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The Pre-History of Post-Truth

In an age of “alternative facts,” many insist that we have entered a new phase of history in which truth no longer matters. But epistemic conflict is as old as democracy; what’s new is the role of special interests and specific policies in degrading public discourse.

Since the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016, the conventional wisdom has held that we are now in a “post-truth” or “post-factual” age. Yet, while such terms may help to give us a sense of certainty in a politically unpredictable era, they cannot explain it. Worse, the notion of a clear-cut “post-factual age” might itself be factually incorrect.

That “post-” prefix, after all, suggests that there was once a golden era when democracy and factual knowledge were uncontested, even mutually reinforcing. The implication is that citizens today are somehow more gullible than they used to be. As a result, we have seen the return – with a vengeance – of the social-psychology clichés of the late nineteenth century, when “the masses” were regarded as inherently irrational and irresponsible, and therefore unfit for self-government.

Moreover, such diagnoses ignore the question of the place truth should hold in democratic politics to begin with. Elections are not, and are not meant to be, collective processes for determining the truth; no one interprets the outcome of a vote as having established that the losers were a bunch of liars. On the contrary, we are rightly worried when politicians claim to have exclusive access to the truth. “Seen from the viewpoint of politics,” the twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt observed, “truth has a despotic character.”

At a minimum, current debates about “post-truth” and democracy would benefit from the philosophical depth and historical scope of the three books under review. Taken together, they bring today’s epistemic challenges into perspective, and offer proposals for moving forward. Some of their remedies stand diametrically opposed to one other, however, serving as a reminder that we should not expect easy fixes.

In her excellent and concise book Democracy and Truth, Sophia Rosenfeld, a professor of intellectual and cultural history at the University of Pennsylvania, sets out to demonstrate that “truth under the conditions of modern democracy has always been fragile.” Rosenfeld contends that truth in politics (as opposed to philosophy seminars) is best understood as “the product of multiple constituencies in an inegalitarian world pursuing it according to varied methods.” As such, it is “continually open to fresh challenges and revisions.” In an otherwise elegantly written book, that definition is a bit of a mouthful. Still, it sums up Rosenfeld’s central insight: that there never was a golden age; the relationship between democracy and truth has always been complicated, and has never been firmly settled.

Ever since modern representative democracy emerged in the eighteenth century, there have been two major groups vying for what Rosenfeld calls “epistemic authority.” The first is the people – or, at least those with the franchise, which was long restricted to propertied males. These “ordinary folks” were expected to discern the public interest on the basis of their lived experience. The second group comprised highly educated (again, male) experts – often conceived as gentlemen-scholars – who not only specialized in acquiring knowledge, but also abided by a specific code of conduct in scientific inquiry.

In theory, the ordinary and the learned folk together would chart the polity’s course. Or, as the twentieth-century philosopher John Rawls would later write in A Theory of Justice: “we must rely upon current knowledge as recognized by common sense and the existing scientific consensus.” While the experts were expected to act according to what Rosenfeld calls “shared norms of enquiry,” the people were to be empowered through legally protected free speech. Only then could they speak their minds and articulate what Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, referred to as “simple facts” and “plain truths.”

Obviously, having a credible claim on “expert truth” can confer a major advantage in politics, but in a representative democracy, at least, so can having “common sense.” Hence, Herman Cain, a pizza restaurateur, US presidential candidate, and one-time contender to serve on the US Federal Reserve Board, appointed himself president of “the University of Common Sense.” And US politicians regularly push “common-sense gun laws” and “common-sense immigration reform,” as if to suggest that their proposals are somehow above politics.

Rosenfeld shows that this is nothing new. The conflict over epistemic authority has been a structural feature of modern democracy since the beginning. It arises any time the two claimants to truth disagree or challenge each other. Variations of conservative British statesman Edmund Burke’s attacks against the rationalism of “sophisters, economists, and calculators” can still be found today, including his suspicion that many arguments from expertise were merely smokescreens for selfish interests.

Nonetheless, most of the founders of modern democracy put limited store in the “common sense” of the people, regardless of whether they had property and an education. As Thomas Jefferson observed, a “natural aristocracy” exists to sort through popular preferences and otherwise provide “virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society.” According to Rosenfeld, all modern republics have a “truth regime,” which relies not just on input from the people, but also on an ever-expanding array of instruments and techniques – such as official statistics and censuses – to render society legible to the state.

For his part, John Dewey, arguably the greatest twentieth-century American theorist of democracy, occupied both camps. He concluded that democratic governance absolutely requires an “alignment with science.” But he insisted that “no government by experts in which the masses do not have the chance to inform the experts as to their needs can be anything but an oligarchy managed in the interests of the few.”

University of London political economist William Davies adds an important element to this story in his stimulating and wide-ranging book Nervous States. From the seventeenth century onward, he writes, the state and the scientific community worked hand in hand, not so much to promote democracy as to ensure peace. While Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (the state) proclaimed the meaning of justice, it was scientists who defined reality.

On either count, citizens had to place their trust in these institutions’ authority, and those institutions had to trust and cooperate with one another. After its founding in 1660, the English Royal Society committed to keeping records of all its deliberations, and made them available to other scientists across Europe. Hobbes saw this arrangement as what we would now call a win-win. “Such truth, as opposeth no man’s profit, nor pleasure,” he observed, “is to all men welcome.”

How is it, then, that “feeling,” as Davies puts it, has taken over a world that once relied on “public facts”? For starters, many citizens’ lived experience has diverged dramatically from what governments (and statisticians) tell them about macro-level progress. In 2016, US GDP was almost three times greater than in the late 1970s, yet, as Davies notes, real (inflation-adjusted) income for the bottom half of American households actually fell 1% between 1979 and 2015.

Davies points out that in the crucial US counties that flipped from supporting US President Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential race to backing Trump in 2016, a majority experienced an industrial plant closure during the 2016 campaign itself. He also reminds us that, after rising for decades, life expectancy in the US is now falling, and that drug overdose – largely attributable to opioid painkillers – is the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

In these circumstances, people’s pain, despair, and alienation will feel far “truer” than reports of macroeconomic recovery based on statistical averages. Moreover, the perception that bureaucrats are more interested in numbers than in individuals may have further deepened the divide between – crudely put – elite perceptions and “common sense.” This leads Davies to suggest that nationalism – a politics centered on feelings – is on the rise because it restores meaning to lives that have lost their previous sources of purpose. He suspects that a “quasi-military mobilization” of society may contain therapeutic elements that are missing from the anodyne, data-driven narrative of progress.

Davies’s observation here is intriguing, but highly speculative. To back it up, he offers the contentious claim that political, economic, and cultural conflicts are increasingly being framed as “wars,” and that this has blurred Hobbes and the gentleman-scholars’ clearly drawn line between war and peace.

Specifically, Davies argues that there has been a shift in our conception of “public consensus,” from one based on “facts, statistics, and rules” (which would ensure peace) to one that prizes “intelligence,” understood as privileged knowledge deployed for military and, in particular, economic advantage. For the former, the state is indispensable. But the latter relies only on the market, which requires no consensus about truth. Instead, Davies writes, it functions as a “type of mass sensory device,” detecting trends in sentiments and desires. As such, it has an “anti-intellectual populist quality,” for markets put a premium on speed, rather than on accurate reflections of reality.

Of course, the companies reaping the largest profits from trend-spotting are the US tech giants. While these firms certainly employ plenty of experts, their function is not to generate “public facts.” On the contrary, we, the public, constantly produce data whenever we share the truth about ourselves online. What starts in front of the screen as a revelation of lived experience to friends, or even the public at large, is turned into something much more abstract: data points that, under the current legal framework, are the private property of Big Tech and can be sold to the highest bidder.

Nervous States helps one spot such structural transformations. By drawing on an astonishing range of academic disciplines, Davies offers a powerful explanation for his diagnosis that people are growing more anxious and uncertain about the future. But, unlike Rosenfeld, he often assumes that we once lived in a golden age of uncontested reality.

We didn’t, and the idea that public language was weaponized only after the advent of the Internet, or that “war of one kind or another feels almost inevitable today,” comes as a surprise a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War. If anything, a blurring of the line between war and peace was the defining feature of that conflict.

Both Rosenfeld and Davies offer prescriptions for countering what the former calls the “post-truth populist epistemology of the present.” Davies thinks that scientists should join the fray, wage their own culture war, and not be shy about revealing their feelings and personal stories – though his call for “total war” against climate change seems to contradict his plea for “de-weaponizing” our political language. At the same time, he also sees a special role for “citizen scientists” from disadvantaged rural areas, who can contribute “non-expert, often tacit knowledge of dramatic changes in nature.” For example, it was amateur entomologists who first detected an alarming decline in Germany’s insect population in recent years.

In this sense, Davies follows Rosenfeld’s recipe for uniting expertise and common sense in the service of shared goals. Among those goals, the most important, he suggests, is reducing “existential inequality,” reflected in the widening gap between those at risk of dying early “deaths of despair” and the Silicon Valley billionaires who are pouring vast sums into colonizing Mars or discovering the secret to immortality.

Though it is hard to argue against this objective, Davies proposes questionable means to achieve it. By calling for a “different populism,” he too readily accepts the stories right-wing populists tell about their own success. Citizens’ demands that “national cultures” be protected from threatening outsiders arguably have less to do with their lived experience (or felt “truth”) than with what they are told by media profiteers – from British tabloids to American talk radio and Fox News.

Likewise, Davies is too willing to excuse “the people’s” distrust of experts, who supposedly “pretend to possess a monopoly over how society and nature are described.” In fact, experts rarely claim anything of the sort; and when they do dare to utter inconvenient truths, they must be prepared for an inevitable onslaught from deep-pocketed business interests.

In the end, Davies has little to say about how democracy fits into our nervous state of affairs. Rosenfeld, however, thinks we need to find “that elusive balance point – equidistant from the technocratic temptation, on the one hand, and the populist one, on the other – that constitutes modern democracy’s sweet spot.” But whether she is right depends partly on what one means by technocracy and populism.

Technocrats, broadly defined, will claim that there is only one rational solution to any given policy challenge, and that anyone who disagrees must be irrational. Yet the suggestion that “there is no alternative” plays directly into the hands of populists, who are right to ask what is left of democracy when all policy choices have already been predetermined.

But populism is not the answer. Populist politicians do not just exalt common sense, or what the French Revolutionaries called le bon sens populaire. They also claim to represent the one true voice of “the people,” implying that anyone who disagrees with the “popular will” must be a traitor or an “enemy of the people.”

Technocracy and populism are often depicted as polar opposites, and yet both have at their core the notion that “there is no alternative.” For technocrats, a singular rational solution is the only option; for populists, it is the singular “popular will” – or at least their particular interpretation of it. Rather than attempting to find the point exactly between technocracy and populism, then, we would do better to open up a wider space for democratic deliberation, perhaps emulating Oregon’s Citizen Initiative Reviews, which bring together experts and randomly chosen members of the public. To contribute meaningfully to public debate, citizens must be able to form their own political judgments, on the basis of facts and well-founded interpretations as well as values.

Rosenfeld makes clear that the space for democracy is threatened by inequality, but also by more specific problems, such as the role of money in politics and the spread of disinformation, from which private Internet companies profit. She suggests that companies overseeing digital platforms should be treated as “public trustees” and regulated accordingly. Similarly, Davies, taking up a suggestion by the distinguished legal scholar Jack Balkin, recommends that platforms be regarded as “information fiduciaries”; like lawyers and doctors, they should not be allowed to profit from their exclusive knowledge of people’s private lives.

Solutions such as these are well worth considering. Still, there is a danger that we will end up with a laundry list of general measures to fix democracy, but no real idea of how to implement them properly. Fortunately, Bernhard Pörksen, an influential German Medienwissenschaftler (media theorist), offers a sharper lens through which to view the problem in The Great Irritability (the title alludes to a section in Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, itself a meditation on the nervous state of Europe on the eve of World War I).

Like Davies, Pörksen is concerned about the rise of an online “indignation industry” that could lead to a form of “indignation democracy”: a politics based more on emotional venting than on commonly recognized facts. To prevent that outcome, he wants us to move toward a “redactional” or “editorial” society. By that, he does not mean everyone must become a self-publishing citizen journalist, but that a “concrete utopia” of norms should guide professional journalists and, to a much lesser extent, average citizens.

To that end, Pörksen proffers a number of general principles, such as “truth orientation” and “skepticism,” which obligate one not just to check basic facts, but to examine one’s own prejudices. (Or, as the old newsroom joke goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”) In his view, professional journalists should be in constant dialogue with their readers, who in turn should be instructed in media literacy from an early age, so as to develop Medienmündigkeit (“media maturity”).

More important, Pörksen thinks the media should be not just accessible, but assessable. Picking up on British philosopher Onora O’Neill’s examination of the double standard that demands transparency of everyone but journalists, he encourages us always to ask who finances media and information platforms, and what guides journalists or publishers’ editorial decisions.

To be sure, transparency is not a first-order political value like liberty and equality. But as an instrumental value, it has a powerful role to play in achieving democratically agreed goals, including by ensuring that such goals are plausible. Simply put, transparency makes it easier for citizens to form proper political judgments. As Arendt would remind us, such judgments should never derive from a single dictated truth, but nor should they be unmoored from facts and expert opinion.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is little reason to think that we have entered a “post-truth age,” or that, as others have argued, public discourse is suffering from “truth decay.” Still, there absolutely is reason to believe that bad regulatory decisions – for example, the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in the US during the Reagan era – can increase polarization and foster a culture of political demonization (particularly when demonization yields big profits).

Technology is not fate. Pörksen is correct to suggest that the medium by itself need not radicalize the message. True, we should all be concerned about what Rosenfeld calls “the truth-starved political culture of today.” But that culture is not the result of the unwashed masses suddenly deciding that facts are elitist, or of know-nothings now always enjoying an advantage in electoral contests.

Rather, as these books themselves show, the “contemporary crisis of truth” is primarily the result of collective political decisions about media regulation, campaign finance, and related issues. As Rosenfeld reminds us, much of democratic politics is asymmetric, involving contests between highly unequal actors and policymaking on behalf of special interests that are unaccustomed to being opposed. But much of democratic politics is also about revising, mitigating, or reversing previous outcomes. In simple, dare I say common-sense, language, the future is still up to us.

(Author Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of politics at Princeton University.)

His latest book is What is Populism?
William Davies, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World, Jonathan Cape, London, 2018.
Bernhard Pörksen, Die grosse Gereiztheit: Wege aus der kollektiven Erregung (The Great Irritability: Ways of Coping with Collective Agitation), Hanser, Munich, 2018.
Sophia Rosenfeld, Democracy and Truth: A Short History, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2018.

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