Democracy in the time of postfacts

Some time ago, an op-ed in a German newspaper (Die Zeit, I believe) decried the use of the term „postfact“ and suggested we should call the bullshit uttered by the Trump administration, the Brexit campaign and others as just what it is: lies. Well, certainly, postfacts are lies, but there is a subtle distinction. Post-facts create their own, subjective version of reality – or “truth” – whereas lies contradict the objective truth. This distinction lays bare a fundamental problem of our democratic way to organise government. It does not really matter, whether Donald Trump or Nigel Farage actually believe the nonsense they utter, but it matters that their voters believe it, because it fits their view on the world.

Take a recent example. Mr Trump accuses the Obama administration (and the former president himself) to have him wiretapped during the campaign, without any evidence whatsoever. This „postfact“ – a lie sold to be the truth – was denied by all and everyone who could have done the alleged wiretapping, i.e. FBI, NSA, CIA and even the British (sic!) GCHQ, that allegedly was behind the operation. A firm Trumpista will now not conclude that the president is wrong (maybe through misinformation, bad enough) or malice (knowingly lying to the people). Instead they will conclude that the agencies do not tell the truth, out of the conviction that they themselves are evil (part of a loathed government) or corrupted by the former administration.

The lesson to be learned from this is that there several notions out there of what is true and what is false. Occam’s razor suggests that Trump is simply making this up, because this requires only malice from his account and not from whole agencies, as untrustworthy as they may be. Sadly, Occam’s razor is a philosophical tool that is mostly either unknown or ignored, especially when it contradicts people’s beliefs. Instead, fantastic stories are made up to somehow weave the postfacts, the reactions of others to the postfacts and one’s own twisted sense of truth (reality?) together.

Now, this wouldn’t be a problem, if it wasn’t about government. People believe all kinds of bullshit (think homeopathy, horoscopes and the like) and this is fine, as long as they only affect themselves. The liberty of free speech and of one’s own opinion includes the liberty to believe nonsense. However, people believing political nonsense combined with general suffrage may become problematic, as seen by the Americans electing a man to their highest public office, whose opinion changes within single sentences and who is very obviously unfit for any public office, let alone the presidency.

The basic assumption of why democracy is the superior system of government is that the electorate agrees to a set of objective facts and then debates about how to deal with them. Here, opinions and suggestions will (and must!) vary, but the basis for all these opinions should be at least very similar across the electorate. This is the sine qua non for democracy: having an objective basis to debate policy is both necessary and sufficient for democracy to be superior. To put it more bluntly, if there is no longer a set of agreed-upon facts, democracy ceases to be the optimum, because voters will vote for candidates who prescribe to a notion of “truth” that is closest to their own since any argument about policy is rendered meaningless. Democracy is a means to find consensus, to arbitrate between opinions and interests, and we do this by debating. But for any debate, not only the ones about policy, we need to know what we mean, what we are talking about and what our opponent means and what he is talking about. If that is not the case, we are talking past each other and consensus (even the consensus to disagree about policy) becomes impossible and thus the debate meaningless. Without meaningful debate, democratic arbitration of interests is impossible.

Unfortunately, this problem is very hard to tackle once it has taken root. Education may help, but this too may be seen by the postfacters as a plot to promote „wrong“ facts. Evidence of this already happening can also be seen in the US, where Mr Trump called CNN „fake news“. Granted, CNN is biased, but being “fake” is something entirely different. But since it resonates well with the “truth” as seen by his voters, Mr Trump does it anyway.

Institutionally, I have no clear-cut solution for this grave threat to our democracies, only temporary workarounds. It seems that parliamentary democracies with a strong proportional representation are more immune to postfactish bullshittery than first-past-the-post systems. Further, systems without primaries, where the policy debate is piped through parties seem also more immune, however there is always the possibility of a new party, collecting all the postfacters and thus gaming the system‘s checks. However, the US with their skewed electoral college, winner-takes-it-all elections and primaries and gerrymandered districts are especially vulnerable to this danger. And as of last November, this is no longer a theoretical issue but a very real problem.

As citizens the only way to mitigate the problem is by engaging even more in debate, especially now when these debates are dirty, appalling and tiring. Every little bit helps to keep the postfacts at bay.

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I write about economics and politics. I take Ordnungspolitik seriously. While not blogging, I study monetary unions for my doctorate.

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