Leveraging Our Differences

We live in a post-truth and post-ethics world

disinformation spelled out

TolikoffPhotographyGetty Images

Anderson edited "Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework" (Springer, 2014), has taught at five universities and ran for the Democratic nomination for a Maryland congressional seat in 2016.

Political theorists, philosophers of social science, pundits and the media are essentially right to say that we live in a "post-truth" society, even world. This viewpoint has been associated with left-wing academics in the postmodernist and deconstruction traditions and right-wing autocratic leaders like former President Donald Trump, namely leaders who regularly depart from saying what is true.

Trump, according to The Washington Post, made false or misleading statements 30,573 times while in office. In their most extreme form, these leaders advance manifestly untrue claims and build their politics around them. For Trump, the "Big Lie" that the Democrats stole the White House from him is the supreme example of a manifestly untrue claim, at least according to the judges, state legislatures and other politicians who refused to buy into his narrative.

Truth, notably a factual accounting of the world, has definitely lost value. Either Trump and many Republicans painted very misleading or plainly false pictures of reality or they transcended the very distinction between truth and falsity and made the concept of truth itself meaningless. Politicians are not historically known as the most honest of professionals, but the dishonesty in the last five years has been elevated to its highest peak in American history.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

What has driven this loss is an ethical concept, namely lying. Getting the truth wrong about a given state of affairs does not in itself reveal any ethical failing. Failing to state the facts, whether the topic concerns voting irregularities, climate change science, deaths as a result of handguns in 2020 or the number of people who have received two Covid-19 vaccines in a given state, may arise out of ignorance. It is only when someone intentionally misleads others to believe that a given state of affairs is true when it is actually false that an ethical wrong has been committed.

The deception that drives so much of the extremist agenda (and the way the far wings of a party use it to manipulate and harm the public) is one of the principal causes of the feelings of loss of trust experienced by those not on the wings. Admittedly, the majority of Americans in both major parties as well as independents have suffered a loss of trust in our political institutions since Vietnam and Watergate. Trump did not start this ball rolling. But he did snowball it for over half of the country.

The concept of a post-truth society is valuable, but it needs to be supplemented with a concept of a post-ethics society. The concept of post-truth, though it involves some ethical concepts, does not get us all the ethical values we need to adequately explain the sorry state of our democratic institutions.

Post-truth is chiefly about social and physical reality and whether politicians (and the media) are lying about it and using those lies to harm us in various ways. Yet politicians do a lot more when it comes to unethical conduct than deceive others about reality and then manipulate them based on the deception.

They also create outrageous gerrymandered districts. They engage in highly questionable campaign finance tactics. They refuse to grant Supreme Court confirmation hearings for brilliant judges. They obstruct justice. They make outrageous promises they can't keep. Above all, they promote an extremely polarized U.S. capital that makes it near impossible to pass laws about major societal problems ranging from climate change to paid parental leave to immigration.

Over half of the country according to most polls has lost trust in what we are told are the facts — what is empirical truth, what is reality. About three quarters of us have lost trust in our federal government, while most polls for years have revealed that there is much more trust in our state and local governments.

So, yes, we do live in a post-truth society. But we also live in a post-ethics society — and actually a post-reality society, because about half of our politicians do not trust science and frequently do not tell the truth. We are a post-ethics society chiefly because we cannot trust politicians to put partisanship aside to address extremely pressing problems before us. The crisis in American democracy will not be resolved unless we address both problems.