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Truth, Politics and Democracy: Understanding Post-Factual Times

Civil Society
Democracy
Media
Political Theory
Populism
Public Policy
Knowledge
Post-Structuralism
S77
Anna Durnova
Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna
Jana Vargovcikova
Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense


Abstract

‘Truth’ has always had a particular relationship with politics. Not necessarily being seen as a political virtue, the concern for truth has advanced political analyses of social and historical contexts of truth-telling, studying also larger societal transformations along lying and fake identities. This scholarly work is aimed at advancing social and cultural explanations of the role of truth in politics. The political legacy of the Enlightenment, with its focus on civic authority and rationality, has together with the rise of Western industrial societies engendered the need for scientific expertise and can be seen as the source of the modern cultural ascendency of science that has brought a notion of truth as a ‘sound knowledge’. This sound knowledge has still to be proven right, or justified, to gain legitimacy in the policy process. The right to know, one of the crucial pillars of liberal democracies has therefore created an arena of the sound knowledge, in that all sorts of expertise are debated, argued for, believed in, or denied. The advent of the ‘evidence-based’ policy analysis, although apparently adhering to principles of an expert authority, signals also an implicit recognition of the critique, and puts forward the ‘argumentation’ and the ‘performance’ of the sound knowledge. The year 2017 was a year showing such an arena of argumentation and performance, revealing at the same time a certain fracture of truth that we have thought has been accommodated in current liberal democratic regimes: By the end of the year 2016 the Oxford Dictionary classified ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year. This was not a surprise, as that year was marked by rapid spreading of what was labelled as ‘fake news” and the general threat of ‘post-truth’ presented for truth production in science and politics. At the same time, diverse populist uprisings have undermined the liberal democratic idea of plurality of knowledge portraying it as an ‘elitist expertise’ or ideological agenda of liberal elites. Furthermore, the critique of academic knowledge became a crucial argument during the Brexit debate or the first year of Trump's administration. Whereas political experts have been searching for legal ways to limit the production and spread of fake news in social media, scientists have been called to stand up against post-truth movements and defend systematic scientific inquiry. On the whole, civil society has been iteratively portrayed as the democratic force that should fight post-factualism. Yet, while the public defense of truth took different forms and has inspired a larger conceptual debate on the ways liberal democracies embrace not only truth but also doubt and controversy, some recent political developments have pointed to the fact that all these tools of the critical inquiry can at the same time end up in the hands of populists and fact-deniers. Some even suggested that liberal democracy has facilitated the inclination and spread of post-factualism because it has praised plurality of knowledge and built on social construction of facts.
Code Title Details
P002 'Alternative Facts' in Policy Controversies: What Role for Critical Policy Research and Deliberative Policy Analysis? View Panel Details
P417 Speaking Truth to Power: Expert Knowledge, Legitimacy and Justification View Panel Details
P521 When Facts Don't Matter: Understanding the Resources of Post-Truth Democracy View Panel Details