The politics of delusion By Maleeha Lodhi

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WHEN the expression “alternative facts” was famously used a few years ago by Kellyanne Conway, a senior aide of President Donald Trump, it created an uproar in the American media. But it also encapsulated a disturbing and increasingly familiar phenomenon — the political tendency by some leaders and their followers to invent their own ‘reality’ and then project this to the public.

The intense debate triggered in the US and beyond frequently recalled George Orwell’s satirical novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which he had coined the phrase “Newspeak” for language aimed to limit thought in his imaginary totalitarian state. Widespread discussion and a spate of books followed on the concept of a post-truth era, whose distinguishing features are seen to be the denial of objective reality, where fake news becomes the weapon of political choice and emotion takes primacy over evidence. Rejection of science and expertise are also considered its characteristics, as well as conspiracy theories.

This has not been an academic discussion but an effort to also describe and understand the behaviour of certain types of political leaders, especially authoritarian ones, and their followers who knowingly purvey misleading information to people and often start believing in it themselves. As a writer put it in The Guardian, “playing fast and loose with the truth has moved from fiction to real life”. As a result, he argued, “Truth is losing its value as society’s reserve currency, and legitimate scepticism is yielding place to pernicious relativism.”

As a political phenomenon this is very different from the effort to project rosy or exaggerated pictures of policy and actions which governments everywhere resort to routinely. Spin too has long been common but it is different from ‘post-truth’ conduct.

This is also related to another phenomenon that can be called the politics of delusion being witnessed in many parts of the world, including in our own region. Delusion is commonly defined as an “idiosyncratic belief or impression that is maintained despite being contradicted by reality”. In political life it is closely associated with egoistical right-wing populist leaders who use delusionary narratives to attract the public and build a larger-than-life image of themselves and their achievements. This is most tellingly epitomised by Trump. But delusionary behaviour goes beyond him and leaders like him. It has also come to pervade sections of society in many parts of the world.

What has contributed to the rise of the politics of delusion? Several factors of which four, mainly overlapping ones, seem significant.

The obvious first one is technology and the proliferation of information platforms through which messages can be disseminated and accessed. This makes numerous avenues, where few standards are maintained, easily available to spread information, non-fact-based narratives and falsehoods too. The social media especially offers leaders and people the means to say what they want, with no check on their statement’s veracity. It provides the means to select what already aligns with their views and listen only to what they want to hear. This confines them to an information bubble, screening out views dissimilar from theirs. As there are no consequences of making false claims this reinforces delusionary political behaviour — and provides the vehicle to push like-minded people into the same state. The greater use of social media by today’s populist leaders demonstrates how delusionary narratives are so easily spread and believed.

A second factor is extreme partisanship that characterises the stance of such political leaders and their politics. This induces the proclivity to build their own image in ways disconnected to reality in order to sharply distinguish themselves from their opponents. The kind of partisanship on display across the world — in the US, Brazil and in Pakistan too — is unprecedented in many ways. Partisan behaviour is of course not new. But in its extreme form, in which all ‘others’ are painted as venal, incompetent and even traitorous, it is different for it engenders delusionary politics. This is because those practising it also craft make-believe narratives about their own competence, claim imaginary achievements and assert untruths about their feats — all of which fail the test of reality. This inspires their supporters to echo the same messages and enlarges the space for delusionary politics.

Thus, extreme partisanship drives a ‘compulsion’ to create an alternate ‘reality’. For example, claims are often made by some leaders that they are taking a particular action for the first time in their country’s history or that no one has ever governed better than them. While such declarations are belied by facts, they are accepted unquestioningly by followers who breezily repeat them.

The third factor has to do with the contemporary environment in which governance has become more demanding as the world is moving much faster than the ability of governments to deliver. The expectation gap that is spawned, given a more informed citizenry, is addressed by such populist leaders with soaring rhetoric and claims of exceptionalism as well as constant attacks on opponents to show that only they are uniquely fit to govern. Again, this leads them into a delusionary state as they increasingly come to believe in their own propaganda and are blindsided to on-ground realities.

The fourth factor — a cause and consequence of delusionary politics — is the rejection and denigration of experts and expertise. As populist leaders often claim to be know-all about everything, informed advice is readily dispensed with, especially as such counsel punctures their delusionary bubble. Expertise is rejected not least because it limits freedom of action and exposes misleading narratives to reality checks. Just as facts are screened out so are experts with leaders willing to listen only to those who reinforce their views.

This phenomenon poses obvious dangers to nations across the world especially as increasing sections of society begin to descend into a delusionary state. If truth becomes so fungible and there is a growing inability to distinguish between fiction and reality, this pattern, if unchecked, could have far-reaching consequences. It can plunge nations into uncharted territory by increasing polarisation, eroding trust in public institutions and delegitimising the political process and democracy. Ultimately it could make countries more ungovernable.