are we entering a post-truth era?

When the returns are in, just about half the people, those who voted for the loser, will have to ask themselves how seriously they believe the campaign orators who told them that democracy was lost if their opponents won the election. If they believe seriously that Mr. Wilkie is the head and front of an unholy alliance of revolutionaries and revolutionists or that Mr. Roosevelt is the center of an effort to set up a dictatorship and establish national socialism, then the loser cannot accept the result … But as a matter of fact the nation will accept the result …. because the people know in their hearts that the rhetorical threats and the rhetorical promises which they have just been hearing belong to the routine of campaigning in the month of October before election, and that for every grain of truth these political words contain, there are ten grains of buncombe.

–Walter Lippmann, “On the Strength of Democracy,” Nov. 5, 1940

To understand [diplomatic] briefings one must break out of the semantic fogs of our Orwellian times. The government information officer, to speak plainly, is a misinformation officer; his job is not to inform the press, but to put across the particular version or distortion, previously decided upon by the government for which he works. The briefing is a mild but effective form of brain-washing. … Arguments which the government disapproves are made to seem silly; key technical points are given rapid treatment so hurried and obscure as to hide their significance; one’s own position is high-lighted, the adversary’s is twisted and the neutral’s is given only a quick once-over.

— I.F. Stone, “How the Press is Brain-Washed and the Neutrals Gulled,” I.F. Stone’s Weekly, April 16, 1962

Last week, I heard my old friend Jason Stanley defend a thesis that he has also advanced very ably in series of pieces in The New York Times. He warns that we are entering a post-truth era.

The philosopher David Lewis proposed that in “a serious communication situation,” people generally say what they believe and expect listeners to accept statements that are true. Lying occurs, but it is like breaking the rules of a game that is still functioning as a game; lying is exceptional and risks a penalty. But people can also talk in situations that do not involve serious communication. Making up stories, exaggerating, or scoring points can be the normal and expected behavior.

In a reasonably deliberative democracy, politics is a serious communication situation, and lying or BS-ing are exceptional and risky behaviors. But once lying becomes widespread and incurs no political penalty, truth-telling becomes virtually pointless. Listeners don’t even expect it. They interpret speech as exaggeration, entertainment, counter-balancing of rivals’ exaggerations, motivational rhetoric, or other things that are not assertions of truth. Then, if you happen to say something true, listeners just discount it, divide your claims by the expected degree of exaggeration, and you lose the game that is being played in a post-truth era. Even fact-checkers, reporters, and other ostensible third-parties are quickly dismissed as partisan players.

I fully share Jason’s values and concerns, but I am open to two theses. Which one is right is an empirical question, and I am not quite sure how to investigate it.

1. Politics as serious communication was a fragile convention that we recently lost. We once had it because mainstream political leaders did not routinely and blatantly lie, and when they did, they paid some kind of price. Perhaps they paid a penalty for lying or being badly misinformed because the media system was controlled by a limited number of professional organizations, such as the TV news networks and the metropolitan daily newspapers. For all its ideological biases and blinkers, the media fact-checked. So if you said that Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya who wants to establish death panels, you either could not get into the news at all or you would be debunked therein. Once prominent candidates and broadcasters started saying such things routinely and paid no price, the convention of politics as serious communication quickly died. Jay Rosen has been arguing this thesis effectively. He has blamed “movement” conservatives and the right-wing media even though his original framework is quite nonpartisan.

… or …

2. Politics has never been very much about truth. Politicians have always gotten away with massive lies or with mistruths they did not know to be false, such as blatant racism or exaggerations of the Communist threat during the second half of the last century. It is a standard trope of intellectual criticism to say that nobody even cares about truth any more. That is because neither politicians nor voters have ever cared about it all that much. They have always used and interpreted political speech as a mix of things, such as truth-claims, ideological commitments, signalling to the troops, and slams at the opponent. The relative importance of truth shifts from decade to decade as different institutional structures wax and wane. For instance, the demise of the monopoly press and the rise of the Internet has changed the rules of the game, both for better and for worse. The relative role of truth also changes from month to month according to the political cycle. Just as truth is the first casualty of war, so it is the first virtue thrown overboard in a competitive presidential campaign.

I began with two quotes to show that intellectuals have been worried about the demise of truth for at least a century. Many more examples could be cited, but I like these two because of some interesting contrasts.

First, Lippman and and Stone were opposites in many respects, ideological, professional, stylistic. “Everything about them was a study in contrast,” writes Myra McPherson. Yet they both wrote extensively about the dangers of propaganda, the public’s low esteem for truth, and the consequent dangers to America. That suggests that this is not a wholly new problem.

These short quotes only hint at their complex views, but they illustrate two different levels of concern. Lippmann describes the 194o campaign in words that eerily presage 2012. But he is not deeply worried, assuming that when Americans hear all the “buncombe” about socialist Democrats and plutocratic Republicans, they will discount it at an appropriate rate and expect sanity to return after the inauguration. In other words, they know what game is being played at any given moment and expect truth to reemerge during the legislative session (just not in October of an even-numbered year).

Stone’s words also seem prophetic.  As if describing a 2012 campaign commercial or debate, he writes (in 1962), “key technical points are given rapid treatment so hurried and obscure as to hide their significance; one’s own position is high-lighted, the adversary’s is twisted and the neutral’s is given only a quick once-over.”  But Stone is very concerned, arguing that the mass media and mass publics of the West have been lied into a state of terror to support the Cold War at the risk of nuclear Armageddon.

Neither man would be surprised by the spectacle of 2012, but their reaction would differ. Stone might say, “You are once again risking the loss of your democratic birthright by allowing powerful leaders to lie deliberately and destroy your very regard for the truth.” Lippmann might reply, “It was always thus. Politics (in the sense of national competitions over governmental power) has never relied much on truth. Just let the people make a general judgment about who’s on their side, and things will work out OK.”

Of course, there is another option, which is to build institutions and practices that favor truth. Walter Lippmann was deeply impressed by the power of propaganda in World War I and wrote in the Phantom Public (1925) that citizens could not know what is going on, lacked coherent values and interests, were easily manipulated, and never seriously affected the government. He concluded that their only role was to use the blunt force of majority rule to unseat extremely incompetent or tyrannical leaders. John Dewey responded in The Public and its Problems (1927) that citizens had indeed lost their ability to deliberate, pursue truths, and govern themselves, but this was the result of fixable flaws in the press, the university, the legislature, and other modern institutions.

Dewey saw that citizens need not only more and better information, but also relationships characterized by mutual trust and accountability. Information is easily dismissed, manipulated, and misused, but when people have good reasons to trust their metropolitan daily newspaper, it can tell them truths that they may not want to hear. When they trust religious congregations and unions, those organizations can call them to hard truths. And when they have genuine relationships with public institutions, public leaders can risk speaking the truth. Dewey’s theoretical writing was often frustratingly vague, but he played a role in building settlement houses, news magazines, social studies classes in high schools, the NAACP, and a host of other organizations that strengthened deliberative democracy for the 20th century. Our question is how to revive that in the 21st.