Time to Listen: How the Post-Truth Ideology Can Close Liberal Ears

In 2017, “truth” seems to stand on shaky ground. President Trump contests the messages put forward by media outlets, rejects reports from government agencies, and his White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway, has suggested that facts suddenly have alternatives. Given this context, it is not particularly surprising that our current world has earned the label “post-truth.” Indeed, “post-truth” was the 2016 Merriam-Webster word of the year. But the popularity of this word does not extend across all political ideologies; its use comes almost completely from the political left and serves to render illegitimate the ideas of Trump supporters and quell dialogue before it can start. This elitist post-truth scorn has kept liberals standing on their pedestals pointing fingers – what they need to do is step back and undertake critical examination to the failings of the Democratic Party with an ear to the complaints of Trump supporters.

By definition, post-truth describes circumstances where people’s ideas are shaped not by objective facts, but by appeals to emotion and personal belief. The liberal use of the term in the media has served to emphasize how factual inaccuracies (and half-accuracies) put forward by the Trump administration lead to misinformed perspectives. In some cases, this can counteract dangerous outcomes. The preposterous notion that climate change is a hoax perpetuated by “the Chinese,” for example, might create a population hostile to climate change policy, if taken seriously. And deceptive claims that “fifty-eight percent of black youth cannot get a job” reinforce misrepresentative negative racial stereotypes among white supremacist constituents through the use of numbers that include full-time high school and college students among the jobless. Indeed, belief in such untruths has been pervasive, and should not stand uncorrected.

The case of Edgar Welch exemplifies the danger associated with this misinformation. Having read conspiracy theories linking Hillary Clinton with a child sex ring, Welch, a 28-year-old from North Carolina, drove to a Washington DC pizza parlor in a car loaded with guns, believing that he was going to liberate children held captive in the pizzeria’s basement. But while Welch’s actions were dangerous and his thinking misinformed, using his case to validate the post-truth label perpetuates a de facto definition of the term that paints the political right as misinformed. The anti-Trump connotation of “post-truth” is evident in the differing uses of the term by liberal and conservative media. The New York Times gives pages of articles upon searching “post-truth,” while on the Fox News site, searching the term yields only a handful of results, including an article which places “post-truth” on a tongue-in-cheek list of incorrectly used words to be “banned.” Liberals are free to think we have a radically conservative President whose message took America by storm due to his supporters being fed misinformation. However, this self-assuring thinking comes from unsound logic. It rests on a disjunction where either progressives or conservatives are right, not both or neither. Thus, either side can affirm themselves by rejecting the other. This disjunction sets up a false dichotomy – even when liberals can point to flaws in certain conservative arguments, it does not prove their own beliefs and may blind them to progressive shortcomings.

The conception of Trump supporters as poorly informed fundamentally de-legitimizes their perspectives in the eyes of liberals. Whether or not they have all of the facts straight, a large portion of Americans have grievances which they feel the Democratic Party will not properly address. In the 2016 election, 298 counties that Obama carried in both 2008 and in 2012 flipped to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. Voters in these counties may have felt unrepresented by the message of the Democratic Party, and something about the Trump message appealed deeply. An insightful summary from a pre-election article in The Atlantic summed up this sentiment by stating: “the press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Yet even now that Trump is the President of the United States, depictions of our reality as driven by post-truth conditions allow liberals to deny the seriousness of the Trump message by representing the beliefs of Trump supporters as founded on untrue beliefs. But for many Trump supporters, it was never the facts Trump gave that drew them to his mission, rather, it was the broader ideas and messages he conveyed – protection, employment, and change. Though liberals likely disagree with Trumpian strategies for dealing with these issues, they need to find new ways to address the deeper concerns Trump has unearthed, and address them in ways that stay true to Democratic ideals of justice and equality.

But for many Trump supporters, it was never the facts Trump gave that drew them to his mission, rather, it was the broader ideas and messages he conveyed – protection, employment, and change.

Jim Kessler, co-founder of the centrist think tank Third Way in Washington DC, puts forward three directives for the Democratic Party: creating more jobs, not just fair jobs; social progress, with less social scorn; and promoting better government, not just bigger government. These directives come from listening to disillusioned voters, not painting them as poorly informed and ignoring them. Some of Trump’s most resonant promises have been to return manufacturing jobs to the United States. While this notion may be largely unrealistic because of the automation that manufacturing has undergone in recent decades, the fact that voters are responding to this promise signifies that job creation is of central importance to them. Democrats should focus less on pointing out the falsities in the idea of a manufacturing rebound and should focus instead on countering with productive alternatives.

The Democratic Party can effectively respond to economic worries in a number of ways. First and foremost, economists widely agree that improving education systems can give people the people the skills necessary to contribute to an automated economy. More and more jobs require a college degree; the unemployment rate for college graduates of ages 25 to 34 is just 2 percent, versus 8 percent for those who have only a high school diploma. Thus, proposals such as Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan for free college should be at the forefront of the Democratic agenda so as to make higher education more financially accessible.

Beyond the realm of education, Democrats can expand the current job market through investment in advanced manufacturing. Though economists largely agree that most manufacturing jobs are not going to come back, more technologically complex production, such as that which is required for green energy, remains viable. Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, points to the market for battery storage as a potential place for focus. With such an emphasis, Democrats could turn sustainability policies into a medium for economic growth and job creation, rather than an imperative to cut back.

Kessler’s second directive to Democrats, social progress with less social scorn, speaks to the same superiority complex that allows liberals to use the post-truth label to deny the concerns of working-class voters. There is an exclusivity to the liberal perspective. While the intent may be to promote tolerance, many people simply have not been exposed to the language to be fully sensitive to all gender, racial, and sexual identities by many progressive standards. From the outside looking in, the political correctness can be stifling. Conservative Christian blogger Steve Baldwin explained that there is always fear of “accidentally offending someone and dealing with hyped up repercussions.” If the Democratic Party is to re-appeal to a wider base, people wanting to be sensitive, but lacking the terminology, have to be able to feel like they can join without walking on eggshells. Princeton African American Studies professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor made a similar point in relation to the Women’s March on Washington, arguing that “to organize… a movement necessarily means… involv[ing] the previously uninitiated.” To do so, “we have to welcome those people and stop the arrogant and moralistic chastising.” In short, the Democratic Party needs to move from calling people out, to calling people in.

To achieve heightened inclusivity, the Democratic Party must broaden the terms under which one might identify as a Democrat. With support for social issues such as LGBTQIA rights and the right to an abortion having become virtual requisites for the Democratic identity, it is not at all clear that there is a place within the Democratic Party for people who oppose those stances but on balance agree with the Democratic agenda. Though some 21 million Democrats believe in a right to life from conception, there has been a virtual erasure of pro-life Democrats in Congress. With this trend, liberals are making the implicit statement that the best way to advance the progressive agenda is to push people out of the boat who still have one foot on land. But does including a diversity of opinion damage the progressive agenda? Not if it is the starting point for meaningful dialogue. This inclusion does not mean compromising on progressive policies, it means helping a greater number of people along the road of social progress.

Kessler’s final objective is for Democrats to promote better government, not just bigger government. While this directive may seem like a no-brainer, Democrats must make it clear that government money is being well-used in order to counter right-wing complaints about “a stagnant, do-nothing government.” This means support for local governance, and openness to furthering state control on issues such as education and health care – areas in which personalization may breed improvement and where improvements to bureaucracy are more visible. Just because Trump’s new budget cuts funding for programs indiscriminately does not mean that Democrats can counter that all government programs are good. They should take the hint that people are rightly seeing inefficiencies in government programs and make efforts to streamline programs where it is possible.

The irony is not lost that in this era of “post-truth,” liberals can hardly believe what’s going on. Many have failed to listen and respond to the complaints of those who cast their ballot for Donald Trump, continually denying the legitimacy of claims from the right by pointing out factual flaws in their arguments. Instead, liberals must turn an attentive ear and glean understanding about the American sentiment from Trump supporters. Of course, if those ideas are driven by hatred and bigoted self-interest, the Democratic Party has no place validating their claims. But for everyone else, the Democratic Party must call them in, not call them out. Even if the new crop of members isn’t as far along the road of social progress, Democrats must be responsive to demonstrate that their opinions matter.