When political commentators talk of the emergence of a post-truth world, they are really lamenting the end of an era when the truths promoted by the institutions of the state and media were rarely challenged. It’s a lament that’s been coming for a few years now. Each revolt of sections of the public against the values of the elites has been met with the riposte that people are no longer interested in the truth. What the elites really mean is that people don’t care about their version of the truth. So when the French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy asserted that people have ‘lost interest in whether politicians tell the truth’, he was venting his frustration at an electorate that no longer shares his values. Today’s elite angst about so-called post-fact or post-truth public discourse is but the latest version of an historical struggle – a struggle over the question of who possesses moral and intellectual authority. Indeed, the rejection of the values and outlook of the holders of cultural power in many Western societies has long been portrayed as a rejection of truth itself. . . .I recognize that there is something to this. I have my own complaints about various kinds of elite consensus, or attempts to create consensus, for example the claim from right-of-center economists that we have to cut taxes on the rich to promote investment and thus economic growth, or from neocons who say we have to support Saudi Arabia's dismal war in Yemen to prevent Iranian expansion.
That this is not widely understood is due to contemporary society’s reluctance to acknowledge that cultural and political life still relies on the deference of the public – passive or active – to the values and moral authority of the elites. The term ‘deference’ – ‘submission to the acknowledged superior claims, skill, judgement or other qualities of another’, as the OED defines it – suggests a non-coercive act of obedience to authority. Hence it was frequently coupled with terms such as instinct, custom and habit. In the 19th century, it was frequently used to imply people’s willingness to accept and bow down before the elites on the basis of their superior wisdom. Deference presumed the intellectual and moral hegemony of cultural elite over the wider public.
But at the same time, I believe that some things are true and others are false, and all the anger of the common people can't change that. Life evolves. Over using antibiotics speeds the development of resistance. Providing people with health care is complicated and expensive. Populists protested the imposition of lead-free gasoline, but the experts were right – lead is a terribly dangerous poison.
There are other cases in which, even when the science is less than certain, the questions are too technical for the opinions of lay people to count for much. What wisdom do NASCAR guys have about whether carbon dioxide might change the climate? About whether the Iraqis tried to buy yellowcake Uranium? About whether the border adjustment tax would help American industry?
It is true that the struggle for power often takes the form of fighting over who gets to define the truth. But that has nothing to do with what the truth really is.