'Democracy and Truth' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

In an era marked by widespread misinformation and deepening mistrust in democratic institutions, "Democracy and Truth: A Short History" by Sophia Rosenfeld offers a timely and insightful exploration of the complex relationship between democracy and truth.

This book is particularly relevant today as it provides historical context to the current crises of truth and democracy seen globally.

Rosenfeld argues that the challenges we face today are not entirely new; they are deeply embedded in the fabric of modern democracy since its inception in the late 18th century. She suggests that the peculiar relationship between democracy and truth has always existed, and the current crisis is merely a culmination of longstanding issues.

This perspective is both reassuring and unsettling, as it shifts the focus from external factors to the inherent vulnerabilities within democratic systems themselves.

Historical perspective

Tracing the origins of modern democracy back to the late 18th century, the author highlighting how new republics, unlike the aristocratic systems they replaced, were based on principles of openness and mutual trust between citizens and their leaders.

The aspiration was for collective truth to emerge from free discussion and the combined wisdom of both the educated elite and the general populace.

However, Rosenfeld points out that this ideal has rarely been realised in practice. Democratic societies have always grappled with significant inequalities in power and education, and their media have often been driven by commercial and partisan interests.

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In practice, the democratic ideal of a free and open marketplace of ideas has often devolved into a fierce struggle over truth and who gets to define it.

Rosenfeld’s narrative reveals that from the outset, politics in democratic societies has been a battleground where truth is contested rather than consensually established.

In her examination, Rosenfeld identifies a recurring tension in democracies between the definition of truth as determined by experts and the concept of truth rooted in common sense.

This dynamic has resulted in a historical flux, with periods dominated by technocratic governance on one end and populist movements on the other.

Contemporary implications

Rosenfeld directly addresses the present-day breakdown of social trust and the fracturing of the public sphere, linking these issues to broader cultural forces, capitalism, and technological advancements.

She provides a nuanced understanding of how these elements interact to undermine the foundational principles of democratic societies.

"Democracy and Truth: A Short History" is a brilliant read that not only illuminates the historical roots of our current predicament but also underscores the persistent and intrinsic challenges faced by democracies in their pursuit of truth. 

Ahmad Nazir is a UAE based freelance writer