent identified as ‘liberal or left of centre’, 2 per cent as ‘centrist or moderate’ and 1 per cent as ‘libertarian’. None admitted to being ‘conservative’. These findings have been duplicated across the social sciences, but it’s not just the academic wing of the metropolitan elite who are prone to liberal-left groupthink. In general, people whom social psychologists categorize as ‘weird’ (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) are even more tribal when it comes to their attitudes and behaviour than those we think of as belonging to an inward-looking monoculture — Ukip voters, for instance. Contrary to the self-understanding of the Bremainers, being ‘outward-facing’ doesn’t mean being open to new ideas.

This unwelcome fact is an example of a well-established rule in social psychology, which is that the more knowledgeable you are, the more likely you are to suffer from ideological bias, whether left or right. That was the conclusion of Peter Hatemi and Rose McDermott in a recent paper for the Annual Review of Political Science. All the evidence suggests that those who place a high value on facts and see themselves as truth-seekers are no more likely to arrive at their political views through reason and analysis than swivel-eyed Eurosceptic loons. We are all post-truthers and probably always have been.

Toby Young is associate editor of
The Spectator.

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