Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford.
We no longer live in a democracy. We live in an “emocracy” – where emotions rather than majorities rule, and feelings matter more than reason. The stronger your feelings, and the better you are at working yourself into a fit of indignation, the more influence you have.
There was a time when appeals to emotion over facts were regarded as the preserve of the populist right. But truthiness – the quality of being ideologically convenient, though not actually true – is now bipartisan. Last week on the CBS show 60 Minutes, host Anderson Cooper confronted freshman congresswoman and social media sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with some of her many factual errors. Her reply was that of a true emocrat: “I think,” she replied, “that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually and semantically correct than about being morally right.”
Just how harmful emocracy is became clear last weekend. “‘It was getting ugly’: Native American drummer speaks on his encounter with MAGA-hat-wearing teens.” “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ hats mob Native elder at Indigenous Peoples march.” The former headline was in The Washington Post, the latter The New York Times. The reports were calculated to elicit a torrent of emotion. And they did.
What actually happened was as follows: A group of (nearly all white) boys from Covington Catholic High School, Kentucky, were in Washington to attend a rally organized by March for Life, an anti-abortion not-for-profit organization. They ended up in an altercation near the Lincoln Memorial with a small group of Native Americans.
One of the latter, Nathan Phillips, told reporters that he had heard the boys chant “Build that wall” and, as an opponent of U.S. President Donald Trump’s border wall, he had approached them to remonstrate. We now know – thanks to other eyewitnesses and a much longer video – what really happened. The Native Americans were indeed abused, but by a handful of members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, an African-American sect.
It was the BHI preacher who directed the attention of the Native Americans at the boys. The boys did not chant “Build that wall” but responded to the abuse now being aimed at them by the BHIs with good-natured school sports chants. When Mr. Phillips and a few other Native Americans marched toward them, beating drums, the boys at first joined in, dancing to the drumbeat. Only then did things get strange.
Still drumming, Mr. Phillips approached one of the boys, Nick Sandmann. Clearly uncomfortable and uncertain what to do, Mr. Sandmann froze, but Mr. Phillips went right up to him, beating the drum so close to his face that the boy was blinking. His forced smile, it is clear, was one of embarrassment, not contempt.
Meanwhile, the BHIs kept up their stream of abuse directed at the kids, calling them future “school shooters” and saying, “Your President is a homosexual.” The boys did not respond in kind; they booed the BHI preacher only when he used a homophobic slur.
The Twitter account that helped spread the video, @2020Fight, purported to belong to a Californian teacher named “Talia.” The fact that the profile photo was of the Brazilian actress and blogger Nah Cardoso did not trouble The Washington Post editor who assigned reporters to cover the story. Nor did he worry when they filed copy based largely on testimony from Mr. Phillips. This scoop was too deliciously truthy to waste time on tedious things such as investigation and corroboration.
With equal haste, numerous journalists offered judicious commentary. By Sunday, Mr. Sandmann was receiving “physical and death threats via social media, as well as hateful insults”. On Tuesday, his school was forced to close.
Emocracy manifests itself in many places: on campuses, for example, where trigger warnings and safe spaces exist to protect students’ feelings, or in the #MeToo movement, where “I believe her” often trumps due process. But it is the media – both social and traditional – that have made emocracy ubiquitous.
A final word about the origins of the word emocracy. I didn’t come up with it – credit goes to my wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who used it in a speech she gave earlier this month. It was an entirely off-the-cuff invention. I might never have known about it, had the eminent scientist Richard Dawkins not been in the audience. He liked it so much he tweeted it.
After all the abuse I have heaped on social media in this column, you might think that makes me a hypocrite. But please note: I did not retweet the Dawkins tweet until I had done some fact-checking, which turned up only two previous uses of the word emocracy, in 2008 and in 2017, both in obscure places. The Washington Post and The New York Times might consider trying that, the next time their emotions run away with them.
©Niall Ferguson/The Sunday Times, London.