Brown University

Facts Matter: Fighting Populism in a Post-Truth World. by Matthew Jarrell @ Brown University

The goal of any scientific inquiry is ostensibly to find or at least approximate some sort of truth. When we examine a phenomenon in the world, we strive to make statements or posit theories about it based on the observations we have made and the relevant facts and evidence we have at our disposal. And when we do finally arrive at a statement or theory, we expect our peers to respond, “How do you know?” We can then make our case, explaining, “I know because I have observed X, I have drawn upon the evidence from Y, and that helps me to understand Z.”

If someone makes a claim, and responds to the question of “How do you know?” by saying “I know because that’s just the way it is!” it should immediately trigger an alarm. “That’s just the way it is” is not a valid argument. There is no observation or evidence implied in such a statement. The phrase is a signal that the claim being made does not have any basis, and these claims should thus be discarded.

Politicians, unfortunately, can and do make livings on them. In fact, the deployment of reductionist logic and sweeping moral claims that do not budge based on the available evidence is a centerpiece of Jan-Werner Müller’s definition of political populism. Expanding on the idea of populism as a critique of elites, Müller specifies a moralistic dimension wherein a populist will articulate an eternal worldview by which “the people,” a manufactured concept, are always correct, no matter what facts, opinion polls, or election results may suggest. “What needs to be done is obvious,” he writes on the philosophy of Hungarian populist leader Viktor Orbán. “No debate about values or weighing of empirical evidence is required” (Müller 26). The populist determines in advance what the popular will is, and acts on that conception even if that popular will is deemed to be a falsehood or to have shifted. The theory readily explains how populist leaders are able to continue their populism once in power. If it were merely a critique of elites, once the populist reached office and therefore essentially became an elite him or herself, the ideology would probably lose its strength and appeal.

Leaders like Orbán, Donald Trump, and Nigel Farage make non-evidentiary claims all the time. They are a backbone of those leaders’ political strategies. Yet, even as media sources release piece after piece debunking them, these figures continue to win or closely contest elections. Elements of the citizenries of these nations seem impervious to such demonstrations. Once the populist message becomes internalized, it is evidently very difficult to create a compelling case for why it is wrong.

If this anti-truth strategy were the exclusive property of populist demagogues, perhaps the societal issue would be less acute. Those who have rightfully decided to fight a war against populist ideas are often equally guilty of disseminating their own eternal worldviews, no less unshakeable and no more grounded in fact than their counterparts. Daniel Farber and Suzanne Sherry in their volume Beyond All Reason, Paul Boghossian in Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism, and Mary Lefkowitz in History Lesson, among other scholars, have argued persuasively against the academy’s descent into what has variously been termed social constructionism, postmodernism, and relativism. Adherents of this school of thought, write Farber and Sherry, argue that “reality is socially constructed by the powerful in order to perpetuate their own hegemony.” The creed forcefully advocates for social and cultural equity between those of all walks of life, which is a useful weapon in the arsenal of anyone trying to combat the divisive rhetoric of a leader like Trump. That said, a theoretical framework that is grounded in the absence of an objective reality, and thus standing contrary to everything for which academics and scientists work, traffics in the same type of blind nonsense as the leaders themselves. While there is merit to the idea that those at the top have a larger degree of control over narratives than do those on lower rungs of the societal ladder, the idea that remedying this situation requires an abandonment of the concept of truth is ludicrous at best and downright dangerous at worst. Arguing that reality is socially constructed by the powerful essentially mirrors in its logic the populist claim that the elites control “the people.” In their well-intentioned attempts to delegitimize racism and other forms of discrimination, postmodernists have employed the same faulty and foolish techniques as those they fight.

Countering the post-truth narratives of populism with similar post-truth narratives on the opposite side of the political spectrum is no way to deal with the threats populism presents to democracy. So what, then, would an effective response look like? Müller makes two important arguments on this point. First, he says, liberal democrats tend to speak about pluralism and multiculturalism in a way that stipulates they are positive and desirable (Müller 80). They assume that merely stating “multiculturalism is good” should obviously be enough to convince everyone that it is good. This is another “that’s just the way it is” argumentative fallacy. To have any real hope of convincing someone that multiculturalism is good, liberal democrats should outline a convincing case for it using facts and evidence. In the same manner, those aligned against populists also draw a line around them, Müller says (83), eliminating the possibility of any rapprochement. Populists want to exclude, so therefore we should exclude them. This only causes further retrenchment on the part of the populists, and during times like the present day, during which they command firm blocs at the voting booth, it will only empower them.

It is far from guaranteed that supporters of populist candidates will see the error of their ways upon hearing a reasoned argument that points out the inaccuracies their candidates deploy. If this were the case, the various fact-checking websites would have had a far greater impact on the results of the 2016 American presidential race. But those who stand against the negative force of populism risk burying the democracies they hold dear, institutions that rely on well-informed and well-argued viewpoints from many perspectives, if they choose to abandon the scientific pursuit of truth. Instead of adopting Trump’s anti-truth, they should actively resist it. Good ideas have triumphed over heinously bad ones before. They can do so again if we keep our sights set on explaining the world with evidence and actively seeking even an approximation of objective reality.

1 Comment

  1. Aidan Calvelli

    October 3, 2017 at 11:17 pm

    This piece raises an interesting, and perhaps unanswerable, question about why efforts to disprove populist leaders’ non-evidentiary claims seem to be rejected by their supporters. What is unclear – either from this article, Muller’s book, or empirical evidence I’m aware of – is whether populist supporters believe their leaders and think the media is lying, or rather are unconcerned with the truth of the matter and are more looking for validation/legitimation of their viewpoint.

    Based on your telling of the appeal to many of postmodernism, the latter is at least worth considering, though disconcerting. Muller acknowledges that proper argument and evidence are [not] guaranteed to defeat populists in parliaments, in public debate, and ultimately at the polls.” But even his smaller claim that “but this doesn’t mean that proper argument and evidence can’t make a difference” might be too strong. Without a stronger empirical understanding of what drives people to make political decisions in this post-truth, social media-heavy, polarized political atmosphere, it’s hard to conclude that even the most well constructed defense of liberal democracy will do much to change populist supporters’ minds.

    You are right to criticize on a theoretical level the postmodernists and relativists who employ the same a-evidentiary tactics as the populists. But if we assume both that liberal democracy is a good thing and that people are unlikely to change their mind based on evidentiary persuasion, we are forced to consider that the postmodernists may be doing a greater service to democracy than are those championing reasoned, scientific argument. I do not believe this to be the case, nor hope that it is so, but defenders of liberal democracy need to think hard about whether illiberal means may be justified in combatting the illiberal ends populism exacerbates.

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