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The Pre-History of Post-Truth

In an age of “alternative facts,” many insist that we have entered a new phase of history in which truth no longer matters. But epistemic conflict is as old as democracy; what’s new is the role of special interests and specific policies in degrading public discourse.

PRINCETON – Since the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016, the conventional wisdom has held that we are now in a “post-truth” or “post-factual” age. Yet, while such terms may help to give us a sense of certainty in a politically unpredictable era, they cannot explain it. Worse, the notion of a clear-cut “post-factual age” might itself be factually incorrect.

That “post-” prefix, after all, suggests that there was once a golden era when democracy and factual knowledge were uncontested, even mutually reinforcing. The implication is that citizens today are somehow more gullible than they used to be. As a result, we have seen the return – with a vengeance – of the social-psychology clichés of the late nineteenth century, when “the masses” were regarded as inherently irrational and irresponsible, and therefore unfit for self-government.

Moreover, such diagnoses ignore the question of the place truth should hold in democratic politics to begin with. Elections are not, and are not meant to be, collective processes for determining the truth; no one interprets the outcome of a vote as having established that the losers were a bunch of liars. On the contrary, we are rightly worried when politicians claim to have exclusive access to the truth. “Seen from the viewpoint of politics,” the twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt observed, “truth has a despotic character.”