Current leaders of our country lie routinely, without serious repercussions. Educated people in high-level positions brush aside, as hogwash, both evidence-based knowledge and a near-total global consensus of scientists on climate change. And—perhaps the scariest part—relatively few Americans express alarm about the lying and assaults on objective truth.
If you, like me, are genuinely baffled about this “post-truth” era of “fake news” and “alternative facts” and concerned about the state of American democracy, read on. Also, read Democracy and Truth: A Short History by Sophia Rosenfeld, a professor of intellectual history at the University of Pennsylvania. This short, sharp book shows that the usual suspects—polarized media, Internet technology giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and even Donald Trump—are merely the latest actors in a process that was set in motion at the founding of our democracy.
Rosenfeld argues that even as honesty, transparency, and factuality have been held in high regard as political values in the modern democracies founded since the Enlightenment, truth in democracy has always been contested. After all, democracies are premised on the notion that no single person (a king) or institution (the Church) should have monopoly on determining what counts as truth in public life. This power is shared and belongs equally to every citizen of the country.
The idea was that each person (although initially this only meant propertied white men) could speak his or her mind—thus the guarantee of free speech—and that competition between different ideas, thinkers, and texts would dispel errors and intentional falsehoods and collaboratively produce reliable, at least loosely agreed-upon knowledge—a public truth of sorts that would be respected by a large majority of the population and serve as a basis for a shared reality.
Modern democracies are much too large and complex, however, for citizens to be knowledgeable on all key topics, and so democracies have from the beginning relied on people with specialized knowledge. Ideally, these experts—scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, economists, and analysts to name a few—would discover and bring forth the factual information needed to establish the grounds for public debate, and laypeople or their elected representatives would use it to make public policy decisions. The two sectors would work in tandem, and the dynamic tension between them would produce a balanced result benefiting from both the truth of ordinary people with their common sense knowledge derived from lived experience and the truth of experts with their specialized knowledge.
But what happens if the people, the ultimate source of authority in a democracy, lose confidence in experts as a source of reliable knowledge and, faced with unsettling global economic and social changes, become dissatisfied with democratic processes to solve their problems? And what if the public discourse takes place in a blatantly partisan media space, and powerful new online media technology makes it hard to sort fact from fiction but systematically reinforces biases?
That, according to Sophia Rosenfeld, in a nutshell is the perfect storm that landed us in our current predicament. Rosenfeld paints a picture that comprises on one hand the long-term, slower changes of expanding expert power, rising distrust in experts, and a growing social conflict between experts and ordinary people, and the more recent, rapid changes in the media culture, technology, and political rhetoric on the other. While the recent changes have been much bandied about by journalists and talking heads, the quieter, deeper background changes and the broader framework that allows connecting the dots and making sense of what is happening have largely been missed.
Rosenfeld describes a rapid rise in expert power throughout the last century, driven by advances in technology and the sciences, and a complex society characterized by increasing reliance on specialized knowledge. Despite undeniable benefits to the public—think antibiotics, laser surgery, airplanes, TV’s, cell phones, and computers— these advances also produced costly, opaque bureaucracies—the “swamp” or “deep state”—staffed with narrowly specialized, isolated expert “elites” whose decisions are frequently out-of-touch with real world conditions.
Experts have also caused enormous damage to their own credibility as a source of reliable information. Endorsements by medical doctors for miracle cures and diet pills and research falsified by scientists, for instance, in the pharmaceutical industry, are everyday fodder in the media. Paid experts giving conflicting testimony over the same set of facts is the rule in court cases. Also, the revolving door of specialists moving from government jobs to lobbyist jobs or researcher jobs at special-interest-funded think tanks and back again has made experts look like corrupt players whose supposedly objective expertise is readily slanted to fit the payer’s needs. The public has lost confidence in the integrity of experts and has come to view them as hacks and frauds and, by extension, to view science and research as a hoax. This is especially true in the U.S. where large financial payouts encourage greed.
No wonder, then, that ordinary citizens have come to resent the expert “elites” monopolizing the public truth and telling them what to believe and how to live. The fact that the experts are generally better educated and wealthier than the average people and perceived as condescending aggravates the social conflict between the two classes.
According to Rosenfeld, expert power reached its peak during the seventies and declined thereafter. During the same time frame, public confidence in societal institutions and elected officials eroded owing to a steady and well-publicized parade of pedophile priests, rogue police departments, brazenly partisan political appointments, and politicians corrupted by bribes or beholden to special interests for their political contributions. With traditional societal truth authorities thus compromised, American truth culture became destabilized and an opening was created for a new kind of authority and a new kind of truth.
Recent changes in communication technology and media exacerbated the vicious fight over epistemic authority and political control that followed the power vacuum. The media space changed radically with the 1987 repeal of FCC’s Fairness Doctrine that had required the mass media—long known as the “watchdog of democracy”—to provide news in a fashion that was “honest, equitable, and balanced”. This largely unnoticed piece of Reagan era deregulation ushered in a new media era of blatantly partisan, mostly right-wing talk radio shows and talk TV shows on Fox News with hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity.
Rosenfeld argues that these new media spaces quickly became a key arena for political discourse and caused a momentous shift toward devaluation of objective truth and further diminishment of expert authority. Their provocative format typically comprised attack-dog talking heads in mock debate mixing facts and news with rumors, falsehoods, conspiracy theories, and opinions aimed at selling a one-sided vitriolic political story line. Designed to rile up viewers by recycling tales of outrage taken out of context and relentlessly repeated 24 hours a day, the format proved successful with viewers and advertisers, thus satisfying both political and revenue goals. By blurring the line between fact and fiction, these shows undermined objective truth and by polarizing viewers caused some of them to embrace some amount of dishonesty as an acceptable means to defeating the enemy, i.e. the Democratic Party and “its elite establishment”, marking a shift in a long-held moral stance on lying.
The iPhone, tablet computer, and the Internet technology breakthrough that brought us Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter arrived by 2010 and disrupted communication norms and processes globally with their ability to connect anyone with anyone, anytime. This communication revolution also allowed anyone to publish information, without regard to motivation or veracity. While this in a sense democratized truth by making everyone a publisher, it also diminished the authority of all expertise by placing information posted by Joe Blow on level with that published by The New York Times or peer-reviewed scientific journals. Also, as the Internet became a repository of information both accurate and inaccurate, it became easy to find self-proclaimed “valid” studies to support virtually any position on any issue, making it increasingly difficult to sort fact from fiction.
The ability to match new information to known user preferences, originally developed to better target advertising—the chief revenue source of Internet businesses—presents a unique problem to democracy and truth because doing so also systematically reinforces user biases. This algorithmic amplification of known preferences keeps new viewpoints out of sight and encloses people in homogeneous information bubbles, polarizing them. This feature, for sale to anyone with the funds, can also be used to execute disinformation campaigns as was done by the Leave EU camp to influence the 2016 Brexit vote and by the Russian government to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Internet technology less than ten years old is thus being harnessed for political purposes to propagate the preferred truth of certain actors in ways previously unimaginable.
Enter Donald Trump, a man whose many decades in public view are littered with lies. Rosenfeld argues that Trump represents both a continuation of the tradition of “spin” and lying in politics as a justifiable means to an end, as well as a departure from the truth culture of the past 250 years of American democracy. Not forgetting Nixon who lied to cover up his role in the Watergate burglary or Clinton who lied to cover up a sexual relationship with an intern, Trump’s lying is different in quality as well as quantity: He lies openly, habitually, and brazenly—even asking us not to believe our own eyes—and apparently without compunction. Interestingly, during the 2016 presidential campaign Trump was deemed by a large segment of the electorate as being more truthful than his opponent, thanks to his rejection of political correctness and euphemisms—an indication that part of the electorate prizes emotional frankness over veracity.
As fits a populist leader, Trump flaunts his disdain for objective truth and expert authority. But Trump, in fact, is the real thing: Throughout his long career, he has shown disrespect for facts and learned knowledge and presented himself as someone who doesn’t need to read or study anything because he has “street smarts” and “business ability”. In classic populist fashion, his political rhetoric valorizes the “real people” and their common sense and demonizes the (according to Trump, Democrat) “elite establishment”. He is defunding fact-finding government institutions and staffing his administration with political supporters who have no expertise in areas for which they are responsible, thus further devaluing objective truth and delegitimizing expert authority. Also, Trump legitimizes the right-wing media by watching and appearing on their shows and delegitimizes the legacy mainstream media by calling them the “failing fake news media”—a direct attack on the credibility of the media that represents a large segment of the American people, and a dangerous precedent for muzzling the pluralism of voices critical to a well-functioning democracy.
Trump is also a producer of truth—his own. Trump’s bold lies and unverified facts, tweeted to millions of supporters and repeated by media everywhere, exemplify not only his truth production process but also that of Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Jong-un: Whoever is in power makes the truth. Making his subordinates repeat his version of truth despite empirical evidence to the contrary—such as his declaration that the crowd at his inauguration was the biggest ever—is not intended so much to fool anyone as to display his power: Truth according to Trump is whatever he says it is. Though at times Trump’s antics may seem like silly games of an impetuous child, at the heart of his games with truth is a battle for the soul and control of the country.
In hindsight, then, several factors combined to pave the way for the 2016 populist takeover of truth and our political system. Over time, Americans lost confidence in their experts, public institutions, and elected officials. Globalization and technological advances caused economic hardships especially for blue collar workers at a time when the cost of healthcare and higher education in America ballooned and only the professionals—expert “elites”—and the wealthy could afford it. At a time of global instability following a period of liberalization of social mores and laws that improved the lives of sexual minorities, many yearned back to “the good old days” of traditional ways of life. Democratic processes, slow and difficult to begin with, seemed incapable of addressing problems, many of which—immigration and the globalized economy, for instance—were now transnational. With Washington paralyzed in years-long partisan deadlock, the stage was set for a populist strongman, a Washington outsider who through his popular reality TV show had crafted an image of himself as a straight-shooting, tough-talking, unerringly smart billionaire businessman.
Trump told the people that they were victims of a conspiracy by the self-interested “elites” who looked down on the virtuous ordinary, hard-working people whose gut instincts were good enough for making the right decisions. Their trust had been betrayed and their hard-earned tax dollars squandered. Their jobs had been shipped to foreign countries (especially China) and immigrants (Mexicans and Muslims) were running amok, taking Americans’ jobs and raping and killing them. The liberals in Washington were legislating unisex bathrooms and trampling on family values just to please a few homosexuals and feminists. Trump alone was smart enough to see through it all; he was revealing the truth and exposing the “enemies of the people” (especially CNN and The New York Times) and he would restore the country back to past glory and “make America great again”. His solutions were as simple and simplistic as cancelling free trade agreements, hiking tariffs on (unfairly cheap) imports, building a wall on the Mexican border, and appointing conservative judges.
Trump equated the “elites” to Democrats—even though they may well be mostly Republicans. I believe that this linking was made credible by suggesting that since universities are key producers of scientific knowledge and “bastions of liberal thought”, Democrats, those liberals, were to blame for both the liberal turn of the country and the hoax called science. Democrats supported tax-funded social programs and so they were to blame for the bureaucratic “swamp”. Also, Democratic administrations had supported free trade agreements and so the loss of factories and jobs to low-wage countries was their fault.
Populism itself is nothing new but in the past, for instance in early twentieth century America, populism has been driven by the working class and directed against corporate exploitation. What’s new this time is the alliance of populism and profits. The current populist revolution is being headed by the Republican Party, the party known for prioritizing free market capitalism and corporate welfare. It is being funded by moneyed interests through political contributions, and it is making money for the wealthy through high stock market returns and Trump’s tax cuts. Among those getting rich are the media and Internet giants that are directly implicated in polarizing the country and dividing Americans into bitter political camps of “us” and “them”.
This alliance of populism and profits is puzzling because many of the problems facing Americans today—inequality of income, education, and healthcare—are largely caused by free market capitalism. Free market capitalism, designed to create market conditions with minimal government-mandated expenses and regulations, can indeed stimulate economic activity and boost corporate success but in America that success ends up largely benefiting the already well-to-do. As Rosenfeld points out, even though democracy is premised on political equality, there is nothing intrinsic in democracy to prevent economic inequality.
Rosenfeld, a historian, steers mostly clear of economic analysis. It’s clear, however, that corporate success can benefit individuals directly by providing them jobs or indirectly by increasing the value of stock they own. Corporations in America do a good job of providing employment but as is plain from U.S. Census data, corporate wealth flows to their executives and stockholders, not to their rank and file workers: Since the 1970’s, personal wage and salary income have steadily gone down even as corporate after-tax profits as a percentage of GDP have steadily gone up.
Also, while it’s true that many good American manufacturing jobs have been lost to globalization, it is not the result of some nefarious dealings by Democrats but because manufacturing corporations themselves wanted to move their factories to low-wage countries in order to grow their profits. These profits benefit stockholders of these companies—but since most ordinary Americans, especially those in low-paying jobs, don’t own any stock, these profits go to the already well-to-do.
What’s more, our tax code allows many corporations to pay little or even no taxes—for example Amazon, one of America’s most successful corporations—and thus corporate wealth does little to help fund social programs, roads, or schools. With a good K-12 education available only to those who can afford to buy a house in a good school district and with college costs out of sight, well-paying jobs with benefits are available only to the fairly well-to-do and their children.
People generally vote to protect their own interests but it’s hard to see how the Trump presidency will benefit the economically disadvantaged voters that form his base. The Republican Party won’t provide public funding for education or health care—it has made that very clear—and it can’t bring back factories with well-paid blue collar jobs. Corporations will continue to create new jobs, but jobs for workers with low levels of education will continue to be jobs with low pay and without health insurance. Ridiculing science, building a wall on the border, asserting white supremacy, and trying to turn back the clock on the rights of women and minorities won’t put food on the table or pay the rent. Should populist voters really trust their movement to a Republican President and his Party?
In light of this information, the ideology—to which Americans have been socialized since birth—that America is a land of freedom, equality, and opportunity for all with free capitalist markets as a self-evident part of the package starts looking, in my view, suspicious. The rich are funding populist politics, and it is making them richer and giving them more political control—shouldn’t we be concerned about a slow but steady conversion of the American democracy into a plutocracy, carried out in broad daylight?
Of course, plenty of people who are not economically disadvantaged also voted for Trump. Even though many said they were appalled by Trump’s lying, disregard for objective truth, racism, misogyny, or inflammatory rhetoric, they nonetheless helped bring him to power. An example are evangelical Christians who voted for Trump to get conservative judges, closing their eyes to the fact that he is a Christian in name only and makes a mockery of Christian values. Others, especially people in the upper middle class and the wealthy, voted for Trump to assure that they could continue to enjoy low income taxes and high stock market returns. These voters were willing to risk long-term damage to the country in exchange for expediency and short-term personal gains.
The results of the 2016 presidential election brought us face to face with an historic truth crisis that threatens to unravel the 250-year-old pact between democracy and truth. Rosenfeld argues that it also threatens American democracy itself, for democracy cannot survive without a commitment to verifiable truth and truth-telling. Without at least a loose consensus on basic facts there can be no shared reality, and without a commitment to truthfulness the trust needed for productive collaboration is missing.
Democracy is difficult. It requires effort and works slowly because it involves many people with many different views, all of which must be taken into account. It is, however, worth fighting for—after all, the alternative is some form of totalitarianism with one person or group having the power to name the truths and define the world. History shows that under those circumstances lying ceases to be a moral dilemma since by definition whoever has the power makes the truth. Objective truth ceases to be; two plus two can just as easily be three or five as four. For those tempted to believe it can’t happen here, it behooves to remember another democratically elected leader from the recent past: Adolf Hitler, a populist who incited the German nation using racism and nationalism while the bourgeoisie and the wealthy voted with their pocket books and closed their eyes.
What can we do to protect objective truth and thereby democracy? There are no easy answers. Traditional truth authorities have been demolished, and the nation’s moral stance on lying has been shifted. Objective truth has been devalued. Free speech is being weaponized to allow propagation of “alternate facts” and Internet technology is being weaponized for disinformation campaigns. There are few tools to help people distinguish fact from fiction, truth from popularity, and authority from celebrity. People are huddled in their increasingly impenetrable information bubbles and many are not looking for information from other sources.
Sophia Rosenfeld offers no magic bullet but she offers many sensible if not novel ideas. She encourages us to assert our commitment to truth and to keep exposing and documenting official lying and assaults on objective truth to keep them visible to today’s electorate and to provide a record for history. We must insist that those who produce our news observe the ethical standards of “honest, equitable, and balanced” reporting even if the law no longer requires it. We need to consider modifications to free speech—perhaps something similar to libel laws—to limit the damage from its unethical use. We must put pressure on Internet technology giants to prevent disinformation campaigns and systematic, mindless algorithmic reinforcement of biases. We must insist on the rule of law and strengthen our democratic institutions, especially an independent judiciary. We must support our schools in teaching the young how to distinguish fact from fiction, rumor, and opinion and how legitimate information is developed in the first place. We must protect the integrity of our elections, especially from the distorting influence of money. Finally—something that is hard for those of us who view politics as a very private matter—we must foster the tradition of non-violent protest to fight for our beliefs, including the belief that truth matters.
To begin, we must stop pretending that the current insanity isn’t happening or that it will blow over once Trump’s term is over. It won’t, because too much has changed for truth to ever be the same, and too many dangerously undemocratic precedents have been set at the highest level. The rest of the world has changed, too, partly due to parallel economic and social developments in other Western countries but also because by forfeiting American moral leadership in the world, Trump has signaled to unscrupulous leaders everywhere that they can engage in unethical behavior without being held accountable by any international authority.
I cannot believe that this morally failing nation is who we are—we are better than this. Please, do your part and join the fight for democracy and truth.
Outi Papamarcos is an engineer, a sociolinguist, and a grandmother. She believes in integrity and commitment to truth as the basis for all interactions between people.