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Post-Truth Politics

The latest buzz-phrase relating to international politics seems to be “post-truth”. What is meant by the statement that we now have “post-truth politics” is that political statements are now unrelated to facts and voters don’t seem to expect them to be. There is also the implication that in the past politics was based on truth (or the current regime couldn’t be post-truth).

So how true is this claim? Well I try hard to not make this blog post-truth although I do recognise that I do have a bias in that I am anti-establishment and untrusting of authority. But at least I don’t deliberately present information which I know isn’t true or is based on unreliable evidence like almost every politician seems to do.

So I think my opinion here is that (with due consideration to my anti-establishment bias) politicians haven’t been totally truthful in the past but have escalated the art to a much higher level now. In other words the phrase “post-truth politics” is justified.

This explains several phenomena I have been puzzled about…

First, why are political regimes which work against the majority so popular around the world? Examples include a Tory government in the UK, a conservative government (ironically lead by the “Liberal” Party) in Australia, until recently a conservative government in Canada, a moderately conservative government here in New Zealand, and in the US a largely conservative Senate and House of Representatives even though the president is theoretically a liberal.

Of course the answer is people don’t vote for the party which is best for them, they vote for the party which tells the best lies. And conservative parties have always been brilliant at this, although I would readily concede that all political parties do it.

The second phenomenon is why many people (even me at one point) find some politicians quite attractive (in the sense that they would vote for them) or at least acceptable when an objective analysis might find the politician isn’t really working for the person’s best interest at all.

In my case I was moderately positive about John Key (New Zealand’s prime minister) and his National Party. It is only more recently that I realised that he was simply incredibly skilled at presenting his version of events, and that his party’s propaganda and spin machine was exceptional. To be fair, I do have to say that National has toned down its ideology considerably and is far more moderate and centrist now than in many times in the past, so that does make them more acceptable as well.

Notice that I didn’t simply call JK a liar above. Actually, originally I did but I went back and edited it because that would be a bit unfair. Part of the skill of the modern politician is telling the voter things which aren’t true without actually lying. It really is a remarkable ability!

Now I should list a few examples in recent weeks where the New Zealand government has clearly mislead the public. Note that I could have chosen easier targets in the UK or USA instead, but by showing that even a fairly reasonable, moderate government like ours is routinely involved with post-truth politics makes it even more concerning.

1. No one seems to want to do much to solve the housing crisis in New Zealand. Note that John Key denies there even is a crisis, but he’s clearly out of touch on that (long with everything else). The government quoted a figure for the number of new houses being built which was shown to be wrong, yet they continue to use it. And just to make things worse, the media are also now using that number even though it was them who showed it was wrong. It’s as if no one cares what’s true, they just agree on an arbitrary number and stick with that.

2. Research has showed that the government’s 90 day employment trial policy hasn’t lead to new jobs like they said it would. But the PM responded by saying something like: “you can have a piece of academic research but it’s quite different from the small cafe owner whose money is on the line, who’s taking the risk.” So a cafe owner’s opinion is more trustworthy than properly carried out research? This is pretty disappointing for a government who previously said they wanted fact based policies

3. Statistics New Zealand stats show an increasing gap between rich and poor. Senior minister Stephen Joyce dismissed this by invoking some details of the survey which were largely irrelevant. To be fair in this case there was some real methodological complexity, but it was clearly just a case of him looking for anything he could use to dismiss and inconvenient fact.

4. Finance minister Bill English used some incorrect figures to justify vetoing the parental leave legislation introduced by an opposition politician. Clearly they weren’t going to allow that legislation to proceed whatever the numbers were, so simply quoted something which fitted their agenda.

5. The Ombudsman found flaws in a government enquiry into information leaks from MFAT. Minister Paula Bennett claimed it was just a procedural issue which journalists had misinterpreted. This was clearly not true. Also, the government will not withdraw the report even though it destroyed the career of a senior diplomat. I guess he was just another victim of the lies and incompetence of the ruling class.

6. The recent Shewin report into foreign trusts has shown significant problems with our tax laws even though the prime minister had been defending them up until then. Clearly his initial assurances that everything was OK (standard practice for this government) were based on assumptions with no background in fact.

I could list pages of this sort of thing, but the general trend must be obvious by now. Politicians are in denial about the major problems we face. They either aren’t even aware of what affects normal people, or they know but don’t care. Because they have a particular narrative they must follow (members of successful political parties must follow strict rules) there is no easy way that problems can be identified and fixed.

But now I’m not totally sure that we really live in a post-truth world. I’m thinking that maybe modern communications and information retrieval systems (most notably the internet) have made fact checking easier. Maybe politicians always lied to about the same extent but it’s just more obvious now. Sounds like an interesting project for a political scientist to investigate.

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