The power of lies to undermine horizontal accountability

Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), the skeptic, rejected the scope and power of reason in decision-making that Newton’s work had released. Hume thought that our passions and our affections naturally lead us to perform certain actions with reason acting only as a guide, and sought to develop more fully the consequences of cautious empiricism by applying the scientific methods of observation to a study of human nature itself. We cannot rely on the common-sense pronouncements of popular superstition, which illustrate human conduct without offering any illumination, Hume held, nor can we achieve any genuine progress based on speculative or abstract reasoning, which imposes a spurious clarity upon profound issues. The alternative is to reject all easy answers, employing the negative results of philosophical skepticism as a legitimate place to start. Most skeptics believe that by continuously questioning our knowledge, the source thereof, and what is held as “truth,” we can greatly reduce the risk of being deceived by lies.

David Hume dismissed standard accounts of causality and argued that our conceptions of cause-effect relations are grounded in habits of thinking, rather than in the perception of causal forces in the external world itself. The first step is to keep in mind what Hume called the ‘strange infirmities’ of human understanding, and the “universal perplexity and confusion, which is inherent in human nature”. Armed with this knowledge – for our ignorance is the one thing of which we can be certain – we should be sure to exercise the “degree of doubt, and caution, and modesty, which, in all kinds of scrutiny and decision, ought for ever to accompany a just reasoner.” Hume observes, “The more instances we examine, and the more care we employ, the more assurance shall we acquire, that the enumeration, which we form from the whole, is complete and entire.”

“Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular,” observes Hume. While cynicism is fear to believe, at the other end of the spectrum is blind faith where one is afraid to question. In between cynicism and blind faith one finds skepticism promotes no fear for either questions or hope.

The authoritarian decides what is true and that there can be no competition. They concoct an alternative reality through the creation of enemies. Their efforts include undermining confidence in the public square and in the institutions that democracies rely upon to mediate competing versions of the truth such as: courts, universities, science, news media. Donald Trump uses Twitter with a deluge of lies, fake news accusations and outrageous claims as his provocative tweets create a chaotic, alternative reality. He sabotages democracy by creating his own swamp where one cannot tell truth from fiction, where rational debate evaporates as he diverts, distracts, and deflects accountability. The purpose of such activities is to turn the country into warring tribes by creating un-yielding one-sidedness and enemies. Such self-interested propagandists will study public opinion to find out what things people are “for” or “against” in order to decide on the labels that he will use to bring about desired reactions.

Adolf Hitler wrote: The purpose of propaganda is not to provide interesting distraction for blasé young gentlemen, but to convince …the masses. But the masses are slow-moving, and they always require a certain time before they are ready even to notice a thing, and only after the simplest ideas are repeated thousands of times will the masses finally remember them… All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be. …The art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses and finding, through a psychologically correct form, the way to the attention and thence to the heart of the broad masses. The fact that our bright boys do not understand this merely shows how mentally lazy and conceited they are.

The broad mass of a nation does not consist of diplomats, or even professors of political law, or even individuals capable of forming a rational opinion; it consists of plain mortals, wavering and inclined to doubt and uncertainty. As soon as our own propaganda admits so much as a glimmer of right on the other side, the foundation for doubt in our own right has been laid. …The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. It is a mistake to make propaganda many-sided, like scientific instruction, for instance. But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over – persistence is the first and most important requirement for success.1

Populists tap into the anger in the room. Turning to emotional campaigning, fear appeals become a key component in populist communication. By definition, turning toward the promotion of the “people” against evil and out-of-touch elites, populists naturally rely on messages that highlight real or symbolic threats, fueling fears for the loss of identity or economic prosperity. Research in cognitive psychology shows indeed that fear appeals – especially when framed on out-group issues – are able to induce feelings of impending threats for the in-group (e.g. related to terrorist attacks or uncontrolled immigration). Populist communication framing the crime issue through fear finds appeal in many countries. Trump’s speech qualifying Mexican illegal immigrants as criminal, drug-addicts, and rapists is a textbook example. As populists are linked to a more negative rhetoric overall, expect populist candidates to make a stronger use of negative campaigns, character attacks, and fear appeals.2

In Weber’s classic treatment, a charismatic leader “derives his authority not from an established order and enactments, as if it were an official competence, and not from custom or feudal fealty, as under patrimonialism. He gains and retains it solely by proving his powers in practice. He must work miracles, if he wants to be a prophet. He must perform heroic deeds, if he wants to be a warlord. Most of all, his divine mission must prove itself by bringing wellbeing to his faithful followers; if they do not fare well, he obviously is not the god-sent master.” Once the majority of voters decipher the lies and realize that Donald Trump has only replaced one swamp with another, that his tax reform was for the benefit the economic elite and that his trade wars and health reform are failures – he will be sent back where he came from.

Populists routinely lie. The core message of populist campaigns is that the established elite is corrupt and exclusionary and that existing regime institutions are therefore not really democratic. Successful populists like Trump essentially earn a mandate from their supporters to bury the existing system. By attacking the press and civil society, he seeks to limit accountability to pursue his agenda. Once in power, populists seek to limit the ability of citizens to demand that elected representatives act responsibly and transparently. An active civil society depends on active, engaged citizens committed to liberal democracy. Citizens who care about norms and values need to be willing to organize, stand up to power and use their voice to express discontent, and hold elected representatives to high moral standards.  Populists do not just criticize elites, they also claim that they and only they, represent the true people.

How does the present system hold President Trump accountable for his lies? The most recent challenge is Trump’s inaccurate claims about his ‘perfect’ call to the President of Ukraine which has triggered an impeachment inquiry. The present provocation and greatest threat in the US stems from deficiency in horizontal accountability – the checks and balances in a constitutional system of separation of powers – an essential feature of the constitutional state that underpins liberal democracy. When horizontal accountability is undermined there is a democratic deficiency – as when the executive is not sufficiently accountable to the legislature through such acts as government secrecy and lack of transparency. Electoral accountability is given life through horizontal accountability – the agencies and processes that monitor and enforce the mandate, obligations, rules and promises of institutions. However, the ultimate mechanism is election to ensure those in power are held accountable.

1 The Art of Propaganda: A Master Reveals His Secrets, from Adolf Hitler, 1924

2 Alessandro Nai (28 Sept 2018) Fear and Loathing in Populist Campaigns? Comparing the Communication Style of Populists and Non-populists in Elections Worldwide

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