As the many would agree, if one reflects upon the most significant world events in 2016, Brexit and the new US presidency would probably shoot up on the list without a shadow of a doubt. Since last year, the rise of populist nationalism has been observed on both sides of the Atlantic, and the xenophobia and ethnocentrism have spread like wildfire. Engulfing many Western democracies, the phenomenon was certainly epitomised by Brexit in Europe, and perhaps more to come in France and elsewhere.
Britain’s decision to relinquish the European Union membership that has hitherto brought the country much prosperity was not necessarily undemocratic and thus deserves respect, however, an institutional flaw that has seriously threatened democracy was found in its decision-making process. More specifically, a sequence of lies was prevalently told, upon which probably the most important decision that Britain has ever made since the WW2 was based. What is more, the result of the Brexit referendum was the uninformed decision that hinged upon misinformation and downright falsehoods, therefore its legitimacy was in serious question.
“Post-truth” politics, as ubiquitously referred to, signals a serious moral crisis. As the definition of ‘post-truth” indicates, today, objective facts seem to have lost their currency to people’s emotions and subjective beliefs in the process of shaping public opinion in many parts of the world.
During the Brexit referendum campaign, such lies were told as: £350million can be saved weekly for NHS after leaving the EU; and Turkey may imminently join the Union. Not only did such blatant lies cloud the public’s judgement, but also they were toxic and self-defeating, because, whether admittedly or not, British people seem to have voted to be poorer. Since last June, the Pound Sterling has depreciated in its value against the dollar and other currencies, and the inflation rate has gone up as a direct result of the nationwide vote. In layman’s terms, the prices of imported blueberries and Californian wine have gone up in major supermarkets, and when they travel to America British travellers have to pay more than before the referendum.
During the run-up, the xenophobia-ridden rhetoric was also rife, underpinned by horrendous accusations, as proponents of Brexit claimed that immigrants were abusing the British welfare system and draining the UK economy. In truth, though, immigrants have been significant net contributors to the British economy, whereas the UK born nationals have been the real culprits of the mounting national debt. According to the study by Dustmann and Frattini (2014), European immigrants arrived in Britain since 2000 had contributed over £20 billion to the UK public finances during the period 2001-2011, whereas the net fiscal contribution of the UK-born natives was so colossally negative as £617 billion. In other words, European immigrants added £20 billion to the UK economy, whilst the home-grown ones drained £617 off the British economy. Of course, the significance of the disproportionate figures was slyly brushed aside from the public knowledge.
Another lie being told was that Britain would be able to remain in the EU market and the customs union without accepting the free movement of people, based on the ground that Britain is one of the EU’s biggest export destinations. Despite the experts’ constant attempts to rectify such misinformation, still, the majority of the electorate and perhaps even MPs believe that the possible tariff-free access to the EU market without accepting the free movement of European passport holders is somewhat negotiable. Even the Prime Minister Theresa May, who was formerly an ardent supporter of the remaining camp, publicly declared in early 2017 that the UK would ambitiously seek the best deal as the one above, which is rather fantastical.
Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of the Western liberal democracy, which is to protect its citizens from dictatorial rulers and authoritative governments. And yet perhaps the unregulated territory full of conflicting ideas can be vulnerable to the exploitative demagoguery and heresy that jeopardise the national interest. Thus, the moral obligation of the mass media as the gatekeeper of the public knowledge is now seriously called into question. Sadly, no public institution can effectively hold them accountable at the moment for disseminating corrupted information.
Indeed, it seems as if the right-wing tabloids in Britain are having an excessive influence over the parliament, the Prime Minister, and even the major opposition party. Furthermore, those newspapers have such an enormous influence that politicians are now scared of what the paper is going to write if they act on their own beliefs, and thus they are acting against their own rationales.
What is more, during the run-up to the referendum, the significant majority of the British media appeared to be pro-Brexit. Levy, Aslan and Bironzo (2016) researched into a sample of 3,403 articles that focused on the referendum and were published by 9 national newspapers over the 4-month period of the campaign. The researchers found that 41% of them were pro-Leave, while only 27% of them were pro-Remain. It is easy to imagine how difficult it must have been for anyone not to be swayed by what was reported on a daily and hourly basis then. Thus, it is perhaps facile to blame the general public for being unintelligent or uneducated. The crux of the matter is not to blame the masses for being uninformed but to pressingly quiz those who tried to fool the uninformed. Moreover, if this line of thinking can be postulated, the “post-truth” politics, or “post-truth” journalism, should be considered as an institutional flaw to be amended within the framework of liberal democratic values.
A healthy democracy cannot function if the system is not based on logical thinking and the rational decision-making process. And yet, it seems that reason and rational thinking are increasingly trivialised or even ignored. As Michael Gove, a Conservative MP famously said during the run-up to the referendum, “people in this country have had enough of experts.” It implied that it is better to believe what a man on the street says than those who have spent their lifetime studying the subject.
Irrationality seems clearly in vogue today. Some people still believe in superstitions and religious myths, and scientists like Richard Dawkins have been fighting for years to divulge their irrationality, yet to no avail. Perhaps people are so romantic that, in their view, knowing facts seem to take away the magical aura and mystique surrounding our bleak everyday life. Or perhaps, deep down, we all know what the reality is like, yet its rawness can be intolerable for many people, while euphoria and illusions can expediently provide us with temporary comfort as a form of escapism. In any case, this is not to be overly sympathised, because the history tells that when the fantasy bubble bursts the political disillusionment can turn into horrific disasters, like the rise of Nazis and the decline of the Weimar Republic, one of the greatest liberal democratic states.
Logical thinking becomes only possible when adequate and accurate information about the reality is obtained instead of basing arguments upon mere perception and hunches. What Brexit teaches us through “post-truth” politics is that we live in the age of information overload when facts can easily drown out of falsehoods and misinformation validated only by “feelings,” like the fear of the unknown and herd mentality. For this reason, evidence-based information is, more than ever, paramount. The truth is not always accessible, or perhaps never attainable, yet to allow oneself to uncritically believe in downright falsehoods should be prevented at all cost for democracy to function effectively.
Dustmann, C., and Frattini, T. (2014). The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK. The Economic Journal. 124 (November), pp.593-643.
Levy, D.L.D., Aslan, B., and Bironzo, D. (2016). UK Press Coverage of the EU Referendum. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism/PRIME Research.