Today’s ‘post-truth’ politics make for challenging times for those of us who think that public policy should be based on real data, science, and empirical evidence. Clearly, we shouldn’t abandon the facts, even if our opponents are doing so. Yet we do need to learn from our opponents – above all their adeptness at telling resonant stories.
Take Donald Trump. The next President’s record of making misleading statements has become the stuff of legend – so much so that you can even download a Washington Post browser extension that automatically fact-checks his tweets as he posts them. But for all that Democrats howled at the election result, the hard reality is that Trump far outclassed Hillary Clinton in his ability to weave a compelling narrative about making America great again.
Or take the Brexit campaign. Pro-EU campaigners were similarly outraged by the Vote Leave campaign’s claim that Britain sends £350 million a week to the EU – a number that they were quick to point out was more than double the true amount. Here again, though, it was stories, not data, that proved decisive, in this case about ‘taking back control’ from a remote, unaccountable bureaucracy.
Or look at climate change. Over nearly two decades as a climate expert, working as a special adviser to two British cabinet ministers and as an adviser in the UN Secretary-General’s office, I used to be sure that with science on our side, policy change would naturally follow. If only. Instead, we haven’t even begun to reduce global emissions. Why? In a nutshell, because opponents of climate action have too often had the better stories, and stories always beat data.
None of this should surprise us. Research consistently shows that evidence and arguments matter much less in how we make up our minds about political issues than we might like to think. Instead, it’s the values held by our family, friends, and colleagues that weigh most heavily in shaping how we think, behave, and vote – values which are in turn above all shaped by stories.
In my new book, I argue that part of the attraction of populists like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage is that they speak to the contemporary absence of – and deep hunger for – grand stories that explain where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to get to, and underneath it all, who we are.
Once upon a time, our society was rich in these kinds of stories, and we called them myths. Today, though, we have a ‘myth gap’. Religious observance is declining steadily, leaving instead a focus on literal, scientific truth. Almost unnoticed, the old stories that used to bind us together – stories about meaning, identity, and what matters in life – have disappeared. Yet new ones have not emerged to take their place – creating the perfect environment in which the Trumps and Farages, Putins and Le Pens can flourish.
If we feel uneasy about their ascendance, then the most important lesson we need to learn is to stop fighting them with facts, and instead come up with better stories: with 21st Century myths. And while there’s clearly no one set of myths that will work for everyone, the kind of myths we need today will share some key defining features.
First, they need to prompt us to think of ourselves as part of a larger us – a seven billion us, that has “more in common than that which divides us”, as the late British MP Jo Cox put it. (Contrast this with identity politics, which typically centres on a smaller idea of ‘us’ that needs to fight back against some ‘other’.)
Second, we need myths that help us think in terms of a longer now – to situate ourselves at the intersection of a deep past and a deep future, to think across generational timespans, and to protect and cultivate the future rather than gorging ourselves on it and leaving our successors to pick up the bill.
And third, we need myths that nudge us to imagine a better good life. One that decisively does away with the notion that we are what we buy, and in which we reimagine growth as being not about material consumption but instead about growing up as a species and moving past our current, dangerously adolescent moment at which we’re testing all the limits to see what will happen.
How will we find these 21st Century myths?
In the first instance, by consciously choosing our own stories to explain the world, rather than allowing them to be chosen for us by the media, the people around us, or leaders who play on themes of anger, hate, or fear.
By extension, second, we need to be ready to challenge the stories we hear around us – but also to listen deeply to the stories of people coming from very different perspectives. This will require real commitment to dialogue, and being open about our personal doubts, fears, and vulnerabilities – something that’s a world away from today’s fragmented social media echo chambers, in which we often do little more than nod furiously at people who already agree with us.
The emergence of shared myths will also be helped by the extraordinary innovation in storytelling technology happening all around us. Consider, for instance, that until recently only a handful of people had experienced the ‘overview effect’, the powerful shift in awareness reported by many astronauts and cosmonauts as they orbit the Earth in space. Now, IMAX cinemas offer this experience to everyone – and with virtual and augmented reality about to become commonplace, this is just the beginning.
The real power of myths – for good or ill – is their capacity to become self-fulfilling prophecies. As the period of history that we inhabit becomes more volatile and turbulent, much will depend on the kind of stories we tell each other to explain what’s happening. If those stories lead on themes of division and collapse, and we act accordingly, then the world described in those stories will become the reality we inhabit.
Our task, then, is to tell the other kind of stories. Stories that make us think in terms of a larger us, a longer now, and a better good life. Stories that don’t flinch from telling us how close to the edge we are on issues like climate change, but also that give us hope of reaching the “broad, sunlit uplands” that Winston Churchill described in his ‘finest hour’ speech, and above all that explain how to get there.