There has been a continuous clamor from the broad swath of political commentators lamenting the disappearance of Truth and Facts in our political discourse. Much of this critique is aimed at the Right generally, Trump supporters in particular, and is always accompanied by some form of eye-rolling exasperation. But, as often happens, the polemics over “alternative facts” have obscured any consideration of the ways in which “truth” and “facts” actually function in our politics.
The Right has correctly perceived that politics is not the direct application of empirical facts to governmental policies. The programs and policies which impact individuals are often an amalgamation of facts, the interpretations of those facts and the political usages of those interpretations. The connections between empirical data and political implementation are highly malleable, often vague, and occasionally non-existent.
The malleability of the connections between social/economic facts and their political applications does not signify the death of facts themselves; it is an effect of the complexity of the issues being argued. Complex webs of facts cannot be easily mapped onto equally complex webs of political and economic relations. The more multi-faceted the issue being discussed, the greater the necessity for strategies of implementation, and the interpretations which support them.
The mistake of the Right is to view malleability as a sign that empirical facts no longer exist, that any evidentiary-based argument is false on its face. This misunderstanding is why some on the Right pursue dissimulation of crowd size with the same fervor as interpretations of social and economic policy.
Both the Left and the Right ignore the effects of social complexity on the politics of factual claims. As complexity increases, a point may be reached in which the facts are no longer discernible from the political battles over the meanings attached to them. The political theorist Murray Edelman noted, “political developments and the language that describes them are ambiguous because the aspects of event, leaders, and policies that most decisively affect current and future well-being are uncertain, unknowable, and the focus of disputed claims and competing symbols.”
‘A fact is always embedded in a theory and has to be interpreted.’
In Edelman’s view “political language is political reality; there is no other so far as the meaning of events to actors and spectators is concerned.” All “truth” is that which “actors and spectators” – all of us – experience as we attempt to make our way through a political world in which “the critical element…for advantage is the creation of meaning.”
The embedding of a fact in a theory is not its disappearance; it is a necessary element of implementation. For empirical “facts,” such as those pointing to economic inequality, to be politically useful they must be woven into an existing tapestry of “justice” and “fairness.” Politics is a series of battles in which all sides struggle to re-shape the tapestry and give meaning to the facts.
By decrying the very existence of facts, the Right has absented itself from the battles over their meaning. Progressives need to seize this opportunity. Continuing to present analyses and evidence to verify the existence of a particular set of facts is not sufficient; decrying those who don’t see those facts as being naïve is not a politics.
Social movements are not simply trains running along the tracks of facts. Progressives must transform their most cherished “facts” into politically useful tools. The struggle for social change isn’t determined by the “truth,” but by the battles over its meaning.