Some commentators applauded. Others saw a small, understandable misstep, nothing more than a rookie error or a familiar case of political hypocrisy. For much of the media, though, the comments seemed to reinforce a story line that preceded Trump’s rise to the presidency: We are living through a distinctive “post-truth” moment that now threatens democracy itself.
But in all the debate, one question has remained unaddressed: Why does truth matter to democratic politics in the first place?
As it turns out, that’s actually hard to answer. A glance back at the first 232 years of U.S. history suggests that nothing about the status of truth has ever been self-evident. On the contrary, since the nation’s founding, truth — what it consists of, where to find it and who gets to decide what earns its name — has always been a battleground.
Eighteenth century advocates of self-rule, including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, imagined truth and democracy would reinforce each other. Indeed, that was the big promise. A moral and epistemic commitment to a small set of predetermined truths would undergird the establishment of the new political order, and, conversely, participation in the political process would aid in the discovery and expression of further truths. As James Madison confidently put it in the early 1790s, “In a Republic, light will prevail over darkness, truth over error.”
But those truths were never set in stone. And here’s the rub: The architects of modern democracy envisioned most kinds of verities, including those most vital to politics, as contingent, meaning always subject to challenge and revision. Furthermore, they granted no one person, sector or institution a monopoly on the power of definition in the tradition of kings or clerical leaders. Getting to truth was, on the contrary, to be a collective social process (think of the “we” that comes before “hold these truths to be self-evident,” in Jefferson’s words). It was to be aided only by a plain style of address, an independent but highly partisan commercial press, a basic law protecting expressive freedom and informal trust in others.
Such were the bare bones of the model established by both the early U.S. republic and the French revolutionary state, the first major experiments with popular sovereignty in modern times.
So for all the talk of truth’s great significance to public life, what counts as true, and who gets to say so according to what standards, has, since the late 18th century, been difficult to work out and perennially subject to polarizing fights and power grabs.
When the federal Constitution was unveiled in the late 1780s, some members of the opposition press began to claim that the whole thing smelled of Old World deception. A wealthy, educated faction — men, as one Anti-Federalist described them, of “Machiavellian talents . . .who excel in ingenuity, artifice, sophistry, and the refinements of falsehood” — was conspiring to empower itself at the expense of the plebs. How? They had assumed “the pleasing appearance of truth and bewilder[ed] the people in all the mazes of error.”
Andrew Jackson turned up the heat in the 1820s, pitting his self-declared commoner’s instincts for truth against the scholarly approach of the out-of-touch Harvard man (in this case, John Quincy Adams). That kind of antagonism only intensified as populist challengers refused the evidence of a growing corps of highly-trained “experts,” as they began to be called in the 19th century, while learned professionals increasingly turned their backs on popular wisdom and know-how.
The battle has continued down to the present day, exacerbated lately by social media and the proliferation of news sources that allow everyone to find their own truth in a different place.
What’s more, democratic politics has also long had a high legal tolerance for errors of fact.
The history of deliberate democratic dissimulation stretches from the (real) fake news about Marie Antoinette’s sexual proclivities published at the time of the Terror to the untruths of the George W. Bush regime regarding weapons of mass destruction and Iraq. Changes in the realm of news, entertainment and technology, all aided by big money, have only worsened the situation in the age of Trump. And many people have seemingly just stopped caring, becoming “post-truth” in the sense of accepting the notion that there can be no foolproof evidence, that truth is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.
But before we give up on truth as a relic of a bygone era or hopeless abstraction that has only ever generated fights, we might still consider its centrality to the functioning and, indeed, survival of democratic politics.
Practically, we need some agreement on basic facts, like how many people live in the United States (the subject of the first census in 1790 and subsequent ones every 10 years) or how much a specific program will cost, to make any collective decisions about the future. Democratic debate is premised on every opinion being informed by some body of shared knowledge. That much early democracy advocates realized, and we understand more every day now.
That’s reason alone to continue calling out fallacious statements and generating and publicizing the most highly vetted, accurate information possible, even as we know that no facts are beyond challenge and even if the very effort sometimes backfires by being taken as simply more partisan jousting.
The other, even more substantial, reason for reaffirming the basic democratic take on truth has, however, to do with our collective aspirations. Even as we seemingly drown these days in public lies and misinformation, we still need to think of truth, no matter how provisional, as a primary goal, a horizon, like liberty, toward which we are always striving. That should go for all those in public life, young or old, right or left. Otherwise, no one would put up for long with the uncertainty, contentiousness and indeed untruths that have always been characteristic of democracy.