Book Forum: Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth

1 June 2019

This is the launch of our book forum for Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth: A Short History (University of Pennsylvania Press 2019). 


Populist and “post-truth” politics have a long pedigree. Pamphlets published on London’s Grub Street or in Andrew Jackson’s America prove that the art of daily outrage predates social media. In fact, worries about sensationalism and the status of truth may be inherent to modern democracy. This book forum is dedicated to Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth: A Short History, which traces our present angst back to the eighteenth century. Rosenfeld explains how the notion that ordinary people possessed their own epistemic authority—un sens commun—motivated claims for democratic sovereignty during the Age of Revolutions. As the author of Common-Sense: A Political History (2011), she is well-equipped to remind us of this lineage.


With an eye very much on the present, Rosenfeld describes how the rhetoric of Thomas Paine finds an unwitting continuation in boasts by Donald Trump, such as, “I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.” Paine wrote that one-man rule was untenable because it isolated the monarch from the very information he needed as the overseer of the state. But that eighteenth-century insight prompted a further question, one which we are still struggling to answer. In the large, diverse states born out of democratic revolutions, what is the legitimate source of information? Does political equality entail an equal access to knowledge? If the people are indeed sovereign, do personal opinions deserve the same respect as facts?


Readers of Tocqueville21 are accustomed to comparisons between the US and France, and the democratic societies that developed out of the American and French revolutions serve as Rosenfeld’s main case studies. The philosophes’ campaign to rout out falsehood inspired a desire for political openness, yet the comprehensiveness of the Encyclopédie was equally indicative of a new intellectual elite. The US Constitution’s call for a regular census encouraged the sharing of public knowledge, but it also institutionalized an early culture of statistics and a reliance on professional number-crunchers.


Joining us to discuss Democracy and Truth‘s exploration of these tensions are four scholars of political theory, modern history, comparative politics, and American studies.


Our first reviewer is Jonny Thakkar, a political theorist at Swarthmore College, who asks about the difference between ideals and ideologies: Is it best to think of democracy as an “ideal type,” which we strive for but never achieve? Or is our current version of the democratic ideal closer to an ideology that disrupts our relationship with truth? Moderate idealism may be an oxymoron, but maybe a different, more modest version of the democratic ideal could help bring about a healthier politics.


Next is Antoine Lilti, historian and director d’études at the École des hautes études en sciences sociale. Lilti highlights Rosenfeld’s argument that technocrats and populists both have an absolutist orientation toward truth. An alternative to their dogmatism would seem to rest on a renewal of pluralism, and Lilti calls attention to the social conditions needed for genuine pluralism to work—conditions which make real space for intellectuals and public intellectual debate.


Our third respondent is Lisa Wedeen, a professor of comparative politics and contemporary theory at the University of Chicago. Wedeen zeroes in on the tension Rosenfeld identifies between democratic expertise and global neoliberalism and wonders if Rosenfeld’s thesis holds up in the “global south.” Perhaps there are versions of contemporary capitalism or populism that have lost the democratic component altogether. In these cases, the tension may be less between democracy and truth than between truth and capitalism.


Finally, Nathalie Caron, professor of United States history at Sorbonne Université, asks how Rosenfeld might apply some of her proposals regarding free speech regulations to recent French debates, especially the gilet jaune protests. Caron also encourages us to place Democracy and Truth in conversation with the work of the French scholar Myriam Revault d’Allonnes.


Rosenfeld has agreed to respond to her four discussants, so we encourage you to stay tuned as the forum unfolds. As Lilti observes, despite Rosenfeld’s well-founded worries about the possibilities of a functional public sphere, Democracy and Truth is still written with a general audience in mind. Rosenfeld’s ability to condense several centuries of scholarly debates into a short book for non-specialists represents « un geste de confiance envers ses lecteurs ». We are confident that Rosenfeld and her respondents will foster a worthwhile debate—one that holds out hope for a republic of letters.


Photo Credit: Sophia Rosenfeld, Democracy and Truth: A Short History [Cover], Fair Use.


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