Interview with Sophia Rosenfeld, Author of Democracy and Truth

TKNN: So first of all, just in the book there’s this debate about those between—or not really in the book—there’s this debate going on about those who say we live in a post truth world and those who say we do not— where would you fall in that debate?

Sophia Rosenfeld: It’s a difficult question because I think we’re headed towards a post truth world in ways we probably didn’t seem to be until quite recently. Except for the fact that there’s been a lot of pushback on them, on the sort-of post-truth ethos, which says that, I think says that, really that there’s sort of a thing hanging in the balance. It’s not entirely clear yet which side of that battle over truth is going to prevail. Journalists, among others, have done a lot of pushing back on the sort of climate of looseness with what counts as accurate, verifiable information.

TKNN: In your book you have a lot of research going back decades about this kind of philosophical fight between democracy and truth so from that standpoint should we have seen this coming— This battle between post-truth and truth?

Rosenfeld: So I’m a historian and so I don’t think anything’s ever totally new under the sun. Maybe a professional tendency of sorts but I do think if you think back through American history, but really the history of most modern democracies, a battle over who gets to define truth and what counts as truth is sort of central to political life always and that’ll get hotter and colder at different moments. We’re sort of in a hot moment right now but that said there are some new twists in all this. Social media and the internet, twenty four hour cable news broadcast, changes in the sort of media and entertainment environment have further, kind of, exacerbated a long standing conflict and a set of real political struggles over who defines truth.

TKNN: So during your book you talk about the different types and definitions of truth, so what is it about factual truths that make them debated?

Rosenfeld: Yeah, factual truths. So we always debated big moral truths. That seems obvious that we’re never gonna easily agree on what’s meant by freedom or something like that but what seems to be new in the current climate is a lack of agreement as to what counts as a fact. Whether that’s quantitative information or simply a kind of description of what’s already happened. And it’s often been that thought that an agreement about factual truth has to be sort-of a starting point for any political debate. Then you can debate opinions but the starting point should be some sort of agreement. Say, unemployment is either up or it’s down and that’s not a negotiable. What we’re seeing right now is that conflict in many cases over even what might be called facts. There’s even been this expression circulating like “alternative facts” or “my truth.” The difference is that even those kind of basic information are always the product of spin; it can’t be nailed down exactly and it’s all sort of in the eye of the beholder. That seems to be the sort of dangerous new wrinkle— is this disagreement about factual truth rather than sort of more abstract, more difficult, or abstruse truths.

TKNN: Alright so throughout the book there’s this kind of continuing theme about the difference between elite education and common sense. Is there a way to balance those two and if so how?

Rosenfeld: Yeah, very good question because I think the sort-of basic understanding of democracy from the beginning, by which I mean eighteenth century in modern terms, was that there was going to have to be both the kind of people’s truth—otherwise you don’t need things like voting—a kind of basic sense of how the world is determined by ordinary people. But that basic common sense had to be informed also by some kind of learning that not everybody was going to have that and that therefore required what we came to call experts — or people who could provide the kind of knowledge that you needed to be a really good voter or citizen. In other words, you might know what’s going on in your town, but it’s really hard to know what’s going on in the world at large or even how to make sense of what’s going on in your town without this kind of second level of information and that always created social tensions as well as tensions about what truth is around who really knows better. And some of the current moment is a fight not just about who gets to know truth, but what kind of truth is superior. The truth that comes out of think tanks, university research lab, government agencies, or the truth of kind of lived experience of people who feel in many cases very cut off from and far from whether it be economically, intellectually, socially, and culturally from those kinds of intellectual elites and see the world often quite differently from a vantage point that’s quite far from that kind of— you know — that’s sometimes called inside the beltway or coastal or something like that but that point of view.

TKNN: So you you talk about how the American model was to have commoners and elites work in tandem. Did that model ever actually work or do we just kind of look back?

Rosenfeld: I think it’s always been a very rocky construct because there was never any sense in democracy, it’s one of their great strengths but always potentially their weakness is that there is no one set of truths and no one place they come from unlike say, an absolute monarchy or dictatorship. And that means this kind of precarious working out a truce among all these different constituencies I don’t think it’s ever worked in some kind of ideal form and that’s one reason politics is always contentious. On the other hand it seems at the moment it’s particularly not working well; confidence in institutions is way down in many cases, particularly in the press, particularly in universities the kinds of tasked arbiters of a certain kind of baseline assumption. I think there really is some difference between a world in which everybody listened to a Walter Cronkite at night and assumed that he could fairly much be counted on to be telling accurate information that was not partisan but sort of what had happened in the world. We live in a different media universe now where it’s hard to think of a media outlet that— whether that be television, print, online, that would let people say, you know, well that’s for me a legitimate source of information that I can sort of count on in telling me what’s right, and then, you know, build my opinion from that. And that is something of a change.

TKNN: So one other thing you noted in your book was the explosion in popularity for statistics in America during the nineteenth century and how America led the way. do we still see that passion for statistics in America or not as much?

Rosenfeld: That’s a really interesting question because in some ways the passion for statistics has grown and grown; we produce more data all the time—think of big data. Computing power has simply helped us produce ever more sophisticated statistical data so in some ways what looked like, you know, a nineteenth century interest in statistics now looks laughably small and the world of economists and data scientists covers almost every aspect of our lives, consumer behavior to weather patterns, everything. On the other hand, it arouses suspicion, it arouses suspicion sometimes on the right and sometimes on the left and for slightly different reasons. But there are deep critiques on both a kind of a populist left and a populist right of whether the world is really accurately represented by numbers and by kind-of recent data what does that miss about how real people think and feel. And what does it mean to kind of economize everything.

TKNN: So would that be another instance where you’re seeing the divide between the elite education and the [common people]?

Rosenfeld: I think so. I think that very much is the case that data is not always persuasive the same, to the same way it is for somebody in the World Bank or the National Institute of health and for somebody who’s quite cut off from those institutions. Data might mean something different for these kind of social scientists and scientists. It appears to be objective, scientific way and of course they’re right, to those critics to a certain extent, that nothing is really fully objective, that there’s all kinds of assumptions built into any kind of statistic and the use of the statistics themselves depend on certain kinds of assumptions. But the other side is also dangerous to say that there’s nothing can be trusted that we can’t know anything in any kind of scientific way is also to open up different kind of dangerous possibilities.

TKNN: So you just noted about how governments have been using fact finding, you talk about in the book about a government dependency on fact finding so are we now seeing a backlash to that government dependency?

Rosenfeld: I think so, I mean I think it’s highly unusual to have a president who questions his information provided by his own agencies— the budget office for Congress or something, the findings of the State Department, it’s rather extraordinary to hear those being challenged by somebody who’s, in principle, representing that state and It both reflects and adds fuel to a critique that’s obviously got quite a lot of supporters that says you know this is the world as I see it and these people, in fact, are not only inaccurate in what they say, but they’re kind of partisan actors that they’re not producing objective knowledge they’re producing something much more like political spin in any moment. So any statistic looks like it’s a product of political manipulation and, of course, sometimes that critique is absolutely true— think tanks do all this quote-unquote research to come up with information that often supports very specific political platforms on right or the left. But without, but again there’s that at risk of thinking that if you can’t measure anything you can’t build any policy that would have any kind of chance of efficacy.

TKNN: So one other thing the you note in the book was saying how enlightenment beliefs are rooted in an elitism. Is it possible to have enlightenment without the elitism?

Rosenfeld: That’s a really good question; that’s been a question for the last two hundred years or so. I think I try to say that the enlightenment produces both; it produces both a kind of elitism that there are some people who are the kind of highly literate people who form public opinion who know best but it also suggests that ordinary people are a source of knowledge that you don’t need to be highly placed or born to the right family to be a source of wisdom. You just need to be a rational actor; you need to be able to think. So in someway the Enlightenment gives us and Enlightenment thinkers living in the age didn’t imagine sort of everyone in general democratic way participating in the public sphere so we can call them elitist and be right but we can also think of them as the first populists and be right precisely because they insisted that there was no particular authority that priests had or the nobility had or even kings for that matter that trumped what an ordinary person using, you know, their native born wisdom and wit could know.

TKNN: So you made reference to the cycles that we see so just kind of looking back at history— when there was a loss of trust in institutions, how is that trust regained?

Rosenfeld: That’s an interesting question, that’s the kind of important one for our moment isn’t it. To think how did institutions regain people’s trust. Sometimes it takes a cataclysmic change but it’s rare. Occasionally there’s revolutions in which people really go back to the drawing board and dismantle most of their major institutions. When you think of 1776, now for that it was a remaking of most things that structured people’s lives but that’s relatively rare. Sometimes a kind of detente is reached in which different factors sort of agree to reform rather than revolutionize the structures that exist and find some sort of middle ground in which there can be agreement and that usually allows institutions to remain in place but to be tinkered with rather than overthrown. You know you can reform who votes or you can reform whether you vote directly for the Senate or you vote for electors to elect people to the Senate, those kinds of tinkering with the rules are quite different from revolution. I don’t think we’re headed to a resolution right now but I do think that the jury’s out on whether we will kind-of peacefully negotiate some kind of detente between what seems to me at the moment to be quite far apart factions in terms of thinking not just about what kind of political landscape we should have but really some sort of basic ideas about who to trust and where that trust can come from. It’s going to be a hard project for the next president and even for this new Congress to try to re-establish any kind of trust that goes across party lines, across class lines, across the regional lines, all the fractures in American life today.

TKNN: Alright, well thank you for calling in to talk to me; I found the book fascinating and thanks for chatting.

Rosenfeld: Well, thank you so much; delighted to talk to you, and thanks for taking the time.

About Tyler

Tyler is the chief media reporter for TKNN, with the news organization since its founding in November of 2010. He has previously served as chief political reporter and chief political anchor for TKNN.

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