Honest Speaking in the Post-Truth Politics Age

Sophie Gaston, Demos

We live in complicated, global times, and times of complicated, global policy-making. The interconnectedness of our societies and economies has driven tremendous growth and prosperity – but it has also alienated people’s sense of closeness to the political representatives and institutions that they previously held to account for making or breaking their fortunes.

Citizens’ lack of agency has grown from a simmering tide of discontent, to a surge of anger and disenfranchisement with the political establishment, ripe for the taking by populist movements on both the hard Left and the Right. Consistent to the success of populist candidates and groups is a simple message – a message that necessarily avoids the inherent complexities of public policy-making and offers hope, or change, or simply revenge.

For those politicians that wish to govern, to drive social reform or economic growth, or even just to uphold the institutional structures and traditions of traditional parliamentary systems, this poses a profound challenge. Populists can run fast and free with the truth, but those concerned with the slog of governance, of consensus-building, of evidence and impact, can’t be so cavalier.

Over the past 100 years, contemporary political language has undergone a profound evolutionary process away from a highly cerebral, exclusive and imperious speaking style – reflecting the democratisation of the public sphere. It has cultivated a sense of a much closer, personal bond between political representatives and citizens.

In the last decade, however, the authenticity of this social contract has been consistently challenged, as globalisation has heightened the complexity of policy-making – and political speech. It has never been more difficult to speak in an inclusive and authentic way to citizens – at a level that balances a clear message with the scope of detail required to make informed decisions. Politicians are constantly under fire for speaking in ‘waffle’, and yet those who focus on specific detail are similarly derided for being too dull. The press demands charisma, but scolds flashy personalities. It’s a tremendously difficult line to tread.

After an extraordinary series of events in Westminster, and a growing sense of lawlessness to the rampant growth of populism in both Europe and the United States, it seems 2016 has ushered in yet another new era of political rhetoric – this time, with a darker heart, and entirely inimical to good governance.

In this new frontier, policy plans – let alone the nuance underpinning them – are superseded by abstract promises masquerading as concrete deliverables. Pledges devised not to respond to an evidence base or policy need, but to a clamour for a very specific, definitive kind of control. A kind of control that is difficult to offer, in practice, without making significant compromises in the policy areas citizens used to hinge their votes on – such as economic growth, or social mobility.

Populism has been on the march for decades across Europe, has simmered in the rise of the Republican Tea Party movement, and in the continued growth of electoral support for UKIP here in Britain. In recent years, it has begun to wield a pernicious level of influence over mainstream political discourse and policy-making. Co-opted and legitimised by major political parties, populist messages and communications tactics have swept into the corridors of power.

But the European Referendum marked a clear escalation. The Remain campaign’s arch-governmental, hyper-institutional, Number 10 rhetoric – which had triumphed for the Conservatives only a year before – proved utterly impotent against the compellingly simple, if grossly misleading, slogans plastered across the Brexit battle bus. At the same time, the Labour Party – and the functional legitimacy of Her Majesty’s Opposition – has been entirely circumvented by a populist ‘social movement’ with no aspirations for the practical realities, and necessities, of electoral power.

Behind both the Brexit campaign and the Momentum movement stand many who will identify themselves as optimists. But so too are they platforms for many citizens’ deep-seated fears and even desperation.

On 24 June, there seemed a genuine sense that we had entered a new dawn in which facts, merit and expertise had utterly lost their currency in British politics. That the core tenants of both deliberative and representative democracy had been set aside, in favour of a ‘popular’ democracy, with campaigns and movements – not parties of government – at the helm.

Across the pond, despite some profound self-inflicted setbacks for the Trump campaign, Hilary Clinton still finds herself struggling to project a clear voice against an agenda set by an aggressively populist candidate with such scant regard for the practicalities of governance.

Voters have always based their perception of candidates’ economic competence on the resonance of their message – it’s just now that the messages that are cutting through are not grounded in any serious policy-making. As Clinton told the Washington Post, “It’s fair to say that my economic plans are detailed and varied because I think we are facing complex problems that require serious solutions”.

The age of post-truth politics festishises simple, not effective, plans – and rewards those bold enough to promise them. But campaigning in this kind of poetry makes it difficult to govern in prose. Not least of all because citizens’ own demands can be contradictory and complex. Serious politicians, and parties, must resist the urge to match populist rhetoric, or risk finding their hands empty when they seize the reins of power.

This text was first published on the blog of Demos, Britain’s leading cross-party thinktank, as a contribution to the research project „Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself“, which is run jointly, amongst others, with the German thinktank d|part. The project seeks to analyse the growing culture of uncertainty and the politics of fear within Europe and aims to develop democratic responses.

Sophie Gaston is Head of External Affairs at Demos and coordinates the research project.