Why the elites blame post-truth politics for their failures, by Ambassador Yakovenko for RBTH, published 22 December
Establishment leaders in Europe and America need a reality check and to address voters' genuine concerns in a globalized world.
The year 2016 has seen truly epic failures of mainstream politics and media, most significantly at the British EU referendum and the American election. In both cases seasoned analysts could not see beyond their Westminster or Capitol bubbles and foresee the outcomes. Enraged as they were, they chose to blame outside forces, often pointing the finger at Moscow, which supposedly has more influence on Western voters than home politicians.
More generally, they blamed their failures on “post-truth politics”, ie, assuming that new-wave politicians (and their line-up crosses the Cold War divide in the Euro-Atlantic) run fake news stories and take advantage of a total breakdown of trust in elites and their institutions. Indeed, progressively, we have been seeing the last of established politicians, and institutions falling into disarray and irrelevance.
Such a viewpoint treats the voters with disdain, and this attitude tends to be taken by the same people who vow to “save democracy”. Would it not be fair to say the voters are disgruntled and reject the mainstream because they want change and the elites cannot deliver it, not because they are “seduced” or fooled? After all, how one can fool a person so easily?
The journalist Tim Dickinson fittingly called “fake news” lazy language. It’s about throwing actual misinformation in one heap with inconvenient truths. So, today the job of the ancien regime establishment in the West has boiled down to name-calling rather than dealing with real issues. Mainstream media and politicians engage in fakes and emotional excess no less than those they accuse.
I learned a subtle difference between the two sorts of “fake news” from a data scientist at the traditional “digital BBQ” at the embassy. A number of websites rooting for Donald Trump in novel ways actually existed, but they were set up, sometimes very far from America, to capitalize on the volume of Internet traffic. In other words, supply followed the demand, not the other way around – this was the thirst for change, for a gasp of fresh air.
Needless to say, these facts ruin the narrative of “Russian propaganda threatening Western democracy". None of the academic experts and journalists I spoke to believed those accusations. It’s just inventing a bogeyman to deflect attention from real flaws of policies, presented to the electorate as alternative-free. Policies and politics have become average, lowest common denominator: they don’t rock the boat but neither do they solve problems. A real debate of real issues was suppressed through political correctness and the newspeak, meant to deny reality. All genres became boring with no appeal to imagination.
Instead of drawing sensible conclusions, the elites engage in scaremongering. For example, The Economist writes that contrary to the initial post-Cold War expectations, Western politics is moving in Russia’s direction. There is no analysis of why this convergence is supposedly on Russia’s terms.
Of course, conformism, of which Alexis de Tocqueville warned, could ensure stability for a while, but nothing is forever. That is why I welcome Niall Ferguson’s words of repentance in The Sunday Times, where he explains why he had allowed petty considerations to have the upper hand over his intelligence, scholarship and instincts.
The Syrian crisis proves that wars cannot be won in the virtual reality of media space. Truth on the ground still matters. Therefore I believe there is nothing new in what is being described as “post-truth”. As Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “you cannot fool all the people all the time”. And another great American said the only thing we had to fear was “fear itself”.
It is not deception or fear that wins the argument, it is the ability to boldly recognize and address the problems. We in Russia, did that 30 years ago. The Western elites seem to be still living in denial.
Alexander Yakovenko is Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom. He was previously Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.