Donald Trump’s shock US election victory has provoked a transatlantic howl of disbelief from a cosmopolitan elite aghast that American voters have had the temerity to reject its one true liberal world-view. Hillary Clinton’s loss is seen less as the rightful humiliation of a discredited machine politician and more as proof that the masses have, once again, rejected ‘the facts’ of the situation. To this elite, installing the Donald in the White House represents the apocalyptic dawn of a ‘post-factual era’.
After all, Hillary Clinton’s chief weapon against Trump was an army of fact-checkers. Instead of attempting to defeat his arguments by the power of her own, she encouraged voters watching the debate to look up ‘the facts’ on HillaryClinton.com. ‘I hope the fact-checkers are turning up the volume,’ she insisted at one point. ‘Please, fact-checkers, get to work.’
The retort by Jeffrey Lord, one of Trump’s most prominent media supporters, was to describe fact-checking as ‘an out-of-touch, elitist media-type thing’ and that has resonated. For while his infamous 3 a.m. tweets might have contained wild fabrications — Politifact calculated that more than 70 per cent of Trump’s statements were ‘mostly false’, ‘false’, or ‘pants on fire false’ — still Clinton was not able to martial her ‘facts’ to trounce him. Commentators over here have rushed to the airwaves to denounce American voters who embraced him as presenting a serious problem for democracy: a populist demos not interested in the truth, too easily swept away by conspiracy theories and the emotive hyperbole spouted by a demagogue.
I’m no fan of Trump but we might take a step back before drawing dangerous anti-democratic lessons from the result. Let’s consider the debate closer to home. Michael Gove’s now-notorious claim that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ continues to provoke outrage months after he made it, interpreted, as it was, as a rebuke to empirical research. As someone who finds the prevailing relativism ‘there’s no such thing as truth’ galling, perhaps I should be signing up to fight post-truth politics — but the present obsession with condemning post-truthers makes me queasy.
Take the Brexit campaign. Practically the entire global economic, scientific, legal and financial establishment lined up with ‘evidence-based’ arguments to warn of the consequences of leaving the EU. When 52 per cent of the country disagreed, the immediate response was to explain away Brexit voters as ill-informed, gullible types who fell for the Leave campaign’s ‘lies’. Sir John Major even talked of British people having been bamboozled by ‘a whole galaxy of inaccurate and frankly untrue information’. Millions of voters were written off as the credulous victims of emotion and rhetoric. As the Economist put it, ‘Feelings, not facts, are what matter in this sort of campaigning.’
Caricaturing one’s opponents as having succumbed to their own feelings neatly avoids having to explain what it is they feel so strongly about. Justified anger has been the driver of social change for centuries. While outright lies appear to be what the truth brigade attacks, scratch the surface and their real beef seems to be that others hold opinions they don’t agree with. Ironically, many of the Remainers making such charges were the very same people who indulged in highly public gestures of despair after losing the vote, describing themselves as ‘in mourning’. Trump’s win will undoubtedly unleash similar sentiments in America.
Even if Hillary’s ‘facts’ had sneaked in under the wire, would it really have been a victory for reason? This sudden deference to ‘the facts’ has partly been created by the fashion for ‘evidence-based’ policy, and the tendency to declare any opinion or principle invalid unless backed up by peer-reviewed research. I have been a panellist on Radio 4’s Moral Maze for more than a decade, but in the past few years there has been a noticeable shift in the arguments made by the programme’s guests — many of whom now try to avoid taking moral positions on contestable issues. Instead, they prefer to cite stats, show graphs and wave a PhD thesis or scientific study in my face to back up the policy they prefer, as though the very act of doing so concludes the argument.
It’s as though we can’t decide anything — from what makes a good parent to what makes a good school — without consulting figures. Making a case for sovereignty or freedom on its own merit is met with a sneer of ‘show me your evidence’. In this context, the truth everyone seems so keen to defend is reduced to what can be measured. Feeble politicians are delighted to outsource their decision-making to so-called ‘neutral’ academics and number-crunchers.
It is surely these experts that Gove disparaged. They seem to believe that they can transcend the grubby world of partisan politics without submitting to any democratic scrutiny whatsoever. ‘The facts show’ is a phrase designed to cut a conviction politician off at the knees. Logically, what follows on from this is the belief that an aloof group of well-qualified grandees can and should provide a set of established, prescriptive truths, for us mere plebs to nod along to deferentially.
But how true are these truths? Increasingly, as academic and scientific research is used to serve a social or economic purpose, it becomes dangerously close to advocacy because the research conducted is not open-ended. And as the economist William Davies has pointed out, we are placing ‘expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strain them to breaking point’.
To be fair, there has been some soul-searching among some experts — seeking to understand why they are being ignored by the masses. Some blame the media for seizing on attention-grabbing half-truths and printing sensationalist headlines. But when boffins conclude that perhaps they should adopt the ‘chatty tone of the tabloids’, ‘step away from the jargon’ and drop ‘complicated words and unintelligible acronyms’, they condescendingly assume that if voters ‘only understood the facts’ they would change their minds.
But why should it be assumed that people who ‘vote with their hearts’ are delusional? Perhaps ever-increasing numbers of people are reacting, quite rightly, against reductionist, sterile utilitarianism? They may also suspect that the ‘facts’ being cited are selective or that the margin of error in, for example, forecasts of climate change is monstrous. And of course expert opinion on everything from thalidomide to the economy before the 2008 crash has often been wrong in the past.
I, for one, believe that there are deeper truths beyond scientific accounts — which, after all, can only tell us what is, rather than why it is or what it could be. The IMF, the Royal Society, the CBI are undoubtedly invaluable institutions, but they are not clairvoyants. I am with Bertrand Russell, who noted that those who entertain a narrow version of empirical truth damn us all to the tyranny of the status quo: ‘The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived… from the habitual beliefs of his age.’
Many of us written off as post-truth ignoramuses for ignoring supposed expert advice may simply have a different philosophical perspective. You cannot reduce politics to a straightforward morality tale of fact versus fiction. Hillary Clinton may well have had ‘the facts’ on her side. She may have deployed them, again and again, to trump Trump’s ‘lies’. Yet she was still plagued by popular hashtags such as #CrookedHillary because she failed to convince millions of American voters that she is an honest, straight-talking, principled politician.
Perhaps Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote tell us something more profound about truth: that the whole project of politics is about challenging the notion that the future is a fixed fact. We as citizens are not the passive victims of preordained laws, determined by algorithms. Nor are we predictable, like lab rats in a clinical trial. Human beings were the creators of history — and we are still capable of changing economic and political reality today; transforming yesterday’s dreams into today’s facts while dispensing with yesterday’s facts altogether.
Perhaps it’s the international pro-truth brigade which is truly the ill-informed and irrational party — at least in relation to the lived experience and aspirations of millions of people across the globe. You don’t have to be a relativist to recognise that truths are contingent on different perspectives. The fact that so many experts so easily disregard the true views of the masses, I would argue, means they ought to stop poring over the evidence — and get out more.
Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas, convenor of the Battle of Ideas and author of I Find that Offensive!