My college and graduate school studies were in political philosophy. At the time, one of the most charming characteristics of political philosophy was its nearly utter inapplicability to daily life and practical politics.
It’s not that political philosophy is irrelevant to understanding politics — it’s hard to imagine the American Founding without the writings of John Locke — but it’s also hard to see how the practice of political philosophy would tell you much about specific, practical policy issues of the moment.
Unfortunately, the musing of political philosophers of the 20th century have invaded the practice of politics far too much of late.
When I was in college and graduate school, the up and coming trend in philosophy was “postmodernism,” which broadly understood was a rejection of the idea that there is an objective truth. In political philosophy this argument was transformed into the idea that all human relations are an expression of will to power, and language is nothing more than a means to assert power over one another for our own purposes.
If you look, you see postmodernism everywhere today. You see it when people talk about “privilege”; you see it when people talk about a “living constitution” where individual rights and government responsibilities are ever changing; and you especially see it in the bizarre disconnect between what politicians say and what they are actually doing.
Now there is nothing new about politicians shading the truth — that is as old as politics and rhetoric. But there is something new about the political obsession with creating a “narrative” to convince people that what is right before their eyes isn’t what is going on.
Both parties engage in this practice, but simply put the Republicans aren’t very good at it, and their voters don’t respond all that well to it. So as a practical matter Democrats can and do rely on this practice more.
The best example of this is an oldie but goodie: Bill Clinton’s assertion that everything depends upon the meaning of “is.” If that assertion didn’t ring a bell with every college philosophy student, they weren’t paying attention in class. The assertion was basically that there was no objective “truth,” but rather that everything depends upon one’s perspective. Even the simplest and most common verb “to be” has no intrinsic meaning.
Hillary Clinton is putting on a similarly fascinating, if altogether less successful strategy of postmodern philosophizing with her constantly changing stories about her use of a private email server. After going to great lengths to hide her government communications, she maintains the “narrative” that she is the most transparent candidate in politics — fully believing, it seems, that the assertion itself makes it true.
Here in Minnesota you see the same phenomenon. Gov. Mark Dayton enthusiastically jumped on the Obamacare bandwagon as soon as he was inaugurated, and has steadfastly defended it against its obvious failures to accomplish what was promised. The MNsure exchange itself has been a manifest failure — failing to even perform its basic function of ensuring that enrollees get and keep the insurance they sign up for. Yet Gov. Dayton continues to this day to insist that the exchange is a roaring success and should be retained.
Worse yet, Obamacare and MNsure were sold to the public as a means to enable people to get more affordable and better health insurance than was available before the Affordable Care Act was passed. Yet multiple years of double-digit increases in premiums (prior to the passage of Obamacare, Minnesota insurance premium increases were capped every year) and ever worsening coverage have done nothing to dissuade Dayton from believing that the Act was a great idea — suggesting that the real goal was simply “winning” the fight, not accomplishing the goals we were sold.
The biggest irony being that policies that Obama and the Democrats had labeled “junk” insurance are now by far the most common sold on the exchanges. It is common for people to buy policies with $10-$12,000 deductibles, making getting ill more expensive than at any time in our lifetimes. Yet what was junk yesterday is affordable insurance today — again suggesting that words have no relation to reality for these postmodern politicians.
Americans are not by nature postmodernists, though. The ideas that are common in faculty lounges in colleges are utterly foreign to the average person, and the result of the “postmodernization” of politics has been the widest gap in trust between citizens and their leaders in American history.
Far from swallowing the “the truth is what I say it is” narratives, Americans are rejecting politicians wholesale. Postmodernism is just the licensing of B.S., in the eyes of most people.
Hillary Clinton is in the process of politically imploding, as are Republican establishment politicians. Jeb Bush is polling under 5 percent, John Boehner has been driven out of the speakership, and the candidates who are rising in the polls are convincingly running against the establishment.
Donald Trump’s rise in the polls — and his odd popularity with even some Democrats — has more to do with his perceived “authenticity” than with even his most popular policy positions. In fact, most voters seem less interested in policy positions that at any time I can remember, largely because they think that policy statements are generally meaningless. Voters are too tired of being lied to, so they look for people who cut through the B.S.
Americans are a practical people, and what appears sophisticated among the overly educated looks to us more like a license to lie. And we are tired of being lied to. Poll-tested, focus grouped, and carefully massaged B.S. is still B.S., and this year voters are having none of it.
David Strom is principal at Think Write Do, a public affairs consulting firm. He is also a Senior Policy Fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.