Prof Matt Flinders considers the shortlist for Word of the Year 2016
The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries have been at it again with their choice of Word of the Year 2016 – ‘post-truth’. Now call me a pedant but I’d have thought ‘post-truth’ is two words, or at the very least a phrase, (‘Pedant!’ I hear you all shout) but I’m assured that the insertion of a hyphen creates a compound word that is not to be sniffed at. And yet sniffing, I can assure you, is not what I am interested in unless its sniffing out how many of the words that made it to the WOTY 2016 shortlist actually combine to create a rather worrying account of a changing political world.
How then do words such as ‘post-truth’, ‘alt-right’, and ‘Brexiteer’ combine to explain the current situation of global political chaos?
The rise of ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ politics was a core element of the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the referendum decision in the UK to leave the European Union. To some extent it would be too simple to say that the problem was that politicians lied – politicians have and to some extent always will lie for the simple reason that politics is a worldly art – something more subtle and possibly far more dangerous has happened within democratic dialogue. Experts were rejected, fairy tales and fig leaves were promulgated, the public was undoubtedly duped but the deeper shift was undoubtedly the dominance of emotions above rationality.
“Drain the swamp”, “Take back power”, “Blame foreigners”… are all nonsense terms that actually possess the substantive content of Word of the Year 2014 – ‘vape’. That’s it! In many ways democratic politics has been vaporized into a misty intangible nothingness that electing Donald and exiting the EU will for the US and UK (respectively) sort out.
The problem is that it won’t sort it out.
Loud and increasingly aggressive appeals to emotional and positive thinking may form the basis of ‘post-truth’ politics and be successful in the short-term but my sense is that in the long-term we are all going to be losers. Politics is boring. It grates and it grinds, it is complex and cumbersome, it really is “the slow boring of hard woods” to paraphrase Max Weber. The problem is that the Brexiteers and the ‘alt-right’ have all engaged in an orgy of strangely anti-democratic, anti-political sentiment raising. The paradox of the ‘post-truth’, ‘alt-right’, ‘Brexiteer’ triumvirate is that we now have a new class of elected ‘anti-politicians’ who have created and then surfed upon a wave of popular frustration with traditional democratic politics. The answer to every question below is the same:
“If we could only get rid of those bums in Washington!”
“If we could just release ourselves from those parasites in Brussels!”
“If we could just find some way of buttressing our borders!”
“If we could just remove those democratic safeguards and do what we know needs to be done!”
And that’s the problem. Did you notice it?
Within both the ‘belch of the Brexiteer’ and ‘the trump of alt-right’ lies a political subtext. That is, a political ideology that is arguably elitist, misogynist, nationalist, xenophobic, anti-this, anti-that, accusation-heavy, policy-lite, aggression-heavy, evidence-lite. I’m not saying that the ‘alt-left’, if there is such a term, are playing any less fast-and-loose with this precious and incredibly fragile thing called ‘democracy’; but I am saying that whether they meant to or not those loquacious lexicographers at the Oxford Dictionaries have provided an explanation of the contemporary political chaos.
‘Brexit’ and the ‘alt-right’ are overlapping terms fuelled by a particular form of ‘post-truth’ politics that in the long-term is likely to deepen the crisis of democracy.
All I can say is that in a climate of ‘post-truth’+‘alt-right’+‘brexiteer’ politics then we’d all better stay wide awake.
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield. He is also Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and wrote this blog while hiding from hoards of Halloween ‘trick or treat’ callers.
This post was originally posted on the OUPblog and is reprinted with permission of the author.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.
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