By Kregg Hetherington
The idea that we might be entering a “post-truth” era is a crisis for liberal democracies because it reveals the tenuousness of a proposition that many people in North America and Europe have taken for granted, at least since the end of the Cold War. For the sake of argument, I’ll call that proposition “truth politics.” It claims that the appropriate way of governing a population is with recourse to empirically verifiable facts. Part of the difficulty with understanding the Trump phenomenon, and its correlates in other Western democracies, is how suddenly it has revealed the positionality, and the fragility, of this proposition. The rabbit hole this opens is deep for believers in truth politics, since it undermines the very tools for thinking critically about politics at all. What we assumed to be the ethical standard governing the realm of political debate turns out to be part of the debate itself, one position among many others in a realm whose standards are suddenly up for question.
From the outside, however, the situation is less strange, and it’s therefore useful to think about places and times where truth politics is not taken-for-granted. Paraguay is one of those countries that staunchly refuses to conform basic liberal assumptions about truth in government.It first gained attention for this trait in the 1990s when it began to hold democratic elections. This was a moment of liberal ascendancy around the world, heralded as “the end of history,” in which northern countries sought to instil their brand of truth politics under the names “transparency” and “good governance.” Although it had international boosters and financiers, Paraguayan truth politics was spearheaded by a small group of educated, centre-left elites in the capital. They staunchly believed that their project would lead to a better distribution of resources, and was thus in everyone’s interest. But these reformers were in the minority, and their project continuously failed precisely because a majority of Paraguayans continued to support parties governed not by facts but by bluster, misogyny, and outrage.
There are at least two reasons why this project was so difficult to sustain in Paraguay, and both have to do with the tendency of truth politics to forget that it is a politics. The first is that the relationship between having access to facts and making good governance choices is not at all straightforward. Consider one of the champions of post-Cold War truth politics, Transparency International (TI). Since 1994, TI has been publishing corruption rankings that, in 1998, ranked Paraguay the second-most corrupt on earth. (The joke, at the time, was that Paraguay had sold first-place to Cameroon). It argues that by making corruption visible in this way, it aids in decreasing corruption. But like many facts produced by technical operations, TI’s methodology is considerably more complicated than the sound bites it produces.
From the outside it can be hard to distinguish truth politics from the smugness of power
TI produces its ranking on the basis of surveys of “corruption perception.” Although it is always careful in the fine print to state that corruption perception is not the same as corruption, their media campaigns, especially in the early years, implied the opposite, that one could measure corruption by measuring people’s perception of it. There’s a basic contradiction here. If by producing information about corruption one were able to decrease corruption, one would assume that more “corruption perception” would correlate with less corruption. In other words, it is unclear whether TI’s index measures corruption itself or the gullibility of citizens. Looking at the TI consultants sent from the US in the era of Guantanamo prison, many of my Paraguayan friends were simply curious: did these people think that their country was less corrupt? Indeed, Paraguay has always struck me as a surprisingly transparent society. Far from lacking information about their government’s malfeasance, Paraguay is awash with it. The facts are quite plain, they just aren’t really what changes elections.
And this leads us to the second problem with truth politics in both Paraguay and the US, which is that from the outside it can be hard to distinguish from the smugness of power. The point is obvious when one moves from elite urban spaces to impoverished rural ones in Paraguay, the very spaces that are repeatedly blamed for electing strongmen. Paraguay’s bilingualism makes this dynamic especially stark: most of the urban elite speaks Spanish as a first language while the rural and peri-urban poor speak Guarani. But common beliefs about bilingualism in Paraguay elide this class dimension. A common saying in Paraguay is that Spanish is the language of the head, Guarani the language of the heart. Spanish is the language of clear, rational thought, Guarani is the language of poetry, song, innuendo and trickery.
It’s not surprising that Guarani has always been the language of the strongman, Spanish the language of the institutional reformer. But the fact that these get wrapped up with cultural capital, including the way elites berate the poor’s stupidity, makes it obvious how truth politics sides with the experience and interests of a particular group. Historian Uday Singh Mehta calls this contradiction liberalism’s “constitutive exclusions,” arguing that liberalism has since the 19th century claimed to be universal as a curious justification for violently colonizing those it considered illiberal.
None of this is to say we shouldn’t pursue some kind of truth politics in the face of rising fascism and ethnic nationalism in US and Europe. But it should be clear that truth won’t be saved by a dogmatic or snarky insistence on facts, since the Trump election in fact exploits liberalism’s own contradictions. The same dynamic that allowed England to colonize India on the basis of the latter’s lack of rational politics, and allowed reformers of the 1990s to sell the developing world “good governance” reforms on credit, now gives us arguments from coastal liberals that they need to save Midwesterners from their own ignorance. All of these arguments are based on a wilful blindness to the way that some of us personally benefit from truth politics, and makes us look like the gullible ones.
Kregg Hetherington is associate professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, and author of Guerrilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay.