The Case for Robust Debate in the “Post-truth” Era

As most people with access to a TV or a Facebook account are by now aware, Hillary Clinton is once again in the national spotlight, this time to promote her new book, What Happened, a personal account of how she lost to Donald Trump in last November’s election. The book is not useless, as some have contended, and not only because it offers insight into Clinton’s thinking and a reminder of the kinds of policies a Clinton/Kaine administration would have pursued. It is perhaps even more useful for the reaction it has generated among liberals and what that in turn tells us about the state of the national political discourse. Rather than the book per se, this essay is therefore primarily concerned with that discourse, and thus is not intended to add to the already large number of existing book reviews.

Based on an admittedly very unscientific sampling, it would appear that liberal reactions to the book and Clinton’s return to the spotlight fall largely into two camps: (1) Clinton detractors who argue that she bears enormous personal responsibility for Trump’s rise to power and that she should therefore “shut up and go away”; and (2) Clinton supporters who argue that her interpretation of “what happened” and its political implications is correct and that anyone who criticizes that interpretation is guilty of more sexist “Hillary-bashing.”

Both of these positions, we would argue, are seriously flawed, and in similar ways. Most obviously, both amount to telling the other side to “shut up” and thus seek to close down any kind of debate or dialogue between people of differing points of view about where we are, how we got here, and where we need to go from here. This is not an isolated phenomenon, of course, but rather speaks to a fundamental and long-standing weakness in our political culture, in which far too few people are able to hear an opposing point of view without being emotionally triggered and resorting to an array of fallacious debating tactics. Indeed, it has been well established for some time now that when most people are confronted with evidence that contradicts their world view, it has the paradoxical effect of strengthening — rather than modifying — that view. The tendency is thus to dig in, deny inconvenient evidence, and denounce, often in very personal terms, anyone who might hold a contrary perspective.

This phenomenon reached new heights in 2016. Indeed, Oxford Dictionaries named “post-truth” its “word of the year” for 2016, arguing that we are now in an era in which “objective facts” are “less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” As we argued in November, the Trump and Clinton campaigns played a significant role in fostering this development. Both camps skillfully deployed long-held beliefs among their bases, rejecting fact and resorting to emotion to garner support for two extraordinarily unpopular candidates. While Trump appropriated beliefs among far rightwing voters such as climate science denial, sexism, racism and xenophobia, Clinton and her supporters drew on feminism and identity politics to silence left critics and shore up her liberal base. Both candidates, moreover, focused tremendous attention on the other’s personal short-comings, in an attempt to distract attention from their own.

Today, it seems we have not learned the lessons of the “post-truth” election. The anonymity of the internet, combined with a severely impoverished political culture, has created a situation in which the most common form of engagement with contrary opinions is ad hominem attacks and claims of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

The vilest kinds of personal attack, of course, are racist, sexist, and homophobic in character, and there is absolutely no doubt that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been subjected to unrelenting assaults of this sort, particularly from the right. As a result, for many liberals, these attacks have turned Obama and Clinton into race and gender icons who need to be defended at all cost, including to the point of denouncing anyone who might criticize them as being motivated by a racial or gender bias.

This, however, is itself a very destructive form of ad hominem attack. First, it poses a stark either-or proposition, suggesting that someone is incapable of defending Obama and Clinton from racist and sexist assaults, while simultaneously criticizing them for their deep connections to certain disreputable interests (e.g., Wall Street and corporate America) or their advocacy of certain destructive policies (including some that have had devastating consequences for people of color and women).

Treating figures like Obama and Clinton as untouchable icons also severely limits our ability not only to hold them and the interests they represent accountable, but also collectively to interpret our circumstances and chart a better way forward. It reduces politics to a contest between “good guys” and “bad guys,” leading people to identify with the personal attributes of candidates and measure political success by their ability to advance (or impede) the latter’s professional careers, rather than focusing on the far more important tasks of building mass based social movements and democratizing the political system.

Clinton’s book and much of the reaction to it have had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing this flawed individualist way of thinking, one which afflicts many Clinton supporters and detractors alike. Like her campaign, which ran on the slogan “I’m with her,” they focus almost entirely on Clinton the individual, rather than on the political and historical circumstances that led to Trump’s ascension to the White House. They therefore limit our understanding of the structural and institutional forces that both brought us to this point and impede our way forward. When politics is reduced to a contest of “good guys” vs. “bad guys,” devoid of an analysis of the deep social and economic inequalities, power imbalances (particularly between capital and labor), and democratic deficits that have long plagued the US, we all lose.

One of the points we stressed in November was that “what matters is not Clinton the individual but rather the kinds of alliances and compromises that she has been willing to make (indeed, in most instances, had to make because of the nature of the US political system and the prevailing balance of social forces) in order to rise to the pinnacle of her chosen profession.”

It surprises neither of us that the general tenor, if not the intensity, of our debased national political discourse has persisted since the election. It reflects not only a fundamentally undemocratic political culture, but also a political system that is suffering from a long-building crisis, and hence incapable of addressing the problems of the great majority. The arguments we advanced in November would therefore appear to be as relevant today as they were then.

How we interpret the 2016 election is of great significance, not only because it led to the election of an especially dangerous administration, but also because of what it means for the state of our political system and thus our capacity to curb the danger Trump (and future administrations, both Republican and Democratic) pose. In launching her new book, Hillary Clinton has weighed in on that debate, offering her version of “what happened” and its significance for the future. It would be naïve of us to think that because of her electoral defeat, her take on these matters is irrelevant or that it will not have a significant impact on how many people will act politically going forward. She remains a figure of enormous political significance, both historically and at the current moment.

The very fact that so many people are inclined to defend Clinton at all costs suggests that one of the fears we articulated in November has come true: that anyone who criticizes her will continue to be branded as sexists, “brocialists,” or “unrealistic purists” who discount the ongoing threat posed by Donald Trump and his followers. This in turn means that they give great credence to her interpretation of events and where we should go from here. On the other hand, Clinton detractors who have denounced her in very personal terms have only reinforced this tendency among her supporters.

We have profound disagreements with Clinton’s interpretation of “what happened” and the challenges we face, but we want to insist that demands that she shut up are counterproductive. Instead, her interpretation should be given a full hearing, but subjected to the most rigorous – and fair – critique possible, free of both blind loyalty and sexist attacks. We also disagree with those who say that we should set aside our differences, put the election behind us, and focus exclusively on the current challenge of confronting Trump.

In our opinion, Clinton and Trump are deeply connected in that both are primarily symptoms of a deep and long-building systemic crisis and a far more complex constellation of forces. This means that one cannot understand the rise of the latter without understanding the forces that produced the former, as well as how the two enable each other. Insisting on an exclusive focus on the immediate moment without critically examining the deeper structural reasons explaining how we got here amounts, in our estimation, to a repetition of the kind of short-term thinking very much at the heart of that crisis and thus limits our ability to confront it.

Our preference in these matters is to follow Noam Chomsky’s advice: “If you don’t like what someone has to say, argue with them.” Democratic and mutually respectful debate, grounded in rigorous but disciplined criticism of virtually everything, is essential to making sense of our reality and collectively charting a better way forward. Put simply, this means that rather than taking offense to disagreement, we need to embrace and even encourage it, all the while insisting that it be guided by basic ground rules of logic and evidence. Given the dismal state of our political discourse and political culture, learning how to conduct such a debate is going to be a major challenge. The question is: are we up to it?

Patrick Barrett, Ph.D., is the administrative director of the A. E. Havens Center for Social Justice at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He writes and teaches about US and Latin American politics. He is co-editor of The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn. 

Deepa Kumar is Associate Professor of Media Studies at Rutgers University and President of Rutgers AFT-AAUP. She is the author of Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization and the UPS Strike and Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. She has written dozens of articles that have appeared in scholarly journals as well as independent media. She has shared her expertise in numerous media outlets such as BBC, The New York Times, NPR, USA Today, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Danish Broadcast Corporation, Telesur and other national and international news media outlets.