Following Trump’s demise, the question is this: Can some semblance of a shared political space be recreated in which civilized debate can be carried on, and appeal made to sources of evidence judged by common consent to be impartial?
Or does the rise of the worldwide web and social media, and the accompanying fall from grace of the mainstream media, the scientific community, and all forms of established authority in the West, condemn us to a new politics: a politics in which rival sides, each convinced they possess the absolute truth, scream abuse at the other, and trade conspiracy theories that prove the enemy has been comprehensively brainwashed?
We have seen the trend toward the latter develop with the issues of climate change and Covid, where rival sides inhabit parallel self-contained virtual worlds. Appeal to reason, or to an authoritative body of evidence or factual data, has been replaced by appeal to multiple websites that promote the opinions one agrees with, that select the evidence that would confirm those opinions, and reinforce each other through elaborate cross-referencing. The loop is complete, the reasoning circular, the echoes pitch perfect.
Any evidence that might support a different opinion is dismissed as fabrication, the work of those brainwashed by sinister dark forces. Indeed, any opinion or belief can be verified by appeal to the corresponding virtual world of confirmatory websites: aliens on the Moon, the flat Earth, the Elders of Zion – you name it.
But the phenomenon has reached a new level with the US election. What is startling is that there is no middle ground. Either you believe the election was stolen from Trump, who would otherwise have won a landslide, through systematic fraud masterminded by the Democrats, the liberal establishment, the mainstream media, Big Tech, and the Chinese (as thousands of websites testify); or you believe that it was basically a fair election, and that Trump’s diehard supporters are the deluded followers of a cult, who believe every word of their leader (as thousands of other websites testify).
Now, no-one associated with the Salisbury Review is in any doubt about the threat posed to our cultural inheritance, to our liberties, and to free speech by the liberal establishment, the mainstream media, Big Tech, and the Chinese.
All contributors have written tirelessly on these subjects, as a momentary glance at past articles will testify. Indeed, so far as free speech is concerned, conservatives of all hues – Tory, liberal, and libertarian – are agreed.
Whatever one thinks of the liberal-leaning Spectator, its crusade for free speech has been admirable. Many of us will be members of Toby Young’s free speech union, set up to defend those victimised for exercising their legal right to voice an opinion.
But the US election highlights as never before the specific problem of web-based virtual worlds, complete with self-contained, self-reinforcing bodies of evidence. Of course, one or other side might be right. Conspiracies, plots, and secret organisations have existed through history.
The problem, precisely because there is no shared ground, no common point of reference, is knowing which side. Or as Lionel Shriver writes in the Spectator this week, ‘How can you be sure which of us is living in [the] delusional, self-reinforcing bubble?’
We cannot appeal to the ballot box, or electoral officials, or impartial observers, or the judges, or mainstream news and opinion, because they are all implicated in the conspiracy. So, we must choose by other means: either find a convivial virtual world to inhabit – or trust that there is still some semblance of shared common ground, of political or democratic bedrock, that we can take our bearings from.
There used to be two worlds: the everyday world of Plato’s cave, that is, the public world of shared experiences; and for the philosophers, an objective world of universal forms and truths outside the cave. Now it seems, there are not only multiple caves but multiple universes. Where do we go from here?