Democracy and Truth: An Interview with Sophia Rosenfeld

***This interview is part of our ‘Featured Books’ series.***

Book cover of Democracy and Truth by Sophia Rosenfeld.

In Democracy and Truth: A Short History, Sophia Rosenfeld examines the way in which truth functions in democracies, providing historical context for the current crises in both truth and democracy around the world. Beginning with the eighteenth-century Age of Revolutions, Rosenfeld identifies the central place of truth in democracies and traces the tension between the definition of truth as a product of expertise versus the idea of truth rooted in common sense. What follows is a story of flux between technocrats on one extreme and populism on the other. Addressing the current moment directly, Rosenfeld identifies links between capitalism, technology, and broader cultural forces, and the breakdown of social trust and fracturing of the public sphere. Throughout the book, she shows that though the modern crisis is unique, in some ways it is the latest in a long history of struggle over the meaning of truth in democracy. What follows is an interview I conducted with Sophia Rosenfeld about her book.


Katlyn Carter (KC): Can you talk about why you decided to write this book now and how it relates to your earlier work?

Sophia Rosenfeld (SR): That’s a good question because it is a little bit of a departure, for me at least, writing about the present. I think the answer is two-fold. One, like everybody else, after the last presidential election, I was slightly news-obsessed. I looked at my phone too many times a day and found myself thinking that the things I had been thinking about in the previous few years didn’t seem entirely relevant to this historical moment, that we’d entered new territory. But the more the discussion turned to questions like “what do you do when there’s an administration that doesn’t seem to be rooted in truth?” the more it occurred to me that I’d been thinking about questions like this indirectly for years, but much more in a historical context. So, with a little bit of persuasion from the publisher, I decided that maybe I could try to turn my long-standing interest in the epistemic foundations of democracy toward the question of whether this was really unprecedented or not—and Trump was the most obvious part of this, but this was also in the wake of Brexit, and in the wake of discussions in 2016 even before the election about whether we had become “post-truth” and in the wake of the rise of right-wing movements in eastern Europe. Somehow, my news obsession and my academic obsessions converged in a way that I didn’t quite expect, and I decided to put aside what I’d been working on for a while to write a short kind of introductory book that was a response to the present.

World cloud generated from this interview in the shape of a flag.
Word cloud generated from this interview.

KC: You emphasize in the first chapter, and throughout the book, that everything has a history and that few, if any, experiences are unprecedented. What is new or different about the crisis of truth that we’re currently experiencing in the United States and around the world?

SR: I think historians always end up with the conclusion that nothing is ever brand new because there are always variants that one can identify in the past—whether it’s fake news or lying on the part of leaders. But on the other hand, everything is always slightly different too; history doesn’t actually repeat, and the variants are as important as the continuities. And so, in some ways, there’s a historian’s refrain here, which is: nothing new under the sun. You can’t understand the present moment without thinking about the long history of democratic wrangling with problems of truth and un-truth. But on the other hand, this moment isn’t exactly the same as the moment of Watergate, say, and certainly isn’t the same as eighteenth-century moments in dealing with information and democratic processes, and those differences matter too.

Some of the things that I think are distinctive to this particular moment—and here my ideas are not tremendously original, but I think it’s important to stress the interplay of very recent short-term forces and long-term patterns—are obviously technological. The way information is generated and shared today is really quite distinctive. Another has to do with changing frameworks of communication and media that partly have a legal foundation. In the U.S. at least, the de-regulation of radio back in the ‘80s and the explosion of cable TV in the 90s produced new kinds of news programing—what I would call something like info-tainment that mixes outcry with 24 hour coverage of some hot-button topic—and that became a potent political tool, especially on the right.  Before you get to Facebook, say, you have the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. And probably in the very largest sense, extreme economic inequality has contributed as well to some sort of general sense that we do not share enough in common anymore to really imagine anything like even a heterodox public sphere. The public sphere is so fractured and so disparate that it’s really hard to think of it as a “marketplace of ideas” at this point. So, I would say some of these factors are fairly new; but the long-standing conflict in democracy between different sources of truth and different methods of getting there is the big framework in which all of this more recent stuff fits.

KC: The story you tell is one of ongoing tension, it emphasizes continuity but that continuity is constant instability. Has there been a time since the eighteenth century when you think truth regimes were relatively fixed or stable, or the public sphere was relatively unified?

SR: It’s an interesting question, and it’s a good one because I can certainly think of moments of heightened tension. But are there ever moments of calm? And the answer is probably not exactly. The way truth is set up in democracy, it’s always going to be contentious insofar as no one source gets to define it, no one institution, no one person, not even one cohort or sector. On the other hand, you might say that moments dominated by a slightly more homogeneous public, when so much of what we now think of as the public was excluded from the discussion, probably were in some ways less contentious than one that is as broad as our own. Maybe in some ways that’s the price we have to pay for our very expansive public sphere. But my sense is that, as any student of the Age of Revolutions knows, what counted as truth was certainly not un-contentious in the early days of democracies. Look at newspapers in the era just after the French and American revolutions. They’re as nasty as anything we could imagine today, filled with invective, filled with conspiracy theories of different kinds, filled with emotional appeals; there’s hardly a kind of stable truth regime that emerges with democracy.

KC: As you note in the book, skepticism is an intellectual value with roots in the Enlightenment, but taken to an extreme it can lead to paranoia and become destructive. How do we, as educators, help students strike the right balance in terms of how much skepticism to have and how to use skepticism effectively?

SR: Don’t you think that’s a hard problem for even beginning to teach history? I do, and I don’t think I have any really definitive answers because the two extremes are both negative. One is a complete acceptance of any sort of authority and authoritative truth, which is hardly what we’d like to cultivate in our students. And the other is kind of extreme skepticism that says nothing can be trusted of any kind, no matter how much peer review it’s gone through, or vetting, or demonstrable evidence, or some kind of scholarly standard, that nothing can be ascertained with certainty. So what are we teaching? We’re teaching something between the two: how to question all the time what counts as verity, but also how to come to some kind of verifiable conclusions, with the understanding that those will always be subject to more critique and more questioning as well, that nothing stands permanently as a truth. So I think what we try to do, without always making it concrete, is as follows: to cultivate more explicitly in the classroom that all arguments are subject to questioning, but that doesn’t mean that we should all turn into the pejorative version of skeptics, which is conspiracy theorists, where we think everything is a plot or pernicious or has a hidden truth in it, because that’s not really what we’re trying to get people to do either. Instead I think we need to teach people how to come to as sure truth as they can but also to figure out ways to keep asking questions about those truths no matter how certain they seem, and that’s tricky terrain because the devil’s in the details. We’re obviously not encouraging Holocaust denial, but we are encouraging ongoing research into questions like how did the Holocaust come about? How do we best describe what happened? How did it look in different places? Those are all legitimate historical questions, whereas the idea that the Holocaust didn’t happen or that it is some kind of hoax perpetrated by sinister people anxious to draw unwarranted attention to the plight of Jews, is an unacceptable position.

KC: Toward the end of the book, you talk about the value of history to teaching students not only what a fact is and how to find it but actually how to evaluate it and think it through, and the process by which we arrive at truth. I found that to be compelling, which leads me to a question about history specifically. Does teaching and writing that truth has a history and that it is contingent, undermine the idea of truth? What can historians do to reinforce confidence in truth, as something that exists and is attainable, while also exploring it as a socially, culturally, and politically contingent concept?

SR: This is the question that emerges in reading Foucault. By exposing the historical specificity of what counts as truth at any moment, is he saying that there really is no truth? And I don’t think that quite right, I don’t think those things have to be in opposition. Most philosophers accept at this point some notion that there is some stable reality external to us, that everything isn’t a figment of our imaginations. But how we get to that, how we describe that reality, and how we best conceptualize it is variable by place and time and even different disciplines at any given moment. I think we can recognize that there isn’t a single way of conceptualizing truth, but still hold on to the goal of getting to the best possible representation of reality. So I would say that truth is a kind of aspiration, not something we arrive at and settle. One of the nice things about democracy actually is that truth isn’t really settle-able, that it will always be subject to rethinking, but we still believe in the importance of the quest for it, and we do have some standards for deciding that some things are closer or farther to that true representation of external reality. Of course, truth is a funny word, because it also means mathematical and logical principles, but that’s not really what we’re talking about when we talk about truth in a democracy. There’s not much dispute over “2+2=4.” And we don’t really mean religious truth either, because we’ve taken religious truths and said they can’t be solved by consensus. But we’re often talking about historical truth or factual truth (which is Hannah Arendt’s term), which can include anything about the way the world is or has been. I don’t know if that’s a satisfactory answer, but I find it possible both to believe in the aspiration for truth and to accept that truth looks different in different times and places.

KC: That’s a very helpful way of thinking about this. In the book, you talk about how the post-truth era has been falsely blamed on post-modernist scholarship. You explain what you mean by that clearly in the book, but could you speak to it briefly? Why do you think that is a false causal relationship that’s been drawn?

SR: I think people see analogies between a kind of relativist position taken by some post-modernist thinkers—the most important for starters probably Foucault—and the instability of truth today when people use expressions like “alternative facts.” But I think the analogy fails as an analogy, and it also fails as an explanation of what we call historical causation. The easier part is the latter, which is to say, it strikes me as highly unlikely that the circulation of un-truths on Facebook or the President’s speeches or Twitter account, which routinely rely on un-factual information or even disinformation, are rooted in some kind of cultural moment that’s been deeply infused with post-modernism or post-structuralism. My sense is that the latter actually had very little impact outside humanities departments and even just a few humanities departments at that. So I don’t see it as a large causal factor. But even the analogy doesn’t strike me as quite right because post-modernism was not essentially about the breakdown of any distinction between truth and lies or misinformation and disinformation. Post-modernism was much more predicated on the need to think about the foundations (social, epistemic, linguistic, disciplinary, etc.) on which truth claims are made. And in fact I would say post-modernism made us more aware, in the case of people like us (ie historians), of the ways in which truth does have a history and is always caught up on struggles over power, rather than made us dismiss it as some kind of figment of our imagination. So I just don’t see the discussion of the truth that has been influential particularly in the history of science but also in history writ large over the last thirty or forty years, as leading directly to a world in which lying is as acceptable as truth-telling, which is what is meant by “post-truth.”

KC: Shifting gears slightly, you note at various points throughout the book that there is a relationship between epistemological changes and evolutions in communication technology. Could you speak more about this connection? Historically, is there a causal link between these phenomena and, if so, how does it work?

SR: It’s a great question, and all the wonderful historians of printing brought it to our attention years ago, whether it be Elizabeth Eisenstein or others. Of course technology doesn’t create one-way streets. I don’t think there are technological breakthroughs and then the world of communication just shifts in its wake, because technology enters an existing social, political, and cultural arrangement and is even designed with this arrangement in mind. On the other hand, it would be silly to say that print, for instance, or radio, or any other major new communication technology, had no impact on how we practice politics or on what ideas in in circulation or anything else. So I would like to think of information and technology to be in some kind of dialogue, or to exist as a two-way-street, which might be the simpler way to put it.

It’s very hard to write the history of the present, and I don’t think we really fully know how to explain yet, say, our obsession with our smart phones, the fact that we have information in our hands all the time and this ability to communicate with huge numbers of people or receive information at the drop of a hat. How that changes our world is still kind of an open question. But I think that literature on printing is helpful for seeing how, in a sense, double that effect can be. Printing produced new kinds of circulation and standardization in the realm of ideas that proved vital to the development of scholarship in the early modern world. But it also added fuel to new forms of conflict; if you think of the propaganda that helped produce the wars of religion, it’s hard to imagine those wars without the emergence of printing in the decades just prior. So, likely the communication developments and technological breakthroughs of our age will have complicated effects, positive and negative in ways that I think we all feel viscerally—how marvelous it is to be able to look up the weather anywhere in the world at any moment, but also how awful it is to see fake videos and new forms of hate circulating far and wide and easily recalled on your hand-held device.  I think we have a sense that there are all sorts of marvels and horrors wrapped up in one here, and we’re also addicted to it in ways that are wonderful and terrible. But I don’t think its full historical impact is really clear to us or even whether we’ll go on in this direction. Is this just the way the future will increasingly work? Or is this a kind of transient technology and technology regime that will be replaced with something else pretty soon?

KC: It is hard to write about or think about something that we’re in the middle of—I think we all feel that way all the time right now. I’ll turn to a related phenomenon that you talk about in the book. In chapter 4, you identify at numerous points a relationship between capitalism (particularly late stage capitalism) and our current crisis of truth. Can you elaborate on this relationship? Do you think capitalism necessarily threatens truth? Is there something about the stage of capitalist development that we’re in that you think is contributing to the fracturing of the public sphere?

SR: I don’t think I have a great answer, but I think it’s a really important question. That early twentieth-century metaphor, the marketplace of ideas, depended on being able to imagine the public sphere of ideas and the commercial marketplace operating not only in structurally similar ways, but actually helping produce each other. That may be true for capitalism, but I’m not so sure for a healthy public sphere. And particularly in this moment, I think it is important to think about the fact that behind most of our communications and technology are very huge corporations. What’s in their money-making interest, since this is capitalism, is not necessarily in the interest of truth-production.  For instance, if you’re YouTube, you want to bring to the fore videos that will get simply the most attention. That likely doesn’t mean that you want to bring to the fore the most accurate videos but rather the most sensational ones, and the algorithms of all these companies are not designed to make sure the most accurate information is what gets viewed first, in fact it’s quite the opposite: it’s what will generate the most eyeballs. It’s a competition for attention, for advertising dollars, and clicks and all that sort of thing. The structure of capitalism at the moment depends on this kind of competition for attention, and in this is quite different from the relatively information-poor context of early democracy.  And it really makes one question whether capitalism is producing a marketplace for ideas in which truth has any hope of succeeding and if it might even be at a disadvantage compared to earlier moments. I don’t have a solution for that, but I do think it’s important not to just talk about the technology, but also about the fact that there are economic interests behind that technology at every turn, whether we’re talking about privacy or truth or any of the sorts of concerns that we might have.

And I think, more broadly, the growing economic inequality or disparity in most advanced democracies now, which has meant much less commonality of experience—we don’t have schooling in common, the army in common, or any kind of civic responsibilities in common—is important to consider when it comes to questions of truth.  Certainly it makes it hard to believe that people are going to naturally enter some kind of marketplace and end up seeing the world in even remotely similar ways. Now we might think that great heterogeneity in terms of ways of seeing the world is terrific, and in some ways it is, but if there’s not even the beginning of a common denominator, it’s very hard to see how democracy can really work. To my mind, democracy requires some kind of very low-level—you can go back to common sense—agreement about a few basic principles and a few basic facts in order for people to be able to then have all those contentious fights about what should be done and what the future should look like. If you can’t get to any common way of seeing the world because people’s experience is now so different and so much of it is determined by their different economic positions and large for-profit companies are exploiting these differences, it does make one wonder whether truth won’t in some sense be a victim of capitalism.

KC: That’s very powerful and it brings me to the title of your book. Toward the end of the book, you make a statement that I found very striking. You note that truth can survive without democracy but that democracy cannot survive without truth.

SR: Do you think that’s right? I’m not entirely sure.

KC: Well, I want to ask you about that. To what extent is our current crisis of truth really a crisis of democracy? Are these two things separable?

SR: When I say truth might be able to survive without democracy, that’s not just a hypothesis.  Certain kinds of truth actually are produced largely independent of democracy all the time. Take truth in medicine; it’s not produced in any kind of democratic way, it’s produced almost entirely by experts and simply conveyed to the rest of us. Peer-review might be described as sort of a small scale version of democracy, but it’s been highly restricted in terms of who gets to participate, so you can say we really respect experts to make decisions about, say, public health, without putting them up for public consideration. And that’s probably as it should be. So I think we can agree that it’s not that every kind of truth needs to be subject to the democracy.

But some kinds of truth do require democracy, and democracy certainly requires some kinds of truth. So, I see the two as quite linked, and I think a crisis of democracy will certainly ensue if there’s no foundation in truth, and I mean truth both in the aspirational sense that I tried to describe earlier as kind of an effort to think what can be done, but also in a practical sense of some kind of agreement about what is before you describe what you can do. So just to make that slightly less abstract, if you want to think about immigration to the U.S., say, if you don’t know from where people are arriving at the southern border and you don’t know why they are fleeing and you don’t know if their numbers are up or down from the past, and you can’t agree on at least that factual information, it’s very hard to imagine how you begin to think about or debate a policy solution. If the problem itself can’t be defined, then it becomes impossible to begin a rational conversation.

KC: I think most political scientists and people in general seem to agree that democracy is in crisis right now, globally. What do you think came first, a crisis in democracy or a crisis in truth? Or do you think it even matters?

SR: I hadn’t thought about that before, the chicken and egg question. To me, they seem very bound up in one another, and maybe the larger issue behind both of them is a growing sense that the world isn’t working well for everyone, that some of the promises of the post-1989 new world order haven’t worked out in many places. They’ve left people behind, they’ve created new kinds of haves and have-nots, and not that there haven’t always been haves and have-nots, but who they are has shifted to a certain degree, everywhere. The world seems to be changing very rapidly, not least when you talk about technology. In some ways maybe the crisis in truth and the crisis in democracy are two sides of the same coin. I’m not sure I can say which one caused the other, but I think the problems of one exacerbate the problems of the other, and tackling the problems of one also involves tackling the problems of the other; that, for instance, fact checking alone isn’t going to shore up democracy, but having more secure elections alone is not going to solve the problem of un-truth. So they aren’t exclusive problems. They need to be thought of in conjunction with one another and with some foundation in economic questions for sure. So while I think fact-based journalism is vital and I strongly support it being done, it won’t get to–and I think everyone in news know this–the roots of the kind of larger structural crises that democracy is facing in the U.S. but also in other places as well. We wouldn’t be seeing the kind of parallels between what’s happened in the U.S. and in other countries around the world in recent years if these problems weren’t larger than national ones.

Sophia Rosenfeld is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to Democracy and Truth: A Short History, she has published Common Sense: A Political History (Harvard, 2011) and A Revolution in Language: The Problem of Signs in Late Eighteenth-Century France (Stanford, 2001) and numerous journal articles and op-ed pieces. She is currently working on a book about how the practice of choice-making became central to modern conceptions of freedom.

Katlyn Marie Carter is a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. She is currently finishing a book on state secrecy during the Age of Revolutions, entitled Houses of Glass: Secrecy, Transparency, and the Birth of Representative Democracy.

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