Leadership in the Post-Fact Era
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of an ongoing series of contributions from participants in The German Marshall Fund’s flagship leadership and development program, The Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF).
Politics have become emotional, I scribbled in my notebook after the first day of my Marshall Memorial Fellowship. It was just a passing thought, something I could have easily forgotten or neglected to write down. But after meeting European leaders who are confronting the reality of populist movements, those four words would come to shape my experience.
For years, people have not been connected with political discourse. As the issues on both sides of the Atlantic become more complex, elected leaders have presented policy using increasingly abstract and complex language. And as our leaders’ language and understanding has elevated, the general population has fallen further behind, creating an enormous gap in understanding. Now, instead of debating issues according to facts, we engage in a war of messaging.
We have arrived at the “post-fact” era, as Angela Merkel recently reflected.
In the post-fact era, people are no longer convinced by lengthy, policy-driven arguments because the foundation of arguments is no longer based in facts. It is based in emotion. And it is far easier to connect with a tweet than understand a complex policy.
Both Brexit and the U.S. presidential election demonstrated that complex fact-driven arguments are no match for simple (even false) messages. The Stay campaign told voters that the economic benefits of membership in the EU outweighed the contributions. The Leave campaign said the U.K. will save £350 million per week by leaving, which was later proven to be false. But voters responded to the message, not the facts. In the U.S. presidential election, Clinton spoke of immigration policy. Trump said build a wall. Clinton spoke of healthcare reform. Trump said repeal the Affordable Care Act. The Leave and Trump campaigns both successfully used simple messaging directed at the emotions of the population to score their victories.
So what is a leader to do?
First, acknowledge that it is time to engage at an emotional level. Leaders cannot afford to continue resisting, criticizing, or arguing against this seismic shift in the political discourse. It will not be the best idea that wins, but the best message. This does not mean you dumb down complex ideas and policy — it means you break them down. Make your case in 140 characters or less. And stay truthful. It is easy to break down and create a simple message with lies. It is hard to make a simple message with the truth. The simple, true, and emotionally connected message will outlast the post-fact era.
Truth will sustain the weight of governing, but lies will crumble.
Benjamin Hernandez, Chief Financial Officer for the Houston Health Department in Houston, TX, is a Fall 2016 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.
Photo credit: Gauthier Bouchet
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