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Democracy, Truth and the New Conspiracists

Is truth central to democracy? Janet Keeping explains why the two cannot be separated, and how anti-democratic forces are threatening this interdependence by spreading lies.

Is truth central to democracy? Janet Keeping explains why the two cannot be separated, and how anti-democratic forces are threatening this interdependence by spreading lies.

Introduction: The relationship between truth and democracy

The central idea behind democracy is that each citizen is of equal moral worth, that the hopes and dreams of each are of equal weight. That is, until proven otherwise: the aspirations of those who want to hurt others, a psychopath, for example, do not warrant equal consideration. Other forms of government – such as absolute monarchy, oligarchy or dictatorship – are not burdened by a notion of the equality of citizens or of their aspirations, and so proceed without the encumbrance of such considerations.

This core notion of equality dictates that democratic governance must be representative, where it cannot be direct as has been the case in some traditional settings such as the New England town meeting. Constituents typically require that their representatives act on their behalf so as to maximally advance their interests, as they understand them. There are exceptions, but they are rare, such as where the elected politician’s deepest commitments – perhaps religious beliefs – conflict with what the bulk of constituents want to see happen, for example, greater protection for gay rights. But in general, if constituents are anxious about climate change or the affordability of housing, for example, they want their representative to bring those concerns to the fore and work for the kind of change that will advance their preferences on those issues.

This presupposes that there is a discernible state of affairs – that something is the case, is actual – to be reacted to in a way that constituents think is best for them. Constituents may disagree amongst themselves as to exactly what does advance their interests and their interests may diverge making the job of representing them sometimes very difficult indeed. And different constituencies, we know, may often disagree on what should be done. But those disagreements and the debates surrounding them are supposed to be tied to understandings of what is the case, of what is true.

A defense of actuality

It seems preposterous to have to state that, at least in democracies, what is the case (what is true) is supposed to matter in public affairs. In states making no pretense towards democracy this need not be the case. In fact, knowing what is true may be the very last thing those with power in tyrannical states want for their subjects. For example, it has been said that one of the reasons why Russians did not react to a greater degree either one way or the other to the recent challenge to Vladimir Putin’s authority mounted by Sergei Prigozhin, leader (perhaps now former leader) of the mercenary group called “Wagner,” is that they have been lied to so often they have no idea what might be true of their country’s public affairs (including the war in Ukraine) and thus have no basis for even trying to get involved. That they have been so lied to is beyond doubt. Thus, their reluctance to get involved was a predictable outcome of how they have been treated, as David Bromwich says in his very useful introduction to two essays by Hannah Arendt in On Lying and Politics(((New York, New York:  Library of America, 2022), hereinafter Lying)) :

[T]he result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and the truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed. (pp. xxxii – xxxiii)

In a democracy, on the other hand, there must be a basis for debate of what is to be done that is as factual as possible in the circumstances because, as Bromwich puts it “… in a constitutional democracy, honest disclosure matters more than it does elsewhere. Here it is the self-understanding of the people that sustains the government.” (Lying, p. xi) While we almost never have as much information as we would like on the complicated issues facing us as a democratic body politic, we need as much as can reasonably be produced in the time and with the resources available.

“What validates the new conspiracism is not evidence but repetition . . . The new conspiracism – all accusation, no evidence – substitutes social validation for scientific validation: if a lot of people are saying it, to use [former President] Trump’s phrase, then it is true enough.”

It would seem that a point has been reached, in particular in the US, but perhaps not only there, where a substantial portion of the public seems not much interested in what is actually happening and is acting in such a way as to make truth irrelevant in the public square. In their book A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy,(((Princeton and Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2019), hereinafter Saying.)) Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum refer to these people as the new conspiracists and argue that they represent a profound threat to the underpinnings of democracy.

What is a conspiracy theory?

Of course there always have been and always will be disagreements as to what is the case, just as there always have been and always will be individuals who choose to ignore what they know to be the case and, for their own purposes, lie. (Terrifyingly, there are also pathological liars in public life – people who lie constantly because, it appears, they cannot help themselves. Some say Donald Trump is such a person. It would appear that George Santos, elected to Congress in 2022 and recently charged with “fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and false statements”,((https://www.justice.gov/usao-edny/pr/congressman-george-santos-charged-fraud-money-laundering-theft-public-funds-and-false)) certainly is. For example, it is quite well established that Santos lied repeatedly about where and how his mother died, claiming her death was a consequence of the 9/11 attacks in New York City. She was not in the United States at the time.)

Even where most people are satisfied with an explanation, there can be a group that refuses to accept the received account. Sometimes these doubts take the form of a conspiracy theory. It is not only that the event remains unexplained for them, but they believe some force is preventing the emergence of the truth; they believe there is a conspiracy to suppress the truth.

As unlikely as most of these conspiracy theories seem to most of us, and as annoying as many of those who hold these ideas can be, conspiracy theorists are searching for an alternate explanation. They are committed to finding the truth and believe that what is true has yet to be properly brought to light. Muirhead and Rosenblum call them the traditional conspiracy theorists: for whatever their reasons they refuse to accept the received view of certain events and are seeking an alternative – the real – account of what happened.

And we have to appreciate that the conspiracists are not always wrong: sometimes they are correct in their convictions that the truth of a matter has indeed been deliberately suppressed. Muirhead and Rosenblum give an example which concerned

… the actions of Michigan officials whose violations of public health guidelines allowed the lead poisoning of water in Flint, Michigan, in 2015. Their persistent stonewalling and denial increased the damage to public health. Despite their obstruction, over time the Environmental Protection Agency, doctors and researchers at hospitals and universities, and watchdog groups like the American Civil Liberties Union finally unraveled the truth about this act against the public and the conspiracy to cover it up. (Saying, p. 10)

Muirhead and Rosenblum are surely right to remind us that “we have good reasons not to dismiss the charge of conspiracy out of hand.” (Saying, p. 9)

What is different about the new conspiracists?

Recently there has appeared something quite different which Muirhead and Rosenblum call the new conspiracism, the goal of which is not uncovering a better account of anything but, they argue, “undermining all independent arbiters of truth.”((Carlos Lozada What Were We Thinking, New York:  Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2021, p. 246.)) As they describe it, “classic conspiracism tries to make sense of a disorderly and complicated world by insisting that powerful people control the course of events.” (Saying, p. 2) And in doing so, “in insisting that the truth is not on the surface, classic conspiracism engages in a sort of detective work.” (p. 2) “Warranted or not, classic conspiracism is conspiracy with a theory.” (Saying, p. 3)

The new conspiracism is, they argue, a quite different kettle of fish:

The new conspiracism dispenses with the burden of explanation. Instead we have innuendo and verbal gesture: “A lot of people are saying …” Or we have bare assertion: “Rigged!” – a one-word exclamation that evokes fantastic schemes, sinister motives, and the awesome capacity to mobilize three million illegal voters to support Hillary Clinton for president. This is conspiracy without the theory. (Saying, p. 3)

Disturbingly, as they continue,

What validates the new conspiracism is not evidence but repetition. … “The new conspiracism – all accusation, no evidence – substitutes social validation for scientific validation: if a lot of people are saying it, to use [former President] Trump’s phrase, then it is true enough.” (Saying, p. 3)

This point about social validation counting for more than evidence is an important one. Some of our best thinkers on totalitarianism, such as Hannah Arendt, David Bromwich tells us, consistently “emphasized the mischief of confusing opinion with knowledge.” (Lying, p. xvii)

“The effect of conspiracist thinking once it ceases to function as any sort of explanation” according to Muirhead and Rosenblum, “is delegitimation. The new conspiracists seek not to correct those they accuse but to deny their standing in the political world to argue, explain, persuade, and decide.” (Saying pp. 3 – 4) And in doing so, the new conspiracism “corrodes the foundations of democracy.” (p. 4) “Disdaining basic facts, the authority of expertise, and the integrity of knowledge-producing institutions, the new conspiracism is all encompassing.” (Saying, p. 6)

Muirhead and Rosenblum acknowledge that the new conspiracism is not the only phenomenon undermining democracy:

But the new conspiracism is a special kind of assault [on democracy], and it poses a distinctive challenge beyond its specific targets. It is disturbing and dangerous because it is a direct, explicit, and wholesale attack on shared modes of understanding and explaining things in the political world. It unsettles the ground on which we argue, negotiate, compromise, and even disagree. It makes democracy unworkable – and ultimately it makes democracy seem unworthy. [Emphasis added.] (Saying, pp. 6-7)

“The most striking feature of the new conspiracism is just this,” write Muirhead and Rosenblum, “its assault on reality. The new conspiracism strikes at what we think of as truth and the grounds of truth. It strikes at what it means to know something. The new conspiracism seeks to replace evidence, argument, and shared grounds of understanding with convoluted conjuring and bare assertions.” (Saying, p. 9)

An aside about why followers seem to buy it: The politics of humiliation

It is important to reflect, albeit even very briefly, on how it has come to this. How can it be that the new conspiracists have attracted so many followers? It is one thing to ask why a public figure would launch a conspiracy such as the Trump-inspired allegation that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. Given Trump’s character this is an easy puzzle to solve: he seeks personal vindication. In his eyes, suffering an electoral loss would make him a pathetic “loser” – in his world, the lowest of the low. So he cannot accept that outcome. But it is quite another to try to understand why so many people seem to have bought into that very serious allegation – that very big lie – for which there is no solid evidence whatsoever.

An explanation that makes sense to me is offered by Tom Friedman in his September 2020 piece for The New York Times entitled “Who Can Win America’s Politics of Humiliation?” In his view the ceaseless, outlandish lying, which underpins the new conspiracism, to use Muirhead and Rosenblum’s term, is a function of the extreme polarization that runs rampant in American politics. In Friedman’s view we have to expect that abuses such as this lying will continue until the conditions which nurture the extreme polarization enabling them are examined and addressed.

And what might those conditions be? Friedman makes a compelling case that central to them is humiliation: he argues that a considerable number of the American public feel so disrespected by mainstream institutions they will support a politician who lies to them constantly and whose policies generally do them no good at all because “They’re attracted to his attitude (his willingness and evident delight in skewering the people they hate and who they feel look down on them.” “Humiliation,” Friedman says, “is the most underestimated force in politics and international relations. The poverty of dignity explains so much more behavior than the poverty of money.”

Such feelings of humiliation may well account for the willingness of so many to abandon any semblance of good thinking in favour of supporting a politician whose lies and exaggerations simply make them feel better. But it does not follow that those people are justified in letting their feelings of humiliation overwhelm their thinking. Their apparently eager abandonment of the duties of good citizenship – which include at least trying to take a rational approach to their role as citizens – endangers American democracy, the form of government that offers humanity far greater protection from abuse of power than any of its rivals. It is one thing to think you have a legitimate grievance and quite another to think that that grievance entitles you to act so as to bring down democracy and open the doors to tyranny.

What is to be done to counteract the new conspiracism? How is its impact to be minimized?

Muirhead and Rosenblum offer two responses. The first is a reminder that we have always to stand up to conspiracy by speaking the truth as we understand it: “Speaking truth to conspiracy is a moral imperative.” (Saying, p. 14.) Even if we cannot reach the hardcore conspiracists,

We can mitigate the corrosive effect of the new conspiracism if partisans of all stripes cooperate in speaking out, if watchful and engaged civil society groups and the media do their work, and if each of us serves as a witness by speaking out to family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.” (p. 14)

This strongly echoes Hannah Arendt’s view that what hangs in the balance is, very simply, everything:

What is at stake is survival, the perseverance in existence …, and no human world destined to outlast the short life of mortals within it will ever be able to survive without men [sic] willing to … say what is. No permanence, no perseverance in existence, can even be conceived of without men [sic] willing to testify to what is and appears to them because it is. (Lying, pp. 5 – 6)

The second recommendation by Muirhead and Rosenblum seems to me particularly cogent. They call it “enacting democracy.” (Saying, p. 14) It entails “the scrupulous and explicit adherence to the regular forms and processes of public decision-making.” They call this “a deliberate pedagogical response to the process of delegitimation.” It requires that we do the hard, methodical work of explaining how institutions and processes work. One of the efforts in this direction I have noted over recent years, is the very careful explanations that some broadcasters – CNN is the one I am aware of – have given to election results as they come in. They repeatedly address questions, such as, What part of the constituency are these results coming in from? How did this district vote in the past? Given past elections, what would we expect to see from this and neighbouring districts as results continue to come in? Do the present figures reflect early voting and absentee ballots or not?

By painstakingly explaining the numbers as they come in and outlining how they may well change over the coming hours and even days, commentators of this kind aim to preclude baseless, conspiracist interpretations of results that look different in the morning than they looked on the night of the election, such as claims of ballot stuffing and the like.

This kind of election coverage is anything but glamorous, and listened to for long enough it becomes pretty tedious, but it is also crucially important to the effort to inform the public as to what election returns mean. It illustrates, I think, what Muirhead and Rosenblum mean when they say:

Enacting democracy makes government legible [intelligible]. That is, it gives citizens reasons to understand and appreciate the meaning and value of institutional integrity and ordinary democratic processes – exactly what the new conspiracism attacks. (p. 14)

The truth has to matter: Arendt again

Factual, evidence-based assessments of what is the case are often at a distinct disadvantage to the production of conspiracist nonsense. It takes time to gather and evaluate evidence; it is a much slower process than the birthing of a conspiracy which may require only a few taps on the keyboard or a quick post to Twitter.

And there is more than one public square: there are different levels of government which the public necessarily engages with in quite different ways. The further from actual lived conditions the government institutions, the more fertile the ground for conspiracism. It is no accident that the new conspiracists have flourished at the state and federal levels rather than at the municipal. Either your garbage is or is not collected in a timely fashion. Either the buses run on time or they do not. You know from your own lived experience which is the case. There is a lot more room for manipulation of the public when the allegations of the conspiracists concern matters furthered removed from daily life, such as international trade agreements, or what Hilary Clinton allegedly does for perverted pleasure in the basement of pizza parlors.

But the truth always matters in the end, if anything does. It has to – because it is what is. Arendt captures this – well – fact, when she refers to the “stubbornness” of truth. “Unwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies.” (Lying, p. 23) In this way “Truth carries with itself an element of coercion.” (Lying, p. 21) Bromwich expands on the significance of this coercive power of the truth:

Tyrants have a quite comprehensible motive when they look with a jealous eye at the accessibility and deployment of truth. There is a power in truth that competes with their power. You cannot understand the truth and rationally wish to contradict it. (p. xxxiii)

The new conspiracists and others have shown that you can irrationally wish to contradict it. But often in even the most vigorous denial of the truth you can sense their frustration with the truth. They are frustrated by the truth because it is so powerful.

The truth matters not because people are inherently good, altruistic or perfectly rational but because they are self-interested, which means they must care about their actual circumstances. Pollution? The cost of living? Whether their garbage is collected in a timely fashion? Whether their children go to a decent school, or more concretely, can read by the time they graduate from high school? Self-interest forces truth into the public square. Relying on Arendt, Bromwich stresses

… the importance of having a footing in reality. We need this for the most practical of reasons: we want to commit ourselves to actions that are not utterly wrongheaded or self-deluded. (Lying, p. xxxiv)

Conclusion

I think Muirhead and Rosenblum are correct when they write, “Yet if we do our work as honest witnesses speaking truth to conspiracy and demonstrate the integrity of core institutions, we will succeed in exiling conspiracists from public life and returning them to the realm of entertainment or their natural habitat at the political fringe.” (Saying, p. 15) For Canada, where the new conspiracism is not as powerful a movement, the challenge is, I think, rather to keep the conspiracists at the political fringe where currently they only lurk, not yet wreaking anywhere near the same havoc is they are doing in the United States. But we too need to do the hard pedagogical work of making the value and functioning of our institutions clear and of giving proposals for their improvement, such as electoral reform, serious and transparent examination. Otherwise, we may find our democracy under equally serious threat.