January 17, 2017

Facts Aren’t Enough to Save Liberal Democracy



Facts these days are taking a beating in politics. A month or so back, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes shared on “The Diane Rehm Show” that “[t]here’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts.” She was pilloried in the press over this, not unsurprisingly, though her words, taken at face value, do at least convey a sense of loss over our purported predicament—it’s unfortunate that there aren’t any facts anymore. Unfortunate or not, is she right that truth has left the building?

Well, no, of course not. We still have death and taxes, if nothing else, two stubborn, non-negotiable facts of modern life. And even if Republicans somehow manage to do away entirely with the latter in the first hundred days of Trump’s presidency, I’m pretty sure we’ll be stuck with our own mortality for at least a little while longer.

The really real world, in other words, didn’t suddenly slip away during the 2016 election cycle, impressions to the contrary notwithstanding. Be that as it may, it’s hard to deny that something funny is going on.

“Post-truth” was recently named the international word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary. PolitiFact’s 2016 Lie of the Year is fake news—as in all of it. A few days before the election, the Toronto Star listed in excruciating detail 560 falsehoods that then-candidate Donald Trump had uttered during the election cycle, a project of mendacity so immense in scope and ambition that the Los Angeles Times, two months earlier, argued that it was unprecedented in modern presidential politics. When election day came around this November, the general consensus among pundits was that the American people would surely reject such an unapologetic liar.

And then Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth President of the United States.

That’s Just Like, Your Opinion, Man

So something doesn’t appear to be right. Indeed, at the same time that facts are getting kicked to the curb, opinion is all the rage. President-elect Trump recently declared via Twitter, his bully pulpit of choice, that millions had voted illegally in the election. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever backing up that claim. A more old-fashioned way of putting it, from a more civilized age, to quote a Jedi Master, is that Trump said something blatantly false. But when Vice President-elect Mike Pence was pressed about this by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week,” Pence said that it was “refreshing” for the President-elect to express his opinions. Each of us has a right to them, after all.

It’s as if the Dude’s famous comeback in The Big Lebowski—“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion, man”—has become a foundational principle in American politics.

Not only are we now encouraged to view the recitation of evidence-absent opinions by our leaders as a breath of fresh air in a world apparently suffocated by reason and empirical data, it turns out that in this new post-truth age, knowledge itself has been demoted to mere opinion.

Recently on “Fox News Sunday” Trump told host Chris Wallace that while he’s still “open minded” about climate change, “nobody really knows.” A member of his transition team, Anthony Scaramucci, helpfully added on CNN’s “New Day” that “[t]here was an overwhelming science that the Earth was flat, and there was an overwhelming science that we were the center of the world. We get a lot of things wrong in the scientific community.”

So we can think that global climate change is a reality. We can have the opinion that that’s so, but, alas, we just don’t know, a mountain of evidence to the contrary be damned.

Unpacking “Post-Truth”

“Post-truth” may not even do justice to naming this strange new world we apparently occupy. It’s one where we have more information at our fingertips than ever before in human history, and yet more fake news was shared in the lead up to the election than actual news. We have made massive strides in educating people, and yet our leaders celebrate the promotion of groundless belief and reject well-established scientific knowledge. It’s a time when the very idea of there being facts at all is seriously called into question.

This has given people cause for alarm. Jacob Levy argues that we ought to be concerned with the relationship between this emerging state of affairs and elements of authoritarianism. Paul Waldman at The American Prospect has referred to the place that we find ourselves as an epistemological netherworld. Perhaps instead it’s an epistemological dystopia. Or maybe we have just finally arrived at the idiocracy anticipated by the 2006 film Idiocracy and foretold before that by C. M. Kornbluth’s science fiction masterpiece “The Marching Morons.”

Why quibble? Epistemological netherworld, epistemological dystopia, idiocracy, or merely post-truth age, something worrisome is going on.

While I imagine that many readers are nodding along in this assessment—it’s certainly the popular view in the circles I run in—I think it would be profitable to consider what a serious challenge to it would look like. Maybe things really aren’t as bad as they seem, or at the very least, maybe there’s something to the idea that in the realm of politics, opinions ought to hold a privileged position, and facts ought to be somewhat sidelined. Controversial as that idea is, for the best defense of it around, I turn to Hannah Arendt. And no, as tempting as it may be, I’m not dusting off her classic work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. I’ll give it a few more months before diving back into that one. At the moment, I want to revisit her New Yorker article from almost half a century ago, “Truth and Politics.”

What Makes a Fact a Fact?

“Facts are beyond agreement and consent,” Arendt tells us, “[u]nwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move.” And so, “[s]een from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character…it carries within itself an element of coercion.”

This conception of truth as being despotic, at least in the political arena, has earned Arendt some infamy. Even if truth and truth-telling does take on a bullying, non-negotiable character in political exchanges, is that such a bad thing? After all, as Arendt herself acknowledges, truth is “hated by tyrants, who rightly fear the competition of a coercive force they cannot monopolize.”

That sure sounds like a ringing endorsement for bringing more facts into the political realm. But, Arendt continues, truth also “enjoys a rather precarious status in the eyes of governments that rest on consent and abhor coercion.” Uh oh. That sounds like the sort of government we want.

How exactly is Arendt thinking about this? Politically. She conceives of politics as an essential feature of liberal democracy. Politics is characterized by compromise, rhetoric, debate, persuasion, consent, and the like. It greases the wheels for the whole enterprise of governance. So far so good, but these observations alone don’t explain why the political arena ought to be one where only opinions reign supreme and where facts have little to no dominion.

We can make some progress in seeing the matter Arendt’s way by observing that opinions and facts are two entirely different kinds of things. Opinions are perspectives, ways things seem or appear. Opinions can change through conversation and deliberation. They can be amended, abandoned, reconsidered, and so on. We all recognize that the way things seem to us doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the way things are. Facts, on the other hand, aren’t like this at all. Facts don’t change. (At least many facts don’t, like historical facts, the focus of Arendt’s thinking. ) Facts aren’t perspectives on the way things are; facts simply are the way things are. We have opinions about facts, and some opinions express truths about facts, but the facts themselves are, well, the facts. And they stay that way with or without our approval or disapproval, our endorsement or disavowal.

How Facts Fit Into Politics

All of this should be beyond dispute, but it doesn’t yet explain the supposed problematic role of facts in politics. Part of Arendt’s worry might be the different ways that opinions and facts sometimes announce themselves in conversations.

Consider the following brief exchange. You say, “The way I see it, humans aren’t causing the Earth to get any warmer than it otherwise would have gotten without us.” I reply, “No; global climate change is real and we’re cause.”

Your statement clearly expresses an opinion. You’re telling me how the world appears to you—how you see it—and as such, it is open to further discussion; after all, things might not be the way they seem to you. But my response is not open to further discussion. My contribution is not about how I see the world. It’s about how the world is. Rather than an invitation to further conversation—a crucial component to politics—it’s a conversation stopper. I am telling you the way things are, and thereby trying to coerce you, rather than persuade you. The trouble for Arendt is not that introducing facts is poor form in politics. It’s worse than that. It frustrates and undercuts the essential project of politics. The introduction of facts precludes the ability to do politics properly, replacing persuasive exchanges with coercive ones.

But are facts really coercive in this way? And is the problem even with facts themselves? The most promising reading of Arendt needs to amend some of her thinking on this matter if it’s to be compelling. The concern ought not be with facts themselves, but with speech-acts purporting to relate facts, whether things turn out to be that way or not. If you ask me what time the voting booths close and I say, “I think they close at eight,” the “I think” is doing some important work here. Saying it advertises uncertainty. If, instead, I say “they close at eight,” this conversationally implies that I know when the polls close, that I’m certain of it. And there’s no debating certainty, even if it turns out I’m wrong about when the polls close.

Moreover, making factual claims isn’t like making threats, which are a paradigmatic type of coercive speech.  Factual claims can’t literally force you to behave, or think,  a particular way. Rather, announcing facts in the political arena functions rhetorically more like bravado than humility, and is akin to bullying. It’s adopting a take-it-or-leave-it approach to what should be a good faith negotiation, demanding submission to the truth. Such claims, if not coercive, might better be viewed as aggressive or dominating. In the domain of politics, that is. We should not saddle Arendt with the implausible view that factual claims function this way in the academy, or in the courtroom, or in many ordinary conversations.

Lies, Noble and Otherwise

Even if Arendt would accept these friendly amendments to her view, that’s not the end of the story for her. Indeed, in “Truth and Politics” she really does seem to think that truth itself puts a burdensome constraint on the enterprise of politics. As she sees it, that’s because politics is at least in part directed at change, at making things different than the way they already are. Even status quo politicians aren’t entirely committed to the status quo.

Liars, on this view, are agents of change. They are trying get us to reject the way the world actually is in order to transform it into something different. The liar, according to Arendt, “says what is not so because he wants things to be different from what they are—that is, he wants to change the world.” Contrary to Immanuel Kant, that famous German philosopher who insisted that it’s a categorical imperative not to lie, Arendt reimagines the liar almost heroically, as a person of action who exercises freedom by revolting against the shackles of the given, of the factual, of reality. “[O]ur ability to lie…belongs among the few obvious, demonstrable data that confirm human freedom.”

It may be tempting to dismiss this entire perspective as a kind of political realism, or cynicism, run completely amok. That would be a serious mistake. Admittedly, if what Arendt is claiming is that truth has no place in politics, and that lying should be celebrated as the bread and butter of political activity, then she overstates her case. But she is correct in forcing us to recognize that the old Platonic idea of the noble lie, which we might understand as a kind of aspirational falsehood, is absolutely crucial to the political project of bringing about change. Lying in the political realm should not be viewed altogether negatively, but as a means of helping us to imagine the possible despite the way things are, and perhaps helping us to behave toward each other in ways we otherwise wouldn’t.

Then-senator Barack Obama’s famous breakout speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, declaring us one unified people, rather than a country divided along red and blue lines, is an example par excellence of a political lie meant to get us to imagine a different possibility. We are in fact not one united people under God; we are instead a set of divided tribes vying for power, and if God is out there, He doesn’t seem particularly interested in entering the fray, all-wise as He is.

Trump, for his part, lies like it’s going out of business as fast as one of his own ventures. There’s a problem with that, and we’ll get to it in a moment. But his conception of America as a kind of dystopia that needs to be made great again, where crime is rampant, the economy is in ruins, and we are all “cucked” by foreigners with every trade deal and alliance —that deception is the essence of politics. It may be the ignoble lie—the dark shadow of the noble lie—but it belongs in the political arena all the same.

Liberal Democracy Needs a Salesperson

If we are going to successfully counter Trump’s deceptive characterization of America and thus forestall the change it is trying to bring about, we need to stop acting like politics is a courtroom or classroom, where you win the day with the right facts at your disposal, thwarting opponents and cowing adversaries with the truth. Politics is as much about sales as it is anything else. We need to sell democracy and liberal principles again to a portion of the public no longer disposed to accepting them as a given. Liberal democracy needs a new advertising campaign, because the brand has fallen on dire times. But the realm of sales and advertising is, needless to say, not one where truth always reigns supreme. It’s the realm of “Just Do It.” Vacuous yet effective. It’s the arena of spin, exaggeration, and sometimes more overt forms of deception.

There are laws against false advertising, of course, so it’s not as though just anything goes. And it’s not as if the intellectual case for liberal democracy–that it delivers better results than any of the alternatives–is irrelevant to the political sales pitch.  The point is just that the wonkish facts are not enough. To help make the sale, the raw data must be imbued with glamour, tied to the aspirations of Americans, and be made to appeal to our sense of national and spiritual identity. Whatever this is, it isn’t science.   

In her defense, Arendt recognizes the potential harms that come with lies in the political arena. Relentless lying, she argues, tends to blur the lines between opinion and fact. It additionally leads liars to start believing their own lies, as a matter of self-deception. Trump and his team ought to take note.

Arendt also acknowledges that mass deception may come to pass, but she is sanguine about it ultimately failing. “That facts are not secure in the hands of power is obvious, but the point here is that power, by its very nature, can never produce a substitute for the secure stability of factual reality…[f]acts assert themselves by being stubborn, and their fragility is oddly combined with great resiliency.”

Inhofe can bring as many snowballs as he wants to the floor of Congress, a genius act of politics, to be honest. But the world will continue to warm all the same. Facts, just like life, as Ian Malcolm tells us in Jurassic Park, find a way.

For Liberalism to Succeed, It Must Inspire

If liberal democracy is to survive in the age of Trump, it needs to be rehabilitated in the political arenathe arena of opinionnot outside it, in the discourse of objective facts. We are all-too-human, to nod at Nietzsche. Fallen, we are pulled by illiberal tendencies and attracted to despotism, so long as it serves our tribe. No recitation of scientific knowledge, no appeal to historical facts, and no clever philosophical argumentation is alone going to bring us back to accepting liberal democratic principles. And we do need to get back to them, posthaste. The political vision of Trump and some of his supporters is abhorrent, in part because of how recognizable its ugliness is. Nothing is new under the sun.

I have turned to Arendt because she invites us to remember that politics is where the action is and it’s a game where deception is an important move. Elsewhere in “Truth and Politics” she points out that even the American Founders knew this. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is a sales pitch of the first order. As Arendt observes, it’s an interesting statement, implying that the Founders were choosing to hold certain things which aren’t self-evidently true as self-evidently true. She’s spot on, in my opinion. Conceiving of ourselves as political equals, protected by rights, and engaged in a project of self-governance is not a natural view. Our problem has always been that rights and equality are not self-evident and recalcitrant facts of the external world. They gain reality and powerthey become the real cause of greater freedom and flourishingonly through a widely shared elective vision.  

We need artists, we need entertainers, we need salespersons, and we need politicians to bring us back to the opinions that constitute that vision, to help us endorse and consent to them. The business of politics, of opinion, is messy at times, because it does occasionally involve spin, deception, and manipulation. But if we won’t undertake this business, others will, and a different vision will be sold. We’re now seeing what that vision is, and it seems to portend that winter is coming.

Christopher Robichaud is Lecturer in Ethics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.