Truth and Democracy

Our Journey Begins!
  1. Monday, August 10:  Truth and Politics

Discussion Theme:  What does it mean to study Truth and Politics?

At first glance, this question seems to have some easy answers.  For example, one could say Truth is about facts, not lies. Politics is about whether politicians tell the Truth or simply lie.  While both propositions are accurate, I want to suggest they only scratch the surface of much broader topic.  Facts are important–indeed, in short supply these days among public officials!–but what we mean by Truth is even more profound.  In a courtroom, one swears to tell the “whole truth and nothing but the truth”  (see HERE).  What is the whole truth?  Similarly, when we pose a question about Politics, we are addressing an equally profound theme.  If we are telling “the whole truth,” what does it mean to say we should tell “nothing but the truth”?

What, then, do we mean by “Truth” and “Politics”?  In this section of our course, we will explore this topic by focusing on a specific political order: Liberal Democracy.  In the process, we will consider a variety of themes:  citizenship, liberty, domination, political elites, popular participation, language, and the erosion of trust.

As we begin this course, please read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Bradbury raises issues that will concern us throughout the semester.  Please think of ways of returning to the book as often as possible.

2. Wednesday, August 12:  Telling the Whole Truth?

Discussion theme:  What does it mean to tell the Whole Truth in a democracy?

In this section, we begin to construct a vocabulary for our course by considering two types of cases in which Truth-telling is relevant to sustaining a healthy democracy: one type the deliberate distortion of the Truth; the other is or may be–depending on your personal judgment–an example of not telling the whole Truth.  By all means, don’t let my interpretation of these videos sway you. Otherwise, let’s begin, both individually and collectively, to develop the language for analyzing the many, many cases that will arise in our seminar.Ple

NOTE:  I have organized these readings/videos in such a way that they pose greater challenges to our definition as you move through them. The final two are the most important.

Two notable and quite scary examples of deep fakes HERE and HERE.  We are certain to see more of this–a lot more–as we near the election.

“Surge of Virus Misinformation Stumps Facebook and Twitter” PRINT AND READ

“Dr. Ron Paul’s Urgent Message for Every American” LISTEN, TAKE NOTES, CRITIQUE

3.  Monday, August 17:  Democratic Citizenship

Discussion themes:  What are the responsibilities of the citizen?  What does Truth have to do with good citizenship?

Sophia Rosenfeld, Democracy and Truth A Short History, Chapter I

Rosenfeld provides historical background on many of the themes, as well as many of the thinkers, that will occupy is for the next two weeks.

Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”  PRINT AND READ

In Kant’s short essay, we find some germs of the liberal democratic conception of citizenship.  What does Kant mean by “enlightenment?”  What does he mean by the obligation to act upon enlightened principles?

What does it mean to be a good citizen in the US?  Do Americans live up to  their responsibility to be good citizens? Do you?  If you don’t, does it matter?

Truth today:

John Gramlich, “What makes a good citizen? Voting, paying taxes, following the law top list,” Pew Research Center, July 2, 2019  READ

4. Wednesday, August 19:  Truth and Liberty

Discussion theme:  Sorry to say it, but none of us is infallible.  What role should the limitations on our capacity to know the Truth play in the design of well-functioning liberal democratic polity?

“On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” in John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1869), ONLY chapter II:  PRINT AND READ

Truth today:, “Fox News defends First Amendment Freedoms” READ

“BBC issues internal guidance on how to report climate-change,”  READ  Is the BBC the anti-Mill?

5.  Monday, August 24:  Real-World Politics

Discussion theme: In dictatorships, politicians lie by habit and decree. Are we naive to expect that politicians should behave any differently in liberal democratic polities?

In this section, I would like to cover two themes: 1) the extent to which all forms of political organization are about nothing more than domination; 2) the defense of lying instead of telling the Truth.

Excerpts from Machiavelli’s The Prince  PRINT AND READ

Truth today:

“Obama’s pledge that ‘no one will take away’ your health plan,” Washington Post, October 30, 2013 PRINT AND READ (awarded four Pinnochios by the Post)

John Mearsheimer, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth about Lying in International Politics, pp. 3-20 PRINT AND READ

6. Wednesday, August 26: The First Great Debate!

Proposition“President Obama had no choice: He had to lie to make the Affordable Care Act possible!  As politicians in liberal democracies have recognized for the past two centuries, lying and great leadership go hand in hand.”

Background Readings:

David Leonhardt, “The Original Lie about Obamacare” PRINT AND READ TO PREPARE FOR THE DEBATE

“Obama’s pledge that ‘no one will take away’ your health plan,” Washington Post, October 30, 2013 PRINT AND RE-READ TO PREPARE FOR THE DEBATE (awarded four Pinnochios by the Post)

Debate Structure:  TBA

7. Monday, August 31: Great Writing and the Art of Persuasion

In preparation for your essay assignments in this course, let’s talk about what constitutes great writing.

I love George Orwell.  Thus, I assign his writings, especially the two below, again and again. Seven decades after his death, Orwell continues to provide us with fresh insight into the study politics. As you will see, in “Politics and the English Language,” his argument is all about the ways in which words can be used and abused to justify dictatorship.

Orwell also teaches us a lot about great writing.  His books and essays are deceptively easy to read, but most people cannot write with the fluid, easily understandable, and totally persuasive style that he exemplifies. I wish I could!  Still, I want you to try to emulate his example.

Readings from George Orwell:

“Why I write”  PRINT AND READ“

“Politics and the English Language” PRINT AND READ

George Orwell:  Facsimile (handout)

Mystery Facsimile (handout)

8. Wednesday, September 2:  Political Experts

Discussion theme: What role should expertise play in liberal democratic politics?

The goal of this session is to examine the idea of expertise in politics and the way it is used to justify rule by elites.

Sophia Rosenfeld, Democracy and Truth A Short History, Chapter II, pp. 42-72.

James Madison and/or Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, nos.  10, 49, 57, 58  PRINT AND READ

Truth today:

Jeffrey Rosen, “America is Living James Madison’s Nightmare”  PRINT AND READ

9. Monday, September 7: The People Speak

Sophia Rosenfeld, Democracy and Truth A Short History, pp. 72-91

John Dewey, The Public and its Problems, Chapter V, “The Search for the Great Community”  LOCATE HERE AND PRINT

(Hesburgh has two on-line versions. To ensure that you have no problem finding it, print the chapter  the first time you see it; the publishers may not let you “take it out” again)

Truth today:

The Notre Dame community:  How are we doing? “HERE” at HERE (You are the People)



10.  Wednesday, September 9: The Populist Explosion

Discussion Theme:  The wave of populist politics that has swept across the liberal democratic world in recent years has many causes.  One of the most prominent is the collision between elite domination and the demand for popular participation.  Elites and ordinary citizens distrust and dislike each other with equal fervor. One of the primary manifestations of this conflict is the battle over truth—what it is, who determines it, and whether it even matters.

Sophia Rosenfeld, Democracy and Truth A Short History, Chapter III

Francesco Duina, “The Uncomfortable Truths about Populism” PRINT AND READ

Peter Wehner, “The Democratic Party is Radicalizing,” The Atlantic  (a critical assessment of populist trends in the Democratic Party) READ

Michael Berube, “The collapse of the information ecosystem  poses profound risks for humanity,” The Guardian PRINT AND READ

Kathy Frankovic, “Does the Public Believe Government Statistics? It Depends.”, March 23, 2017.  PRINT AND READ