This is the first review in our book forum on Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and Truth: A Short History.
A short history of the relation between democracy and truth from the middle of the eighteenth century up until the present, Sophia Rosenfeld’s new book is a triumph of erudition, insight and brevity. It historicizes contemporary anxieties about “post-truth” politics, showing that the tension between experts and populists that seems to distinguish our present condition has in fact never been absent from modern democracy, whether in America or elsewhere, but it also points to ways in which past democracies have tried to walk that tightrope.
Experts have long claimed that the ship of state can only be sailed with their guidance, while populists have long attacked them as self-serving and self-deceived—and each have, in their own way, been right. If voters are to be well-informed and if the decisions of their representatives are to be effectively carried out, we need experts. But since experts tend to come from a certain class and privilege its interests, they are inevitably attacked by their opposite numbers, populists who claim to speak in the name of the common people whose ordinary wisdom and unassuming virtue supposedly gives them an epistemic advantage of their own. And since populism can quickly turn into authoritarian demagoguery—the man of the people begets the people of the man—it might seem as if the cycle can only end in tears.
What Rosenfeld suggests, however, is that democracies might be able to work their way out of this deadly dilemma by creating and maintaining practices and institutions that produce and circulate truth at all levels of society. Early republican theorists in the Age of Revolutions advanced an ideal in which both citizens and experts contributed to “the cause of truth’s discovery and expression.” In this division of epistemic labour, an educated elite (first of representatives, then of civil servants) would work in tandem with the collective intelligence of ordinary (white, male, propertied) citizens in order to keep the ship on an even keel. Ordinary people would be empowered to exercise their own judgements and promote their own values as they debated and voted, but the information on the basis of which they deliberated was to be provided by an educated elite that would also be charged with working out how to implement their will until the next election. For this virtuous cycle to come into being, elites and citizens would need to trust each other so that dogmas and falsehoods could be successfully challenged from both sides, and that would require habits of plain speech, laws protecting free speech and institutions fostering standards of truth.
Historically speaking, Rosenfeld admits, this republican ideal has never actually been realized. Huge inequalities and pervasive exclusions have meant that democracy, even its representative form, remains unachieved, while the institutions and practices that might have produced and circulated truth in society have done so only fitfully. But ultimately she agrees with Robespierre’s judgment: “Democracy perishes by two excesses, the aristocracy of those who govern, or the contempt of the people for the authorities which it has itself established, a contempt in which each faction or individual reaches out for the public power, and reduces the people, through the resulting chaos, to nullity, or the power of a single man.” If we are to navigate between the Scylla of populism and the Charybdis of technocracy, Rosenfeld suggests, we must aim for “modern democracy’s sweet spot, the point at which expert knowledge and popular sense can be imagined again as compensating for each other’s limitations, and some low-level agreement about the state of the world can provide a foundation for rigorous debate.” Whereas populists and technocrats have no time for the idea that competition among ideas is necessary for producing political truth, and hence for the mediating institutions that might serve the process of doing so democratically, we ought to support the “institutions—and their attendant formal processes for establishing and conveying factual truth—that also encourage rather than thwart popular participation in politics … and do so with respect for pluralism, especially when it comes to experiences and values” In Rosenfeld’s view this entails, among other things, more robust journalism, new rules and regulations for communication during elections, support for an independent judiciary, better education (especially in history) and policies to reduce economic inequality.
Rosenfeld’s project is of course motivated by the rising tide of mendacity and scepticism that has engulfed political life in the United States and elsewhere over the last twenty years or so, with the figure of Donald Trump looming large. But it seems to me that the crisis of truth that our democracies are now facing forces us to confront a question that Rosenfeld doesn’t have space to address in her short book: Why should we fight to preserve democracy in the first place?
I am not claiming that there is an easy answer to this question, and certainly I do not propose to offer one here. But logically speaking, we only have reason to defend democracy from both populism and technocracy if we independently have reason to defend democracy. It follows, I think, that the primary truth that democracies must circulate among their citizens concerns the value of democracy itself. Failure to circulate that truth—if indeed it is a truth—would itself cause many of the deformations to which Rosenfeld alerts us, since citizens who are not committed to democracy have no reason to defend it from either populism or technocracy.
The leader of the world’s most powerful democracy, for example, does not seem to respect the operation of democratic institutions, let alone have any interest in restoring them to health. And a huge proportion of the American electorate does not seem to object to that fact. The commitment of educated elites to democracy might seem stronger, but it too is coming under pressure. During the 2018 election campaign, both of Italy’s now-governing parties committed themselves to making a number of vaccinations non-mandatory. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which this policy—which Five Star has actually walked back—generated an epidemic that killed thousands of young children. And if that were to happen, it is equally easy to imagine a collapse in support for democracy. After all, this is not a problem that authoritarian China would ever face.
Let us assume, then, that if democracy is to survive over the long term, citizens need to have a conception of what it is and why it is valuable, and that a democratic regime will have to promote such a conception. In that respect democracy is no different from any other political form: a legitimating narrative is always required. Such narratives usually make reference to ideals and they usually end up as ideology.
Consider one of the few remarks that Rosenfeld offers by way of justification for democracy: in the ideal case, at least, “[n]ew information or new knowledge can, at any point, potentially lead to new plans with new people at the helm.” Now in the ideal case this would also be true of expert-led authoritarian regimes—the Chinese Communist Party might gloss its move towards capitalism in just those terms. In both cases, the ideal serves an ideological function in masking what is really going on. For if we think about the non-ideal democracy that we are actually faced with in the United States, we are forced to reckon with its oligarchical character. There may be new people at the helm from time to time, but how many of them have ever, in the entire history of the country, been working class? The system is not one in which ordinary people come together to deliberate via institutions that produce political knowledge, but one in which their only significant role is to choose between members of the elite now and then.
Clearly an ideal is not supposed to be a description of actuality. But it is supposed to be a description of potentiality, and that puts constraints on our theorizing. To put it schematically, the ideal F is the best possible F—and that means it had better be an F of some kind. A lot hangs, then, on which ideal we see actually existing oligarchical democracy as being deficient relative to. Should it be an ambitious Deweyan ideal of collective experimentation and discovery or a more realistic Schumpeterian ideal of elite competition and accountability? The Deweyan ideal may be more appealing from a normative perspective but it is so far removed from reality that if propagated it might serve as a mystifying ideology circulating falsity in society—false apprehension of reality, but also false hopes. The Schumpeterian ideal avoids fantasy and mystification and in that respect its circulation would allow citizens to live in truth. At the same time, however, its normative unattractiveness might give citizens reason to want to change the political system rather than finding ways of restoring it to health.
The solution, it seems to me, would be to think of Rosenfeld’s proposals regarding the production of truth in democracies not as ways of restoring the current system but rather as steps on the way to achieving a new system—and hence as elements of an ideal that serves a critical rather than an ideological function.
Photo credit: Matt Briney