Explaining the rise of populism became the new holy grail of contemporary humanities. How could Donald Trump win the 2016 US elections? Why did the leave campaigners succeed in UK’s Brexit referendum? The exposure to bullshit arguments in politics is nothing new. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) devoted much of his intellectual energies to analyzing and combating what he experienced as insidiously disruptive forms of ‘non sense’; Saint Augustine (354-430), Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) struggled when trying to define ‘lying’, while Plato (427-347 BC), Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) and Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) amongst others, investigated the role of ‘lying’ in politics at various periods of time. Yet, it was not until this year that analysts claimed a post-factual era to have arrived. What is the difference to previous times? And, why does bullshit prevail in politics?

Drawing from Harry G. Frankfurt (2005) and Heinz Brandenburg (2006), I argue that the key to understanding modern postfactualism lies in understanding the interstitials of the terms listed below to rationalism and emotions. Hereafter, I will first explain the different key notions, before reconnecting the argument to the contemporary populist phenomenon.

From Bullshit, Lying and Deception to Nonsense and Postfactualism

Etymologically speaking, bullshit roots in the shit of bull. Per the English Oxford Dictionary, the noun is a vulgar slang for stupid or untrue talk or writing, and its verb bulshitting an attempt to deceive someone by talking ‘nonsense’ to them. In both lying and bulshitting equal intent to deceive is given. The difference is that a liar “defies the authority of the truth and refuses to meet its demands, while the bulshitter ignores these demands altogether.”[1] Frankfurt (2005) considers lying to be a matter of falsity and bullshitting a matter of fakery. When a certain truth is inconvenient, bulshitting is less straightforward than lying and other forms of deception. Frankfurt and Brandenburg argue that people have always tended to be more tolerant of bullshit than lies, as the former is a strategy of truth avoidance and defense, whilst the latter is seen to be used consciously as an instrument of truth ignorance.

The three top rows of the below table are an infamous scheme articulated by former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in 2002. To be more precise, he was asked at a news briefing to explain the lack of evidence in reports for the linkage of the Hussein government of Iraq to weapons of mass destruction, the official reason for the US invasion in Iraq. It was one of many political incidents indicating that politics was more of rhetoric than of the morality of well-founded decisions. What is new about the current form of bullshitting, namely Populism, is that it appeals to our emotional knowns and unknowns, and fills the gap to our knowns and unknowns based on empirical and statistical rationalities. Therefore, I added the last row to Rumsfeld’s scheme.


The End of Facts?

When Donald Trump was elected, it reminded the world that people bring paradigm changes. Gorbachev played a key role for ending the Cold War (“The End of History”) and Adolf Hitler for the many lessons drawn after World War II. Postfactualism claims that the spirit of enlightenment has ended: Instead of critical thinking, intellectual fatigue seems widespread in modern knowledge society. In digital times when relevant information for national elections and referendums can be searched in an instant, this occurs paradoxical. When Ipsos Mori published its latest annual Perils of Perception survey results, its chief Bobby Duff almost ironically recommended to stop misperceiving the political implications of their findings. Regularly, a huge gap between felt and real numbers of controversial categories like ‘immigrants’ and ‘woman in politics’ occurs. Duff claimed that it is not the mass of people who will change their minds once educated enough. Rather, politicians should stop giving answers which foster ungrounded anxieties among the population. Similarly, scholars like Frankfurt (2005) and Brandenburg (2006) have singled out politics to be one of the most susceptible fields for bullshit to emanate already a decade ago. Poor polling turnouts haven been widespread for years. At the same time, we do not understand the reasons for the lack of motivation of people to research information properly. Why does the public not accuse science or politics of being in a crisis of popular non-understanding? Arguably, this is why bullshit prevails in politics.

Image: MargauxB


[1] Brandenburg, 2006, “Short of Lying: The Prevalence of Bullshit in Political Communication”, University of Aberdeen, p.5, available at: https://ecpr.eu/Filestore/PaperProposal/760052f1-e2a9-4dce-89a0-c4437bd15293.pdf