Being a Solid Politician in the Post-Truth Age

What makes 2016 distinct are above all the two votes of global importance that both defied polls and both show how much the ways voters make their decisions are changing. We have entered the post-truth era. In the complicating post-modern supply of truth, we simply opt to choose none.

Knowing the context is not important anymore; all that matters are mere emotions. Emotions govern our decisions. We shut ourselves in virtual chambers of social networks where smart algorithms feed to us only the info we had agreed with before: we perceive the self-induced digital echo as confirmation of reality. In such world, one is always right – whatever the truth is. This gives more power to populists’ elbows – all they need to do is to elicit emotions or point to those “who are to blame”, and they get enough “Likes” to climb up the elected-office ladder. Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” to be its international word of 2016.

Can politicians holding real values survive in an era that holds emotions as the value? Can such politicians win an election without becoming value agnostics for whom facts are just props for their next bon mot?

Maybe. But only if they are not naïve. One cannot deny reality. Just like it was not possible for politics to fight the negative aspects of modernity by boycotting its symbol, the newspapers, the only way to appeal to post-truth voters differently is by mastering the main post-truth means: social networks, concise communication, emotions, and entertainment. Solid politicians must know how to use the tools of their times, and use them to point out the risks arising from absolutization of these tools. The 1930s radio adaptation of Wells’ sci-fi novel caused mass panic: the listeners believed that an actual invasion by Martians was in progress. Nowadays, we laugh because we understand nature of traditional media.

Sustaining political solidness in the post-truth age means understanding that solid does not mean boring but strong, firm. Strong and firm meaning not rigid but value-oriented. Value-oriented meaning not bigoted but sensitive to our world’s problems. Sensitive to our world’s problems meaning not populist but human. Human meaning not illusions-free pragmatism but seeing politics as difficult implementation of mutual responsibility. Once we get all the way here, then emotions, conciseness and laugh become our allies. We don’t need to fear them.

One can draw inspiration from Pope Francis. He is witty, nonconformist, uses social networks in profusion, he manages to be an anti-establishment head of the biggest establishment known. He is a public-relations master, he creates images and slogans that are not empty phrases. Still, hardly anyone would blame him for lacking values, spontaneity, courage, radical openness and depth – simply the constituents of strength and firmness. He appeals to post-truth man without becoming just an entertainer.

Jesuits, the religious congregation Pope Francis belongs to, have been applying successfully, across epochs and continents, the art of transforming listeners by using their own languages, by understanding their own (both individual and social) culture, by meeting inside this connectedness, not outside it. Those wishing to engage new-era voters’ attention without compromising themselves by post-truth populism, will have to master this art, too. Thus, the question of changing voters becomes also a question of changing politicians. Probably not for the first nor the last time.