Democracy and Truth: A Short History by Sophia Rosenfeld review – the roots of our current predicament

Fara Dabhoiwala in The Guardian:

In her short, sharp book, the historian Sophia Rosenfeld takes a longer and deeper view. Her argument is that, ever since its origins in the late 18th century, modern democracy has had a peculiar relationship to truth: the current crisis merely epitomises that. We shouldn’t focus only on external causes, for our system of government carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. As in her previous work on the twisted history of democratic political rhetoric, it’s a simultaneously reassuring and unsettling message.

The essential problem, as Rosenfeld sees it, is that democratic government is predicated on an aspiration to collective truth. Unlike older systems of aristocratic and monarchical rule, which excluded the people from power and stressed the need for administrative secrecy, the new republics of the late 18th century, and the more egalitarian mass democracies that succeeded them, depended on openness and trust between citizens and rulers. Through the free discussion and united wisdom of the educated and the masses, errors would be dispelled, “public knowledge” established and societies advanced. And yet, she points out, the reality has never lived up to this powerful ideal. From the outset, democratic societies contained vast inequalities of power and education, and their media have always been driven by commercial and partisan imperatives. In practice, instead of a free civil marketplace of ideas, politics has always been a vicious fight over the truth and the power of determining it.

More here.