Groundless contestation: On (post)-truth and democratic politics

Catherine Koekoek is a lecturer and PhD researcher at the Erasmus School of Philosophy, Rotterdam. She has a background in Architecture and Philosophy. Her current research operates at the intersections of democratic and post-structural feminist theory, and investigates post-truth politics and is committed to studying its real-life operation alongside the theoretical implications. Catherine also co-hosts Respons podcast which discusses feminist questions in architecture.

“On January 6, 2021, the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., was stormed during a riot and violent attack against police protecting the U.S. Congress. A mob of supporters of President Donald Trump attempted to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election by disrupting the joint session of Congress assembled to count electoral votes to formalize Joe Biden’s victory. The Capitol complex was locked down and lawmakers and staff were evacuated while rioters occupied and vandalized the building for several hours.”[1]

The Wikipedia page of the storming of the US capitol on January 6th, 2021, already presents it as a historical event. The immediate disorientation and desensitisation caused by the “shock politics” (Honig 2021b) of the Trump presidency have ebbed away. However, the underlying democratic questions that emerged with the rise of what has come to be known as post-truth politics have not abated. 

Commenting on the events of January 6th in her poem for the inauguration of Joe Biden as US president, Amanda Gorman spoke: “We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation / rather than share it / Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.”[2] The poem formulates the sentiment that the storming of Capitol Hill was a destructive act, intended to sow division, delay democratic procedures, and finally: defeat democracy. But the dream of a “democracy to come” will never die, for Gorman.[3] Delivered during the inaugural festivities, the poem continues on a hopeful note. The effort nearly succeeded, “But while democracy can be periodically delayed, / it can never be permanently defeated.”

The Trump-supporters who stormed the Capitol that day, however, would describe their intentions as quite the opposite of the sentiment articulated by Gorman: not to defeat, or even delay democracy – but to defend it. Called to action by Trump, the supporters gathered and stormed the Capitol to “stop the steal” and save what they deemed a “stolen” election. 

At first sight, it seems plausible to reject these claims as insincere, opportunistic, or simply untrue: given the violent actions of that day, including the construction of a noose, attacks on journalists, police and congress members, and the fact that we know that the idea of widespread voter fraud was a myth. Yet, dismissing this perspective all too quickly, risks obscuring an important democratic problematic. The appropriation of democratic language by anti-democratic forces brings up the question of truth in politics.

In her reflection on the question of truth and politics, originally written for The New Yorker in 1967, Hannah Arendt starts by stating that the subject is “a commonplace”. “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.” (1968, 227) Still, she proceeded to write on the subject. In the same way as the question of (post)-truth has come up in light of rising far-right, post-truth populism worldwide – embodied in figures such as Trump, Johnson, Modi, Bolsonaro, Duterte, and Orbán – Arendt was prompted to think about truth, lying and politics because of the events of her time. She writes how ‘Truth and Politics’ was caused by the “so-called controversy after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem”, while ‘Lying in Politics’ was written in the wake of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, that brought to light the systemic lies of the US government surrounding the involvement of the United States in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967 (Arendt 1968, 227, 1971)

In the decades since Arendt’s writing, the “commonplace has become a point of division. Contemporary politico-philosophical discourse on post-truth can roughly be divided into two extremes. These opposing positions appear as current incarnations of an old debate: the Foucault-Habermas debate. On one side, post-truth is seen as an ultimate danger for democracy. This ‘deliberative’ position, taking its cue from Habermas, holds that democratic power can only be legitimized with a mutual orientation towards the ‘enlightenment values’ of rationality and truth. On the other side, the more post-structural and Foucault-informed ‘agonistic’ position is critical of truth-centred understandings of democracy, and instead sees post-truth as a form of democratization: truth is itself understood as a ‘power game’ that can always be re-politicised. At stake in these analyses of post-truth are conflicting conceptions of the role of truth in democracy.

How can we understand the problematic role of truth in politics? In ‘Truth and Politics,’ Arendt writes that: 

“the political attitude towards facts must, indeed, tread the very narrow path between the danger of taking them as the results of some necessary development which men [sic] could not prevent and about which they can therefore do nothing, and the danger of denying them, of trying to manipulate them out of the world.” (1968, 259)

For Arendt, politics is the domain of action: the joy of free and unexpected acting-in-concert that brings something new into the world. Acting requires imagination: to make room for something new, we need to be able to imagine that the world as it is, could be otherwise. But truth carries within it a “coercive force.” It has a “despotic” character that “precludes debate, and debate constitutes the very essence of political life,” writes Arendt (1968, 241). The problem is that you can’t argue with facts: what is true cannot be changed at will. Politics, in Arendt’s civic republican view, should not be concerned with truth but with opinion. Opinion is always open to persuasion, to looking at it from multiple perspectives and placing oneself in another position. It is never self-evident: this constitutes the freedom of politics.

Simultaneously, Arendt describes truth metaphorically as “the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us” (1968, 264). It provides the bounds within which political life can happen. In the face of blatant, organised lying, the risk is that we lose the shared reality that is a precondition for political life. If we deny facts, if we manipulate them out of the world, there is no longer any shared common ground, no context in which politics can take place.

This, then, is the challenge of Arendt’s narrow path of politics: balancing between necessity – the ‘coercive force’ of truth foreclosing political action – and contingency, which would lead to manipulating facts out of the world, finally resulting in totalitarianism. How do we walk this path?

Arendt’s image of politics was primarily based on the Athenian polis and has little to say about contemporary democratic conditions and institutions that can enable us to keep in check necessity and contingency. Jürgen Habermas and Chantal Mouffe can be read as contemporary democratic articulations of Arendt’s thinking. By institutionalising Arendt’s fragile republican politics, Habermas re-introduces a role for truth and facts in politics. Mouffe, on the other hand shares Arendt’s commitment to plurality and freedom and re-politicises democracy.

In Habermas’ text on Hannah Arendt’s concept of power, he argues that Arendt’s distinction between truth and opinion “leads to absurdities”:

“I want only to indicate the curious perspective that Hannah Arendt adopts: a state which is relieved of the administrative processing of social problems; a politics which is cleansed of socio economic issues; an institutionalisation of public liberty which is independent of the organisation of public wealth (…) this path is unimaginable for any modern society.” (1977, 15)

Although Arendt is an important inspiration for the development of Habermas’ concept of communicative action (as Peter Verovšek recently emphasised), Habermas criticises Arendt’s lack of institutionalisation and replaces it with a procedural model of communicative action (Verovšek 2019; Habermas 1977). He does not acknowledge the ‘coercive force’ of truth versus the freedom of opinion. For Habermas, opinion-formation is only legitimate if it comes about through the procedures of communicative rationality. And communicative rationality is conditional upon a mutual orientation towards consensus and truth. 

Habermas institutionalises Arendt’s concept of power. With it, power loses its miraculous force: it becomes something we can count on, not something dependent on the opinions of people acting together in concert. And this is of great importance if we are, like Habermas, committed to democratic emancipation. We need to be able to count on democratic procedures and institutions. There needs to be continuity. The contingency, that might result in arbitrary judgment or opinion, is partially tamed.

Habermas reintroduces a procedural role for truth in democratic politics. Only by the yardstick of communicative rationality, through which citizens can understand themselves as both “authors” and “addressees” of law-making, can we assess democratic legitimacy  (Habermas 1996, 2001). But what if the concept of rationality is itself used as exclusionary mechanism? 

Nancy Fraser, like other (poststructuralist) feminist thinkers including Mouffe, have argued that the concept of rationality was used to ban women from the 19th century salons Habermas credits with the emergence of the modern public sphere. Habermas “fails to fully appreciate” this irony (Fraser 1990). Fraser’s feminist critique shows that democracy requires not just institutionalisation, but also the ability to contest the rules of the game.

Whereas for Habermas, the procedures of deliberation cannot themselves be meaningfully contested (because they derive from the weak-transcendental conditions of communicative understanding), Mouffe contests the universality and neutrality of Habermasian procedures and understands them to result from hegemonic power relations (Mouffe 2000). For Mouffe, thinker of eternal re-politicisation, radical democratic politics consists in challenging hegemonic practices and contesting any political order that presents itself as uncontestable – or necessary rather than contingent.

For Mouffe, agonistic contestation should still take place within a commitment to the ethico-political principles of democracy: liberty and equality (Mouffe 2000, 2005, 2013, 2018). This allows us to distinguish agonism from antagonism. Mouffe writes mostly against a background of ‘post-politics’, of neoliberalism and depoliticization. But in light of the more recent problem of post-truth politics, her agonism appears problematic. Because how do we decide which forms of contestation are compatible with democracy, and which are not?

In a video of the insurgents in the cupola of the Capitol, a protestor shouts: “This is our house.” The phrase is uncannily close to the radical democratic reclaiming of democracy with a slogan like “This is what democracy looks like!” (Lechley and Sinclair 2020; Schmidt 2017). Post-truth politics across the globe contests democratic institutions and procedures in name of the people, while simultaneously undermining the very democratic grounds that underly popular self-government in the first place. 

Meaningful democratic politics needs both popular contestation (as Mouffe asserts) and procedural institutionalisation (as Habermas emphasises). Post-truth, like agonism in overdrive, emphasises only contestation. How, then, to allow for agonistic critique, without lapsing into post-truth’s groundless contestation? How to re-build democratic politics in light of post-truth’s groundless contestation?

Countering post-truth’s uneven focus on contestation by emphasising the value of truth and rationality for democratic practice, as many commentators do, risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. From any perspective committed to emancipation, a narrow truth-centred image of democracy is worrisome. If post-truth can be countered by labelling it as irrational, these arguments must ring a bell for women and people of colour: the same arguments have been (and continue to be) used to excluded minoritised groups from democratic discourse. Simultaneously, without any shared grounds to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of contestation, democracy remains all too vulnerable to post-truth’s challenges. 

The schism between deliberative and agonistic approaches in democratic theory that resurfaces in light of post-truth politics, is in many ways a conflict over the role of truth in democratic politics. Approaching this question through an Arendtian lens has the potential to show that both sides, in many ways, presuppose and require each other. Democracy is about both institutionalisation and contestation. This realisation has the happy effect of reorienting democratic theory beyond the question of power vs truth. Instead, it might be more promising to ask: what are the material, symbolic and institutional conditions that allow for democratic institutionalisation and contestation? 

This is not a question that can be answered once and for all: it requires situated and responsive answers. Feminist democratic theorists like Linda Zerilli (2005, 2016, 2020), Bonnie Honig (2007, 2017, 2021a) and Lisa Disch (2002; 2018; 2019), have emphasised the conditions for the ongoing, worldly engagement of democratic theory and practice. Rather than theoretically resolving the question of truth and politics, we can look for the practical conditions that allow us to continue navigating Arendt’s narrow path. But in building slightly more stable ground and withstanding the erosion of post-truth’s groundless contestation, this respite might be just what we need. 


[1] 2021 United States Capitol attack,” Wikipedia, accessed May 31, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_storming_of_the_United_States_Capitol

[2] A transcript of the poem can be found at https://thehill.com/homenews/news/535052-read-transcript-of-amanda-gormans-inaugural-poem

[3] This interpretation of the motive of the democratic dream in Gorman’s poem is indebted to Mascha Gessen’s reading in The New Yorker (Gessen 2021)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: