Democracy Has Always Been Post-Factual

In my earlier post on Brexit, I pointed to this comment, which has gotten a lot of attention. I agree with what the comment said about swapping elites (its first point) and the impact on the young (its second). But I don’t agree with the third:

Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off the bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel.

I’m not saying that the Brexit side told the truth about the downsides of exiting. Indeed, within hours of victory, Ukip leader Nigel Farage admitted a key claim made in Brexit propaganda, that the UK would save £350 million a week that could be put into social services like the National Health Service (which got cut significantly under Cameron) was a “mistake.”

I’m not even saying that this election, in the UK, was not exception in terms of the bald propaganda unleashed. I haven’t seen that measured, but everything I’ve heard reports that it was awful.

Still, what does it mean that we live in a post-factual democracy? I thought, at first, that the US is just ahead of its cousin, in that we’ve had WMD and birther lies for over a decade. But the UK had the very same WMD lies. Indeed, both countries have proudly lied about national security secrets for decades, centuries in England.

Plus, as I thought back in US history, I couldn’t get to a time when democracy didn’t depend on some key, big lies. Remarkably, they’re still some of the very same lies mobilized in the Brexit vote. You don’t get a United States, you don’t get a British Empire, without spewing a lot of lies about the inferiority of black (brown, beige, continental) men. You don’t get America, as it currently exists, without the myth of American exceptionalism, the unique national myth that has served to root an increasingly diverse former colony. You don’t get Britain without certain beliefs, traced back to Matthew Arnold and earlier, about the enobling force of British culture.

Those myths are precisely what have driven the democracy of both countries for a long time. They were a way of imposing discipline, privilege, and selective cohesion such that less privileged members of those included in the myth would buy in and tolerate the other inequities without undue violence.

They’re really the same myths deployed by some in Brexit: the immigrants, not the austerity policies, are taking your jobs and disrupting your English way of life.

Perhaps we’re moving closer to a fact-based democracy. Access to rebut sanctioned lies is more readily accessible, though the scaffold of spying makes it harder to release, except in bulk. We’re becoming more cosmopolitan, too. At least some voted Remain for that reason — the old nationalism has been dented in the decades of a failed European experiment.

But make no mistake, the myths have always been there. We’re still trying to break free.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

17 replies
  1. Denis says:

    MW:

    They’re really the same myths deployed by some in Brexit: the immigrants, not the austerity policies, are taking your jobs and disrupting your English way of life.

    Immigrants are not the problem???? Whaaat? Do you have any data to
    back up your contention that this is a myth?
    .
    Check out Irish journalist Bryan MacDonald’s Jun24 take. Here are some snips.

    Because the main reason Brexit has been passed is English anger at the consequences of unfettered mass immigration. Despite a negative fertility rate (1.75 in 2004 vs. 2.41 in 1971), the population of the United Kingdom rose from 59.99 million in 2004 to 64.1 million in 2013. That surge of over 4 million in less than a decade is greater than the entire increase in the 33 years from 1971-2004.

    Before the 2004 expansion, which admitted the likes of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Baltic States, internal EU migration was manageable. That was down to the fact that living standards weren’t vastly different across the union. For example, life in Portugal, the then-poorest member, wasn’t that much worse than in wealthier countries like Germany, France and Denmark. However, the gap between wages in Latvia, for instance, and London was astounding. Back in 2004, the average worker in Riga brought home €239 ($265) a month. That was less than 10 percent of London incomes which were £2,058 (around €2,900 at the time). Thus, it’s hard to blame east Europeans for seizing the opportunity to move west.

    . . .

    Rightly or wrongly, resentment has taken hold at the perception, fueled by the media, that foreigners are abusing the UK benefit’s system. Meanwhile, British workers have endured declines in real wages in the past decade. The reason is easy to understand. The wide availability of cheap labor, unrestricted by visa requirements, has enabled employers to conduct a race to the bottom, heightening inequality. And to make things worse, the population explosion has increased competition for housing, leading to enormous inflation in rent and property prices. Put simply, for common folk, life in England is getting worse.

    https://www.rt.com/op-edge/348296-brexit-referendum-destroyed-uk/
    .
    OK, so in response to MacDonald’s data-back assertions, let’s have some
    data supporting your contrary assertion that the problem in England is not
    immigrants.
    .
    If the Western Hemisphere did the same thing Europe did and all the countries
    dropped their borders and yet maintained their same national benefits,
    would net migration be from LA, Houston, and NYC to Mexico City, or in the
    other direction? How much of a problem would immigration be to lower
    income Americans trying to make it on an already stretched welfare system?

    • John Casper says:

      Denis,

      “How much of a problem would immigration be to lower
      income Americans trying to make it on an already stretched welfare system?”

      The, “welfare system,” in America is limited to the elites.

      1. Go see, “The Big Short.”

      2. The sequel is, “5 US banks each have more than $40 trillion in derivative exposure”

      http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2014-09-25/5-us-banks-each-have-more-40-trillion-dollars-exposure-derivatives

      To put $200 trillion in perspective, annual U.S. GDP is around $17 trillion. Social Security’s Trust fund is around $2.3 trillion. We blew at least $6 trillion in the Middle East occupations. 

      Wall Street’s using the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) to “socialize” their derivative risk onto the taxpayers. Almost none of the $200 trillion “trickles down,” into the real economy. It’s mostly on interest rate swaps and credit derivative swaps, nothing goes into the real economy that makes stuff or into new technologies.  

      If Wall Street wins a derivative bet, they keep it all. If they lose a derivative bet, the taxpayers are on the hook, via the FDIC. 

    • Duncan says:

      “If the Western Hemisphere did the same thing Europe did…” You mean like it did forcibly after 1492? As Stephen Colbert has said, his great-grandfather did not come over from Ireland to see this country overrun by immigrants. When did Europe, or England, ever respect national borders and the integrity of cultures?

      Parenthetically, it seems to me that much of the predicted fallout from Brexit — supposing that it goes through — is basically self-fulfilling prophecy. If the UK withdraws, other powerful actors will make them suffer for it. One of Eric Berne’s ‘games people play’ was called “See What You Made Me Do.”

  2. Dan says:

    On one hand, you make some valid observations. Lies have always played a part in politics. What I think is the tipping point of a post-factual democracy is that there’s no fear of being held accountable for deliberate lies and for simply making things up on the fly. There’s an irony that in a day and age when every word a public figure says is recorded for playback, they no longer seem to care. In this post-factual democracy, the complex issues aren’t only being compressed into sound bites, they are being reduced to undetectable puffs of breath in speeches that nothing but crowd pleasing gibberish.

  3. John Casper says:

    Denis,
    .
    Per your request, “Mexican Immigration to U.S. Reverses:
    More Mexicans are leaving the U.S. to return home than arriving, ending the largest wave of immigration in modern American history.”

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/mexican-immigration-to-u-s-reverses-1447954334
    .
    1. Was the Irish immigration to the U.S. and Canada a problem?
    1.1 Why did they want to leave Ireland?
    .
    Like a lot of socialists, you want to limit the mobility of capital and labor. It’s understandable. Crony capitalists have emphasized the mobility of capital, while eliminating the mobility of labor.

  4. John Casper says:

    “Those myths are precisely what have driven the democracy of both countries for a long time. They were a way of imposing discipline, privilege, and selective cohesion such that less privileged members of those included in the myth would buy in and tolerate the other inequities without undue violence.”

    Michigan should just give you another Ph.D. in Anthropology.

      • John Casper says:

        Thanks for the reply.
        .
        I haven’t read either in any depth.
        .
        Did either ever state it so succinctly?

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Zinn and especially Chomsky have described it as pithily as EW.

          Zinn is most famous for his, The People’s History of the United States. It is history from the perspective of the underdog, not from the whitewashed perspectives of the guys in the smoke-filled rooms rigging votes for cash or telling Johnson or Bush what he wants to hear about the size of his, um, ego. Useful compilations are, The Zinn Reader, and The Indispensable Zinn.

          Chomsky made his name at Harvard and MIT for his groundbreaking work on linguistics. His more accessible thoughts on politics and the sociology of power run to scores of works. Wiki has a separate entry for his bibliography. His 1988 work, Manufacturing Consent (with Edward Herman), is indispensable. Useful compilations include, Who Rules the World?; Because We Say So; Understanding Power; and World Orders, Old and New.

            • earlofhuntingdon says:

              That’s not to say that EW doesn’t sweep up masses of difficult information, in short order, elegantly synthesize it and pithily articulate her views. She does that. It’s just that there is a body of writing on this topic that predates her. Prizes for such journalism, with lists of contemporary authors, include the Nieman Foundation’s I.F. Stone Medal and the Hillman Prize (which Marcy won in 2009).

              Examples of current authors would include Marcy, Chris Hayes and Glenn Greenwald. Earlier writers would include Alex Carey (to whom Chomsky and Zinn dedicated Mnfg Consent) and John Pilger, C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, and I.F. Stone. A great survey of earlier work is Pilger’s, “Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and Its Triumphs”.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Many of those “leave” votes were inspired by two themes: decades of Tory-led austerity and striking rhetorical (and physical) violence targeted at immigrants, always the go-to distraction for politicians in trouble. Enoch Powell and Colonel Blimp must be sharing a happy drink at the Bellona Club.

    For decades, the Tories have been more neoliberal than even their American cousins. Their policies have meant lower taxes, especially on dynasty-enabling gifts and estates; more money and fewer restraints for the City and its freewheeling, tax-avoiding entrepreneurs; and enhanced wealth for those living on estates in Oxfordshire. But concentrating the means of many into the wealth of the few has costs. So no libraries for those in Andover or Huddersfield, no coal mines in Wales or Yorkshire, no steel mills in Port Talbot, and no shipbuilding on the Clyde. No rail service outside large urban areas and no city centers that would not qualify as a set for Clockwork Orange. And let’s privatize public housing, sports centers, transport cafes, rail lines, health services and schools. Everyone knows the private sector always runs things better, faster, cheaper, smarter and on time. Ask any rail commuter.

    There’s a tie-in between those decades of austerity – and burgeoning inequality – and the ideological, rhetorical and physical violence of of the anti-immigrant right. Jo Cox’s death is an extreme example. It is the sort of outcome wealth elites favor: it keeps the have nots fighting each other while ignoring the haves, letting them get on with concentrating wealth and political power. It’s worked for over a century.

    So Cameron resigns. He could hardly disown the Tory-inspired low-tax austerity Britain. And he’s smart enough not to want to plan and implement departure from the EU – the headaches and pain will make rail commuting to Waterloo on an ice-on-the-points day seem like a picnic. He’d probably rather spend his time profiting from the trial and error process of departure and the reinventing of the wheel it will take. Experienced politicians know when to stand and fight and when to run away.

    Britain has no exit plan. Whatever series of governments that plan and execute it will be faced with the near impossible. Exit will cost hundreds of billions of pounds and consume Parliament and Whitehall for a decade. Paying for it will mean more austerity, and more money for those situated so as to profit from it. Neoliberal Britain. What’s not to like? Clem Attlee and RA Butler must be crying. Colonel Blimp and Enoch Powell will just have another round.

  6. bloopie2 says:

    “TransCanada Corp is formally requesting arbitration under NAFTA over U.S. President Barack Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, seeking $15 billion in damages, the company said in legal papers dated Friday.”
    .
    I really have no idea how this works, but it appears on the face of it that a corporation that is denied the ability to potentially ravage the American environment can make the US taxpayers “compensate” it. Is that correct? If so, I can see how a UK citizenry, given the chance, would vote “leave” as to an authority that can unaccountably bind it against its wishes.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      The claim would be for “expected profits”. These, of course, are generously calculated, as if a Hollywood accountant were determining his own take from a smash hit film, over an equally generous number of years, generously discounted to present value. Not much in the way of deductions for costs, including, say, taxes, actual (not projected) operating costs, environmental charges, clean ups, spills and spill recovery. Much of this would be purely speculative, and all in favor of the claimant. These sorts of claims are usually inflated, as a negotiating tactic and a scare tool for governments and the public. This would all become much worse under the so-called TTIP and the TPP. Corporatocracy. What’s not to like? Let me count the ways….

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