Tuesday 16 July 2019

If lies win votes, a 'rough beast' has been unleashed

To understand what is happening in Irish politics now, we need to set aside the old labels of Left, Right and Centre

'Donald Trump is the most extreme exponent of post-truth politics' Photo: Getty
'Donald Trump is the most extreme exponent of post-truth politics' Photo: Getty
Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

'Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world' - WB Yeats

To persuade us of the wisdom of their recent budget, spokesmen for both Government and Fianna Fail evoked the words of the poet by way of reassurance: "the centre has held", they said. They were spelling out that for now and into the future things could be much worse if the anarchic parties of the left, among whom they include Sinn Fein, were to be in charge.

The message was that good sense had prevailed and a balance had been struck between the left-wing utopia of a free lunch paid for by other people's taxes on the one hand and the trickle-down economics of the right, whereby all boats will be lifted if we reduce taxes and cut government spending.

If it were true that this is what is happening in our politics then there would be good reason to feel reassured. The one-dimensional politics of both ideologies, left and right, have been shown historically to contain the seeds of their own destruction, first in the fall of communism and the failure of even less extreme left-leaning regimes, and latterly in the catastrophic collateral social damage, environmental degradation and ultimate unsustainability of neo-liberalism.

So, finding that dynamic balance between social justice and incentivising wealth creation and personal advancement would indeed be the holy grail, a solid centre.

But this is not what is emerging in Irish politics. To understand what is really going on, we need to set aside the labels Left, Right and Centre, which have governed political discourse for 150 years or more.

We need to adopt a different framework to alert us to the real and imminent danger of anarchy, namely, the spectrum that ranges from lying…through fudge…to truth; or simply the distinction between evidence and reason on the one hand and populism.

The leading article in The Economist of September 10-16 was entitled, 'The art of the lie: Post-truth politics in the age of social media'. Donald Trump is the most extreme exponent of post-truth politics and close behind there is Nigel Farage who led the Brexit campaign in Britain, a campaign that, within days of the result, was denounced by more than four million people as being won on the basis of a pack of lies. Both these campaigns, Trump's and UKIP's, graphically illustrate how populist politics successfully exploit legitimate anger and genuine grievances with blatant lies, half-truths and simplistic solutions which, ironically, are not in the longer-term interests of the people 'left behind' whom they say they care about.

While we in Ireland watch on in dismay and trepidation at what is happening in the UK and the US, it would be utterly naive to imagine that we are immune to such madness and its dire economic and social consequences.

The Economist notes that it is becoming increasingly difficult to counter this kind of politics everywhere, for two reasons: Firstly, "Popular trust in expert opinion and established institutions (most notably politics) has tumbled across western democracies… policy is complex, yet post-truth politics damns complexity as the sleight of hand experts use to bamboozle everyone".

Secondly, "Post-truth politics has been abetted by the evolution of media", especially social media, where catchphrases like 'we want our country back' or 'make America great again' are difficult to counter with reasoned argument. Post-truth strategy works because it allows people to forego critical thinking in favour of having their feelings reinforced by soundbite truthiness."

The sheer reach of social media is another factor. For example, Mary Lou McDonald is reported as uploading on her Facebook page a heavily edited version of a recent Dail debate between herself and Leo Varadkar that made her performance look better than the actuality. Consequently, a misleading version of a debate that hardly anyone had noticed was seen by her 220,000 followers - more than the circulation of market- leading broadsheets.

In trying to make sense of this epochal shift in the conduct of politics, the left versus right dichotomy is an irrelevant distraction. The much more important distinction is, who is telling the truth and who is lying or otherwise misleading us?

The centre may have held, but what kind of centre is it? Is it a sustainable balance between fairness and incentivising wealth creation or is it a soft, soggy swamp, prone to boom and bust that is founded on simplistic and, thereby, mendacious rhetoric such as "water is a human right", "people need a break after years of austerity", "we'll put more money back in people's pockets", "legitimate entitlement to pay restoration" or "it can be paid for from general taxation".

The biggest risk of anarchy being forced on the world comes, not from the left or the right, per se, but from the "rough beast", to use another image from Yeats, of post-truth politics. And that is what is happening in Ireland. The 2015 General Election campaign was riddled with deceit, most notably with regard to the topic of Irish Water. Spooked by Paul Murphy's victory on a populist platform of "scrap Irish Water… abolish charges… can't pay, won't pay", first Sinn Fein and soon thereafter Fianna Fail abandoned their long-held support for a national water utility and system of charging.

They both strenuously deny ever making a U-turn, though the record says otherwise; for example, Fianna Fail's 2011 election manifesto promised "1,200-1,800 jobs installing water meters".

The government of the day deliberately attempted to deceive, the definition of a lie, when they told us the €100 cash-back was a "conservation grant". Also, the Government's repeated overstatement of the strength of the economy has become a major factor in fuelling the inflated expectations of not just "pay restoration" but "accelerated pay restoration", now being pursued with such aggression by powerful unions, including the gardai, as to threaten the security of the State, never mind the stability of the still fragile economy.

Politicians have always dealt in spin and sometimes peddled lies, but it is different this time. Facts and reason don't matter in post-truth politics. The winning formula, as we saw plainly in the Brexit campaign, is the manipulation of people's feelings of resentment towards established institutions and reinforcement of their prejudices, regardless of any evidence or the complexities involved.

The challenge to what The Economist calls "pro truth" politicians is formidable. Seeing the electoral success of artists of the big lie, the temptation is to cave in and follow suit, as the Tories did in aping UKIP in Britain and our own established parties did in varying degrees in the 2015 election.

Should post-truth politics become the dominant currency here, things will fall apart and greater anarchy than now seems possible will be loosed upon us.

Eddie Molloy is a management consultant.

Sunday Independent

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