Some things are not up for debate: Truth, falsehood and the limits of deliberative democracy

By Rod Dacombe, King’s College London

How should democratic theorists respond to the events of 6th January? This is an immediate and urgent question – if anything, the storming of the Capitol, interrupting the confirmation of the results of a presidential election, was an assault on democracy itself. For scholars of democracy, immediate responses might be related to the integrity of the electoral process, the right to take part in direct (violent) political action, or perhaps questions of virtue and leadership in democratic life.

For myself, the events of that day raised an altogether different issue, democracy’s relationship with truth. There is much to be settled before we can be completely confident of the underlying reasons behind these damaging events. But even at this stage it is clear that many of those who took part were motivated by a deeply-held belief that they were preventing a serious electoral fraud: that, in effect, the Presidency had been stolen by unseen, malign forces. That such claims are patently absurd is beside the point. An insurrection took place, and there is little doubt that those who believed them were spurred on, at least in part, by the most egregious falsehoods perpetrated by cynical and self-serving political actors.

Of course, untruths, innuendo and conspiracy theories have long been a part of political life.  We accept that governments might conceal information from their citizens, or even lie, for a multitude of reasons, perhaps national security, or for some strategic advantage over another nation-state. We understand, too, that the well-placed lie has always been part of the successful politician’s toolkit. Indeed, Machiavelli famously dedicated an entire chapter of The Prince to the subject, creating a kind of toolkit for unscrupulous politicians of an earlier age.

It is comforting, however, to believe that when we take part in the processes of democracy, we should do so on a truthful and factual basis. That the opinions we hold, the reasons we cast our votes or align ourselves to a particular political party or candidate, have some basis in fact is not something we consider very often. However, it is surprising how readily we are willing to accept some degree of falsehood in democracy. Noone seriously believes that political candidates mean everything they say during election campaigns. Few expect every manifesto commitment to be kept. In candidates’ debates, not every point-scoring quip has to be rooted in evidence to take effect.

In fact, democracy has a rather shaky relationship with truth. Hannah Arendt, whose work is frequently concerned with the ways in which truth can be corrupted by politics, understood this. Arendt identified the very different roles played by truth and opinion in the political arena. Truth in this sense is apolitical. Facts which are demonstrably true cannot be debated or subject to rational disagreement. Rather, they exist independently of human action, whether we desire them to be correct or not.  It would be ludicrous, for instance, to argue against the existence of gravity.

Opinion, in contrast, is the lifeblood of politics. The idea that we might disagree with others over, for example, the merits of a particular policy proposal is built-in to the structures of modern democracy. Equally important is the idea that no single opinion might hold primacy, given that a plurality of views, all more or less valid, might exist over any rationally-attained position. More than this, such actions are desirable in a healthy democratic system.  Our ability to engage in debate, in the free exchange of opinion, as distinct from any attempt to dispute immutable facts, according to Arendt, ‘constitutes the very essence of political life’.

Arendt’s argument will resonate with many contemporary theorists of democracy. The predilection of much recent democratic theory for deliberation – the idea that by centring our understanding of democracy on the ability to participate in free and rational debate we can discern the most appropriate answer to complex political questions and engender a kinder, less competitive, form of politics – is rooted in this assumption. The danger comes when we believe that we can debate what is demonstrably true, rather than accept that in attempting to do so we fall into fantasy and fabrication.

In such cases, we cannot draw on rational debate but only on falsehood or ‘alternative facts’. The election was not stolen. Unseen forces are not trying to reset the global economy along Marxist lines. Covid-19 is not a hoax. To allow facts like these to be disputed does not open up deliberation at all, only the potential for political action based on lies. Truth, surely, can be fragile when it is brought into the realm of democracy. 

The challenge for democratic theory, then, is to identify the limits of what can, and cannot be subject to deliberation and disagreement in a democracy. Clearly, we need to be mindful that at times what appears to be the truth can be anything but – seemingly solid facts can be confounded by previously undisclosed information or dismantled when considered from normally marginalised perspectives. But it stretches credulity to imagine that everything is up for debate. ‘Factual truth’, in Arendt’s terms, must be considered outside the realm of public deliberation. To imagine otherwise, as we have seen, risks bringing corruption and harm to our democratic institutions.

Rod Dacombe is Senior Lecturer in Politics in the Department of Political Economy and Director of the Centre for British Politics and Government at King’s College London. He is author of Rethinking Civic Participation in Theory and Practice (Palgrave), was published in 2018.

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