This piece is republished with permission from Perils of Populism, the 57th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, presenting an in-depth analysis of the rise of populism across the world.
It is January 20, 2017, mere hours after Donald Trump has been sworn in as US president. The new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, has been given a tough assignment for his first-ever press conference in the job: he has to stand before seasoned journalists from the domestic and international press, and lie.
The lie he has to tell isn’t like the usual lies that are told in politics, which use subtle hues of meaning to obfuscate the untruth; there is no built-in buffer that allows for any backpedalling should it be exposed. No, the lie Spicer has to tell is one that is immediately verifiable using various kinds of evidence (pictures, videos, statistics on public transport usage statistics).
Spicer has to tell the press, the TV audience, the world, that Trump’s was the largest presidential inauguration in history.
The press conference goes terribly. Spicer aggressively throws every skerrick of evidence that Trump’s team has come up with in the hours since the inauguration. More than half of the press conference is devoted to discussing the numbers at the inauguration, and how this claim is justified.
And once his angry, meandering task is complete, he quits the room without taking questions. The claim is so egregious that Trump advisor and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway defends her colleague by suggesting that Spicer, far from claiming things that are factually incorrect, was actually providing “alternative facts”.
Smelling blood, the media attack the phrase “alternative facts” with remarkable vigour. The self-righteous chorus continues for weeks, and swings from disbelief to mockery, from earnest frown to sardonic grin, all while lamenting the state of political discourse in this post-fact age.
But here’s what they missed. In politics, facts are contestable. This has always been the case: the status of facts and their use in politics hasn’t changed as a result of Trump’s election.
In politics, alternative facts exist. And they always have.
Scientific versus political propositions
Facts do exist. I am not enough of a postmodernist, nor enough of a nihilist, to claim the opposite.
There are certainly things that are true – that the world is not flat, for instance – whose truth is supported by various kinds of evidence. These might be called “scientific propositions”, because their truth is verified through certain, standardised methods of collecting and interpreting data, and through the reproduction of experimental tests.
“Political propositions”, which are directly relevant to the governance of people, are designed to appeal to emotions and beliefs, and so cannot be held to the same scrutiny as scientific propositions.
Beliefs operate in a similar way to facts, insofar as a belief generally requires some evidence at an individual level. And a belief, like a fact, must still be justified by this evidence. However, where feelings and intuition count as evidence for a belief, these are purposefully scoured from scientific discourse.
Contrary to the way hypotheses are tested and reproduced, beliefs are formed with very little recourse.
While the vehemently “rational” may decry beliefs for this reason, they undeniably exist and affect the way people make decisions. Belief can override evidence obtained by other means precisely because it is more personal and, in a sense, more humanistic than the impartial scientific method.
Indeed, the simple statement of facts doesn’t seem to be a particularly good tool for persuading someone, as anyone who has had an argument with a climate-change sceptic will have found. Perhaps this follows from scientific evidence being divorced from daily experience; most people don’t have experience of evolution by natural selection, for instance, as it generally occurs on a timescale that is inaccessible to humans.
And so, if someone doesn’t subscribe to scientific consensus, wouldn’t it be strange for them to base a belief on it?
But belief is even more complicated than this. For instance, the existence of germs is outside the direct experience of most people, yet germ theory predicts the spread of disease in a way that makes sense given people’s observations. Without having seen a germ, most people believe that they exist, and attribute diseases to their presence – instead of, say, an imbalance in the “humours” (bodily fluids that, until the 19th century, were thought to regulate disease).
It is interesting to note that this earlier belief in humours was widely held by lay people and physicians alike, precisely because it explained illness in a way that was intuitive and metaphorically cogent, and it could produce physical evidence in the form of bile, blood and phlegm.
Despite the similarities they may share, scientific propositions are fundamentally different from political propositions. Beliefs are formed on the basis of some information, but it’s limited compared with the information that is used to inform something taken as fact.
To be clear, I am not dismissing belief by claiming it is based on limited information. Rather, I’m pointing out that this a property of any belief held by any individual – and the belief may relate to anything.
I, for instance, believe all sorts of things that make me suspicious of neoliberal economics, but I suspect that’s because my entire adult life has been marked by recession, negative wage growth, and increasing economic precarity and inequality.
My beliefs are informed by not having lived through the period of mining-driven growth that my parents lived through; they are evidenced by a limited perspective. And while I might acknowledge this, I still firmly hold them to be true.
The major problem with using the term “fact” is that it’s saturated.
What is meant by fact in everyday speech is a statement that is demonstrably true, that has some evidence to support it.
The evidence that is required differs between politics and science, and what may be considered a fact differs in the same way. While the two sorts of facts are utterly different, they are both referred to as facts by those stating them.
This situation might be tenable if either politics or science occurred in some rarefied isolation that meant the term “fact” was unambiguous; that is, if it could only refer to a scientific fact, and couldn’t be used sensibly in political speech, or vice versa. But this isn’t the case: the scientific and political spheres interact, and the two meanings of “fact” follow suit.
Since alternatives exist for any given political belief, and since these are often called “fact”, alternative facts do exist in the politics. We are confronted with them every day.
Spicer claims it as fact that Trump’s inauguration was the most attended in history. Is this the case scientifically? According to the evidence, probably not. And yet for all the ridicule this statement received, there are people who believe Spicer’s proposition to be true.
Perhaps it is believed because the people who were at the rally had never been in a larger crowd, or maybe because those watching at home had never watched, or didn’t remember another inauguration. The point is that the belief that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was the biggest in history may be a rational one, informed by a certain amount of evidence.
If someone holds this belief based on information they gathered with their own senses, then of course it seems factually correct.
And so Spicer does, in fact, offer alternative facts.
Not just a historical anomaly
We do not live in a post-fact world. Scientific and political statements both behave in precisely the same way they did before Trump announced his presidential campaign.
Indeed, facts have rarely mattered in politics as much as appeals to belief have. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified politically by promoting a belief that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, despite an absence of sufficient evidence to support this claim.
People are detained on Manus Island and Nauru based on the belief that doing so will stop people smugglers, and prevent deaths at sea. This continues, supported by both major parties, despite statistical evidence suggesting that this is not the case. Belief is a powerful thing.
In politics, facts have never been what they are in science.
What has shifted, however, is that the claims of the political class are no longer automatically taken to be true. The data bear this out. The Australian Election Study found that in 2016, a mere 26% of respondents agreed that they trusted politicians, the lowest score for this question since the survey began in 1969. The highest level of trust was 48% in 1996, the year John Howard was elected.
A similar sentiment is found in 2016, when 58% of respondents believed that the government was run for a “few big interests” instead of “all the people”, up from 38 per cent in 2007. Satisfaction in democracy is similarly low at 60%, from a high of 86% in 2007.
Where mainstream politicians generally attempted to paint themselves either as paternalistic protectors or honest servants of the people, populist politicians present themselves as agitators, whose primary mission is to expose the lies of mainstream politicians – apparently without regard for how this is achieved.
For example, Pauline Hanson claims that Australia is now being swamped by Muslims. Her statements suggest this claim is the truth, and that it is being concealed from regular Australians by the politically correct, globalist politicians of the major parties.
Hanson flouts the norms of political discourse, and uses this to present herself as one of the people – someone who is supposedly apart from the political class. Ironically, since she appeals to the voting public, Hanson’s facts are presented with precisely the same disregard for truth as her mainstream counterparts.
All politicians are aware of the distinctions being made here. Their awareness is evident in the way that they use appeals to belief, and especially in the way that they use lies.
A lie in a political discourse is nothing to flap about on its own, although this is precisely what happens in the media each time a false statement is made by a politician, or on their behalf.
Lies are not the domain only of populist politicians. Far from it. But populists are easier targets because they aren’t so fickle with the plausibility of their assertions. They are more willing to commit to things that are demonstrably false, even things that might seem trivial to disprove.
Spicer claims the inauguration crowd was historic (it wasn’t), and Hanson claims that Australia is being swamped by whatever ethnic or religious group is the boogieman of the day (it isn’t). Each of these is easily refuted by drawing on statistical evidence, or is at least more easily refuted than the subtler untruths of other politicians – such as Malcolm Turnbull’s claim that renewables caused the 2016 blackouts in South Australia.
Yet it’s the populists who are called out, and are portrayed as being fundamentally and irreconcilably different from politicians of mainstream parties. But the lies told by populists are not different in kind to those told by their colleagues; they are different only in degree.
Populists are cast differently
An error that is often committed by political pundits, particularly those associated with the mainstream media, is to treat populists as irrational.
It’s assumed that the reasonable person selects their actions according to the potential benefits, while factoring in the cost that is incurred by performing them. The reasonable person is rational precisely because they don’t do anything where the cost will outweigh the benefits.
In general, politicians are assumed to be reasonable people, at least in this abstract sense.
The alternative – that politicians are utterly irrational and do not consider the consequences of their actions – may be professed by the more cynical among us, but I doubt it’s truly believed: the thought of the men and women governing our country being irrational is perhaps too frightening for most people.
Populists are called politicians of a different sort to the mainstream politicians who are reasonable people. Mainstream politicians certainly tell lies, but they do so strategically – in ways that are difficult to expose – so that the expected cost of uttering them does not outweigh the expected gain.
On the other hand, populists are cast as irrational because they tell lies that are very likely to be uncovered. Knowing full well that an adversarial press will attempt to verify their statements, and will give them flak if they can’t, populists continue to present alternative facts.
For any reasonable person, it would appear that the cost of lying in such a blatant fashion far outweighs any perceivable benefit. These populists must be stupid, or ignorant, or insane.
This is mistaken because it assumes, most optimistically, that the populist is deficient and can’t calculate the loss they incur from making this utterance; or, most pessimistically, that the populist isn’t even aware of the potential for loss to begin with.
In fact, populists are just another breed of politician, and as such weigh their utterances very carefully.
The statements Spicer made about the inauguration crowd are demonstrably false, but they weren’t meant to gain traction with the mainstream of voters. They were carefully calculated to gain enough support from a certain class of elector.
Indeed, it would appear that such claims are designed to draw flak from mainstream political discourse, because this can in fact be an asset.
The careful, strategic, and highly rational deployment of lies in the political context is so effective and damaging because politics has been pronounced as a discourse of truth; a lie is rendered a highly newsworthy event, one that allows voices that would otherwise be ignored to be broadcast nationally.
Why are lies told?
Despite earnest proclamations to the contrary, simply crying “lie” every time a lie is told achieves nothing.
What would be more interesting, and arguably more valuable to public discussion, is a clear investigation of why certain lies are told in certain circumstances. That is, the lies are less interesting for their content than for the reasons they are told. This view would allow us to focus on the strategic function of presenting an alternative fact.
It is instructive that, in each of the cases above, the speaker is sensitive to demonstrating their claim as fact.
Spicer pointed to the fact that the grass in the National Mall was covered by white temporary flooring, so that the contrast between the dark silhouettes of people and the ground was greater than in previous photos of inauguration crowds (therefore it only seemed as if there was more empty space in the crowd).
When questioned on the nation being “swamped by Asian migration”, Hanson points to the Sydney suburb of Hurstville as an example of noticeable Asian migration, where there was a 10% increase in the population of people who identified as Chinese between the 2006 and 2016 censuses. She suggests that we just have to look at Hurstville to see how prevalent Chinese migration is, because Chinese migration is prevalent there.
But the broader numbers do not reflect Hurstville’s migration patterns: in the same period, there was a 4.5% increase of people who identify as Chinese in New South Wales, and a 3.4% increase nationally.
While these examples are lies, they still present themselves as facts, grounded in evidence, in an attempt to conform to the (somewhat lax) standard of factuality in politics – not unlike mainstream political statements.
Spicer and Hanson wish for their assertions to be understood as facts, and to be a part of the mainstream political discourse. We shouldn’t ask: “Why did they not tell the truth?”. Rather, we should ask: “why that lie?”; “why at that time?”; and the same question that’s asked of every mainstream politician: “what’s in it for them?”.
You can read other essays from Griffith Review’s latest edition here.