Lost governments of fragile reason

by Deborah Talbot

In the eve of the US election result in which Senator John Kerry lost to George Bush in 2004, Jonathan Raban wrote the following in his essay America’s Reality Check:

“More than any other election in recent history, this one has become a referendum on what it means to be American, and half of the country detests the idea of living in the other half’s America.”

Prophetic words, and ones that define our political landscape. Raban was referring to the battle between evidence and ideology. The Democrats represented long-winded ‘Aristotelianism’ seeking to evidence policy and social change. The Republicans, were they ‘Platonists’? Well, he cites an article published in the New York Times Magazine on October 17th, which quotes comments made by a Bush aide to Ron Suskind, author of the article. The aide says the following:

“The aide said that guys like me were “in what we would call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and muttered something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

Wondering why we continually go to war without any evidence that it will work? Wonder no more. Perplexed that governments continue with welfare cuts when there is no evidence it makes any difference to the ‘deficit’? Confusion over. Alarmed that the government is attacking education, quite against everything we know about why it’s important? Alarmed by the post-truth reality of Brexit and Trump?
Now you know. The right has become revolutionary, aiming to overthrow reason itself in the name of power. The truth is irrelevant. Facts are a product of a forgotten world. Bush won the election in 2004. The UK Leave vote won in 2016. Trump won the American election in 2016.
We currently have a government that is no friend to fact and evidence. Read one of its policy documents, and it resembles the ramblings of an unpleasant undereducated relative who corners us drunkenly at weddings, who hasn’t bothered reading anything for years. Fiction is alluring, and the Tories continue to make strides? Why? Perhaps it is because large portions of the political scene never liked the slow drift towards realism and reason that symbolised the 1990s. Early New Labour, then in power, was the face of the modernising state, the purveyor of evidence-based policy and one-nation Labourism, and they were hated for it. Elements of old England affective politics despised them way before Iraq.
Like any movement, however, New Labour too moved toward ossification and the canonisation of their mobile perspectives. In declaring the ‘end of history,’ they fell victim to hubris. While proclaiming the need to evidence policy change, the frequently disregarded evidence when it suited them, most spectacularly in the example of the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ which justified the case for the war against Iraq. And so they too become pushers of ideology rather than evidence, one that says that spin is everything and that anything is justified, as long as it appeals to a fictional public seeking ‘centrism’.
So now we have it, a resurgent populist right seeking to remake reality, amidst a world slowly descending into blood and guts violent fantasy. There has never been a time when we are so desperately in need of the slowing hand of reason. As Raban said, just before anyone knew who had won the 2004 US election:

“One can only pray that on Monday morning sobriety will return, and, with it, a regard for the grim facts of the case – and that the chastened mood will last through Tuesday. Fingers crossed.”

Deborah Talbot is a freelance qualitative research and journalist, writing about society, culture and all things urban. She has recently set up a new blog Interurban Lines.


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