Headline: A democracy humiliated: The creeping erosion of truth and civility

Washington 7 January 2021: Trump supporters storm the Capitol.
Washington 7 January 2021: Trump supporters storm the Capitol. Shutterstock/vasilis asvestas

“It is the culmination of more than five years of hatred, trolling, violent harassment and conspiracy theorizing that has moved from the internet’s underbelly to the White House and back again”.

Charlie Warzel, New York Times Columnist

The world watched with astonishment and horror at the violence unfolding in and around the Capitol as Congress convened to confirm the results of the United States' presidential election. How is it possible, one wonders, that a country whose traditions of democratic government span more than two hundred and thirty years could fall prey to such chaos? How is it possible that roughly one third of US citizens give credence to the claims of their narcissistically disturbed President that the recent election was rigged and that sinister forces are conspiring to cheat him out of office? How is it possible that around 130 members of the House still contested the election results even after the Capitol had been overrun by an angry mob determined to 'stop the steal'? How is it possible that President Trump still received more than 74 million votes after spreading countless demonstrable lies during his term of office and endangering hundreds of thousands of lives by questioning vital health measures and leading an incompetent response to the coronavirus pandemic that has made the USA an object of ridicule on the international stage? How is any of this possible?

The quick and easy answer is: Donald Trump. But that does not cut to the heart of the matter. Donald Trump is not the root problem; he is merely the symptom of a profound crisis in our understanding of democracy, truth, and science. This crisis is expressed in the now widespread use of the prefix "-post". We talk of a post-modern or post-structural society, and of a post-democratic, post-industrial or post-factual age. If journalists and intellectuals had seized on the prefix "post-" centuries ago, we would still be living in the post-Romantic or post-Gothic age. The prominence of the prefix in this moment in history is a sign that large numbers of citizens feel overwhelmed by the many profound changes unfolding across our society. Where are we heading? How will this affect me? Many, if not most, citizens feel insecure.

This sense of uncertainty has implications for our understanding of politics and science. Interactions between these two fields have always been characterized by a desire to provide decision-makers with systematic knowledge (about the coronavirus, for example) to guide their actions (the development and adoption of lockdown regulations, for example). But the long-standing model of "truth speaks to power" tends to break down in a post-x world. Do the claims of science still constitute statements about the true status of reality? And do these truths even matter in a post-factual world?

Truth is what you want it to be

The rise of the term "post-factual" does not infer that people are lying more often today than in the past, or that they have begun to make claims about things of which they have little or no actual knowledge. That has always been the case. Rather, "post-factual" refers to a tendency to accept what we would like to believe as factual – even when all the evidence is against us – or to deny the validity of available evidence because what we don't want to be true must also be factually false. This fallacy of desired and perceived truth is not confined to the USA; it can be encountered in politics and media and among public interest and ideological groups in almost all of the OECD countries.

This development poses an enormous challenge for science. And the institution that is all about facts is struggling to find an adequate response. In a post-factual age, science has adopted a pro-factual stance, but this has only further undermined its authority. The crux of this problem lies in the difficulty that science faces in determining what is actually factual and the question of how science can and should set itself apart from the formation and expression of intelligent propositions and opinions.

A new and more complex understanding of science

To better understand the changing role of science for making truth claims it is important to understand how three major Copernican Revolutions have shaped and re-shaped the self-image of science. The first of these revolutions is the so-called complexity turn. Complex phenomena are distinguished by the interaction of nested causal chains that even the best experts struggle to unravel. Rather, they can only hope to trace the course of specific causal factors over periods of time – and in some cases they can only rely on plausible assumptions. Efforts to predict the regional consequences of climate change are a good example; climate models are merely approximations of a complex reality and predictions based on modelling reflect this uncertainty.

The second is the stochastic turn, which is closely related to but not identical with the aforementioned complexity turn. The deterministic world-view that was once common in science has largely been abandoned in favour of a stochastic world-view. Within this world-view the principle of "If A, then B", is supplanted by "If A, then with a certain degree of probability B, with another C or D, but definitely not E". In other words, scientists today present their findings as a range of possible consequences, each of which has a calculated probability of occurring. In this new understanding of causality, certainty is a thing of the past.

These two turns complemented by a third: the linguistic turn. Whatever their field of research, all scientists use language to elaborate their findings. Languages package ideas within a certain structure and a certain perspective. This also applies to special languages such as the formulaic languages used in chemistry and mathematics. All of these languages can be used to express certain facts and reveal relationships, but others cannot be expressed at all or only with less precision. Language shapes cognition; it structures thought processes and, at the same time, acts as a lens that frames and limits our perception of a complex reality.

Scientific knowledge is accordingly by its nature fraught with uncertainty and its focus will vary depending on perspective and language. This insight often leads people to wrongly believe that truth is arbitrary. Even where circumstances can only be described in stochastic terms, there are always claims that are absurd. There are claims that cannot be true under any circumstances. Others are theoretically possible, but so unlikely that they are all but impossible. Then there are claims that are possible in practical terms, yet remain unlikely. And finally, there are claims whose truth can be considered a near certainty. The logic of science has helped us immensely, especially in the current pandemic, to distinguish certain knowledge from plausible yet (or as yet) unproven claims and unlikely or even absurd explanations.

The rise of alternative facts

This understanding of science and knowledge has been side-lined in the public debate about truth. In our post-factual world there is a widespread belief that truth claims merely reflect what we consider to be desirable or plausible. In other words, that what is right and what is wrong are simply a matter of 'gut feeling'. It is a world-view without a (neutral) arbiter of truth that could tell us which claims are within the scope of legitimate validity and which are not. In this climate of post-factual relativism, political operatives have taken up the mantle of the Pied Piper to suggest that the search for truth is simply a matter of having the right worldview: statements that confirm a particular mindset are considered true in their own way – anything else is a lie. This shift towards a post-truth mindset took centre-stage in the earliest days of Donald Trump's presidency. The issue then was whether more people had attended Donald Trump's inauguration ceremony than that of the previous president, Barak Obama. Although photographs provided clear evidence that Obama had attracted far larger crowds, U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway stood by obviously false claims about the crowd size at Trump's inauguration. Asked about the images, she made the outrageous claim that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had merely offered "alternative facts".

The tyranny of opinion

The tyranny of opinion is a sweet poison for democracy. Throughout his political career, Donald Trump has masterfully played upon a plurality of intersecting interests that range from the gun lobby (National Rifle Association) to disenchanted middle-class citizens facing an uncertain future to anti-abortion activists in more rural regions. From this amalgam Trump has forged a unified mindset and an unholy alliance of 'true Americans and patriots' and 'guardians of American and Christian tradition'. Trump was aided in his efforts by social media platforms that provided echo chambers and spaces of self-affirmation for each of these (at times incompatible) interests and world views. In the process, the space for civil discourse necessary for a living democracy and the search for a common good that transcends individual interests have fallen by the wayside. What remains is the individual's unconditional commitment to their own convictions. In the absence of a shared understanding of truth and decency, we look to our convictions to guide our actions. This is the only way to understand why one demonstrator shouted defiantly at journalists before storming the Capitol: “If necessary, I am prepared to die for President Trump!” Such pathos is reminiscent of Germany's darkest days.

It’s time to detoxify

There are glimmers of hope however: the attack on the Capitol has revealed the mendacity of Trump's dictatorship of opinion to many of his loyal supporters. The events of early January have led many Trumpists to wonder: Aren't we the party of law-and-order? Aren't we the party that backs rigorous policing and the guardians of the nation's most sacred sites? However, things end with Donald Trump, the American people have repudiated his politics of opinion and elected a new president. The Senate run-offs have consolidated the Democrat's victory and even media outlets sympathetic to Trump have distanced themselves from their former idol, albeit belatedly. And, more pointedly, some 70 % of Americans surveyed reported that they found the President's recent behaviour "disturbing".

Germany and Europe are by no means immune to post-factual and post-democratic populism. Political Pied Pipers abound here too. Their followers are just as obstinate and rigid in their ideological views as their kindred spirits in the USA. Here, too, they attack and humiliate their opponents, showering them with hate mail and abusive tweets. To protect our democracy and restore civility, we need more public spaces and opportunities for political debate, for example through public participation and citizen-led initiatives. We must also encourage our democratically elected officials to engage with those whose lives are being disrupted by the processes of modernization and digitalization or who feel unheard. And we need courageous leaders in politics, business, and civil society with the determination to stand by and protect all those people and institutions who uphold truth and decency not as arbitrary ideas but as a part of their commitment to the common good. A democracy humiliated stands on the precipice of tyranny.

This blogpost was published first on the website of the publishing house Barbara Budrich.

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