Democracy and Truth: A Short History
By Sophia Rosenfeld, University of Pennsylvania Press, 224 pages, $20.25
Barely 30 years ago, at the end of the Cold War, it seemed to some western observers that democracy had triumphed for good. In Francis Fukuyama’s famous formulation, history had come to an end. No better form of government was conceivable; it was inevitable that all nations around the world would eventually develop into liberal democracies. These days we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Across Europe, Asia and the Americas, democratic norms and institutions are under assault. As well as being subjected to hyper-partisan politicians, dictators and demagogues, citizens everywhere find themselves drowning in a toxic avalanche of misinformation, lies and untruths. What on earth has happened to democracy, and to truth?
Over the course of last year, there has been no shortage of attempts to make sense of our predicament and its historical roots. Recent commentators have variously looked back to the 1930s for analogies with the present, pointed to the effects of the 2008 economic crash, or tried to pin the blame on the rise of postmodern theory since the 1960s.
In her short, sharp book, the historian Sophia Rosenfeld takes a longer and deeper view. Her argument is that, ever since its origins in the late 18th century, modern democracy has had a peculiar relationship to truth: the current crisis merely epitomises that. We shouldn’t focus only on external causes, for our system of government carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. As in her previous work on the twisted history of democratic political rhetoric, it’s a simultaneously reassuring and unsettling message.
The essential problem, as Rosenfeld sees it, is that democratic government is predicated on an aspiration to collective truth. Unlike older systems of aristocratic and monarchical rule, which excluded the people from power and stressed the need for administrative secrecy, the new republics of the late 18th century, and the more egalitarian mass democracies that succeeded them, depended on openness and trust between citizens and rulers. Through the free discussion and united wisdom of the educated and the masses, errors would be dispelled, “public knowledge” established and societies advanced. And yet, she points out, the reality has never lived up to this powerful ideal. From the outset, democratic societies contained vast inequalities of power and education, and their media have always been driven by commercial and partisan imperatives. In practice, instead of a free civil marketplace of ideas, politics has always been a vicious fight over the truth and the power of determining it.
Rosenfeld’s model of democratic truth as always contingent, arising through endless discussion, in a world in which people accepted that differences of opinion were inevitable, captures something distinctively new and valuable about Enlightenment approaches to knowledge. But it largely ignores a powerful alternative presumption, at least as prevalent in the 18th century as it is today - that truth, in politics as in other spheres, was simple, self-evident and unitary. It needed only to be revealed: if some people couldn’t yet see it, that was only because they were deluded, or acting in bad faith. To early advocates of this strain of thought, the point of freedom of speech was not to encourage pluralism, but simply to allow the truth to break free from bondage and superstition. In such circumstances, the judgment or will of the people, they believed, was always bound to be united: divergence of opinion was a sign of error, conspiracy or worse.
This book focuses instead on another central dilemma of the democratic “truth regime”: the tension between elite knowledge and ordinary “common sense”. How far should our political decisions be based on the everyday understanding and buy-in of the majority of the population, and how far on the more specialised, less easily intelligible wisdom of legal, scientific or economic experts? How can we strike a workable balance between the two?
For all that they newly proclaimed the sovereignty of the people, 18th-century politicians also inherited an age-old belief in social hierarchy, and a deep disdain for the ignorance and volatility of the masses. That is why they limited the franchise, included senates and electoral colleges in their constitutions, and believed that nations should be led only by enlightened, propertied, educated white men. Over the ensuing centuries, although western societies gradually became more egalitarian, they also grew ever more complex, so that, ironically, their administration required ever more, not less, specialisation and expertise. As Max Weber famously pointed out in the 1920s, the result was an increasing tension between the views and theoretical sovereignty of the people, and the real power of the unelected bureaucrats and specialists who actually ran the modern nation.
That conflict has only got worse. With every new scientific and technological advance, our societies need more and more experts of every kind, generate more and more knowledge, and inspire more and more administrative policy. That has brought great benefits in public health, social welfare and economic vitality. But it also requires us to place ever greater faith in distant, opaque groups and mechanisms. Too much technocracy and managerialism runs the risk of policymaking that is bad, corrupt, or divorced from the concerns of “ordinary” people, which in turn destroys trust and creates an angry backlash - witness the aftermath of the financial bailout after 2008, Brexit, Trump and the rest.
As Rosenfeld shows with a wealth of examples, faith in popular wisdom and suspicion of “experts”, too, can be traced back to the origins of modern democratic thought in the 18th century. Disdaining expertise, rejecting orthodox truths, valorising the feelings of “ordinary” people and promising simple, quick solutions is not a new recipe: it’s been the alternative logic of “populist truth” across the western world for the past 300 years, from Thomas Paine to Donald Trump, from Eva Peron to Viktor Orban. For democracy to work, it needs always to navigate between the Scylla of technocratic authoritarianism and the Charybdis of demagoguery.
So, as Lenin said, what is to be done? To her credit, Rosenfeld doesn’t shirk this question (nor the related one of how far our recent trajectory differs from past episodes of unbalanced populism). What history shows is that democracy depends on a shared commitment to verifiable truth and truth-telling — but also that this construct is inherently fragile and under unceasing pressure. Understanding this, she suggests, should help us to revitalise the norms and institutions (the media, judiciary, education) that traditionally have allowed societies to harmonise expert knowledge and popular sense for the common good.
But even that won’t be enough. Hovering over her arguments are two even larger quandaries. The first, which Rosenfeld raises herself, is the moral failure of our economic system. The story of modern democracy is also the story of modern capitalism. But the more we are divided by gross and growing inequality, the harder it becomes to find the common ground on which our politics depends.
Democratic politics is also, by and large, national politics. Perhaps that, too, is part of the problem. All the biggest challenges of our time are transnational: mass migration, growing inequality, the onset of ecological Armageddon. It’s arguable that the politics of the nation state have become at best irrelevant, and at worst a hindrance, to tackling such global challenges. The outlook is grim. Yet it’s a tribute to the quality of this pithy, illuminating book that one nonetheless ends it provoked and inspired, rather than dispirited.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd