Conventional wisdom has it that for democracy to work, it is essential that we—the citizens—agree in some minimal way about what reality looks like. We are not, of course, all required to think the same way about big questions, or believe the same things, or hold the same values; in fact, it is expected that we won’t. But somehow or other, we need to have acquired some very basic, shared understanding about what causes what, what’s broadly desirable, what’s dangerous, and how to characterize what’s already happened.
Some social scientists call this “public knowledge.” Some, more cynically, call it “serviceable truth” to emphasize its contingent, socially constructed quality. Either way, it is the foundation on which democratic politics—in which no one person or institution has sole authority to determine what’s what and all claims are ultimately revisable—is supposed to rest. It is also imagined to be one of the most exalted products of the democratic process. And to a certain degree, this peculiar, messy version of truth has held its own in modern liberal democracies, including the United States, for most of their history.
Lately, though, even this low-level kind of consensus has come to seem elusive. The issue is not just professional spinners talking about “alternative facts” or the current US president bending the truth and spreading conspiracy theories at every turn, from mass rallies to Twitter rants. The deeper problem stems from the growing sense we all have that, today, even hard evidence of the kind that used to settle arguments about factual questions won’t persuade people whose political commitments have already led them to the opposite conclusion. Rather, citizens now belong to “epistemic tribes”: One person’s truth is another’s hoax or lie. Just look at how differently those of different political leanings interpret the evidence of global warming or the conclusions of the Mueller Report on Russian involvement in the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. Moreover, many of those same people are also now convinced that the boundaries between truth and untruth are, in the end, as subjective as everything else. It is all a matter of perception and spin; nothing is immune, and it doesn’t really matter.
Headed for a Cliff
So what’s happened? Why has assent on even basic factual claims (beyond logically demonstrable ones, like 2 + 2 = 4) become so hard to achieve? Or, to put it slightly differently, why are we—meaning people of varied political persuasions—having so much trouble lately arriving at any broadly shared sense of the world beyond ourselves, and, even more, any consensus on which institutions, methods, or people to trust to get us there? And why, ultimately, do so many of us seem simply to have given up on the possibility of finding some truths in common?
These are questions that seem especially loaded precisely because of the traditionally close conceptual and historical relationship between truth and democracy as social values. The health of one remains, so the theory goes, vital to the health of the other—which is also why so many commentators at present worry that this pairing is headed, hand in hand, for a cliff.
The standard pundit explanations focus on the short term. And the punditry isn’t wrong to view significant “disruption,” in the form of recent developments in media, technology, and law, in particular, as culprits (although, unlike some other commentators, I will refrain from adding postmodern theory cultivated in late-twentieth-century US universities—a red herring in my mind—to the mix). The process, jump-started by the Reagan administration’s interest in the deregulation of communication, began in the context of radio in the late 1980s and, then, cable TV in the 1990s. “News” turned into a blend of entertainment and partisan cheerleading, often with a focus on what could best stir indignation or fear. Rush Limbaugh and, soon after, Fox News, play a pivotal role in this story. Then, the rise of the Internet, and especially social media companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter just a few years after the start of the new millennium, further transformed the world of communication and, consequently, truth claims. By lowering the cost of entry and extending everyone’s potential reach to global proportions, social media produced less the democratization of valuable information predicted by techno-utopians than its opposite. Traditional gatekeepers, with their important vetting function, gave way to the empowered private individual, often anonymized for cover, making his or her own determinations. But the resulting cacophony, seemingly driven to new levels in an age of information hyperabundance, also pushed all of us simultaneously (and paradoxically) into virtual gated communities or, indeed, online tribalism on the epistemic front.
The result? Untruth—information that could be described as unverified, misleading, or an out-and-out lie—has been spreading with new ease and abandon, and often to undemocratic effect.
A Peculiar Attitude
Yet in this conversation, itself by now thoroughly global too, we are largely missing a long-term perspective—and by that I mean one that goes back to the roots of modern democracy in the 1770s, 1780s, and 1790s, not just to the disruptions that began in the 1990s. Quite simply, it is impossible to understand the crisis of truth today without exploring the dilemma that was essentially baked into democratic politics from the beginning. In the absence of any one source of authoritative answers, it was inevitable that extended and often vicious battles would erupt over what counted as truth and, even more, who got to say so, and on what grounds.
A peculiar attitude toward truth characterized democracy from the moment of its modern rebirth. The monarchical states of ancien régime Europe mainly prided themselves on their ability to control the flow of information and to determine its official sources. By contrast, getting to knowledge that could garner widespread assent would depend, in the vision of the founding fathers and their international counterparts, on publicity and collaboration. Serviceable truth (to use again that twenty-first century term) would come about as a result of permanently open-ended, public deliberation among different kinds of people with different relationships to knowledge (truth) and virtue (truthfulness). Some small number would play special leadership roles, whether inside or outside the government, thanks to their wisdom and, later, training (both of which, of course, usually implied something about their gender, race, and wealth too), and the rest of the population would find it useful to listen to the word of these “specialists.” But ordinary people would also inform these elites about their own, more homely take on the world born primarily of the experience of living in it. So it would go, back and forth. With just a few principles to make it operational, including a taste for plain speech, some minimal degree of trust in others, and a legal framework that combined occasional votes with protections for speech before and afterward, capital-T Truth would ultimately prevail, just as John Milton had imagined well before the age of modern democracy ever began.
But this is not what happened at all. Not only has this vision of “the public” always been marked in practice as much by its exclusions as its inclusions. Not only has “the marketplace of ideas” become more and more a flawed metaphor, insofar as neither markets nor people can be counted on to tend toward the rational or the true. Just as significantly, the ideal of the democratic truth process has been threatened repeatedly ever since the late eighteenth century by the efforts of one or the other of these epistemic cohorts—expert or popular—to monopolize it, which is to say, hustle it out of the contentious public sphere and capture the power that comes from having the exclusive right to define what counts as a verity and what does not. Indeed, both the failure of compromise on the way to consensus and the threat of capture by one part of the population have only grown since the twentieth century, as economic inequality and, consequentially, inequality on the basis of educational attainment and every other measurable manifestation of disparity (all made possible in part by the rise of elite knowledge makers) have expanded unabated. The world looks extremely different to people whose lives are lived only very rarely in common.
The Refinements of Falsehood
On the one hand, elites of all kinds have steadily tried to shore up their own authority ever since the first conversations about building modern republics took place in the late eighteenth century.
That is the case even as democracy, and especially suffrage, have formally expanded over the years. Originally, James Madison and other authors of the US Constitution imagined that the republic would be led by the most virtuous and the most wise, understood to mean those with a special relationship to truth as well as property. Then, in the nineteenth century, the management of truth increasingly became the domain of “professionals,” “specialists,” and, above all, “experts,” all new coinages indicating the growing division of labor connected to truth as a form of knowledge gained through training in the methods, morals, and terminology associated with the sciences, natural and social alike.
That trend only intensified and globalized in the twentieth century. The last seventy years, in particular, have been marked by the growing power of technocrats, both within and without government proper, in much of the world. Think of the European Union, with its endless working groups, technical (and often unintelligible) jargon, thousand-page data-driven reports, and what many Europeans take to be its insular, undemocratic conception of policymaking. Washington can seem not that different. As critics like to point out, the continuing risk of letting highly trained “experts” monopolize the business of determining the truth in the public sphere is not only that they will use this knowledge to create flawed policies that seem unrelated to real people’s lives or sense of the world. It is also that they end up threatening the democratic process itself, in which popular decision-making is supposed to matter too.
But on the other hand, this technocratic impulse has rarely gone unchecked either. Indeed, the backlash also dates to the late eighteenth century, when opponents of the first state constitutions and then the federal constitution emphasized that “the people” had been robbed of the opportunity to put their own common-sense perceptions of the world at the center of understanding. Instead, they had been duped, as one anti-Federalist put it, by “Machiavellian talents…who excel in ingenuity, artifice, sophistry, and refinements of falsehood, who can assume the pleasing appearance of truth and bewilder the people in the mazes of error.”11x“Centinel” [likely Samuel Bryan], “To the People of Pennsylvania” (January 12, 1788), Philadelphia Independent Gazetteer, cited in The Complete Anti-Federalist, vol. 2, ed. Herbert J. Storing (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 183. This “populist” style of politics only grew in the nineteenth century too, right alongside the explosion of expertise. Now it seems to be having a particular moment of resurgence rooted in the idea that elites of all kinds have formed a global cabal, eager to control everything, starting with knowledge itself. Populist leaders and spokespeople in countries around the globe, including the United States, have revived in recent years a traditional narrative in which the starting point is that the real people have been intellectually dispossessed, that is, deprived of their natural leadership rooted in their collective sense of the world. But all that can be righted, according to this story, once those real people are able once again to substitute their own version of truth, rooted in faith, instinct, and practical experience, not to mention authenticity, for the arcane and self-serving version offered up by the “mainstream” press, the academic establishment, and the “deep state”—in short, the various domains of truth elites.
Has It Been Ever Thus?
At its best, this insistence on the perceptions of ordinary folk can be a vital corrective to expert arrogance and domination. But as should be apparent, when populist rhetoric starts to determine how politics is practiced, the risk becomes again not just bad policy, in this case of the simplistic I-keep-my neighbors-out-by-building-a-wall-in-my-backyard, so-the-nation-should-do-the-same variety. Ironically, the threat emerges that an equally undemocratic, antipluralistic politics will prevail, this time targeting individuals and groups associated with expertise and technocracy and pushing their dissenting voices (and often those of their more marginal allies, such as immigrants) out of any broader conversation. Then, potentially, the path will be cleared for a demagogic leader to come to the fore, someone who claims to speak for those real people and their sense of the world better than anyone else can.
Perhaps, though, one should conclude that we have nothing to worry about, that it has been ever thus. Fights over truth claims are simply the price we have to pay for living in a democracy. By this way of thinking, we are just in a particularly rough patch. Or maybe we’d rather say good riddance to the whole thing; after all, democracy can sometimes seem like a clever way to paper over various forms of exclusion, domination, and injustice. Truth could plausibly be seen as just another of its pernicious mythologies, especially in this era of entrenched inequality. One could certainly argue that it would take a genuine reformulation of our economic and financial system before truth, even in its most elemental form, could have any real, shared meaning or origins.
Yet I would argue for the importance of working to keep truth, even “serviceable truth,” alive as an ideal precisely for its potential advantages as a political grounding and tool. Some kinds of truth—think of physics or other “pure” sciences—might be able to survive quite adequately without democracy. However, the best aspects of liberal democracy cannot survive without any commitment to finding some common way of seeing and talking about the world that takes on the imprimatur of truth, at least provisionally.
Truth matters as the foundation for interpersonal trust. It matters because we cannot talk to one another, much less conduct a serious debate, until we share some principles and facts about the world at large, not to mention a consensus on how to generate them. How, for example, can we ever decide on a serious labor policy if we can’t agree on whether the unemployment rate has gone up or down or even on how to figure out how many people are out there looking for work? Most of all, truth matters—though this is rarely discussed in most of the conversations about whether we are truly “post-truth” today—as a form of collective aspiration. By this way of thinking, democracy’s great advantage consists not so much of the empirical outcomes it produces as of the opportunities—the second or third or even multiple chances—it affords citizens, who may disagree on much, to try to get things right. Only if we can imagine the possibility of moral and epistemic progress—that is, progress away from lies and propaganda and spin and toward a truer and more consensual view of reality, however elusive—can we begin to narrow the gaps between democratic theory and the world in which we actually live and operate. In effect, that means that no matter how treacherous the terrain, we cannot give up on trying, within the framework of pluralism, to find some elemental convictions about the nature of reality that we can hold in common. Our future depends on seeing, as well as living in, a shared world.