Our Dual Crises: Knowledge, Democracy, and the Way Ahead

Steven S. Volk

I am not the first, and certainly will not be the last, to observe that, as a country, we face a crisis of both democracy and epistemology. Unsurprisingly, the first crisis is strongly entwined with the second – the deep divide on determining how we know what we know. While this administration has failed to take seriously a rampaging virus which, as of this writing, is quickly approaching 400,000 deaths in the United States, Trump did lie so abundantly and so doggedly that he succeeded in undermining the ability of tens of millions to perceive reality itself. Politicians who take liberties with the truth are a dime a dozen. Con artists who find willing buyers for snake oil cures? In some circles that is called advertising. But a huckster who can lead you to deny what you actually observe with your own eyes – that’s a level beyond your garden variety charlatan.

Film Footage: The Heart (ca. 1950), from The Prelinger Archive; Photo: Fred Holland, 1913, from The Library of Congress

Trump’s creation of an alternative universe free from the gravitational pull of facts has always been about an assertion of power, as Masha Gessen pointed out at the inception of the Trump presidency. When Trump, she wrote presciently in 2016, “claims that he didn’t make statements that he is on record as making, or when he claims that millions of people voting illegally cost him the popular vote [in 2016, that is; he would, of course, claim the same thing in 2020], he is not making easily disprovable factual claims: he is claiming control over reality itself.”

It was this Trump-created reality – fed by the Republican Party, Fox News, and an appalling number of those who really should have known better – that convinced his ground troops to storm the Capitol on January 6, aiming to forcefully overturn a democratic election. In my area of specialization, Latin America, we would call that an attempted coup. Whether Trump’s persistent peddling of his “landslide” victory is a product of cynicism, authoritarian tendencies, or serious psychological problems, I’m not qualified to say. Certainly it’s not an either-or situation. There is no question that his revanchist bootlickers, the Ted Cruz’s, Josh Hawley’s, and Jim Jordan’s in Congress (the last, heaven have mercy, being my own congressional representative), are contemptible opportunists, looking to cash in on a political base which Trump will never actually bequeath to them. (“Sure, boys. I’m off to Mar-a-Lago, but you can have all that populist rage and anger that I built up to benefit myself and my family. Do with it as you like; I’ll be on the links if you need me.”)

Noose displayed in front of the U.S. Capitol building, Jan. 6, 2021 (Trevor Hughes-USA TODAY/Sipa USA/PA Images)

My concern, however, is centered on the many who didn’t just vote for the flim-flam man, but allowed their own reality to be so distorted by Trump’s need to always “win,” that they crashed into Congress with the aim of overturning a democratic election and, if we listen to “Joe” from Ohio, hanging “the people in this House who stole this election from us…out here in this lawn for the whole world to see so it never happens again – that’s what needs to happen, four by four by four hanging from a rope out here for treason.” My concern is on the 73 percent of Republicans (and 30% of college educated voters) who said, in a January 11 Quinnipiac University poll, that the presidential election was marred by widespread voter fraud, even though no evidence has surfaced to support those claims, and even though many have been looking.

My concern is also a lot closer to home. After writing pretty much the same thing about the lack of evidence of widespread electoral fraud in an earlier post, I drew the ire of one commenter. How, he wondered, could I assert that there was no evidence to support the claim that Biden’s victory was fraudulent “when over 500 sworn affidavits have been submitted, and there’s video that appears to show ballots being brought out from under tables (that were illegally drapes [sic] with coverings) after poll watchers left”? How can we know unless the courts actually looked at this, he continued: “To say it’s a fact that no evidence has surfaced is simply preposterous.”

I more disheartened than annoyed by this comment, as unrepresentative as it was in my inbox. In the first place, the writer should have known that there is evidence, and it was produced by 62 lawsuits (only a small proportion of which were dismissed for lack of standing), and a number of state or county-initiated recounts, all of which confirmed Biden’s electoral victory. There simply was no widespread fraud that could have changed the outcome of the election. (In Georgia, for example, the top election official found evidence of just two confirmed cases of votes attributed to dead people.) I could reproduce much of that evidence here, but will just link to three sites that provide a comprehensive overview: FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, PolitiFact, a project of the Poynter Institute, and the New York Times.

But I found this comment particularly disheartening for two additional reasons. First, while the commenter didn’t identify himself, he did provide a name and a bit of quick googling indicates that he “studied at Oberlin.” For a graduate, or even someone who “studied” at my college, to suggest that 500 affidavits can throw the 2020 election into doubt means we didn’t do our job of educating. This is not about ideology; it’s about the methodology for determining what is fact and what is fiction.

Which raises the second issue. After I raised these points in a response to his original comment, the writer persisted: “I really can’t understand why you so readily dismiss the testimony of 500 people… I might be misreading you, but it sounds like you’re making unfounded assumptions about the 500 people who have submitted affidavits (and about me). I think much of the division right now is being caused by perfunctory dismissal of what so many people think and experience.”

I feel exhausted because I can’t seem to locate an epistemological terra firma to stand on where my interlocutor and I can have a sensible conversation. What these 500 people “think and experience” is not, in any sense, a reasonable challenge to the 7 million more popular votes (and 74 electoral college votes) by which Biden bested Trump, or to the dozens and dozens of examinations of the voting process carried out in counties and states. As the New York Times observed, addressing the issue of hundreds of sworn affidavits “proving” that fraud occurred: “There are, instead, hundreds of sworn affidavits in which Trump supporters articulate things they saw, usually while serving as untrained volunteers observing the vote-counting process. As we’ve reported repeatedly, those statements rarely even allege fraudulent activity. Most instead document suspicious-seeming things, allegations that the city of Detroit aptly described as being ‘grounded in an extraordinary failure to understand how elections function.’”

I feel exhausted not because I wouldn’t welcome a conversation on these matters, but because we don’t seem to occupy the same reality, and therefore can only come back to the same starting points on which we disagree: 500 affidavits versus … well, you know.

Harrie Irving Hancock, Physical Training for Business Men (1917)

To be sure, my blog commentator is not alone, and there is little doubt that we will be mired in this epistemological quicksand long after January 20. Take the case of Kiron K. Skinner, the director of Carnegie Mellon’s Institute for Politics and Strategy, who wrote to her colleagues on January 7, the day after the attempted coup in DC:  “Many people are seeing different facts and parts of the story about what happened in each state. In many cases, there simply isn’t just one set of facts. A research project for some group of us would be to investigate on our own the election outcome in a handful of states. We could be surprised at what we find.” Wait, what? According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which reported this story, Skinner served on Trump’s transition and worked in his administration in the State Department before coming to Carnegie Mellon. She would not say that Trump lost the election when pressed to do so, and instead urged the faculty to “investigate” the outcome. “What I am trying to humbly convey,” she wrote, “is that many people are seeing different facts and parts of the story about what happened in each state” (emphasis added).

Neither Skinner nor my interlocutor are smashing windows or storming through the halls of Congress, but the comments of both are indications of the dual epistemological and democratic crises which we face as a country, in general, and specifically as a community of scholars and educators. Let me attempt a brief explanation. Philosophers have suggested that there are three kinds of “truths”: mathematical or logical truth (2+2=4), empirical or what Hannah Arendt called “factual” truths (contingent, a posteriori events, as in “yesterday I ate dinner”), and eternal, moral, truths (killing is wrong). While eternal truths do not (necessarily) rest on evidence, and while logic often seems to be in short supply these days, the epistemological quagmire we find ourselves in concerns “empirical” or “factual” truths: Were there really more people in attendance at Trump’s inauguration than at Obama’s? We actually have a way of answering this if we choose to do so. Did Trump “never say” that the U.S. would reach a benchmark of 5 million coronavirus tests per day on April 28, 2020 as he claimed the next day? We have the video that can provide the answer. Trump may assert his power by challenging empirical truths, but it leave the rest of us unmoored.

Trump’s estimated 20,000 false and misleading claims since coming to office have paved the way for his supporters to deny the empirical truth of the electoral result. Since we can’t “know” everything on the basis of our own experience (how do I know that 81,283,485  people voted for Joe Biden if I didn’t witness them voting or counted the votes myself?), knowledge must be based on trust, and the steady flow of presidential lies and the flood of internet-fed conspiracy theorizing, particularly during the past four years, has both undermined the standard of empirical truth and corroded the trust that is essential if democracy is to function. Democracies, Sophie Rosenfield observed in Democracy and Truth: A Short History, require trust in authorities at a distance. In the context of voting, it obliges us to place a basic degree of trust in the operations of a huge number of volunteers, civil servants, elected officials, and others. What the appallingly high level of electoral denial indicates, yet again, is that for his supporters, “Trump is the only one we’ve been able to trust for the last four years.” That’s from Brett Fryar, the major of Sundown, Texas, in late November who added, frighteningly, “As far as the civil war goes, I don’t think it’s off the table.” At a deeper level, as Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic, when Trump supporters say the 2020 election was stolen, they “are expressing their view that the votes of rival constituencies should not count,” although their claim is that the actual votes didn’t exist. “They are declaring that the nation belongs to them and them alone, whether or not they actually comprise a majority, because they are the only real Americans to begin with.”

We are in trouble, Rosenfield argues, when there ceases to be a real commitment to seeing the world collectively. This is not a world in which we all agree — such a world would be both disturbing and ultimately disastrous for democracy. As she points out, democracy “insists on the idea that truth both matters and that nobody gets to say definitively what it is… Part of the reason ideas evolve and culture changes is that we’re constantly debating what is an accurate rendition of reality in some form.” But we cannot have community, we can’t hope to understand one another, if we don’t agree on how we determine empirical truth or arrive at the methodologies that produce knowledge.

Democracy Now (January 7, 2021)

I am certainly aware of the relationship that always exists between “truth” and power, and the way that power has long been used to delegitimize the knowledge produced by people of color and others historically lacking in power in our society. And, while connected to this argument, a discussion of these points will be left for another day. Here I would only reiterate that if we begin to argue, as so many are, that because people “see” different “facts,” those facts must exist, we are lost.

Just how deeply and dangerously we have fallen into the epistemological chaos became more evident to me when I happened on an internet discussion about Helen Keller. Yes, that Helen Keller. It appears that a lot of younger folk think that Helen Keller was a “fraud.” The Tik Tok videos that have been raising doubts about different aspects of her life – her education, marriage, ability to give speeches, to read, or write – have now amassed over 17 million views on the platform primarily populated by young people. Writing on Medium, Isabel Lahoue observes that “Generation Z literally does not believe Helen Keller existed. And,” she continues, “frankly, I’m having a hard time accepting that she did myself. I don’t feel bad or wrong for it, and I don’t think anyone else my age does either. But older generations seem to think differently.”

But older generations seem to think differently? Lahoue’s mother tried to reason her out of it but, Lahoue reports, “she failed to invalidate my disbelief.” I won’t fully recount why she finds this to be the case, but much has to do with growing up “alongside” the internet. “Maybe,” she writes,  “we don’t believe in her [Keller] because we’re growing up in a world of fake news. We know the power of manipulation and lies in the media, and we’re losing faith in the sources everyone once trusted. There’s too much data and too many lies circulating for us to process and believe it all.”

For Lahoue, the mistrust in everything and everyone has led her to build a community with a potential for change:  “We have to fight to have our opinions about the state of our country heard and understood by older generations. We have to march in the streets and endlessly retweet to try and stop our schools from being shot up. We have to hear about the injustices committed at the border, against the black community, and against women, all of which are covered in lies that sugarcoat the situation, and you wonder why we have trust issues when it comes to the government.”

For millions of his followers, Trump’s ability to yoke trust and reality to his person led directly to the violence on display in the Capitol as well as a nihilistic disregard for the virus that has killed hundreds of thousands Americans. (What is it other than nihilism masquerading as a love of “liberty” that led Republicans, huddled with other legislators as the mob took over the Capitol floor, to put their colleagues at risk by refusing to wear a facemask?)  For millions of others, as expressed by Skinner and, perhaps, my interlocutor, it has led to paralysis and a dreadful abdication of responsibility: if truth is everywhere, there is no truth. If everyone is guilty, there are no guilty parties.

And yet, as P.L. Thomas writes in his always valuable blog, “Critical thinking allows anyone to realize there is a wide and complicated gray area between ‘Believe no one’ and ‘Listen to everyone.’” Critical thinking is about procedure, a method for apprehending and understanding reality. It is about, as Joan Scott recently wrote, “how one brings knowledge to bear on criticism” (p. 121).  At the close of her book Sophie Rosenfeld presents more than a dozen suggestions for beginning to resolve this epistemological emergency, among them a call to support schools, colleges and universities, public and private, as “these are places where ‘regimes of truth’ take shape” and where we have an opportunity “to instill the epistemic-moral aspirations essential to fostering a truly democratic truth culture” (p. 167).

In the last four years, we have witnessed a rapid decline in the trust accorded to these institutions dedicated to knowledge production. On the one hand this can be attributed to the decades-long “culture wars” by which the Right has challenged the emergence of diverse, progressive scholarship in the university, battles which received full-throated presidential support during the Trump years. But it also can be credited to the ways in which colleges and universities, and those of us who teach within them, have failed to address the challenges of our times more forcefully, demanding that we address the inequalities that have allowed too few to enter our doors or receive the kind of education that could lead them to think critically and productively about the world in which we live. (None of this is a guarantee, however, as some Ivy League educated Trumpistas in the Senate have amply demonstrated.) It all suggests that the work ahead will not be easy, for, as Rabbi Sharon Brous reminds us, “There’s no shortcut here…Silence and complicity are also sins. Either we work to dismantle oppressive systems, or our inaction becomes the mortar that sustains them.” 

4 thoughts on “Our Dual Crises: Knowledge, Democracy, and the Way Ahead

  1. Steve – I find your faith in the academy to straighten out peoples thinking to be a bit misguided (self serving?). As you quote earlier in te article, 30% of college educated voters think the election was stolen, nearly the same % as the rest of the population, And as for attributing the epistemological crisis to Trump’s four years in office, let us not forget that the Republican party has spent the last decade basing their election strategy on increasingly shrill (and apocryphal) cries of voter fraud. Is it any wonder that their followers now see it everywhere? I am not at all suggesting that you are wrong about the crisis, just that you are perhaps putting too much emphasis on The Orange One as the cause, and higher education as the solution. And maybe suggesting that this latter view might reflect some of the unconscious class bias that runs rampant in academic circles. There is a longer discussion to be had about the source of disbelief in our traditional sources of authority, but that’s for another day. – David

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    • A quick response, as the points you raise (which others have, as well) deserve a fuller discussion. First, as for whether Trump alone is responsible for this epistemological crisis – no, of course not. One could say it is a crisis that goes back to the earliest days and the denial of the role that genocide and slavery played in U.S. history and the U.S. has always been assumed to have the interests of democracy in mind as it intervenes abroad, etc. I would also point to a particular challenge to fact and evidence that has been building in the Republican Party since the 1990s (the party’s racist dominance was sealed when Johnson took the Democrats towards civil rights) and, more particularly, since the inception of Fox News and Murdock’s take over of conservative news outlets. What Trump has done is to use the highest office in the land to offer a seal of approval to a completely alternative reality. But certainly, this challenge has been with us a long time.

      As for the issue about education and whether it can “save the day,” I don’t think my comments were self-serving, but they were certainly not developed to any extent. Very briefly here (and some of these comments are derived from an interesting article posted in Inside Higher Ed by Asheesh Kapur Siddique on Jan. 19 (“The Insufficiency of Education”). (1) Education produces unpredictable results — there are no inherent outcomes from an education, even one oriented toward social justice. Cruz and Hawley, both Ivy graduates, are getting a lot of comments these days, but one could as easily point to the “brightest” Ivy League graduates who have gravitated toward Wall Street where they helped created the alogrithms that allowed the financialization of the US economy which has created vast wealth for a few and misery for the many. (2) And, education is only one influence on a person’s worldviews. There are a lot of other social, political and economic factors that come in to play. Education, now quoting Siddique, “is but one factor in a broader matrix of social relations that have to be fixed in total, not in a piecemeal fashion. Absent jobs, housing, food and access to affordable health care, better education will not in itself fix what is broken in American society.” I agree.

      All that said, I still maintain that education is one critical element in addressing the depths of the crisis. Here I’ll only mention two items I’m thinking about: (1) The education I have in mind needs to begin in the early childhood years, and needs to be quality education. Preschool teachers, who research has shown will have a greater impact on a child’s life than others, are among the lowest paid of all workers in the United States. This signals a complete reversal of priorities that needs to be addressed; and (2) education needs to be truthful. I write this the same day that Trump’s bogus “1776 Commission” (a response to the “1619 Project”) came out with its report in which Progressivism is equated with fascism and slavery is seen to be bad but, hey, everyone was doing it and the US swept it away. So, at the end of the day, I would rather have more education than less; better education than worse; an education based on fact and truth rather than one based on fiction and falsehood. To be sure, this alone won’t solve all our problems – but it’s a better foundation to stand on. More to come, and thanks for your comments!

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