In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary chose ‘post-truth’ as its word of the year, defining it as an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.
Recent books by Evan Davis, Matthew D’Ancona and James Ball have all explored this concept further. Essentially the argument is, propaganda, spin and downright mendacity have always been part of political discourse. But in the past these phenomena existed in a certain relationship to truth. We worried about whether political statements were true or not. Now we do not care.
Truth is no longer the gold standard, instead we are more concerned with how statements make us feel and how far they reinforce what we already think.
This echoes American philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s famous distinction between a liar, who knows what the truth is but tries to conceal it and a bullshitter who doesn’t know and/or doesn’t care if what they are saying is true. In this analysis, we are all bullshitters now.
We do not have to believe in a golden age of truthfulness or to believe in an uncomplicated idea of ‘the truth’ to think that there may be something in this. In part it is a product of technological change and the ways in which social media changes how we consume and, crucially, share information about the world.
A growing number of people access news though social media – six out of 10 adults in the US – but social media is all about giving us more of what we like and about sharing within our network – though not always with like-minded people. Thus we get stuck in a filter bubble. We are not exposed to views which challenge us, and the analytical muscles that weigh up and adjudicate between different claims about the world, begin to ossify.
But post-truth is also part of a much broader collapse of trust in institutions encompassing politics and the media. Where we once might have thought about left vs right, politics is now contested in the spaces between a new set of oppositions: open vs closed, rooted vs cosmopolitan, local vs global, evidence vs emotional resonance and institutions vs networks.
Around the world people who feel let down and left behind by traditional institutions are rejecting politics as usual. Brexit, Trump, Macron, all in different ways are both symptoms and causes of a post-truth politics, a politics in which a trust in networks replaces trust in institutions.
Where does local government figure in all this? Trust in local government has stood up well compared to national government but that may be damning with faint praise. Councils cannot stand apart from these broader trends and already find themselves dealing with institutional alienation at exactly the time when a combination of shrinking resources and rising demand mean they need more co-production, engagement and more trust than ever.
But local government may also have an opportunity. The essential task is to develop a new politics which reforges a bond of trust between citizens and government. This can be achieved more readily at a local level.
We have to take GDP growth on trust for example, but we can see whether potholes in our street are being fixed. We know if our elderly relatives are receiving the right care. Local politics, by virtue of its proximity to us, can build trust – or lose it – much more rapidly.
We cannot simply combat post-truth with new and ‘better’ facts. We still need to frame the debate in emotionally resonant terms. That is a task for political leaders, but it is more readily accomplished within a local, place-based approach.
If we can articulate a compelling vision for the communities and the places we want and support this with observable, verifiable facts on the ground and a real process of participative engagement, then we can begin to move beyond the quagmire of post-truth politics and create a scenario in which people can shape institutions around their needs and aspirations.
The flexibility and responsiveness of local government allow this in a way that national governments will always struggle to match. This implies an inversion of our traditional political hierarchy. For too long we have structured local government as a reflection of the nation state. But in a post-truth world it is local government that must lead the way.
Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.