Where Does Truth Fit into Democracy?

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Where does truth fit into democracy?

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One of the stranger rituals performed by the media in the Trump era has been to keep an obsessive count of the president’s lies since he took office. By September 2018, The Washington Post reported, he had already passed the 5,000 mark, including a new one-day record of 125 on September 7. The Poynter Institute’s nonpartisan fact-checking project PolitiFact keeps a running list, and The New York Times did likewise throughout 2017.

There is a certain pointlessness to these exercises. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to Donald Trump should recognize that, since long before his presidential campaign, he lies as easily as he breathes. He says whatever he thinks will get him what he wants, and whatever he thinks he can get away with. But if there is nothing truly revelatory about the number of Trump’s lies, keeping track of them still serves a variety of symbolic purposes for the commentators who repeat the steadily mounting figures with gleeful outrage. One is simply to underline the extent to which this is not a normal presidency. Another, far more debatable, is to hold up Trump as a symptom and symbol of what is often called the “post-truth era.”

Take, for example, Michiko Kakutani’s recent book The Death of Truth, which cites a figure for Trump’s lies (2,140 in his first year in office) on its third page. His questionable attitudes toward truth are, Kakutani tells us, “emblematic of dynamics that have been churning beneath the surface of daily life for years.” The goddess of truth has fallen mortally ill, her book charges, and a dizzying list of perpetrators are responsible for poisoning her: Fox News; social media; the New Left; “academics promoting the gospel of postmodernism”; the narcissism of the baby boomers; and “the selfie age of self-esteem.”

Kakutani and the many pundits and critics who have offered up a similarly broad cultural diagnosis have obvious incentives for doing so. It lets them pose as serious public intellectuals who can see beyond the froth of the current news cycle. It gives them the chance to display their wide-ranging and eclectic reading (in a single paragraph, Kakutani name-checks Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Thomas Pynchon, David Bowie, Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, and Frank Gehry). And, not least, it exonerates them from the charge that they are nothing but liberal ideologues by allowing them to assign blame to both sides in the ongoing American culture wars. Yes, the responsibility for the death of truth may lie, in part, with Fox News and the GOP, but it also lies with the New Left and those dreadful postmodernist academics. “Postmodernist arguments,” Kakutani explains, “deny an objective reality existing independently from human perception.” And since one perception is as good as another, anything goes. Michel Foucault and Donald Trump: brothers-in-arms.

Mainstream writers like Kakutani have repeated this last argument so often that it is easy to forget how strange and unconvincing it actually is. First, it reflects a misunderstanding of the most prominent “postmodern” philosophers. The radicalism of an author like Foucault, for instance, lies not in any supposed denial of objective reality but in his insistence that the way we know, understand, and speak about reality is always a matter of power relations. Second, it also assumes, bizarrely, that an abstruse current of thought which has attracted few readers outside the academy, and which mainstream publications have roundly and repeatedly denounced, has somehow infected the entire culture and come to define our political moment. Has academic postmodernism really had an appreciable influence on the Trumpian right, whose ideologues rarely miss an opportunity to denounce academics in general and humanists in particular?

The real problem with these arguments, however, rests in the very notion of a “post-truth era,” which presumes the existence of a previous golden age in which self-evident, objectively verifiable truths were for the most part acknowledged. The history of ideas, in fact, suggests the opposite: that truth, and the authority to determine it, has always been deeply contested, and that philosophers from ancient Greece onward have wrestled in profound and troubling ways with how to distinguish objective reality from human perception. Nor have anything like clear and authoritative standards of truth prevailed in political life. The assumption that the last 50 years or so have marked some unprecedented break with a previous age of truth reflects both an inattention to history and an attitude that might be labeled “pessimistic narcissism,” since it yet again focuses attention on the generation that came of age in the 1960s and ’70s.

Against this backdrop, it is a relief to open Sophia Rosenfeld’s brilliantly lucid Democracy and Truth. Not only does she make short work of the “postmodernism is to blame” argument; she provides the historical background necessary to understand our current truth crisis. That a crisis does indeed exist, Rosenfeld has no doubt. But it is not one that came upon the Western world from nowhere, like a meteor strike vaporizing a peaceful pastoral landscape. Instead, it broke along an epistemological fault line that has existed in modern democratic regimes since their founding: Who has the authority, in a democracy, to determine what counts as truth—an elite of the supposedly best, most intellectually capable citizens, or the people as a whole?

As Rosenfeld shows us, conflicts along this fault line are nothing new. Elites and experts have long sought to impose their epistemological authority over a broader public, even at the risk of constraining democracy. And popular movements have long insisted on the people’s right to judge the world on their own terms, denigrating elite opinion in the process—and, sometimes, expertise and learning more broadly. The current crisis represents a drastic ratcheting up of these conflicts thanks to a host of factors—including, Rosenfeld suggests, some of the most dynamic forces in our rapidly changing capitalist economy, which have profited directly from such developments as the rise of social media and the flourishing of right-wing talk shows.

Few historians are better positioned to tell this story than Rosenfeld. A professor of intellectual history at the University of Pennsylvania, she has devoted her career to exploring the ways that philosophical conversations during the Enlightenment and the age of revolutions shaped basic modern political concepts and presuppositions. Her previous book, Common Sense, offered a scintillating account of how influential Western thinkers came to believe that ordinary people of limited or no education had the intellectual capacity to participate as equals in political life—a belief that provided crucial legitimacy for democratic regimes based on universal suffrage. While as a scholar Rosenfeld is most at home in the 18th century, she has never shied away from pointing out the contemporary implications of her work.

Like Kakutani, Rosenfeld cannot resist mentioning the Trump lie count at the start of her book. But rather than treat it as a shocking sign of the new “post-truth era,” she uses it to note the obvious fact that truth and democratic politics have “never been on very good terms.” If we are now living in an age of unprecedented mendacity, what was the Nixon administration? For that matter, no less an American icon than George Washington complained, at the end of his presidency, of the “ignorance of facts” and “malicious falsehoods” with which hostile newspapers had tried to destroy his reputation.

Rosenfeld also insists (borrowing, yes, from Foucault) that different societies exist under different “regimes of truth.” Not all truths are self-evident, and not all facts are easily verifiable, so societies need particular evidentiary standards and forms of authority to determine where truth lies. These can change from place to place and from era to era; they are rarely (if ever) stable or uncontested, but continuities are still discernible.

Our own regime of truth dates back to the 18th century, when a host of Enlightenment thinkers challenged established churches and rulers. They insisted that no single individual or institution should “hold a monopoly…on determining what counts as truth in public life” and disputed the idea—long promoted by absolute monarchs—that good rulership involved keeping most information secret and lying when necessary to protect the state. They put a premium on the values of openness, transparency, sincerity, freedom of expression, and unfettered debate. In short, they created the “truth culture of the transatlantic Enlightenment.”

Even for revolutionaries who believed that all should enjoy equal rights, this truth culture was in no sense egalitarian. Many of the Enlightenment’s most influential thinkers had little but contempt for uneducated people and wanted to restrict the pursuit of truth to a learned elite. Rosenfeld quotes Voltaire’s shocking essay on “Man” from 1764, which derided the bulk of humanity as “two-footed animals who live…barely enjoying the gift of speech, barely aware that they are miserable.” For his part, Kant saw the “enlightenment” he championed as the province of men able to function as “scholars.”

Such beliefs, in turn, helped shape the outlook of the men who devised the first constitutions for the revolutionary governments that came to power at the end of the 18th century. The American founders deliberately designed our own government not as a democracy that gave an equal say to all, but as a republic that, in the words of James Madison, would be ruled by “men who possess [the] most wisdom to discern, and [the] most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.” In creating the federal government, they allowed for direct election by the people for only one-half of one branch: the House of Representatives. (The Senate would eventually follow, more than 100 years later.) Many of the republic’s early leaders worried that the press could lead the people dangerously astray, and some of them advocated strong limits on free speech—including the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.

Similar patterns could be observed elsewhere. The French Revolution may have turned in a genuinely inclusive, democratic direction between 1792 and 1794, but the promise of that moment dissolved amid the spectacular violence of war, civil war, and the Reign of Terror. After 1794, and still more after Napoleon Bonaparte took power in 1799, the suffrage won during the revolution became restricted to men of property, and much of the power once held by elected representatives was now handed off to unelected graduates of a small number of elite schools—whose successors continue to wield disproportionate influence in France to this day.

Over the last two centuries, even as this revolutionary brand of elitism ebbed, a different form has strengthened immeasurably: In nearly all democratic societies, we have witnessed the rise of the expert. As modern society has grown more complex, it has become far more dependent on people who possess specialized knowledge: economists, statisticians, engineers, architects, lawyers, scientists of every description. We do not defer to their truth judgments because of their wisdom or virtue; we defer because it is practical to do so—we need their expertise. And while they do not rule over us directly, the authority they exercise on the basis of their truth judgments can give them a power comparable to or greater than that of many elected officials.

This reign of experts, however, can threaten democratic governance just as much as restrictions on suffrage. The epistemological authority that experts enjoy can lead them to retreat into a bubble in which they are insulated from public judgment and criticism, and over time they can devolve into a privileged interest group as scornful and condescending toward ordinary people as the most snobbish of the founders. Perhaps the most visible example of this has been the European Union, where regulation-generating technocrats have multiplied while remaining at a greater distance from the electorate than their counterparts in most democratic nation-states.

Worse, while experts base their authority to make truth judgments on their supposed objectivity, in practice this objectivity is easily compromised. Some think tanks that claim to conduct impartial research are in fact thoroughly partisan. Others, while pretending more convincingly to independence, still remain dependent on corporate sponsors. Experts routinely dance through the revolving door connecting government or think-tank positions to industry and associated lobbying groups. All of these practices undermine the Enlightenment culture of truth on which democracy rests. And the more that ordinary people become aware of these practices, the more likely they are to denounce expertise in general as a fraud, an ideological hoax, or fake news, undermining the culture of truth still further.

This brings us to the other side of the great fault line along which the relationship between modern democracy and truth can shudder and shake: populism. Drawing on her earlier work, Rosenfeld points out that populism also has roots that stretch back deep into the transatlantic Enlightenment. Even as thinkers like Voltaire scorned the common people and advocated government by highly educated elites, other thinkers were developing the idea that a “common sense” present in all people (or, at least, all adult white men) gave them the capacity to judge on matters of the common good, and therefore to participate equally in government.

The idea played a powerful role in legitimating the democratic movements that arose during the age of revolutions. But from the start, the valorization of ordinary people’s common sense often came bound up with a contempt for and suspicion of elites and their learning. Thomas Paine, in his great revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, accused British elites of trying to hoodwink ordinary Americans, while Edmund Burke mocked the French revolutionary politicians whose attachment to “political metaphysics” and “abstract rule” led them to despise the sound experience of ordinary men.

This rebellion against expert opinion can threaten standards of truth in obvious ways. It can lead to a suspicion of and contempt for expertise in general, a dismissal of complexity and abstraction, and an assumption that the most apparently difficult or intractable problems are really very simple. My own favorite example comes from the 1993 film Dave, in which Kevin Kline, as an impersonator who has taken the place of the president, sits down for an evening with an accountant friend and a pocket calculator, and quickly solves all the problems of the federal budget. Alas, with Donald Trump, reality has edged all too close to the film, with the businessman president of the United States claiming that he understands everything from Middle Eastern politics to banking to the “horror of nuclear” better than the supposed “experts.”

As a result, Rosenfeld argues, the fault line between faith in expertise and faith in popular common sense has left the relationship between democracy and truth precarious throughout all of modern history. It has been a powerful driver of the vulnerability that democracy has shown in the face of both oligarchic technocracy and populist tyranny. And even in less dire circumstances, it has made it much more difficult for consensual or authoritative standards of truth to hold back the floods of mendacity that naturally well up wherever ambitious people compete for political power. But if the connection has been so tenuous since the 18th century, are we really in a new sort of crisis? And if so, what caused it?

In her final chapter, Rosenfeld quickly and decisively refutes the idea that French philosophers somehow turned Americans into addled relativists. Instead of belaboring the point, she concentrates on two other recent phenomena that have led conflicts over what counts as truth—not to mention the sheer amount of mendacity in public life—to increase exponentially in recent years: the rise of a news machine that thrives on outrage and the advent of social media. Both of these may be well-known suspects where the “death of truth” is concerned, but Rosenfeld has interesting points to make about them. In both cases, she argues, these developments are especially dangerous because they call into question the very idea of common standards and authorities for truth-telling. The power of conservative talk radio and Fox News does not only come from their relentless propagandizing for hard-line Republicans and their even more relentless demonizing of the left. It also comes from their ability to delegitimize, in the minds of their audience, mainstream sources of information which, despite the liberal bent of their personnel, generally make good-faith efforts to report facts impartially and objectively. Rush Limbaugh rarely lets a single broadcast go by without repeated attacks on the “lamestream,” “drive-by” media and academia, caricaturing them as liberal propaganda operations.

Meanwhile, social media, by turning every individual user into an author and publisher of sorts, drastically lowers the perceived difference between The New York Times, scientific journals, or the federal government, on the one hand, and a dyspeptic relative expostulating at his keyboard. In short, the ability of democratic societies to maintain common, authoritative sources of truth in the face of reactionary demagogues and media provocateurs has drastically withered, producing vastly destabilizing consequences.

Rosenfeld hints at the role of contemporary capitalism in driving these changes, but she might have said a bit more on the subject. Right-wing hosts like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are skilled entertainers (it is no easy feat to keep an audience engaged for hours a day, every weekday) who can generate large profits for the stations and networks on which they appear. Facebook and Twitter also profit from the business generated by rumor, innuendo, falsehood, and conspiracy theories, and as recent congressional hearings have shown in the case of Facebook, the companies have very little incentive to do anything about the problem.

Beyond the information industries, powerful business interests have also exploited populist resentment by depicting government regulations on everything from the environment to insider trading as “elitist” restraints on free enterprise and the wealth it generates. Figures like the Koch brothers have been all too happy to fund think tanks and media outlets that denigrate the scientific and economic expertise behind these regulations.

This correlation of populism and profit in fact marks a worrisome historical shift. At the end of the 19th century, when populism first emerged as a coherent political force in the United States, it acted in large part as a check on the dominant capitalist forces of the day. The People’s Party platform of 1892 attacked monopolies, championed workers’ rights, and declared that “the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind.” Populists campaigned for government regulation, not against it. Today, populist furies constitute a direct source of profit for some of the most dynamic and economically important companies on the planet. The Koch brothers do not even bother to squirm away from this obvious fact. Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg do squirm, but it is becoming increasingly clear that they do not control the forces they have unleashed.

Faced with this very real crisis, what should we do? At the end of her book, Rosenfeld quickly runs through a number of worthwhile initiatives: working to preserve judicial independence and the integrity of elections, fostering and protecting investigative journalism and higher education, and so forth. She also argues that, to counter the unruly economic forces that have helped to generate the current crisis, the most important answer lies in political action and government regulation. “We in the United States and elsewhere need to think long and hard,” she writes, “about the pitfalls of allowing a fully free-market approach, where money is unlimited,” to dominate the mechanisms by which we arrive at political truths. “Enhanced rules and regulations for communication are required if truth is to be either the starting point of our political process or the aim.”

This is, admittedly, a project fraught with peril. The line between enhanced rules and regulations for communication and the repressive abridgment of free speech can all too easily be transgressed, especially when the power to regulate falls into the wrong hands. In addition, such projects can easily backfire, as increasing regulation feeds conspiracy theories about government control and makes it easier than ever for populist firebrands to depict mainstream reporting and opinion as “fake news.” In the end, the most effective way to address the problem is to restrain the economic power of the companies and interests that profit most directly from populist attacks on epistemological authority, as well as the underlying distributions of power that have led to the current popular discontent.

But even as progressive forces work toward this long-term goal, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News are not about to start moderating their opinions, and Facebook and Twitter are unlikely to do much to regulate themselves, no matter how much earnest criticism they receive in The New York Times. It is also time to start serious discussions about how to keep the immensely powerful communications forces unleashed in the past generation from immeasurably harming the public good. These are discussions to be entered into carefully, judiciously, moderately. But they are important to have. Far more important, it might be added, than placing bets on when Donald Trump hits the 10,000th lie of his presidency.

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