This essay was originally published on May 31 2018.
“Enemy agents” is how the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) described the media in 2015. The EFF are an increasingly influential populist opposition party in South Africa, famous for their disruptive action and their calls for former president Jacob Zuma to #PayBackTheMoney he allegedly embezzled. In their attacks on the press they are not that different from their counterparts in established democracies, although they occasionally have more legitimate reasons for calling out inappropriate interference in the media by the South African government (see for instance this case in the Supreme Court). British populist party UKIP, for example, equally accuses the media of elite bias and often relies on direct modes of communication to circumvent those pesky gatekeepers. Former leader Nigel Farage has his own phone-in radio show on the LBC and writes weekly columns in the Daily Express, and then of course there is Twitter, which not only Farage but Trump in particular has made famous as a populist mouthpiece.
But why do populists discredit the media? Surely they, as much as any politicians, need the oxygen of publicity in order to perform effectively as political representatives. And what are the implications of these attacks? After all, we, as citizens, rely on the media as our key source of knowledge about the world. Having the trustworthiness of the media’s representation of social and political reality undermined is therefore truly unsettling. Fake news apart, the media are still our best approximation of a source of truth in this uncertain world; as Dayan put it in 2013, they have a “reality-pronouncing” function. I want to suggest here that populists undermine this function of the media for the purpose of usurping it: they represent themselves as truth tellers, and as the only truth tellers out there. But not only that. In the process of doing so they redefine the notion of truth to make it a question of morality, rather than evidence-based fact, and this has important implications for representative democracy.
An essential component of populism is anti-elitism. In communicative terms the opposition between elites and the people that forms the core of populist ideology translates into Us-versus-Them rhetoric. There is a democratic argument at the heart of populists’ claim to speak on behalf of the people against the elite. According to populist reasoning, the people are being ignored in the representative process. Elites serve their own interests of power appropriation and are immersed in their own little bubble where they engage in mutual back scratching or stabbing, depending on what serves their purpose on a given day. The silent majority is all but forgotten about in this game of dirty politics. Except in one respect. For the elite, of course, pay heed to the procedures of democracy, if not its substance, and need our votes. For this purpose, populists claim, the elite impose a false consciousness upon the people. Their words are hollow rhetoric – “strategic oration”, as Farage called it in 2014 – designed to deceive when “desperate to garner votes”.
In the populist universe, then, all politicians are the same. When they tell nothing but lies, political ideologies – left, right or centre – no longer matter. Instead, a different cleavage is established in the political spectrum. This is not a gradational one; no one can occupy the centre ground. No, it is Us versus Them. Those who tell the truth against those who don’t. By discrediting media, elites, and experts as truth tellers, populists effectively establish a gap in the market for truth telling. And, of course, they seek to occupy it themselves. “Just gave both barrels to the unelected EU commission. These guys have a problem with the truth”, Farage ranted on Twitter in 2017 after giving a controversial speech in the European Parliament in support of Trump’s new “democratic” immigration measures.
The question is, which truth are populists telling? For truth is not just truth. Indeed, the populist notion of truth is different from the one we often decry as lacking in the current crisis of public communication (Blumler and Gurevitch, 1995; Van Aelst et al., 2017). It is not based on scientific, empirical evidence and fact as a basis for rational deliberation and informed choice amongst candidates by us voters. Rather, populists equate truth with authenticity. That is what the elite, with their acts of deception and hollow rhetoric, lack, and it explains why they are on the wrong side of the dividing line between Us and Them. Authenticity is a moral quality that involves being true to oneself. Or perhaps we should rather say, it involves appearing to be true to oneself, since authenticity is a performance. This seems paradoxical, and indeed authenticity must never be been seen to be performed for that would expose the performer as inauthentic. On the public stage that is representative politics, there must appear to be no discrepancy between what Erving Goffman called onstage and backstage behaviour: if a politician’s private persona is revealed to contradict his public performance, his authenticity is undermined.
When populists denounce the elite as strategic orators, they engage in an act of exposure that undermines the elite’s performance of authenticity. For their own part, they have the perfect solution to the demand for authentic performance under the limelight of ever-watching cameras. Rather than seeking to hide their backstage behaviour, waiting nervously for the inevitable scandal, exposure or gaffe, they proudly showcase their dirty linen in public; they bring backstage behaviour to the front stage. Populists’ famous bad manners, political incorrectness and ability to talk like ordinary people are weapons in the fight against demands for constant visibility and the consequent fragility of authentic representation. Social media are well suited tools for this purpose. They allow populists to naturally comply with these platforms’ norms of intimacy, informality and pithy humor while performing their backstage behaviour. Populists, often via social media and other direct means of communication, engage in consistent self-representation in a media environment that makes this an increasingly challenging demand, and they present an authentic front that appears at once intimate, spontaneous and honest to the populist’s own persona.
We are faced with two types of truth, then. One – an objective statement of scientific and evidence-based fact – supposedly forms the basis of elite policy making and the media’s representation of reality. The other, the populist truth, involves being true to oneself and thereby to the people one communicates with. This truth of authenticity is a matter of morality, not scientific fact. Populists’ equation of truth with authenticity therefore constitutes an epistemological shift in representative democracy, both in terms of the basis of the relationship between the people and those who represent them and of the foundation for citizens’ democratic choice of representatives. It changes what we need to know to participate democratically as appropriately informed citizens: honesty and character become not only more important than policy or consistent value systems; they become the only things that matter. The relationship between representatives and represented becomes based not on information provision and listening but on trust.
Honesty, character and trust are no doubt lacking in the representative relationship between elites and people in many established, as well as transitional, democracies around the globe today. These qualities are increasingly also lacking in our relationship to media that pursue commercial objectives rather than the public interest. It is not that populists don’t have a point. Yet one of these two types of truth at the expense of the other poses a danger to liberal democracy. We need evidence-based information as well as honest politicians to make representative democracy work for the people. Anti-populism therefore also appears to be a reactionary and not a progressive response to populism. For meeting agonism with agonism neglects to address the social and political fault lines that give rise to populism in the first place and to acknowledge in a substantive way citizens’ very valid reasons for voting for populists. One of these reasons indeed appears to reside in feelings of inefficacy based on the lack of authentic representation by elite representatives and of reliable information by the media. Scientific truth alone is not a sufficient basis for democratic representation – after all, we all know that statistics can lie – and the appropriate response therefore seems to be to look for common ground, to acknowledge the need for the coexistence of both moral and scientific truth in the democratic representative relationship.
Lone Sorensen is a senior lecturer in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at the University of Huddersfield