Argument. This word entered the English Language somewhere between 1150 and 1470, defined as the process of reasoning. Before this it originated in the Latin Arguere; to make clear or to prove. For centuries this word was the foundation of political debate (though the debate was largely exclusive to the landed few). As time passed, democracy catalysed a demand for more and more people to be involved in this debate. Technology refined it by making available more data, and so arguments became generally dominated by empirical evidence. Yet today, it would be almost ironic to define political argument in terms of making things clear, proving something, or even as a ‘process of reasoning.’ Today, the discourse in the pubs, the universities and in the echelons of government, does not trade in a currency of facts or reason, but in one of feeling.
The most obvious example in the Western Hemisphere is the Republican Party, the right-wing media and, of course, the Trump campaign. “Our president … has made America a more dangerous environment than frankly I have ever seen,” said Trump, claiming an increase in violent crime, contrary to the FBI report. The latter shows a downward trend since the 1990’s including Obama’s terms in office, dropping to around 1/3 the crime rate of 1994. When Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House, was challenged on Trumps argument with the FBI’s statistics by a reporter, Gingrich responded that “People feel it… and as a political candidate I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.” This statement encapsulates the direction that the political debate has been travelling in since the turn of the 21st century. Donald Trump’s campaign is simply the crescendo of a growing trend to argue with feelings rather than facts. It is well documented that he has attracted support through appealing to the fear of supposedly imminent terrorist threats, the insecurity of the less progressive who live in in multi-ethnic communities and the anger and nostalgia of generally white, older conservatives who want ‘America great again.’
The Brexit Campaign had a similar theme. Yes, the Remain campaign employed tactics of blatant scaremongering alongside evidence, but it was the Leave side that taught the British public that facts didn’t matter. Time and time again, the claims of the Leave side were disproved. The £18bn a year figure was outright untrue. Due to the rebate, no more than £13bn was ever transferred to Europe. This figure didn’t take into account direct tax receipts and grants from the EU, with £1.4bn returned to the scientific field of research alone. There was convenient avoidance of the fact leaving the EU has lost the UK at best £18bn, and at worst £44bn, due to higher tariff barriers, higher non-tariff barriers and the lack of being exposed to lower trade costs through further EU integration. Propaganda was released claiming there was 109 EU regulations of pillows.
Yet in the video broadcast, this included regulations of ‘pillow joint’s’ in carpentry and a particular pillow shaped breakfast cereal. There were Nazi-reminiscent posters of an ‘overcrowded Britain’ with no mention of the fact the image shown was of Syrian refugees outside the Slovenian border. And then there was the argument that the majority of Turkey’s 80 million citizens were to flood Britain if they joined the EU. But when challenged on these inaccuracies with empirical date, Michael Gove responded that Britain was “tired of experts.” The sad truth is that they were. The Leave campaign recognised that the angry, the nostalgic and the fearful would rather have their feelings satisfied through a scapegoat than become aware of the harsh reality behind Britain’s status domestically and abroad.
So as the Republican National Convention wraps up and Theresa May negotiates Brexit, it is with great remorse that I introduce you to the new politics; an age of feeling. What matters now is not the circumstances themselves, but how one feels about the circumstances. In this age, populist leaders are happy to provide the electorate with a circular argument in which their feelings are validated, and the electorate is happy to accept it. One can no longer argue that a person is wrong, because that person is arguing with normative judgements, not positive fact. It is in this age that a significant proportion of political leaders and their followers have managed to transform subjectivity into the currency of the political debate.