Writing in the Wall Street Journal on December 22, 2016, Hoover Institution senior fellow John H. Cochrane sounded like he was beginning to wake up to the reality of how democracy really works in the real world. The Hoover Institution is an influential, hard core conservative think tank at Stanford University. Cochrane, an economist, was refreshingly candid about his learning moments:
“I have learned some deep lessons from this election and especially its aftermath. Like most policy-wonk types I supposed that people care about policies, and about results, and vote accordingly. And are amenable to sensible discussion about policy, and sensible negotiation. . . . What has become very clear to me since the election is a fact probably blindingly obvious to real students of politics—that’s not at all how it works. Most people vote by cultural affinity, brand, values, and a sense of personal identity. To the extent policy matters at all, it’s part of the buzzwords, propaganda and tag lines thrown back and forth. These things are related to where you live and who you interact with on a regular basis, which is why geographic polarization is such a problem—and why measures like the electoral college, which push our democracy to have more even representation of tribal and partisan alignments and identities are so important.”
That’s an indication that what social and cognitive science, including political science, have been saying about politics and how it works is beginning to sink in with at least some members the punditocracy. Those folks are serious and principled about reality-based democracy and rationality.
Of course, pundits who are in it to win at all costs have been aware of the science for decades. They successfully used the knowledge to deceive and manipulate to get what they want. In 2016, that crass class of players finally got what they have been angling for. They have created the new world of post truth politics that’s now threatening American democracy and other Western liberal democracies. For that crowd, truth is irrelevant. Winning is everything. Deceit and lies are key ingredients.
What’s new is that some principled pundits and members of the mainstream media are beginning to wake up to the threat. A period of trial and error to figure out how to deal with the lies and deceit has started. Depending on which side of the truth you’re on, that’s either good or bad.
All of that raises some questions. Are we really in a new era of post truth politics, or has it always been post truth? Does the situation seem different only because of the rise of fake news sites and sources? Or, is it meaningfully different because social media and online propaganda sources have risen in influence? Or, is post truth politics nothing to be concerned with since lies and deceit in politics are constitutionally protected free speech?