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12 February 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 7:13am

Why liberal democracies do not depend on truth

Rather than exulting experts in response to misinformation, defenders of liberalism should seek to restore the conditions for rational debate.

By Dylan Riley

We hear on every side the claim that democracy is in crisis because a regime of post-truth has emerged, reinforced by social media bubbles or echo-chambers that serve merely to intensify already-existing viewpoints. The argument, put forward most recently by Timothy Snyder has rarely been critically examined, and has instead degenerated into a banal talking point. Upon closer examination, it contains a crypto-authoritarian politics which goes some way to explain the demotic enthusiasm behind much of the populist right, and especially of Donald Trump.

To begin with, it is important to clear up the language. The connection between truth and representative government, most compellingly stated by John Stuart Mill, was historically a justification for liberalism, not democracy. The rule of the demos has in reality no intrinsic relationship to truth, nor does it require any particular institutional form. It can just as well be embodied in a personal or single-party dictatorship as in an elected body.

All those many attempts, beginning with Hans Kelsen and Joseph Schumpeter, and extending through to the scholastic discussions of contemporary political theory, to specify a set of institutional arrangements that distinguish democracies from their others have failed. The reason is that democracy, like all other theories of sovereignty such as divine right, the rule of the best, or the rule of the competent, is based on a mythological subject that does not exist; in the case of democracy that subject is called “the people”.

The common notion that Donald Trump is an anti-democrat falls at just this point. Who, after all, is to say that the “insurrection” at the Capitol on 6 January was not a truer expression of democracy than the elections of 3 November? The Trumpist mob insistently claimed that it represented the people (“this is our house”) just as stridently as its critics denounced that mob’s members as autocrats. Adjudicating who stands on the side of democracy, and who is against it, is always a political act, never a merely descriptive one.

[see also: Why Trump isn’t a fascist]

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Serious discussion can only begin when we focus instead on the relationship between truth and liberalism, defined, following Mill, as parliamentarism and freedom of conscience and expression. Here too, though, common sense has made a hash of the issues involved. Most commentators who think they are defending democracy are actually defending liberalism. What they are worried about is a set of fundamental rules of the game: respecting elections, having a functioning parliament, and a general regime of legality. All the sententious blather about the nefarious effects of the “big lie” together with the obligatory references to Hannah Arendt, focus on a defence of this sort of regime. If only we had a shared truth, then all would be the best, in the best of all possible worlds: that is to say, the world of liberalism.

What is forgotten here is that the classic justification of liberalism put forward by Mill made just the opposite argument. Parliament and freedom of conscience and discussion were not based on a common accepted truth; they were supposed to produce that truth. Liberalism, for Mill, was not based on truth; truth was based on liberalism.

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The power of Mill’s argument is that it provided a justification of actual institutions. We should worry about protecting freedom of expression and parliament, because only in this context can we produce claims that are true. And, furthermore, human beings have a general interest in figuring out what the actual state of affairs in the world is, so as to better act in it.

According to the new theory of liberalism, by contrast, truths are produced by experts and “authoritative sources” such as, in the US, the New York Times and the Washington Post. These truths should be accepted by all right-thinking persons who can then have discussion among themselves about what those truths mean. Unlike Mill’s initial argument, this claim does not link truth claims to a particular set of political institutions. Truth as the expression of expertise does not require freedom of expression and a parliamentary chamber – or at least not to the same extent as truth as justified opinion.

What is the core difference between the new theory and the classic justifications of liberalism? For Mill, truth was more about the way in which an opinion or claim was held, than it was about its content. Truth was achieved through a process of justification. This justification itself required relentless challenge. Holding true opinions as dead dogmas was not really, in Mill’s view, to hold “true” opinions.

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It is in this context that another paradox of the Trumpist world-view emerges. Its generic distrust of experts is, in a way, more in accord with classical liberals than those who claim that democracy (read: liberalism) is based on truth. Of course, there is an absolutely crucial difference; while the Trumpists claim that even the most inane and mystificatory ideas, if espoused by the former president or his circle, should be heard, what they loathe is precisely what makes freedom of expression and conscience so important to Mill: rational debate.

The correct response to the torrent of lying, however, is not to respond with a torrent of truth as expert truth. It is instead to create the conditions for rational debate. What one hears instead is the demand to restore “trust in experts”. But the strength of liberalism is precisely that it is not based on trust. And, in any case, after the debacles of the Iraq War in 2003 and the financial crisis in 2008, why should anyone trust in experts?

The whole force of this argument points toward the need for a drastic reform of the material and social conditions for the production of claims. It is within this framework that the problem of social media should be posed. Any consistent liberal should be disturbed by the enormous influence that Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey demonstrated themselves to have by literally turning Trump off overnight.

[see also: Leader: The Big Tech reckoning]

But, in our current circumstances, this is the only mechanism available for checking dangerous inanity in a social media environment dedicated to selling advertisements. If, instead, these platforms were run as public utilities, which charged a small annual fee, they could function as spaces of rational debate, and therefore of truth production in Mill’s sense.

The point, in any case, is that if one is interested in preserving liberal institutional forms, a further exultation of the experts is a profoundly misconceived way of proceeding. As a defence of liberalism, it is crypto-authoritarian precisely because it demands “faith”: in science, in experts, in the “adults in the room”. But the project should not be to restore trust; rather, it should be to establish the social and political conditions for rational-critical debate.

Dylan Riley is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe“.