Brown University

No, Alternative Facts Aren’t Bad for Democracy by Ezra Dulit-Greenberg @ Brown University

The first months of President Donald Trump’s administration have been defined by a battle most Americans probably never thought they would have to fight: a battle over the truth itself. President Trump’s election has inspired a swarming cottage industry of fact-checkers and political commentators to take to the television and internet. They declare the President is post-truth and our democracy is therefore under attack. They are wrong. The presence or absence of “alternative facts” has no bearing on the health of our democracy. The country may be worse off in the so-called ‘post-truth era.’ But democracy is meant to reflect the opinions of its people, whether those opinions are formed with the help of alternative facts or not.

Over the past half century, political scientists and politicians on both sides of the aisle have increasingly turned away from rational voter theory, a classical democratic framework in which each citizen absorbs information and makes political decisions based on that information. In his seminal 1947 volume on Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter characterized individual political will as “an indeterminate bundle of vague impulses loosely playing about given slogans and mistaken impressions.” Schumpeter treats this as irrelevant to democracy, and lays out just one democratic requirement: elections.

Since 1947, psychological studies have confirmed many of Schumpeter’s suspicions. Voters have never voted rationally; they have never voted on the issues or the facts. Alternative facts do not affect citizens’ rights to cast their votes however they see fit, and there’s little evidence to suggest that alternative facts have led to a decrease in rational political decisions.

In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. Barrera and Rodriguez’s study on the effect of alternative facts on voting behavior in the 2017 French presidential election found no significant difference between the voting intention of those exposed to alternative facts and those exposed to real facts. Voters, it turns out, don’t even make their decisions based on individual facts; they make their decisions based on narrative. The salience of alternative facts—the reason our president can convince his base that three million illegal votes were cast last November—flows from the relevance of the larger narrative to voters’ preconceived notions.

Narratives have always been part of politics. These narratives have been propped up with exaggeration and strawman arguments since well before our country’s founding; that they are now bolstered by alternative facts would seem to have little effect on the country’s representation.

Even a more expansive definition of democracy can’t condemn fake news. Robert Dahl’s 1972 definition of democracy is broader and closer to “liberal democracy”—he calls freedom of expression and organization key to democracy itself. This too is unaffected by post-truth; in fact, one of Dahl’s requirements for liberal democracy is “alternative sources of information.” Alternative facts are not only not antidemocratic—but according to Dahl, their removal would be antidemocratic instead!

Many arguments that alternative facts will harm our democracy conflate harm to democracy with harm to the country. This isn’t just a dubious false equivalency—it also moralizes an empirical argument. If we define democracy concretely enough, we should be able to actually measure its decline; the same cannot be said for ‘the country.’

Alternative facts might indeed derail the country’s agenda from ‘what we should be focusing on.’ But this is a normative argument; ‘good government” is a technocratic concept, and not necessarily democratic. If most of the country’s citizens want to focus on a nonessential (or nonexistent) issue, that is still a democratic decision.

It is true that the Republican Party seems to benefit much more from this new post-truth framework. Partially this is because they are in power nearly everywhere, and whatever benefits they gain are bound to be more visible. But also, that one party reaps the rewards of a broad societal shift is not antidemocratic or anti-competitive in any way. Democrats have in recent years used the country’s shifting demographics to their electoral advantage; minority voters will likely only play a bigger role in the party’s future strategy. These broad shifts, be they demographic, cultural, or informational, do not strangle competition—they drive it.

Perhaps the most effective argument that alternative facts do pose a threat to democracy is the charge that alternative facts may be used to push antidemocratic reforms. The president’s unsupported allegations of widespread voter fraud, for instance, are being used to tighten voter laws and restrict voting rights. But this is a thin argument; antidemocratic reforms have been pushed for centuries, and well before the rise of widespread alternative facts. According to Barrera and Rodriguez’s study, the facts are invented to fit into an existing voter-fraud narrative—one that would still exist without the “evidence” to back it up. The correlation between alternative facts and antidemocratic reforms is shaky, let alone any causative relationship.

The rise of post-truth rhetoric may be bad for our country and its agenda. Our ability to compromise will itself surely be compromised, along with our ability to enact successful and necessary policy. We will agree less and fight more. But these problems, dire as they may be, are not democratic problems. Voters are as free as ever to form opinions however they choose, and to put those opinions into action. Our democracy itself has been deeply imperfect since its inception, built on irrational voters and unfounded narratives. The rise of alternative facts, at least, can do little to change that for the worse.

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