On this episode of the New Discourses Podcast, your host James Lindsay explores the concept of political regimes through American history. From Washington, to Lincoln, to Roosevelt, right up through W and Obama, the “US of A” has seen a broad spectrum of political ideals displayed under the common framework known as “Modernity.” But where are we now? Considering the rise of Trump, the media’s explicit bias, and the prevalence of critical social justice theory throughout culture, Lindsay suggests that America may have moved into a new Postmodern Regime: a regime that is making us wonder how we can tell what’s true anymore.
In addition to the audio recording here, Lindsay has edited the script for this podcast into an accompanying long-read essay, which is available below for those who are interested.
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A few days ago, I was talking to a friend, and he said, “I don’t know how to tell what’s true anymore.” This really hit me because I feel the same way all the time now. I have for a couple of years now, in fact. More than that, he and I aren’t the only ones who feel this way, apparently. I’ve had other friends talking about the same struggle. I’ve also had an uncounted number of people who email me to ask how I can tell what’s true, especially what media is trustworthy, pretty consistently for the last decade. Like, what’s my process? How do I vet sources? How do I know which outlets, which articles, which authors to trust?
I’m glad they trust my judgment well enough to ask, but I think I almost always let people down here. The answer I gave was always kind of vague—I don’t know. It used to include some specific advice that I don’t really know if I can give anymore, though: “Well, lean on well-established sources over pretty much everything else.”
Since Trump’s campaign really took off, though, and maybe sooner (as some of my conservative friends have it), this heuristic has lost a lot of weight. Even trusted sources publish a lot of bullshit now, and since Trump took office, pretty much every big mainstream outlet that criticizes him does it so blindly that they’ve lost our trust. And, of course, not all media! The problem, though, is that it’s enough media—and more importantly, enough specific media on any given outlet—so that credibility in the whole has been sacrificed on the altar of agenda. Sectors of academia have done the same, which pollutes the credibility of the rest of it.
Maybe it’s always been this way—and I’ve seen some scary stuff about the ways various big, credible outlets responded to events like the Holocaust as it was occurring—but there really does seem to be something different about right now. A recent study about the “perception gap” between the sides in American politics even showed that the more informed someone thinks they are on politics and the more media they engage with, the more likely they are to have the other side’s views wrong. This reminds me of a time not all that long ago when it was viewers primarily of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show who were among the most informed citizens regarding the world and politics.
The thing is, I don’t think it’s actually true that we’re doing worse at figuring out what’s true now than in the past, mind you. We’re not worse at communicating it either, at least not for the most part. I think we’re doing better than ever—at least for now—on both of these fronts. We used to be wrong about a lot more than we are now, I think, but that isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about actually feeling like we can’t know what’s true.
We used to have these kind of big, sweeping features and institutions that helped us believe we could tell what’s true. Maybe it was the three-channel news. Maybe it was religion. Something let us feel like we could tell what is and isn’t true, even if what we believed wasn’t true at all.
“I don’t know how to tell what’s true anymore.” It’s really an anthem for our age, isn’t it?
So this strikes me, and, like a fool, next thing I do is go on Twitter—which is nothing short of a functional real-time deconstruction machine that never stops. Put anything you want into it, and it takes it apart for you, almost immediately, and the closer you are to any controversy, the faster and more thoroughly it does it. So, dumbass than I am, I get on there and get talking about what everybody can’t stop talking about: the Covid-19 pandemic. And isn’t it just the perfect example of what’s going on?
Not even a pandemic, which you would hope people could focus on, is fixing it. In fact, it’s probably making it worse. In fact, I’m almost sure it is. Not only is the pandemic as a whole being politicized, so is just about every facet conceivably relevant to it. Which neighborhoods are infected? What countries are to blame? What should we call it? The drugs. The doctors. The models. The agencies doing their best (or is it?) to get us through it.
Which model is correct? Political. What if our estimates are correct and yours are wrong? Politically decided. Don’t you know the virus has a gendered impact that harms women most? Some people of color won’t wear homemade masks in the pandemic because they’re afraid it will cause police to shoot them. This is just one of so many racial impacts of Covid-19 that prove our society is racist. Political, political, political. The president, in touting and unproven drug, is just giving people hope. Political. Plus, some doctor said he did his own test that isn’t showing up in a medical journal but has to be told to the world on a pundit’s show late at night on one of the most blatantly politicized cable news channels that has ever existed. Dear God, so political.
It’s all fake news—unless you believe it, that is. That’s the litmus test between real and fake now: do you believe it? Your channel is the only real news among all the fake. The fake news is everyone else, all of which are just politicized activism posing as news. This is the rightful progeny of having decided that punditry and comedians making fun of punditry should be America’s most trusted news sources for going on two decades. Don’t think for a second that Jon Stewart didn’t bulldoze a ton of the necessary ground for the blunt-trauma meme “fake news!” to catch on like wildfire in 2015.
So, all the news now is, in fact, fake news except the news that you want to believe. The news that fits the narrative that suits your politics and view of the world. The news that matches your team’s or tribe’s or whatever we have to call it’s locally true narrative; that’s the one that’s true. The rest are all fake, political jobs trying to exert control over everyone to push their agenda.
And it’s true for all of them. So my friend texts me the one thing I can’t stop thinking lately: “I don’t know how to tell what’s true anymore.”
This needs some context.
As some of you will have seen, a couple of weeks ago, I sat down to watch a series of Street Epistemology videos made by a guy named Anthony Magnabosco, who talked to a young “indigenous scholar,” as she called herself, who is up to her eyeballs in Critical Social Justice Theory. The video is really quite striking. I did this together with my friend Reid Nicewonder, who runs another Street Epistemology channel called Cordial Curiosity. He invited me to watch the Magnabosco-Vanessa video series with him and comment on my observations as she talks through her Critical Social Justice beliefs—equity, epistemic justice, knowledge, colonialism, and so on. This is important to do because, as John Stuart Mill made very clear, we have to learn from people we don’t agree with, and we must learn from those people themselves, not merely from their critics but from people who really believe it and defend it from that level of conviction and understanding.
Near the end of the second part (out of three parts) of Anthony’s video series with Vanessa, she gets to a really key part about the Critical Social Justice belief structure. This is actually key to understanding what’s going on and why my friends and I (and I presume a lot of other people) don’t know how to tell what’s true anymore. She might as well quote the famous postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault at one point when Anthony asks her a straight question about truth in reality, and she replies that what’s true in reality is “up to whoever wants to stand as the authenticator of facts.”
This is a shocking—and, I must say, fundamentally postmodern—claim. Like, it’s not just fundamentally postmodern but probably the best functional definition of what postmodernism really means in practice. This shocking postmodern claim leads Vanessa almost in her next breath to argue that people have different realities (presumably based on who authenticates the facts about them). For more context, this whole part of their dialogue rests on her earlier claim that she doesn’t really like truth or believe in truth; that truth is something that exists inside of narrative.
In taking it to people fundamentally having different realities, Vanessa apparently goes a bit far even for postmodernism, but not too far. In postmodernism, it is believed that experience of reality is the only reality there is, and that experience is fundamentally shaped by the dominant and competing discourses that are used to talk about it.
Moreover, in saying this idea is postmodernist, it’s important to understand that it isn’t just rooted in some fashionable interpretation of Foucault. The American postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty argued similarly, writing that the world might be out there, but the truth isn’t really out there. His implication is that truth is something embedded in culture, or ultimately that’s constructed by cultural narratives. Those narratives are often, in fact, about which statements are deemed to be “true” by the powers that get to authenticate statements as true. Another Frenchie, Jean-François Lyotard, was a big favor of this idea of locally true narratives, just like Vanessa, Fox News, and everyone else who sees all knowledge claims and epistemology through a lens of politics.
Think about that for a minute. It’s all narrative. Truth is just a matter of the narrative, and which narratives we believe are decided upon by applications of social and political power. Every channel’s news is fake news except the one that matches your politics. We don’t have universally recognizable authorities anymore—even our leading epidemiologists are being politicized right now—we have our preferred authorities. And like little postmodern Vanessa said, what we take as truth depends on who we recognize as having the authority to determine the truth.
Again, I stress that this is the fundamentally postmodern view, like the quintessential observation of postmodern philosophy, if I had to boil it down to just one thing.
So for a while now, rather like some postmodern philosophers liked to do, I’ve been thinking about eras and epochs of history. I got into this because of postmodernism, which clearly followed modernism. Postmodernism is, in fact, a reaction to modernism. In some ways, postmodernism, like everything post, rejects the premises of modernism—premises like objectivity and logical positivism it wholly rejects—but it also amplifies other premises, like a growing skepticism and pessimism around the social order and ideology that postmodernism turned radical and cynical.
This interest is actually not particularly historical for me or even philosophical. It’s part of a more specific interest in Modernity, not so much modernism, for some time. Helen Pluckrose and I even wrote a manifesto in its defense—rather, against its postmodern and premodern enemies—in the middle of 2017. There, we defined “Modernity” quite broadly as the big-picture epoch of human history that began with the Enlightenment and got us more or less where we are today.
Now, since this is an essay that’s ultimately about turbulent times, I don’t want to give the false impression that I think everything was crap, then the Enlightenment happened, and then we had Modernity, and everything is great. Modernity is a project that has developed since the Enlightenment (itself something of a sprawling project), and certainly not everything since the Enlightenment has been “enlightened” as a result of its placement in history. Furthermore, Modernity didn’t exactly grow into being without some kicking and screaming. In fact, I’m guessing it was rather a lot like things are now—and by this I mean disruptive.
The printing press was certainly a critical invention that has a lot to do with the Enlightenment and the changes that followed from it. Arguably, it changed everything, even religion, in that it is more than likely the single invention that enabled the Protestant Reformation. This is because it allowed printing Bibles in the vernacular languages of Europe, which had a lot to do with Martin Luther, whatever else you want to say about him, his courage, and other traits he may have possessed. In a word, this was disruptive, and the media environment of the last forty years, and especially the internet and social media even more recently, are like our printing press.
Backing up to the Enlightenment, which dawned with some good philosophy and the printing press, before then, times were fairly dark, as we describe them now. In some sense, though, this being epistemological, they were also relatively stable compared to what was coming with the printing press and the Enlightenment. Those brought disruption, and all of a sudden, at least in Europe, the thing that let people believe they could tell what was true—Catholic Christianity, mostly—got kneecapped. This was done by a series of philosophers who, more or less, insisted that the authority of prophets isn’t enough to get us to truth alongside a series of theologians (who were sometimes the same people) who wanted to put the Word of God (that is, the day’s epistemological authority) in the hands of everyone. And yes, I know I’m oversimplifying, but this is a big-picture point with lots of messiness around it that doesn’t go away just because it’s messy.
Of course, the Catholic Church responded rather predictably for a massive authority that has just had both its deep rot of corruption and it’s shaky tether to reality exposed at the same time. It tortured people and set them on fire—or at least arrested them, as happened in the case of one of the greatest icons of scientific history, Galileo. As usually turns out to be the case, institutional might and thumbscrews only keep people and the truth down for so long. Through a lot of ugly stuff—including the infamous Thirty Years War—the Enlightenment and its theological little brother, the Reformation, proceeded to remake the Western world.
Now is disruptive, of course, but then was really disruptive. What was happening was that premodernity was ending, and its capacity to enable a means by which people could believe they could tell what’s true—more or less by listening to priests—was coming to a close. Modernity and its new modern regimes of thought were coming into the world.
The magic of the Enlightenment wasn’t just unleashing the printing press, though. It was also establishing that narrative—thus all those religious struggles—miss the point, or so it believed. There’s an objective reality out there, which was plain enough, and, it let us realize, if we’re willing to do the work and swallow an awful lot of our pride and, in some cases, privilege, we can know something about it. Over the course of a couple centuries or three, narrative slowly became quaint and kind of backwards—again, or so we thought. Nevertheless, Modernity was here, and we started calling it “the Western World.”
And by the way: those of us who feel politically homeless and lost by what’s going on in the world right now, thinking everything and pretty much everyone went mad in a bad way, this is our disconnect. We can say things like, “I didn’t leave the left (or right), the left (or right) left me,” but I think what’s really happening is that the left and right have abandoned Modernity, and us. Hence the manifesto with Pluckrose. So who are we? Although we’re not modernists as the philosophers and historians would have it, there’s something distinctly modern about us and how we think. I think we’re all kind of Modernity-ists, to make up a fake word using Helen’s and my nonstandard usage of the term. We people who, for the most part, still believe in all that Enlightenment-based Modernity stuff, what we tend to call “advanced democracies” and whatnot, and what makes them work—liberalism, science, reason.
Back to my point about historical eras of thought, it’s the eras of Modernity that postmodernism ultimately forced me to think about. Modernity, as such, can be broken up in to a bunch of eras. For convenience, it would be fair to call the first of these the Enlightenment Era. This gave way to a rationalist era and eventually the modernist era, which, despite its name, would have been the era defining the thought during the American Civil War up through probably World War II (technically, this is a specific span within the industrial half of the “late modern period”). That is, the Modernist era would have been when everything started getting less agrarian and more industrial and mechanical. This shift brought with it certain kinds of pessimism about how bad everything is—not entirely for bad reasons—alongside a lot of optimism about how we can use science and technology to fix it all. So Marx was a modernist thinker. He, as it happens, figured the intolerable stuff was going to fix itself through the machinations of history as it, he wrongly assessed, must progress.
Here’s an important thing, though. This kind of belief is what replaced the quaint narratives of yesteryear. But haven’t you noticed? These are kind of their own sort of narrative. In fact, they’re really big narratives that have been described as “stories about stories,” or a kind of grand mythology in which all of our Modernity-ist stories have to be embedded to be considered not-mythology. Liberalism. Capitalism. Communism. Great Societies. Manifest Destiny. The French Civilizing Mission. Even religion, by which is really meant Christianity, which has been contorted more recently into an ahistorical and inaccurate, though very popular, fiction: “Western Values” and “Judeo-Christian Heritage,” mostly by people who want to pretend the most relevant force of the Enlightenment wasn’t the world-changing demand it created for secularism and the death of clerical authority.
These great narratives were the meta-stories—or, metanarratives—that built Modernity and justified the expansion of the West to its citizens. This somewhat worthy observation—that Modernity had its own narrative structures that gave it roughly the same kind of mythology as had the Catholics before the Enlightenment (and since, as they didn’t just vanish, of course)—has generated a lot of confusion and conflation, though. For example, you’ll notice, I hope, that I didn’t mention science on this list of Modern metanarratives. That was intentional. Science is somehow different and, particularly, is actually really good at helping us really know how to tell what’s true. It’s distinctly different than the kind of story we use just to believe we can tell the what’s true because it happens to fit the prevailing mythological framework of some time and place.
In time, particularly by the 1960s, people noticed that Modernity was telling itself stories about itself, and—not wholly for bad reasons—they conflated anyway, tying certain features of liberalism, capitalism, and science in with the other metanarratives in a way that has historical grounding but that doesn’t really work. Those arguments missed the point, but they also had enough of a point to convince a lot of people—mostly those who aren’t scientists and who don’t like capitalism all that much—all the same. (As it turns out, by the way, merely having a point isn’t enough if you actually want to get things right, and failing to appreciate when this is happening to you is one of the most reliable ways to get things wrong.)
This set of observations and their eventual popularity, especially in America, arranged history such that it came to pass that the latest era in Modernity would be the postmodernist era, which was based on these ideas. Since I’m claiming that there’s a lot of unfair conflation, especially about what we might call the pillars of Modernity within postmodernism, not to mention a fair amount of cynicism about Modernity’s worth, you can probably guess that, at least in my view, this wasn’t a good development.
The thing is, postmodernism is fundamentally incompatible with Modernity. This is because while most people talk about postmodernism being a reaction to and kind-of rejection of modernism, it’s really a rejection of Modernity. Postmodernism, however it relates to modernism via “postification,” meaning whatever philosophical alchemy adding a prefix of post means here, hates Modernity and seeks to tear it apart by turning its own key tools against it. Thus, the postmodernist era is, frankly, probably going to be the last era of Modernity, unless we can save it. If we want to try to prevent the end of Modernity (editorializing note: we do), it’s probably necessary to understand that the ship has already left port.
When I say postmodernism hates Modernity (in the name of improving it, of course), how do I mean that? Modernity is built upon a few pillars: science, reason, rule of law, liberalism, capitalism. Postmodernism hates all of them.
Start with science. The power of science, ultimately, comes from the fact that it says humans aren’t the standard for knowledge, reality is, whether we like it or not. It’s therefore, in a very meaningful sense, a bunch of methods humans have devised for bouncing our ideas off reality and keeping the good ones, the one reality doesn’t make a fool of. Postmodernism claims it thinks the same thing, but it stops short at recognizing that humans aren’t a capable standard for knowledge and, being rather culturally fixated, doesn’t concern itself with material reality much at all.
Put otherwise, postmodernism isn’t having this idea that science is getting to the truth. Reality might be out there, but we can’t know it, it (Rorty) says, because our human contrivances are all hopelessly blocked from objective reality by our own subjective biases. It can try, it (Foucault) says, but it reliably gets it wrong and does greater damage. Science and its methods, even its axiomatic claim upon universality—that it doesn’t matter who performs the experiment, the result should be the same—are seen as mere cultural artifacts, one way of knowing among many. Worse, it’s an approach that has always enabled a steady supply of misuse and abuse that generates harm, suffering, and oppression while marginalizing other ways of knowing that might have done better along with the people who want to bring those to bear on human “potentialities.” (As if)
Reason is similarly held in disdain and has come to be considered by postmodernism as it has evolved through the decades to be a contrivance of power. Reason, postmodernism posits, is a myth European men—later straight, white, Western men—told themselves about their own ability to think to justify their political dominance of the world. Reason is a myth, a comforting and privilege-maintaining lie, to postmodernist thought. It’s something that can’t tell you anything about the world, only about the people who think their capacity to use it is better than someone else’s. A reasonable narrative is just one narrative among many.
The rule of law is also rejected by postmodernism because, again, laws are just human contrivances and thus ultimately arbitrary. Not only are the arbitrary, they are the direct application of political power, which the critical aspect of the postmodernist view holds always works to maintain itself. Laws must be written by people, of course, and legislators are quite literally people with power, but more concerningly, they’re people who got that power because they already had the necessary (sociocultural) power to get elected—there aren’t not a lot of black Senators from the South before quite recently, and when “scientific racism” (as it’s unfortunately called) was still a thing, it would have been unthinkable. So postmodernism would hold that the law itself, as it is written, is just a concrete reification of existing power, not necessarily something that should be comfortably relied upon.
Moreover, Modernity depends on the law being executed and adjudicated as fairly as possible, and many things that come up within law are complex and ambiguous, not the kind of thing you’d see as being as cut and dry as in the sciences. Thus, the law has to rely upon standards like a “reasonable person” standard that asks us to consider what a “reasonable person” would think about certain situations. Postmodernism rejects the idea that any of us can be reasonable people even in principle, so any such standard is out the window, thus rule by any such standard must go with it. (Thus, when someone of minority race is caught shoplifting, they shouldn’t be held to account or liable. He law, or even if it had to go there, a reasonable person might conclude the act was stealing, but that person is too embedded in power dynamics—the dominance he has internalized and the oppression he can’t (or won’t) understand—to understand the underlying systemic forces that caused the person to take something without paying for it.) There’s no standard or reasonable person left in Postmodernity who could agree that what really happened was theft. That’s all a matter of narrative.
This, by the way, reminds me of a trick Anthony Magnabosco likes to use when people start talking about “their truth” versus “your truth” or “the truth.” “It’s true for me!” So Anthony will ask to have their water bottle, for example, then claim that it’s his truth that it’s his water bottle now. That’s his narrative, his truth. Once he applies a narrative where he claims it’s true that the water bottle is his—when there’s no reasonable person who could possibly adjudicate what happened—you can immediately see the problem. The people he takes it from, who were just talking about things being “true for them” can see the problem too. It’s excellent. “It’s true for me” seems to have some pretty profound limitations in applicative scope.
Setting that aside, postmodernism is openly hostile to liberalism too, at least as it has evolved. The original postmodernists would have seen liberalism as not nearly liberal enough. Its reliance on Enlightenment ideals such as science, reason, and rule of law are seen as naive and blithely unconcerned with the machinations of power at best and blindly self-interested at worst. This cynical view it had in common with a sister “emancipatory” philosophy that came from a far harder line of critical theory, namely the capitalized real kind. Critical Theory, the brainchild of the Neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, sees liberalism not as the gateway to a functional democratic political order but as its chief impediment.
As a result, liberalism, this critical postmodernism tells us, is a simultaneously naive and evil sociopolitical order that fools the oppressed into believing they have it better than they do so that they won’t turn radical and try to upturn the system. It wants to favor what might be called “radical egalitarianism” instead, where it orders society according to a hierarchy of endless reparations for historical injustices rather than according to principles of equality, liberty, and judgment upon the content of one’s character. That is, liberalism forwards the idea of the individual, which is another concept critical postmodernism tends to hold is a myth—one obviously created by arrogant European men who wanted to accept Enlightenment and rationalist discourses that position themselves as capable, independent thinkers (rather than minds that are largely, if not entirely, products of the cultural and historical contingencies in which they happen to find themselves).
And of course critical postmodernism is hostile to capitalism, at least in the way the philosophy was developed, because it was made by a collection of anti-capitalists and Marxists (like Deleuze, Guattari, and Jameson), post-Marxists (like Foucault and Derrida, who had a lot less to say about the issue), and others who generally despaired of the “fakeness” of mass production (like Baudrillard and Lyotard). So, postmodernism—especially when it takes up criticism, which its modern incarnations undoubtedly have—is hostile to all of Modernity and the pillars that hold it up. Thus, it’s not wrong to characterize it as a step out of the light back into darkness, to get metaphorical. It’s exactly the kind of thing that could spark a new Dark Age if it had the power—or, more accurately, if it succeeds in eroding the powers that keep the lights on.
The thing we need to do now, then, is distinguish between postmodernism and Postmodernity, and I mean that in the same way that Helen and I meant Modernity in our “little” manifesto, where we capitalized it and basically used it to mean the machinery and outcomes of human progress toward advanced democracies over the last 500 years. You’ll notice I, very fashionably, made Postmodernity a proper noun here, as is the thesis of this piece. I have to do that because postmodernity means something else too, which is what the original postmodernists—Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and so on—thought they were living in and (mostly) merely describing. “The postmodern condition,” Lyotard called it in his most famous book. And what was it? In summary, a skepticism of metanarratives, meaning any narrative we can all get behind, in favor of local narratives.
So, what was their problem, anyway?
Aside from all the acid—enough to make them think the 60s and 70s were insane enough to be truly postmodern (imagine them looking at now)—these guys were looking around at a world full of pop culture, mass-produced stuff, people wanting to watch football instead of engaging in art, and lots of vestiges of modern, capitalist societies that people happened to like. The Critical Theorists were obsessed with this, and it was a kind of leftist mood at the time, right? They were also looking at the abuses of science as those were put into policy and carrying the World Wars and Empire as historical backdrops for these. At the same time as this, they were also dealing with the cynicism that their preferred answer to all those apparent problems—Marxism—was on the rocks.
A lot of people get this wrong and think these guys were Marxists. Well… some of them were, but the ones people really mean tend to be Foucault and Derrida, and no! They were post-Marxists. Not even Neo-Marxists like the Frankfurt School guys: Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. Post-Marxists. Like, Marxism is dead, but let’s keep its fundamental spirit around and do something not quite so modernistic. Derrida even wrote a book called Spectres of Marxism in which he explained the need to transcend Marxism—you see the double meaning on “spectres” at once. Among his other thoughts, there he put it plainly in his own words, which he seemed never to be able to be taken at: “What is absolutely clear is that I’m not a Marxist.”
What “post” means here is that they were big but disillusioned fans. Big fans of communist movements, not least Mao’s, at least in certain ways, but utterly disillusioned with the theoretical developments that led to them. So they were generally mad at society; they generally disliked all the things about modernism and Modernity that you might expect out of good, angry radicals on the left; but they were also utterly broken on the left’s favored solution: Marxism. What’s left then? Not capitalism. Not communism. Not—nothing. Is it really surprising that they just went kind of totally nihilistic and tore into the very fabric of what a society means and obsessed on why it necessarily sucks? Unless, that is, it’s almost a pre-civilizational realm of pure experience, which they wrote repeatedly as being what they saw as an ideal, definitely not as a result of the acid.
So postmodernity, lowercase and as they meant it, would kind of mean “how the advanced, developed world was in the 60s, 70s, and 80s if you pretty much hated everything about it.” The postmodern condition described by Lyotard was really a kind of introspective confession, amidst a bunch of outright linguistic nonsense, that belched out this cynicism and despair. It was hip, chic curmudgeoning from people who thought the modern world—and thus Modernity—had failed them, and thus us all.
That’s not what I want to talk about when I talk about Postmodernity, capitalized. Postmodernity is what they thought they were describing, but they were ahead of their time. It’s the thing I’m afraid we’re really walking into as we collectively slowly turn our backs on Modernity entirely. Predictably, given that it’s postmodern in nature, too many of us are doing so while laughing.
So, what’s Postmodernity?
It’s what my friend said: “I don’t even know how to tell what’s true anymore.”
Why is this Postmodernity? Because Postmodernity is the epoch of history in which everything is all narrative, and truth doesn’t exist except as a kind of privileged status within some narrative or another. So you get your truth. I get my truth. The postmodernists get their post-truth. The president can have his alternative facts. And before long, nobody even knows how to tell what’s true anymore. Postmodernity is, or at least begins with, what I’ve been calling the Age of Narratives for some time.
Or, if we want to stick with convention, we could call this era narrativism and place it in the row in its proper place: rationalism, modernism, postmodernism, narrativism. The first three of these are eras within the Modern epoch. The last is the first of the Postmodern epoch. In that sense, narrativism is now, and Postmodernity is the name for now.
This leads me to perhaps the scariest thing I think I’ve ever thought, something I just can’t shake because it has that uncomfortable status of something I don’t want to be true but increasingly suspect is true. We have to go back to 2017 for me to explain it properly, but the long and short of it is that we really are in Postmodernity now, like Postmodernity has institutionalized. When I said the ship has left port a few minutes ago, that’s what I mean.
So, my friend saying to me, “I don’t know how to tell what’s true anymore” ended up striking a chord that made me think—why, I don’t know—about an essay I wrote what now feels like a very long time ago, around when Trump was first elected, right after his inauguration in January 2017, in fact. “Donald Trump and the Death of an American Political Regime,” I called it. In that essay, I discuss this idea called “democratic political regimes.” I know that’s a head-scratcher of a concept for a lot of us. Democracies that work are supposed to be the answer to what we usually refer to as “political regimes,” and the r-word here is a term we usually reserve for the specific impending faiulres of dictators, especially when they’re catastrophic, like Stalin’s or Mao’s.
A democratic political regime takes the generalized idea of a regime—a prevailing sociopolitical mood that’s enforced in one way or another, if you will—then removes the dictator. In democracies, this has a lot to do with the public mood and the resulting sweeping directions of public policy. So, a dictator’s regime is dependent upon his mood and his (often wayward) policy decisions, and a democratic political regime is similar except that it’s the people’s “mood” and trends in various sorts of policies that define it instead of one guy, like Stalin; one family, like the Kims in North Korea; or one party, as we see in the CCP.
Apparently, the United States has has six major political regimes in its history, and while I know I might kind of lose my non-American friends here in some very American weeds, bear with me because I don’t think the problem I’m describing is limited to the U S of A.
These regimes have a few traits in common. First, they obviously have some policy direction that kind of defines them. Second, they usually are ushered in with a prototypical presidential administration that is very inspiring in some way—presidents who initiate democratic regimes are often remembered as the greats, which should let you guess, maybe, which ones they are in advance of my telling you. It’s important to realize, though, that the president and administration aren’t the regime in a democracy; it’s the public mood that put a person like that at the helm and made his successors govern similarly. Third, they usually spin out their ideological and practical usefulness or applicability eventually and falter, then fall. Presidents who end a democratic regime are often remembered as being pretty monumental failures, even if they’re of excellent character, which might help your guessing somewhat.
I generally tend to think they are kind of reactions to the failures of the previous regimes as technology and other conditions progress in ways that demand new approaches, and that means that none of the ones that have happened so far is inherently bad. They’re generally good inasmuch as necessity and vision start them, often successfully solving problems the earlier regime couldn’t handle, but they crap out eventually.
Another core trait of democratic political regimes is that the mood of the regime dictates how everyone who governs under it has to govern. To speak in language we understand today, if the regime is generally conservative, everyone in them, even the left-liberal administrations, has to govern like the yang within that yin. They have to be very center left or even modestly center right, which might be quite left within the regime itself. This is why progressives today call Bill Clinton and Barack Obama “basically conservatives” while conservatives saw them as liberal Anti-Christs. The same is true in reverse, so in a generally liberal regime, even conservatives have to adopt left-leaning mores in their governance. Think about Republicans like Eisenhower and Nixon—same as Clinton and Obama, but in reverse. Bucking the regime isn’t really an option. Anyone who tries basically has no hope of being elected or, especially, re-elected, or effective, or popular.
You can imagine, if you’ve understood the postmodernism talk up to now, how Michel Foucault would have had a field day with this—democratic political regimes are very much like the truth regimes he was centrally concerned with. Maybe, then, as he helpfully pointed them out to the world, it’s not extremely surprising that we’re entering Postmodernity as I’m trying to describe it.
That aside, it’s important to realize that democratic political regimes are kind of supra-political. They’re bigger than politics, even really big politics. This is something I feel like all the time now too, something Helen and I tried to address in our manifesto. It’s very difficult, unless you’re going all-in on your hyper-polarized side and against theirs, to really think of political issues at all. The real issues seem meta-political, or supra-political, and the culture war seems largely about fighting on a completely different plane that politics are somehow apart from but subject to. I keep find myself telling people that I want to solve the problems I work on now because I want to be able to get back to debating politics, anyway.
Those ideas in hand, we can talk about the American regimes themselves and finally get to the point. So far, the six American political regimes have been these:
Federalist – George Washington and John Adams, the founding and Constitutional regime.
Democratic-Republican – Thomas Jefferson through John Quincey Adams, a broadly classically liberal regime, libertarian as we’d think of it today.
Democratic – Andrew Jackson through James Buchanan, a mostly pseudo-populist, maybe even reactionary regime characterized primarily by a string of pretty shockingly bad presidents on average.
Republican – Abraham Lincoln through Herbert Hoover, a largely nation-building regime that got rocked in the end by the rapid technological developments of the (formal) modern era.
New Deal – Franklin Roosevelt through Jimmy Carter, a starkly progressive liberal regime that even ran a project that called itself “The Great Society.”
Neoconservative – Ronald Reagan through… Certainly George W. Bush and maybe Barack Obama. This is where things get a bit murky, and that was the topic of my January 2017 essay that I now fear missed the point.
What isn’t murky is that the Neoconservative Regime was certainly oriented to the conservative. It is, in fact, a political order that’s organized largely around facilitating neoliberal (roughly, deregulated) capitalist economics on a global scale. It’s also really not controversial to believe that Reagan started the Neoconservative regime (and Thatcher in the UK), but it is confusing, at least for me, as to whether the last Neocon president was W Bush or Obama. W was definitely operating as a Neocon, and Obama ended up doing a lot in that line while clearly trying to be something else.
In my 2017 essay, I argued (not seriously) that history got this turn wrong. It should have been either McCain or Clinton who ended the Neoconservative Regime by being elected in 2008 as Bush’s successor and the death of that by-then unpopular dynasty. Then we could have moved on from it properly—probably with Obama ushering a Progressive Regime in 2012 (for good or bad, I don’t know)—but that’s not how history ended up happening. Obama beat Clinton in the 2008 primary, probably partly because she’s an avatar for left-side Neoconservatism, which was already dying thanks to a rude combination of history and Bush. Then he ran on a platform that looked like the start of the next big thing after Neoconservatism—hope and change!
I honestly think he tried to deliver on those, but ultimately, he got hampered by a bizarre series of Congresses that weren’t having it—or him, frankly—forcing him to govern in a way that was way more Neocon than he might have otherwise, and things got confusing. Of course, things were confusing too, as by the time Obama took office, social media was happening, and so were the massive cable television wars not just between CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and whoever else, but much more relevantly, Fox and Comedy Central. Amidst the all confusion of the shift of political regimes, what with Obama running heavily progressive and then being forced to carry a significant weight of the corpse of Neoconservatism, the Age of Narratives had matured after learning from its trial run through the 1990s.
I concluded my essay by suggesting that Trump’s election was an aberration from the steady march of democratic political regimes in America, one to another, and that it remained to be seen if the next regime would be fundamentally progressive or more in line with the neoliberalism of the Conservative Movement, or something even more pseudo-populist and apparently reactionary like Trumpism. Being on the left myself, I saw the rightful inheritor of the political regime throne to be a progressive era, hopefully not one mired in Critical Social Justice nonsense, and I saw it as having been deposed by a bad bounce of history—Obama beating Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. Right-wing pseudo-populism had won the day, and I expressed a concern that maybe Trump was ushering in an era of American history for which Andrew fucking Jackson would be the nearest similar model. But I couldn’t be sure because—man—is he and his approach ever unpopular outside of the people who genuinely support him.
Nevertheless, I got something wrong there. History can’t bounce the wrong way. History just is. So while it’s easy to say the New Deal Regime was left-progressive and the Neoconservative Regime was right-conservative, what’s hard to do is to think outside that binary now. I figured that the next era must be either left-ish or right-ish, progressive or conservative, and unless we got some kind of grip on ourselves first, given the polarization, it would be extremely one or the other.
Now, looking back after my rather panicked friend said he doesn’t know how to tell what’s true anymore, feeling the same way myself, and having three and a quarter more years of data and learning at hand, I think I know what I missed. It’s something obvious and horrifying.
I wrote—and almost hope now—that we’re really in a weird liminal stage where Neoconservatism has clearly died but without a proper regime-ending presidency (though Obama’s tenure may be remembered this way, rather unfortunately, in my view). I think we might have actually entered the next great political regime, and I’m afraid it might be the Postmodern Regime, and Trump is its first and defining president.
I don’t think I was intellectually equipped to think such a thing then, and, frankly, I don’t think I’m emotionally equipped to think it now. But here I am, thinking it, and I can’t shake it. It seems obviously and intuitively true now that I’ve admitted it, and way worse than that, it stands up to rather a lot of analysis.
Bear with me. Like I said, because the New Deal Regime and Neoconservative Regimes were so blatantly left, then right, in their overall orientation, it can be hard for us youngsters to think outside of that, but the earlier regimes weren’t clearly set up that way, as we’d understand left and right today. Jefferson, figurehead of the Democratic-Republican regime, was neither left nor right by today’s standards; he was a classical liberal. More accurately, he was a turbo-libertarian, by today’s standards, who sold off the Navy to pay down the national debt (before having to build a new Navy when Napoleon started his wars). It would be plainly incorrect to characterize Lincoln’s slavery-ending Republicanism as conservative except in its aim to conserve and build the nation itself. So, American political regimes don’t have to be on the left-right binary.
That means, especially in this deeply polarized environment we’re in now, that it’s hard to think of the next regime, or the new, current one, as not being characterizable as left-side or right-side—and that’s where I went (and I think others go) wrong. I think we may have to step back and see the proper characterization isn’t left or right but both: the polarization and partisan politicization of everything are its fundamental character. This, I’m claiming, is driven by an underlying ethos of postmodernism: everything is narrative, and each side, however many sides there might be, has its own truths, its own facts, it’s own realities, all of which only make sense in their own narratives.
My point here, by the way, isn’t to justify to you why I don’t particularly like Trump as a president or even to explain why I haven’t been able to stop calling him “the first postmodern president” almost since he was elected. Trump is barely relevant. He’s the symptom, not the disease, as many are fond of pointing out, but they can’t seem to name the disease. I will, though. Trump is the first postmodern president; the disease is postmodernism.
Trump is therefore the first postmodern president in the sense that he is the first president who has truly embraced the Age of Narratives, or narrativism, which is the proper successor and fruit of postmodernism. Narrative is what he ran on, and narrative is what he was elected on—and not just narrative, but deconstruction too. Drain the swamp! Again, the point of a democratic political regime isn’t the officeholder. It’s the public mood that allowed the officeholder to sweep in and take office, generally in a way that redirects American politics for as long as the regime lasts.
My point, then, is that we really do live in Postmodernity now—and I don’t think we have up until quite recently—the ship really did only just leave port.
I talk to a lot of people who support Trump, and I ask them what they like about him so much. Some of them are just disconnected from reality entirely and talk about features of some deity they’ve conjured out of thin-air like a pyrite idol. My favorite example of this was a woman who loves him who told me to my face, “He’s a truly great man. He has enough money to pay off the entire national debt by himself, but he believes in personal responsibility, so he doesn’t. He holds us up to a high standard and won’t give it to us for free, even though he could.” Let’s take them off the table. They’re in a cult.
Others are really happy about how he stands up to the Social Justice bullies—that is, that he hates their political enemies and can defeat them. I can sympathize, holding my nose. I think the best lesson the man has taught the world is that when the viral outrage comes, if you just ignore it, stare it down, or make fun of it, it has essentially no real power over you. Others, though, are more clarifying in their explanations. They’re the tell: he makes everyone’s head spin (or explode). The “everyone” here means “liberals,” of course, which seems to mean both kinds at once, in typical postmodern doubling: his political enemies on the left and all of us silly Modernity-ists who haven’t got the memo that in Postmodernity nothing really matters because it’s all images and applications of political nonsense anyway.
We have to note, too, that it’s not even that he upsets people. It’s that he upsets them in a particular way and by a particular method that can only be properly described as deconstructive—like Jacques Derrida deconstructive. His snarky little trolling videos that everyone who kinda likes him loves? That’s deconstruction. That’s Derrida, or at least his Americanified meme (it’s really Judith Butler’s take on it, a politics of parody), applied to the allegedly dignified Office of the Presidency of the United States of America and the federal government that it empowers it in the Chief Executive. Big Macs, Fillet-o-Fish, Whoppers, and Wendy’s for high-honor White House dinners? De-con-struc-tion, Americana edition. Pomp, circumstance, tuxedos, silver dishes, and mass-produced cheeseburgers. It’s hard to get more postmodern than that, but he manages. It’s how he “stands up to” his political enemies too. Crooked Hillary? Deconstructed. Pocahontas? Deconstructed. Low-energy Jeb, Little Marco, and Lyin’ Ted? De-con-struct-ed, right along with the dignity of the office. And people love it, and that’s what makes it a new political regime.
He’s not just deconstructive. He occupies his own locations of alternative facts, his own narrative machine that authenticates what is and isn’t true (remember little postmodern Vanessa, who I’d bet my bottom dollar hates him with most of her being?). This is all to say that Foucault’s presence is definitely felt, though Baudrillard would have plenty to say about the simulacra of gold leaf, blond talking heads, and pretty much everything else around the whole affair. What’s going on in there? The birth certificate thing and everything that comes up against him being a hoax, on down to his impressions of his numbers, other numbers, or any numbers are all in the universe of alternative facts. These are all utterly accepted within a Lyotardian local narrative sometimes called the “conservative media ecosystem,” which the overwhelming majority of the conservative half of the country takes as the real—not fake—authenticator of facts. They’re also the kind of thing Rorty described when he said the world is out there but the truth isn’t. The truth is in there now, and it’s impervious to unauthenticated facts.
That is, Postmodernity is establishing itself as the dominant mood of the advanced world, especially the English-speaking world, and it’s implementing itself at just about every level. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of the intellectually elite—meaning those who aren’t pushing it from one location or another—are all busy congratulating themselves on how smart they are for having never really taken it seriously. Postmodernism is dead, the philosophers have been saying for decades.
But again, it’s not about Trump. The regime isn’t the man, even if the man is canonized in later years to a distinctly Washington-, Jefferson-, Lincoln-, Roosevelt-, or Reagan-like political sainthood for ushering it in, by their fans, anyway. (I didn’t forget Jackson here, of course.) The regime is the public mood that made the man fit to be canonized. It’s the people, not the president, and the biggest problem with Trumpism isn’t Trumpism. It’s that people love it.
If I’m right and the new American political regime has begun as a Postmodern Regime, Trumpism cannot properly be understood as some potentially horrifying Trump Doctrine—if such a thing can even be identified. In fact, the mere fact that it cannot, that it fundamentally evades categorization and coherent description, is a major clue that I’m not wholly wrong. The essence of Trumpism is, in fact, in the general absence of any such thing being able to exist or remain stable. It’s not the solution to the polarization; it’s the polarization itself and what makes it go: narrativism.
The closest facsimile to (or, simulacrum of?) a coherent doctrine in a Postmodern Regime would be a relentless project to deconstruct the previous administration, along with some proportion of what our government and society mean at all in pursuit of some “ideal democracy.” This would render it pseudo-populist (thus explaining both Trump and Bernie’s popularity with a really surprising proportion of the population. It’s also a concept lifted straight out of the Critical Theory and the later fancies of the postmodern Theorists. This urge to deconstruct may well be the chief characteristic of the new political regime in which we find ourselves: a prevailing mood and policy doctrine of tearing apart the Establishment and calling what’s true whatever is most comforting not just to one’s person, but to one’s politics, as determined by our favored authenticators of fact in the postmodern media apparatus that never shuts up anymore.
This is, frankly, almost too horrifying to contemplate, as we already have some sense of what it looks like. It doesn’t look necessarily right or left. When it’s left, it looks like AOC, the Squad, the Justice Democrats, and the Critical Social Justice warriors. A vote for Biden in November might be a vote for a return to sanity and stability, but it’s equally a vote for a seemingly senile carrier of a presidential pen who, as some activists have ghoulishly pointed out, is only needed by the left for his not-cold body. When it inevitably swings back right, it will do so with equal rapidity and unpredictability and will resemble Trumpism—if it isn’t, indeed, yet another Trump—and the trolls on Gab and the Chans. For the duration of such a political regime, such radical changes will be the disorienting norm, and we’ll bounce from one fruitless administration to the next with each taking the primary project of deconstructing its predecessor.
The only constant will be that narrative is truth. Nothing else matters. Welcome to Postmodernity. It looks like a raging culture war. It looks like, “I don’t know how to tell what’s true anymore.” Try to enjoy your stay as much as the trolls.
This leaves a final question to mull over as a place to wind this down. It isn’t what a Postmodern Political Regime looks like, and it’s not even what will happen in one. That, I think, is likely only to be catastrophic if it lasts very long—if not from the fact that it will tear itself apart from the inside, because of the fact that it will render itself mostly useless while our global political enemies won’t.
And that’s the question: if a Postmodern Political Regime is here, how long will it last? When will the madness stop? When will we have a chance to know how to know what’s true again?
I don’t know.
Neoconservatism lasted forty years after brewing for a little over a decade. The New Deal and Republican Regimes were longer, and their roots might have been deeper—I’m not a sufficient student of history to know. The Federalist Regime lasted through only two administrations, though—twelve years. The point is that democratic political regimes can be long, or they can be short. There’s not a lot of predictive power in looking at history for a definitive answer.
The Postmodern Regime, if that is what this is, has been brewing for about thirty-five years, I think, in philosophical soil maybe twenty years deeper. But postmodernism is inherently unstable—literally on purpose—and almost guaranteed not just to be at odds with reality, which it denies, but to have absolutely no tether to reality by which it can put itself on any kind of solid track. Reality is this thing that’s out there, but we can’t know it because knowledge and truth are things that live inside narratives, and narratives are features of politics—and politics aren’t even in the business of describing reality.
Postmodernity is also intolerable psychologically for almost everyone. Not knowing how to know what’s true is exhausting. Everything—everything—being political is worse than exhausting, it corrodes the soul and very will to live. Because we’re talking about a political regime, which isn’t an administration or presidential doctrine but a public mood that directs how policy gets shaped on a supra-political level, it’s kind of up to us. The regime won’t last (much) longer—not more than one administration if history is much of a guide—once the public decides it’s had enough of it. Trollocracy, I have to say, is difficult to conceive of as lasting very long.
Trump is getting his first big test against reality with the Covid-19 pandemic. He might get lucky, and he might not, with this. Postmodernism as a mood isn’t so much setting oneself up to lose against reality as it is rolling the dice against it and loving the game. I bring this up, anyway, because it’s definitely the biggest challenge his narrative-driven run has faced yet. We’re all certainly working overtime to spin a political pandemic, so it might just be possible.
This is to say, though, that whether Trump’s tenure lasts four or eight years, it’s entirely possible that he will end up being the first and last Postmodern president. Then again, it’s also entirely possible that his administration will set the stage for an utterly schizophrenic political regime that will last, if I have any bets to place on it, roughly as long as the republic does, at least as any kind of solidly established, first-world nation. Something like Russia, broken utterly and totally corrupt, is, to a guess, a very likely outcome of Postmodern Political Regime that lasts more than even a couple of administrations.
So, this is the most pessimistic I think I’ve ever been in a public-facing statement. It might be the most pessimistic I’ve ever been. I have to admit that I’m not happy or comfortable, but the “relentless optimist” in me that a former girlfriend once mocked isn’t dead, and neither is Modernity, which lurches on with a lot of momentum, support, and in-built stability even as Postmodernity makes its bid on the advanced, democratic world. Like Helen and I said in 2017, though: it’s supporters better make themselves known, and soon.
The Postmodernity ship only just left port, I think, and it’s not too late to stop ourselves from embarking with it. Whatever you think of Trump as a president, it’s possible to hate the Postmodern Political Regime his administration almost undoubtedly represents. It’s possible to reject the public mood that made him its first avatar and to start to reject that postmodernist, narrativist, hot-taking, trolling impulses that gives it weight and its only chance to thrive. It’s possible to start holding our narrative-generating processes—hello, media, academia, and public institutions in particular—to standards and norms that don’t just push a particular political agenda and “authenticate” them via their own narrative production. We can begin to prefer cooler takes and remember that it’s possible to stop thinking of everything as politically relevant or important. We can step back from this ledge.
Like it or not, “I don’t know how to tell what’s true anymore” is the anthem of our age, though, and it’s the problem we have been set by history to solve. It’s also a statement of a problem whose answer is obvious: its negation. The solution to Postmodernity—which is a problem that genuinely could end civilizations—is utterly straightforward: it’s to figure out how to tell what’s true again, even living with social media, even with cable news, even with—as I’ve also taken to calling it—the Warring Narratives Period blaring all around us. Even amidst the trolls.
We figured out how to tell what’s true once in human history, during the Enlightenment that ended the premodern Dark Age of superstition that preceded it. We can figure out how to do it again, hopefully soon enough to stop postmodernism from turning the lights out on us all again. I think this is our project, and we’ve all got some work to do.