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A postcard from a post-truth world

23 December 2016

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Quentin Grafton is Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy (CWEEP) at Crawford School of Public Policy. In April 2010 he was appointed the Chairholder, the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance.

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2016 has seen a disappointing disconnect between evidence and policy. Quentin Grafton and Martyn Pearce look at the prospects for better policy and political outcomes in 2017.

To quote the Von Trapps, “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye.”

But plenty of people will not be sad to see the end of 2016. In the view of many, it has been the world’s annus horribilis, an almost relentless shower of bad decisions, bad politics, bad policy, bad outcomes, and bad ideas.

It may seem foolish to link together the disparate events of 2016. They appear to be from different places, inspired by different factors, and driven to quite different purposes. From the (shocking to some) election of Donald Trump, to the (equally shocking to others) victory of the Brexiters, and to the vigilantism of the Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte. At first sight, the events and players couldn’t be more different, and they have stirred voices on both the left and right in support or protest.

Still, there are lessons from 2016 we can learn if we connect the dots. An obvious insight is that, at least in democracies, people power when it becomes a movement for change is much more influential and important than the polls suggest or those in power understand. Even after the polls closed in Britain, the Brexiters thought they had lost the referendum. The result came as a surprise to both sides.

Similarly, in the US (and in much of the world watching), the idea that Donald Trump would win was, for many, broadly fanciful, but not if we understand the zeitgeist of our time. Many in the media mocked Trump as a buffoon, and some key members of the elite dismissed his supporters as ‘white trash’. Very few pundits expected him to end up in the White House, but those who doubted his support were wrong.

So why did the unthinkable happen? In part, because many people rebelled against the simplistic characterisations that were applied to them. Donald Trump’s supporters are not the simple-minded gun-toting rednecks portrayed by much of the media. A great many are working class, with intellect and experience of life.

A lot of Trump voters were prepared to park any discomfort they may have felt about him, simply because he promised to ‘shake it up’ and change a system that was not delivering for them. These are ordinary people who are scared about keeping their jobs, worried about the future, and angry at a system that, from their perspective, delivered for Wall Street but not Main Street. Hillary Clinton did not offer a viable alternative to these people, just more of the same. This was ‘the same old, same old’ that had failed many Trump voters through stagnating wages and increasing job insecurity.

Brexit, too, featured this giant middle finger flicked in anger at the establishment. Many on the Remain side thought they would win the argument just by turning up. Forget the lies that both sides told in what was a race to the ethical bottom; it was the abject failure to get the facts across about the possible impact of leaving Europe that really sealed the deal. And yes, as in in the case of Trump supporters, there are extremists and supremacists, but the vast majority of Brexiters want a better life and greater security for themselves and their families.

And that leads into a second lesson of 2016 – the increasing challenge of getting facts and evidence into policy decisions. Will the Trump voters and the Brexiters and others actually get what they want?

The difficulty is that, as many now claim, we seem to live in a post-truth world. The examples are numerous, from Michael Gove’s pox on all experts, to Donald Trump’s Twitter assertion that climate change is a Chinese conspiracy, to the numerous ‘alt-right’ websites that have sprung up spouting lies, innuendo, and half-truths by way of muddying the waters.

In 2016, we have consistently seen not just a refusal to accept evidence, but also a backlash against those who would deliver it. But this is not simply an invention of the populists; the political elites of this world have been peddling half-truths and what have frequently proven to be broken promises. In the propaganda wars, truth is the first victim.

Post-truth is not just about ‘what is fact’; it is also about the underlying message. In the Philippines, Duterte’s call for vigilantism towards drug dealers is about being tough on crime – an appeal to personal security and safety. The actual impact of his drug war is, at least for the time being, less important than the commitment to ‘do something about crime’. The question of how many of the 6000 people murdered since June without trial or any kind of legal process were even drug dealers is not yet an issue for many voters. That the President still maintains popular support, even after claiming that he himself murdered people when he was a mayor, highlights the real danger of populist demagogues.

Condemning the opportunists and demagogues who take advantage of movements for change is simply not good enough. Those in the political and ruling class who have been opportunistic and who have failed to deliver must also take a share of the blame. If what you are selling does not work, don’t be surprised if people will shop elsewhere for solutions.

Is there any hope that this tide of populism dressed up as policy can be turned back in 2017? As King Canute found out, the tide obeys no man, so pointlessly commanding or even wishing the world to go back to what it was will only leave us in ever-deeper water. The response is not to denigrate those who want for a better life just because the prescription that has been offered in the past (be it globalisation, or monetary integration, or austerity) has not worked for them. Instead, the political elite, and those who advise them, need to reflect back on themselves and how their prescriptions have failed to deliver for those who have voted for change in 2016.

The way forward is the way it has always been: understand what people require and actually deliver it. This demands that our leaders identify and respond to what people need by building the evidence and contesting the pathways forward, and then effectively implementing, while allowing for corrections along the way as we learn more or the world changes.

Beneficial policy changes is not a public relations exercise, nor is it about politicians’ thought bubbles; it is a meaningful conversation between the people and those who act on their behalf. If we can start having those conversations now, then 2017 might just be a year we want to hold on to, rather than the 2016 to which we’re happy to wish adieu.

This article was first published by Policy Forum.net, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society and Crawford School. http://www.policyforum.net/how-could-this-happen/

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