Post-modernism retains some presence in the arts (think Gehry’s Bilbao Museum) in its rejection of linearity and on the fringes of academic discourse (where it remains an ongoing cautionary tale of skepticism about objectivity). It was always too obscure for the mainstream. Which is another way of saying that the social construction of “truth” remained resilient enough to shunt post-modernism off to the side. At least for a while.
As I have noted elsewhere, cultural change always takes a while and, as with other modes of change, doesn’t usually move in straight lines. The echoes of post-modernism continue to reverberate. The erudition and obscure theory is gone. But the talk is of “competing narratives” and alternate realities.
In popular culture, particularly in the past 10-15 years, the demolition of both specific truths, standards of proof, and the underlying premise of logical analysis itself has been recognized and much commented on. Some even argue that post-modernism was the source of the post-truth trope in our modern politics, but I think that’s mostly intellectuals wanting to feel that they are more culturally influential than they actually are. Our current Immediate Past President has proved a master of this demolition (although, like his real estate empire, much less adroit at construction on the now-empty lot). Social media, to be sure, has been an accelerant of this process; although previously established modes of media were already moving in this direction. The signal-to-noise ratio in the public square has gone down radically; principally due to the increased noise (semi-automatic retweets, ad-driven hyping of popular fizziness, and way-too-many Instagrams of dinner plates), accompanied by the slow-motion collapse of the mechanisms (e.g. newspapers) by which coherent and substantiated (aka “conventional”) stories were generated and circulated.
That such developments would undermine the democratic process is not surprising, but the reason is not obvious. Lies, slander, and distraction have been central parts of the political process even before that process became “popular” and “democratic” (pretty much starting in the 19C). Just think of Julius Caesar, or European monarchical courts of the early modern era, or even our own furious to-dos between Federalist and Republicans in the early United States. However, two of the premises of democracy are 1) a shared community and 2) a shared epistemology. The former cannot stand in the absence of the latter and the latter cannot stand without a coherent sense of truth.
In other words, democracy is as much a part of modernity as industrialization, urbanization, and a sense of “progress.”
So, just as “post-modernity” attacked, in effect, the coherence/confidence (arrogance?) of modernity, it couldn’t but have a follow-on effect on democracy too. Indeed, democracy is especially susceptible. Since the time of Aristotle, the central problem of democracy has been the risk of mobocracy. Plato argued that we should only trust the government to those who were well-educated and well-trained in morality. Exogenous stresses (as social scientists like to say) have us careening down these parlous paths. Close analysis and rational thinking too easily go by the boards.
Discarding an epistemic standard centuries in the construction would not, it would seem, come lightly. But underneath the tradition of Socrates, Galileo, and Voltaire lies an equally robust stream of superstition and nescience; of astrology and absurdism and surrealism. Witches burn and tulips (not to mention bitcoins) get sold for more than houses. In the midst of modernity, many political leaders have offered alternate histories and futures, sufficiently attractive to motivate millions of supporters. So, Putin, Xi, Orban, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi, Khamenei, and dozens of the others of our era are not really new. The particulars of their motivations and speeches are far less important than desire of many for a reality which seems manageable and energizing.
We like to think that truth is the foundation of how we see the world; that science-based analysis gives us the confidence to deal with the world. But we have the order wrong. The hunger for epistemological confidence and psychic security “trumps” our traditional mainstream mindset. A narrative which provides comfort is fundamental; more fundamental than the construction of a narrative with roots in logic and experience. When modernity offers uncertainty and disruption, fear drives us to construct a “reality” which soothes. After all, if you look closely, it’s not a ladle or bear up there, it’s a bunch of stars which appear, from our particular location in the galaxy, to line up in some pattern or shape we strain to recognize. Science has told us as much for hundreds of years, and still we all know under what “sign” we were each born.