Democracy is Impossible in Post-Truth America

Post-truth is Anti-democracy (Getty Images at The Week)

W.J. Astore

“Post-truth” was the big word for 2016, according to Oxford Dictionaries. And why not? Donald Trump won the presidency with lies and half-truths and spin, so the word does indeed resonate.

But America has been edging toward post-truth for a long time — even at its founding, skeptics might say.  The “City on a Hill,” forged on an image of Christian rectitude, witnessed the genocide of Native Americans (“savages”) and the embrace of slavery based on specious theories of racial inferiority, even as the Bible taught the love of neighbor and the equality of all before God.

More recently, America has witnessed the triumph of post-truth in the aftermath of 9/11. Recall how the attacks on 9/11 were falsely connected to Iraq, which was then connected to false claims of Iraq having active programs of WMD development, including “yellowcake” uranium as well as chemical and biological agents spread by aerial drones.  All proven false, but all used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Indeed, many Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein planned the 9/11 attacks (in league with Osama Bin Laden). Recall here the rare honesty of Britain’s Downing Street Memo of 2002, which asserted that the “facts” being offered by the Bush/Cheney administration were being manufactured (“fixed”) around a pre-determined policy of invasion.  The result?  Iraq was yet another un-democratic war, based in part on lies. Indeed, it’s no accident that Congress hasn’t issued a formal declaration of war since 1941.  (Another war based on lies: the Vietnam War, e.g. recall the false reports of attacks at Tonkin Gulf.)

Another example of post-truth was the Surge of 2007, advertised as a “win” for America even as General David Petraeus warned that progress in Iraq was both “fragile” and “reversible.”  So it has proved, for here we are, a decade later, trying to recapture territory (such as Mosul) that had allegedly been pacified under Petraeus.

America’s post-truth crew has now been captured by a shameless con man, the Tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump.  Recall a saying often attributed to P.T. Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute.” Trump knows this — and will exploit it to the hilt, if the American people let him.

As January 20th approaches, Americans need to prepare themselves for a post-truth presidency.  As my dad used to say to me: “Don’t believe anything that you read and only half of what you see.”  Wise words for the days and years to come, but they come with a major problem.  Some sense of truth, of consensus based on acknowledged facts and a rigorous and fair-minded process of reasoning, is needed for a democracy to function.

Without integrity, which is based on facts and honesty and a willingness to reason together in good will and with honorable intentions, democracy simply cannot function. Put simply, a post-truth America is an anti-democratic America.  For without truth, without some consensus based on facts, all you have is lies, misinformation, and spin: a foundation of sand upon which nothing of worth can be built.

5 thoughts on “Democracy is Impossible in Post-Truth America

  1. I agree quite a bit with today’s commentary, but, having spent five of my grammar school years in Bridgeport, CT, where P T Barnum had a great influence and served as Mayor once, he did not say everything that is often quoted of him. Let’s be truthful and fact check this item…
    By the way, my first Best Friend was Billy L. whose parents emigrated from Czechoslovakia, which was bordered on the west by Hitler and on the east by Stalin, Be assured, at Edison school, we received a Great education as to what it means to be an American and what our responsibilities are.
    Thanks, Jim Wilson


    1. Thank you. I’ve changed it to “attributed to” and provided a link; apparently, P.T. Barnum likely didn’t say this, which hasn’t stopped the saying from being closely associated with him.


  2. Post-Truth? The prefix “post-” means “after,” and when did we Americans ever have truth presented to us by our government? If I remember correctly, the independent journalist I. F. Stone put the case rather succinclty decades ago:

    “All Governments Lie.”

    So we could start from there, especially when it comes to those side-splitting “Five O’Clock Follies” military briefings from long ago in Saigon (or today at the White House, State Department, or Pentagram). From Wikipedia:

    The Five O’Clock Follies is a sobriquet for military press briefings that occurred during the Vietnam War. Richard Pyle, Associated Press Saigon bureau chief during the war, described the briefings as, “the longest-playing tragicomedy in Southeast Asia’s theater of the absurd.”

    “The briefings occurred in a bar on the roof of Saigon’s Rex Hotel, and journalists alternately cracked cynical jokes and shouted at officials, often complaining about a Credibility gap between official reports and the truth. Public affairs officer Barry Zorthian led the briefings, and he once lamented that where the US government’s word was once true until proven false, in Vietnam it would be questioned until proven true.”

    “Journalists updated the name during the Gulf War. Press briefings at that time were unofficially known as the ‘Four O’Clock Follies.'”

    So what do we call today’s cavalcade of lies pouring forth from between the flapping lips of our political, military, and “intelligence” communities? I have a suggestion. How about: The Fabulous Flatulent Follies: 24/7/365? All lies, all the time.

    Not “post-” Truth, but “pre-” Truth, since we haven’t had any Truth yet and can only hope that — with a storm of vitriolic skepticism directed at our official prevaricators: “Put up or shut up!” — we might eventually get a little bit of it in the future. One can only hope, since the evidence to date does not seem encouraging.


    1. Thanks, Mike. To me, “post-truth” suggests a world in which facts and evidence no longer matter, a world in which lies and spin are treated as equal to, and interchangeable with, facts and expertise. Thus the “debate” about whether climate change is happening, and whether man-made causes are contributing.

      How can you debate someone when they won’t recognize facts and expertise?


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