Truth and Democracy

Truth and Democracy

Truth and Democracy

Truth and Democracy


Political theorists Jeremy Elkins and Andrew Norris observe that American political culture is deeply ambivalent about truth. On the one hand, voices on both the left and right make confident appeals to the truth of claims about the status of the market in public life and the role of scientific evidence and argument in public life, human rights, and even religion. On the other hand, there is considerable anxiety that such appeals threaten individualism and political plurality. This anxiety, Elkins and Norris contend, has perhaps been greatest in the humanities and in political theory, where many have responded by either rejecting or neglecting the whole topic of truth.

The essays in this volume question whether democratic politics requires discussion of truth and, if so, how truth should matter to democratic politics. While individual essays approach the subject from different angles, the volume as a whole suggests that the character of our politics depends in part on what kinds of truthful inquiries it promotes and how it deals with various kinds of disputes about truth. The contributors to the volume, including prominent political and legal theorists, philosophers, and intellectual historians, argue that these are important political and not merely theoretical questions.


Jeremy Elkins and Andrew Norris

We live in a political culture that is deeply ambivalent about truth. On the one hand, it is said that there are basic truths on which our politics must be grounded. We are told, for example, by the right (mostly) that a certain version of liberal democratic capitalism is the end to which all of human history has been directed, and that the abandonment of the belief in a JudeoChristian god and adherence to his universal moral commandments leads to radical relativism; while on the left (mostly) we have witnessed the growth of a universal human rights discourse that holds certain truths to be selfevident, as well as a renewed reverence for the natural sciences as a paradigm of rational inquiry and a bastion of truth against superstition and faith. Yet at the same time, we hear from various quarters that the very idea of “political truth” is necessarily tyrannical or hegemonic. and so, for example, from the right comes the insistence that any public valuation of goods, even if concluded through a democratic process, is inherently authoritarian, while from the left we are told that “truth-talk” stands as a threat to the very possibility of cultural and epistemic pluralism.

There are, no doubt, many reasons for this ambivalence. Surely the skepticism about or dismissal of truth is in part a response to some of the claims that have sometimes been made for and about truth—about its nature, about . . .

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