By Steven Lukes
The text that follows was delivered earlier this year as the Marx Wartofsky Memorial Lecture at CUNY, and I am posting it here as background to my short presentation at Wednesday’s seminar. Bernard Harcourt and I have engaged on more than one occasion on the relation between power and truth and I look forward to continuing our conversation. In this lecture I argue that truth-tracking can be protected from power, in particular by norms operating within the fields of science, journalism, the law and public administration. Within politics, however, partisanship can threaten truth, as Hannah Arendt saw. In the US today political power is increasingly rendering truth impotent as these institutional safeguards are eroded and adversaries come to be seen as enemies. In the lecture I did not explicitly address Bernard’s hard realist position, his skepticism about the “deliberative model” and his vison of politics as civil war. I will try to do this at the seminar. The text is rather long, so I suggest that you may want to focus on sections 4, 5, 7 and 8 (and please forgive the absence of references).
POWER, TRUTH AND EPISTEMIC CLOSURE
Let me begin with two sentences from Hannah Arendt’s famous essay ‘Truth and Politics.’
The first is the statement: “No one ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other.”
And the second is a question: “Is it in the very essence of truth to be impotent and in the very essence of power to be deceitful?”
Rather than discussing the (to me obscure) question of what the ‘essence’ of power and of truth might be, I propose that we first briefly examine instead several more specific questions: namely, in what ways truths might be impotent and power deceitful, how power can render truth impotent and why these questions are acute in a special way within politics. I will then turn to consider how they are currently playing out in present-day politics here in the United States and elsewhere.
Let us start with truths. Truths come in all shapes and sizes. They range from statements of straightforward ‘brute’ facts, such as the number of persons attending a Presidential Inaugural or the answer to the question: Who won the popular vote?’ or whether the US has a trade deficit with Canada to those involving interpretation of meaning and motive, such as a veridical account of sexual harassment, to judgments, as with a verdict that a defendant is guilty of murder, to scientifically warranted claims, such as those concerning the extent and causes of climate change, to complex macro-level conclusions about, say, the state of the economy or the extent of inequality in a society or across the world, which incorporate all the foregoing kinds of claims to truth. There are also, of course, claims to truth where the very question of whether they can be true or false is in question. Some doubt (or used to) that moral judgments are capable of truth; others that metaphysical or ontological statements, such Mrs. Thatcher’s assertion that ‘there is no such thing as society,’ can be.
These truths become impotent when they fail to register: when they are ignored or rejected or when, if recognized, they fail to guide action. When this happens there are two kinds of explanation. One is psychological. One can bring this first kind under the label of ‘failures of rationality’—a topic that has been intensively and extensively studied by cognitive scientists and behavioral economists (examples are confirmation bias or wishful thinking)—or one can speak of self-deception. The explanation here is in terms of mechanisms that are internal to individuals or, more problematically, to people viewed collectively in the form of ‘public opinion.’ Or, secondly, there are external explanations in terms of the impact, direct or indirect, of others on how people view the facts—on how, for example, they are framed, by politicians, teachers, journalists, intellectuals, and opinion leaders of all kinds. These two kinds of explanation are, obviously, not mutually exclusive: external actors can, deliberately or not, and whether by acting or merely existing, activate and reinforce the psychological mechanisms that conceal or distort, or render inoperative truths that would otherwise be seen, accepted as true and acted upon.
So truths can be impotent and the causes of that impotence can be internal or external or, very likely, both. But, as George Orwell warned, ‘truth’ can also be all too potent: people across an entire society can be terrorized into accepting truths that shape their world. In totalitarian regimes, he wrote, what is claimed to be objective truth can ‘control the past as well as the future.’ This relation of truth and power in politics that dominated the mid-twentieth century also, of course, preoccupied Arendt, but in the essay from which I have quoted, she focuses rather on the way in which truth in politics is always perspectival and entangled with opinion, and if it is to be successfully transmitted and thus acknowledged, this depends upon ‘free agreement and consent.’
This illustrates an important point made by Bernard Williams: that ‘effective methods of discovering or transmitting the truth will vary with the kinds of truth in question.’ (155) Thus in various different domains of life informal norms and institutional rules and procedures operate to control the effects of partisanship, and in general to counter the role of ‘interests in propagating, distorting, concealing, or interpreting the message.’ (155) We can, following Jeremy Elkins, call these ‘practices of truth’ governed by norms, rules and procedures the point of which is to enable and constrain what counts as reasoning in the relevant domain. In science, for example, in journalism, in the legal system, in public administration—in all these institutional spheres there are distinctive, recognized, professionally sanctioned norms, rules and procedures violations of which may be less or more serious, ranging from occasional lapses to malpractice. They are all distinctive ways of securing and maintaining trust within the relevant communities and consist in distinctive ways of grounding results (scientific theories, journalistic stories, legal verdicts, administrative decisions) on properly acquired evidence and limiting, and ideally avoiding, falsification, fraud and corruption.
Consider next: power. Why should anyone think that power is, as Arendt claimed, inherently deceitful? Foucault thought this when he wrote:
Power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms…secrecy is not in the nature of an abuse; it is indispensable to its operation [not a bug, we might say, but a feature]
And Wendy Brown endorses this, claiming that ‘masking and dissimulation are a crucial part of power’s power.’ Here we need to do some conceptual house-cleaning. At its most general ‘power’ simply means the capacity to affect outcomes, and, more specifically, in the context of social relations it means the capacity to affect significant social outcomes, whether positively or negatively. What Arendt and Foucault were clearly focusing on here is the much more specific (and in political contexts commonly used) meaning of power that is best captured by the term ‘domination’ and the German word Beherrschung (not Herrschaft). Power, in this specific sense, points to an asymmetric relationship of the powerful overanother or others where what is at issue is the control of the latter by the former. So let us (succinctly) define power for this purpose as the capacity to secure the complianceof another or others—to get them to act or think, or both, in a way that accords with the interests of those with the power. What is significant here, and relevant to Arendt’s claim, is the suggestion that when power thus conceived is successful, this is because the compliance is secured by counteracting or bending or subverting or bypassing the will of the person or persons subject to it. Notice that this process or mechanism of securing compliance contrasts with freely given assent or consent. The compliance may be involuntary or voluntary but, if the latter, it will be under circumstances that prevent or impede adequate judgment in the light of the relevant evidence or facts.
Domination can be, and very often is, coercive. In that case it will involve negative sanctions, or threats, which may be more or less overt or explicit, and can indeed involve the positive sanction of coercive inducement, where the non-making or withdrawal, or threat of withdrawal, of an offer would represent a significant loss. The increasingly numerous cases of sexual harassment we have been hearing about illustrate the various ways this occurs. In general, coercive domination involves submission to the will of the more powerful against one’s own will. (Here, incidentally, there need be no deceit). Domination will be less coercive or non-coercive, to the extent that one willingly accepts that the more powerful party should prevail. This leads us to consider the various ways in which that willingness can come about. It may, of course, just be unforced acceptance of losing in a context of genuinely unforced interaction or fair decision-making, on the assumption that one might prevail or win next time or soon. There are domination-free situations like that, or approximating it, for instance, a collaborative discussion among scientists or an ideal democracy in a small-scale setting where, say, successive voting occurs among equals. But power as domination re-enters the story to the extent that that willingness is, wittingly or unwittingly, itself brought about by the powerful. They may, for instance be able to control the agenda—the range of alternatives people face, or the issues that are being discussed or decided—at a particular meeting, say, or more generally. This has been called the ‘mobilization of bias,’ where ‘some issues are organized in and other organized out.’ The most overt and clearest case of this is censorship, which can lead to self-censorship, but there are many other ways of engaging in the ‘art of manipulation.’ But voluntary compliance to domination takes many other forms that do not involve manipulation, such as habituation, loyalty and deference, and that range across all the ways in which people’s beliefs and preferences can be influenced and shaped, and alternative ways of thinking and acting occluded, intentionally and unintentionally, by others in ways that serve their interests.
3. Power and Truth
We have now reached the topic before us: the ways in which power can render truths impotent. (Notice that Arendt’s second sentence suggests that this happens through deceit. Deceit, by definition, is intentional and manipulative, but what I have just argued is that this is only one of several ways). Power can be a danger to truth, I have suggested, in various domains of life, such as science, journalism, the law and public administration. These are all, I suggested, spheres of collective reasoning: that is, the practices in each, ideally at least, involve arriving at results guided by reasons—results that the participants agree in taking to be justified as true in the light of the evidence; and reasoning, Gilbert Harman reminds us, involve reflection and changes in view: reasoning makes a difference when a good reason is sufficiently convincing. These practices are endangered from without and within and are protected from these dangers by formal and informal norms, so that the reasoning can proceed as it should. External dangers threaten the boundariesof the practices and so these are policed. For example, what counts as scientific theorizing is constantly in question, notably in the so-called ‘debate’ between evolutionary theory and intelligent design. In this connection, Richard Lewontin wrote that for scientists ‘materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.’ (44) Journalists vary in the extent to which they are independent of political influence, on the one hand, and the market, say, the pressures of advertisers, on the other, both among different kinds of journalist and across countries. The autonomy of journalism is endangered. These days in the United States they have to deal, not only with politically motivated assaults on professional standards with denunciations of ‘fake news’ but also, as their jobs and opportunities fall away, the proliferation in social media of untrained and inexperienced ‘citizen journalists.’ In the law, there is a constant question of how to maintain the principle—sometimes more and sometimes less of a fiction—that legal reasoning and decision-making by judges (from the Supreme Court down) are autonomous, governed by precedent and statute. Ronald Dworkin wrote that ‘lawyers and judges cannot avoid politics in the broad sense of political theory.’ But in societies where the rule of law is not mere pretense there is agreement that in some narrower sense of ‘politics’ that avoidance is required and is policed. Similarly with relations between law and religion: faith-based arguments are judged out of place in the US in legal reasoning and religious symbols in law courts. And likewise with law and morality, though over time the line shifts between the morals the law enforces (monogamy, marriage) and the morals (whether gays can marry) from which it neutrally steps back. And in public administration, rational bureaucratic practices must be protected from arbitrary interference. And there is a line to be maintained between public and private. Officials in government ministries and agencies must interpret the missions of those institutions, which are typically framed in terms of public goods (such as education or health or protecting the consumer or the environment) where significant sectors of public opinion and, these days, the party in power and indeed the government itself may dispute their interpretation of their mission and even deny its very reason to exist. In sum, in a functioning democratic society there are settled answers to these questions establishing boundaries around the practices in question.
The dangers to these truth-seeking practices from within stem from participants’ violating their respective values and norms. In each of these four cases, there is rivalry (among scientific research teams competing for grants, journalists for work and recognition, professional lawyers for clients and state agencies for resources), that, however, when appropriately regulated should in general lead to mutual trust, respect and co-operation and what count in each case as successful outcomes. Science, journalism, the law and public administration function within what sociologists=, following Pierre Bourdieu, have come to call ‘fields.’ These are social spaces within which actors mutually recognize one another within communities with regard to professional or specialized practices and shared assumptions in which they compete for success in realizing a shared value or ‘symbolic capital’ in ways that are enabled and constrained by shared norms. Scientists and journalists aim at objectivity, as they respectively interpret it, lawyers at implementing the rule of lawand public administrators at providing and protecting public goods. In all four cases they have a professional interest in securing recognition by ‘winning,’ but that means winning by the rules of the respective game. Scientists hope that their theory or research findings will be recognized by their fellow scientists as significant. Professional journalists hope that their stories will gain traction with their publics while retaining the respect of their colleagues. Lawyers try to win cases (which are decided by courts and judges and sometimes by appeal to higher courts) and public officials try to implement policies that have been arrived by procedures that meet impersonal standards and can be publicly justified. They cannot succeed in these different ways by resorting to any means, by ignoring or changing the rules: that is by aiming directly, no holds barred, at outcomes come what may. What matters is that their activities should lead to outcomes that are justified by evidence properly acquired and adequately interpreted and communicated, according to the relevant professional community’s standards; and the norms in these various fields (for example, replication in science, fact-checking in journalism, the adversary system in Anglo-American criminal law, bureaucratic rules and public consultation in administration) are filters designed to help to ensure this by ruling out arbitrariness, idiosyncrasy, incompetence, negligence, subterfuge, skullduggery, malpractice, fraud and corruption. They function to restrict the power of interest-driven parties to render truth impotent.
We can now begin to see why, if politics is a ‘field,’ it is distinctive in a way that renders plausible Arendt’s claim that politicalpower and truth are on bad terms. In the light of the fields discussed so far, we may surmise that the prospects for truth in politics depend on how political partisanship works. The prospects will be better under two conditions. First, that there are institutional rules and procedures and informal norms the following of which tends to track truth and are generally recognized by participants in the field as legitimate. Specifically, that would require political actors and institutions to be responsive to evidence-based results of science, journalism, the law and public administration, assuming these institutions are largely autonomous—that is, independent of political interference and of extraneous personal, factional and economic interests. It would also require, among other things, standard equal rights and freedoms—of speech, association, and so on—, contested elections, fair representation of interests and opinions (with implications for the drawing of electoral maps, the conduct of the census and campaign financing) and an active civil sphere (via the press and mass media) in which they are freely communicated, and well-informed citizens who vote on policies, punish failure and reward success. The second condition is that those citizens mutually recognize one another as participating in the same set of practices, following agreed rules and procedures, as forming a single, all-encompassing unity or citizenry despite what divides them however deeply. For Bourdieu participation in a field meant ‘participation in the same game,’ for
one of the general properties of fields is that there are struggles within fields for the power to impose the dominant vision of the field, but these struggles are always based on the fact that the most irreducible adversaries have in common that they accept a certain number of presuppositions that are constitutive of the very functioning of the field. (36)
But is that true of politics? Isn’t the question of whether a given set of presuppositions are to be so accepted, of what is to be taken as common ground by adversaries, of what the game is in which all are participating—isn’t that question itself a political question? It is self-evident that politics cannot be understood as functioning only under the favorable, truth-favoring, some would say ‘ideal,’ conditions that I just outlined. Nor is it obvious that politics in what are widely recognized as democracies (on which I shall focus from now on) is best so understood. According to self-described ‘realists,’ these conditions are so distant from actual conditions of political life in most places that they (some or most of them) are irrelevant to an understanding of what the practice of politics, even democratic politics, really amounts to. Realists argue that a view of politics in the light of its ideal functioning is misconceived. The political field, in short, most often consists in contending conceptions of what politics is. And so I shall now turn to consider alternative concepts of politics—concepts that are very much alive and in contestation today in the United States and elsewhere. There is a range of such concepts but I shall here focus on two contrasting concepts, each with a distinguished history and notable contemporary advocates, which I will label the agonistic and the deliberative.
In his lecture Politics as a Vocation, delivered in 1919, in the wake of the First World war and the Russian Revolution and amidst what seemed to him seething but hopeless attempts at revolutionary change across Europe including Germany itself, Max Weber dramatically expressed a stark, bleak, even tragic concept of politics, which he defined as ‘striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.’ In words with a decidedly present-day resonance, he remarked that
there is no more harmful distortion of political force than the parvenu-like braggart with power, and the vain self-reflection in the feeling of power, and in general very worship of power per se.
Deploring the mediocrity and irresponsibility of the ‘mere ”power politicians”’ of his time, who ‘lived off’ politics rather than for it, he concluded his lecture by expressing his hope for the emergence of truly heroic leaders who would rise to the challenge of the times. That challenge was that politics was the ‘ethical locus’ within which ‘ultimate Weltanschauungenclash, world views among which in the end one has to make a choice.’ Responsibility in politics meant facing up to the fact that ‘politics operates with very special means, namely, power backed up by violence’ and the sobering Machievellian thought that ‘the attainment of “good” ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means or at least dangerous ones.’ Thus, in relation to our present topic, Weber commented that for the purist followers of an ‘absolute ethic’ of ultimate ends the ‘duty of truthfulness’ is the ‘decisive point’ whereas truth may ‘not be furthered but certainly obscured through abuse and unleashing of passion.’ Politics, in short, was for him a field of struggle in a world in which incompatible alternative world views clash, calling for choice and decision. A generation later, as what Arendt called ‘dark times’ darkened in Europe, Carl Schmitt developed his own influential ‘concept of the political,’ in which ‘the specific political distinction is that between friend and enemy,’ (26) where the distinction is determined ‘existentially,’ the enemy being whoever is ‘in a special intense way, existentially something different and alien’ who ‘must be repulsed or fought’ to preserve our form of life (27). Schmitt’s concept of the political, together with its explicit critique of liberalism and cosmopolitanism, has had a notable after-life on both the right and left of politics. Thus Leo Strauss endorsed Schmitt’s idea that man ‘needs dominion’ and can be unified only in a unity against others.’ And on the left , among several political theorists, Chantal Mouffe takes ‘the political’ to place ’the question of power and antagonism at its very center’ and ‘social objectivity is constituted through acts of power.’ The novelty of democratic politics, she thinks, lies in its distinctive way of establishing the ‘us-them opposition’: it is to ‘construct the “them” in such a way in such a way that it is no long perceived as an enemy to be destroyed but as an “adversary”,’ that is a
legitimate enemy, one with whom we have some common ground because we have a shared adhesion to the ethico-political principles of liberal democracy: liberty and equality. But we disagree concerning the meaning and implementation of these principles, and that disagreement is not one that could be resolved through deliberation and rational discussion. Indeed, given the ineradicable pluralism of value, there is no rational resolution of the conflict, hence its antagonistic dimension. (The Democratic Paradox, 102)
She thinks that ‘the drawing of the line between the legitimate and the illegitimate is always a political decision’ and ‘contrary to Rawls and Habermas,’ she does not ‘present liberal democracy as the model which would be chosen by every rational individual in idealized conditions.’ (121) Mouffe proposes a model of democracy as ‘agonistic pluralism,’ where ‘agonistic’ signifies that ineliminable antagonism is ‘tamed’ or ‘sublimated.’ ‘Antagonism,; she writes, ‘is struggle between enemies, while agonismis struggle between adversaries.’ (102-3) As for compromises, they should be seen as ‘temporary respites in an ongoing confrontation.’ (102) On such accounts politics involves taking sides, affirming commitments with passion and solidarity and making decisions, including decisions about what it is ‘reasonable’ to believe and thus count as true.
At the other pole of the indicated range are ways of conceiving politics as involving mutual justification, reasoning, and, as applied to contemporary politics, deliberative democracy. Central figures here are, indeed Rawls and Habermas, but also Arendt, who wrote that the ‘atrophy of the political realm is one of those objectively demonstrable tendencies of the modern era.’ (HS 161). Her concept of politics was in essence the interaction of perspectives through discussion in public space, where ‘everybody sees and hears from a different position.’ Non-atrophied political life functions well when things ‘can be seen by many in a variety of aspects.’ In ‘the freedom of…speaking with one another’ people can acquire ‘the capacity to judge’, find truth (‘see and experience the world as it “really” is’) and engage in ‘dispelling prejudices’ by identifying ‘what in them is true.’ (LZ 67-8) The strongest versions of this concept derive from Habermas and Rawls. Despite their differences, they have enormously influenced present-day political theorizing by viewing real political life via a sort of heroic thought-experiment, putting it to what Bernard Williams has called ‘the critical theory test:’ where ‘supposed legitimation, even though it is generally accepted, will not defend the society against the charge of injustice’ (221)—seeing it through a critical lens as imperfectly realizing the institutionalization of an ideal of moral justification. Thus democratic politics in actual societies is viewed as approximating the regulative ideal of ‘an association whose affairs are governed by the public deliberation of its members’ where deliberation is understood as being ‘about ends among free, equal and rational agents.’ Seyla Benhabib captures the general idea thus:
According to the deliberative model of democracy, it is a necessary condition for attaining legitimacy and rationality with regard to collective decision-making processes in a polity, that the institutions of this polity are so arranged that what is considered in the common interest of all results from processes of collective deliberation conducted rationally and fairly among free and equal individuals. The more collective decision-making processes approximate this model the greater their legitimacy and rationality.
How, Habermas asked, would
the members of a social system, at a given stage of its development of productive forces, have collectively and bindingly interpreted their needs (and what norms would they have accepted as justified) if they could have decided on the organization of social intercourse through discursive will-formation with adequate knowledge of the limiting conditions and functional imperative of their society?
And the early Rawls asked what principles of justice citizens of a given society would have agreed to behind the veil of ignorance, assuming general facts about human psychology and political sociology and assuming a disposition to engage in co-operation with one another; and the later Rawls, similarly asked what principles ‘reasonable’ members of a society sharing an overlapping consensus would agree to despite their diversity in adhering to different ‘conceptions of the good.’ What both theorists and their many followers share is the assumption that they are addressing citizens in real societies who are disposed to engage in ‘public reason.’ The idea is that what I have called the normative background and Rawls the ‘basic structure–rules, norms and institutions–can be rightly imposed if they can be justified by arguments that all those affected in a plural society could ideally endorse or accept as justified despite deep and even permanent disagreements over matters of value, morality, religion and the good life. It thus presupposes a ‘public’ of citizens recognizing one another as members of a single, albeit diverse, community (situated at more or less distance from the regulative ideals which their theories embody) who are assumed to aim at co-operation with their fellow-citizens and to be predisposed to reason together. This ‘ deliberative model,’ developed by political theorists, finds its counterpart in what the political scientists Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen in the deflationary recent book Democracy for Realists call the ‘folk theory of democracy,’ that has ‘passed into everyday wisdom, not just in the United States but in a great many other countries,’ according to which democracy ‘makes the people the rulers and legitimacy derives from their consent’ and which often simply assumes ‘rationality, mutual consideration, and the patient exchange of publicly justified reasons for supporting specific policies.’ (1, 301) What from a realist standpoint is an illusory theory—whether deriving from intellectuals or held by folk– is, according to this concept that views democracy as a ‘space of reasons,’ an indispensable operative ideal against which to measure the health of democratic politics. As Michael Lynch puts it,
to the degree that we cease giving reasons for our beliefs to each other, to the degree that we allow our disagreements to be resolved and our government decisions to be made without adequate reasons, to that degree we are ceasing to conceive of ourselves as equal participants in a democratic enterprise.
What this sketch of a continuum of concepts of politics, from the agonistic to the deliberative, shows is, first, that disagreement about how to conceive of the field of politics is wide, deep and sharp. Unlike the other fields considered, we cannot assume a settled consensus in which people, mutually identifying with one another, agree about what game they are participating in, where the boundaries of politics lie and what norms should govern its practice. As I shall now suggest, we may also conclude that trouble, maybe very serious trouble, is in store for truth when, to use Chantal Mouffe’s distinction, agonism morphs into antagonism: when, that is, adherents of the zero-sum agonistic view of politics and their friends, come to view the very deliberative view itself, the social practices that embody it and its adherents no longer as adversaries but as their enemy.
5. A Meta-political Battle
In November 2009 Rush Limbaugh discussed what was called ‘Climategate’ on his radio program. This was a manufactured controversy in which scientists at a research institute in Britain were, it turned out, falsely accused on right-wing media of conspiring to manipulate results to support the so-called ‘theory’ of global warming. Limbaugh expressed himself as follows:
What this fraud, what this uncovering of this hoax, exposes is the corruption that exists between government and academia and science and the media. Science has been corrupted. We know the media has been corrupted. We know the media has been corrupted for a long time. Academia has been corrupted. None of what they do is real. It’s all lies.
He called these institutions—government, academia, science and the media—‘The Four Corners of Deceit.’ He then went on to say that he and his listeners lived in a world apart:
We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes even overlap.
Notice that this was seven years before the election of President Trump. It has since become entirely normal for media figures like Limbaugh and Fox News and, of course, the President himself to denounce in the same, Manichean terms, the press (as the ‘enemy of the people’ purveying ‘fake news’), all of TV journalism apart from Fox News, climate science, judges, the leadership of the Department of Justice and the Mueller investigation, and even the government’s own intelligence agencies, and to attack several of its other agencies by subverting their missions by his appointments and through attrition of personnel, in pursuit of Steve Bannon’s project of ‘deconstructing the administrative state.’ Polarization has taken the form of one side denouncing and attacking entire institutions as taken over by an enemy seen as unified. Thus Grossman and Hopkins write of an ‘information polarization’ as having its source in ‘the American conservative movement’s decades-long battle against institutions that it has deemed irredeemably liberal.’ Furthermore, the very practice of truth-telling has put in jeopardy at the highest level of government, not by lying, as in previous administrations (notably the second Bush administration), but by bullshitting, defined by the philosopher Henry Frankfurt, as displaying an indifference to the practice. And the many millions of supporters of the President and the governing party, the bullshitees, either believe or are unaware of or are indifferent to an unceasing flow of untruths and inconsistencies. According to Amanda Carpenter, author of the forthcoming book Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies To Us, they ‘do not see deception, they see a commitment to winning.’ (New York Times, March 17 2018). And research by Sanford Schram and Richard Fording shows that ‘relying on Fox News and believing fake news relative to real news are strongly associated with each other and with supporting Trump in the 2016 election.’ How, then, should we understand these developments?
No longer, I suggest, in traditional terms (as Rush Limbaugh’s words suggest) of polarization between left and right. Nor, as is commonly done, using the language of ‘silos,’ ‘bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers,’ in which we live our lives and experience politics without ‘crossing the wall of empathy.’ For these various metaphors suggest symmetry. Left and right are on the same level or spectrum, poles in a single force field (and each requiring the other for the very distinction to apply), and the other metaphors suggest that we are all equally and similarly entrenched or enclosed or separated from one another, living our lives in separate and uncommunicating social and political worlds. We need, I believe, to take the measure of the growing asymmetryof present-day political life in the United States today and elsewhere. What we are now seeing, one might say, is a developing politicalstruggle. This is in part a struggle between the promotion of credulity and the survival of credibility. I say in part the promotion of credulity because belief is only one of the routes to truth’s impotence. People can be impervious to truth and consistency because the hold false and inconsistent beliefs, in various ways—because of passionate commitment, say, or because they are misled by framing, conspiracy theories and the like. They can also be indifferent to truth and consistency, and likewise in different ways—because they discount what seems inconvenient to the pursuit of their interests, or because their attention is focused on more urgent issues and values. It is a struggle, still in its early stages, a meta-political struggle not withinbut aboutthe very field of politics: about its boundaries and constitutive institutions, rules and norms.
Here is how the journalist David Roberts describes the asymmetry:
On one side is what we might call the classic liberal democratic (small-l, small-d) theory of politics. In this view, politics is a kind of structured contest. Factions and parties battle over interests and policies, but the field of play on which they battle is ring-fenced by a set of common institutions and norms. Inside that fence is ‘normal politics’—the subject of legitimate political dispute. Outside that fence is out of bounds, in violation of shared standards.
Thus, Roberts continues, what might call the ‘game’ of politics
Is defined by explicit rules (e.g., the Constitution), enforced by various legally empowered referees (e.g, courts and the executive branch). But it is also defined by implicit norms, unwritten rules more informally enforced by the press, academia, and civil society. These latter institutions are referees as well, but their enforcement power operates not through law but through trust.Their transpartisan authority exists solely because participants in the game agree that it does.
In present-day US politics and elsewhere (notably in Poland, Hungary and Turkey) that agreement is becoming ever less secure. Democrats (large D) are, by and large, still in that game, but large swathes of the Republican party’s office holders and many millions of their voters are not. The game itself, its institutions and norms, are increasingly under attack, and our normal inherited political vocabulary (‘populism,’ ‘authoritarianism’} is inadequate to capture this development. Bourdieu recalls ‘the antiparliamentary, antidemocratic language of fascist or quasi-fascist parties’ according to which membership in the same political field was viewed as complicity in ‘a kind of corrupt game.’ But the present threat is intra-democratic: it operates from within that game: it does not come from enmity to parliamentarism and democracy–so that talk of ‘fascism’ is not only historically but descriptively inaccurate. What we are seeing is subversion from within that consists in discrediting the various institutions and practices whose game is arriving at conclusions based on evidence, on collective reasoning and the tracking of truths. Which raises the unspoken question: should the Democratic party go on to a war footing? Should it abandon the Obama disposition (that derives from his concept of politics) to trust, or mistakenly hope, that the Democrats face not enemies but adversaries? Wouldn’t doing so amount to forsaking the very point of being a Democrat (large D and small d)?
6. The Rise of Negative Political Partisanship
How did we get here? There is a large story here, beginning in the 1970s, told by Daniel Rogers in his Age of Fracture, especially chapter 3 on ‘The Search for Power.’ But now I want to focus on the question of asymmetry. Consider the subtitle of the recent book by Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins: Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats.The Republican Party, they write, ‘can be most accurately described as the vehicle of an ideological movement,’ whereas the ‘coalitional component of the Democratic Party has long encouraged party leaders to assemble a policy agenda from the aggregated preferences of the party’s numerous constituencies, courting the mass electorate with a large assortment of concrete benefits favoring target populations.’ (3) Characterizing what has been called ‘the Big Sort,’ Will Wilkinson has suggested that the
United States may be dividing into two increasingly polarized cultures: an increasingly secular, rational and self-expression oriented ‘post-materialist’ culture concentrated in big cities and the academic archipelago, and a largely rural and ex-urban culture that has been tilting in the opposite direction, towards zero-sum and survival values, while trying to hold the line on traditional values.
So-called ‘identity politics’, or group attachments, have, it is true, been at work on both sides of this divide, but not to the same degree. According to Liliana Wronski and Julie Wronski, this was the case ‘more powerfully among Republicans than among Democrats, due to the general social homogeneity of the Republican Party.’ For the Republicans
the general white, Christian conservative alliance with the party led to a far simpler categorization of who is in the group and who is outside it.
This can help explain the ‘impotence’ of truths about their own candidates on voters’ choices. If what counts above all is (as I shall now suggest) identifying oneself with one’s group as opposed to an enemy, then one will be disposed to overlook or discount or somehow explain away the otherwise unacceptable or even intolerable behavior of Roy Moore or Donald Trump.
What is common to both sides is the growth of ‘negative partisanship.’ Shantin Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin find
as animosity toward the opposing party has intensified, it has taken on a new role as the prime motivator in partisans’ political lives.
And Alan Abramovitz and Steven Webster find that
the impact of feelings towards the out-party on both vote choice and the decision to participate has increased since 2000; today it is out-group animus rather than in-group favoritism that drives political behavior.
In short, people are increasingly voting against rather than for. Indeed the same authors find that, although voters increasingly dislike parties, they behave like ‘rabid partisans,’ overwhelmingly viewing ‘the opposing party’s candidate with deep hostility.’ This has the perverse consequence of motivating candidates to inflame partisan hostility and in turn rendering them less accountable once elected, for according to Iyengar and Krupenkin,
The primal sense of ‘us against them’ makes partisans fixate on the goal of defeating and even humiliating the opposition at all costs. This negativity bias in voting behavior undermines traditional theories of electoral accountability that rest on incumbents’ ability to deliver policy and performance benefits.
Negative emotions—hatred, anger and animosity are on the rise and central to mobilizing political support—something noticed by Steve Bannon in his conversations with Michael Lewis. ‘Anger and fear,’ he remarked, ‘is what gets people to the polls.’ And according to the Pew Reseaarch Center, demonization and vilification of opponents has become entrenched, so that
Today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration but fear (56 per cent of Democrats, 49 percent of Republicans) and anger (47 per cent Democrats, 46 per cent Republicans).
And other research shows a significant growth in negative, stereotyped images of political opponents who are increasingly viewed as enemies.
In sum, negative, even ‘rabid’ partisanship and tribal epistemologies in politics are currently on the rise in the United States. Despite the public’s increasingly adverse views about political parties, party loyalty in voting has reach record levels. According to Abramovitz and Webster, partisanship today ‘has a stronger influence on voter choice than at any time since the 1950s.’ And in commenting on all of this, Thomas Edsall in a recent New York Times piece, quotes Carl Schmitt from his book The Theory of the Partisan: as political combat intensifies, combatants must ‘consider the other side as entirely criminal and inhuman, as totally worthless’ and foresees ‘ever deeper discriminations, criminalizations, and devaluations to the point of annihilating all unworthy life.’
7. Concluding Thoughts
I want to conclude this lecture by raising some doubts and questions about what I have been arguing. Have I not myself been making a highly partisan case? Have I not given an unduly flattering, self-indulgent portrayal of what I called the deliberative-democratic position? Are deliberative or liberal democrats not also tribal, credulous and subject to epistemic closure, and blind, for example, to the failings of their own candidate and trusting only the sources of information that advance their (our) cause? What newspapers, which blogs and websites do we read, with whom do we associate and identify? Have I not given an idealized picture of the supposedly truth-seeking practices in science, journalism, law and public administration—are they really so impartial and neutral? In making the argument of the lecture have I not violated Hannah Arendt’s injunction to see the world from perspectives of all others, seeking out the truths in prejudices and engaging in real conversation with them?
I think the answer to all these questions is yes. Nevertheless, I think that the objections they raise should all be seen as qualifications, serious qualifications but not as counter-arguments. My argument is, of course, partisan. How could it not be? And of course deliberative democrats (it is a very wide category) are in the ways indicated often, even for the most part, uncritical and selective and as irrational and unreasonable as everyone else. And of course the institutions I discussed live up to their values and norms most imperfectly and are often seriously inadequate (when judged by those very values and norms). And they certainly have failed to cross the wall of empathy and understand what is true in the prejudices of others. And yet I still believe that there is a decisive and growing asymmetry in the partisanship of our time. The parties and their followers in conflict are increasingly playing by different rules—or, rather, not playing the same game. Trump core supporters and Republican politicians still seeking re-election, many of them in fear of being ousted in primaries, view their partisanship in straightforwardly antagonistic terms. What counts is winning, more or less come what may. (Consider gerrymandering, vote suppression, hacked emails, the Russian involvement). Many (who knows how many?) may be, in varying degrees and for different reasons, uneasy, but the problem for non-Republicans, and in particular Democrats, is their surviving commitment to the idea that there are norms and values that transcend party and faction, to their continuing belief that there are no ‘alternative facts’ and that determining what is true requires evidence and argument, not decision and choice. If that is a problem, what would be the cost of abandoning it?
8. Epilogue: A Stress Test
We are, I think, living through a social experiment in which the robustness of our institutions is being put to a stress test. We have already witnessed the extent to which findings based in science have been discredited as a hoax and news published in the media denounced as ‘fake’ and thus truths have been rendered impotent to convince a significant number of Americans in ways that have served the interests of the President and his party. Legal institutions and the state provision and protection of public goods are under threat and immigration policies pursued on the basis of false claims of all kinds. Truth and politics, to return to Arendt, have, it seems never been on worse terms. But we are probably approaching an interesting test. Suppose that the Mueller report proceeds and conclusive evidence is produced of wrongdoing by the President and his senior staff. Suppose he pardons everyone involved, including himself. Suppose he gets Mueller fired and suppose he is even indicted. And suppose that none of it matters: that the Republicans and enough Republicans continue to stick with him—that the Constitutional crisis everyone, remembering the Nixon debacle, has foreseen does not ensue. Then indeed power will have rendered truth impotent.