Democracy cannot function without an epistemically healthy public sphere that makes it possible for democratic self-government to achieve successful outcomes, maintain its legitimacy, and avoid runaway concentrations of power in society. The institutional structures responsible for maintaining our epistemic commons have faltered. Only a new movement for cultural enlightenment can harness the energy needed to reboot and revamp our ailing institutions—or generate new ones entirely—and thereby restore our democracy.
American democracy is in trouble. Young Americans feel increasingly disengaged from politics, or even disbelieve in the idea of democracy as a whole. Global opinion has shifted away from a positive view of democracy, perhaps spurred on by the economic and geopolitical successes of authoritarian states like China and Russia. Domestically, partisan polarization is higher than it has ever been in living memory. The perceived legitimacy of the institutions that uphold our democracy—from the press, to the universities, to the scientific establishment, to our voting process—has plummeted to a point that seemingly threatens the consensus that forms the basis of our democracy as a whole.
Democracies have failed before. Going back to antiquity, ancient Greek philosophers argued for the idea of a kyklos—a cycle—of government systems. Plato thought that governments naturally transitioned from aristocracy to tyranny, passing through intermediate phases, one of which was democracy. In Plato’s mind, a democracy became a tyranny when elites turned their attention to accumulating personal power at the expense of all else. Democracy wasn’t inevitable, but required the care and attention of a society’s elite. Nearly two thousand years later, the statesmen who founded the United States thought much the same, but expanded the responsibility for a healthy democracy to the entire electorate, exemplified by Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “the people themselves” were the only “safe depository” for the “ultimate powers of the society”. But in order for this to remain so, the people would have to receive a moral and intellectual education of adequate quality; hence, when asked what form of government the Constitutional Convention had produced, Benjamin Franklin famously answered: “a republic—if you can keep it.”
More than two hundred years later in 2021, are we succeeding at keeping our republic? The question cannot truly be answered without understanding how a democracy is supposed to be kept. The foundational mechanism upon which all others depend is the maintenance of a healthy epistemic commons within a democracy—an epistemically healthy public sphere where widely trusted norms, processes, and institutions for making sense out of and reaching consensus on raw information lead to certain facts being accepted as true. Additionally, propositions, notions of causation, and forecasts of the future are evaluated with an appropriate measure of skepticism and rigor. This healthy epistemic commons makes it possible for a democratic government to conduct successful governance at a pragmatic level on any number of issues, to maintain its legitimacy through the informed consent of the governed, and, ultimately, to prevent a runaway concentration of power in society that would lead to the functional death of democracy and its replacement with autocracy, oligarchy, or even societal collapse.
Good decision-making depends on good sensemaking. Because the absolute amount of information in the world is far too great for one individual to process, it is necessary to have cognitive tools for deciding which information is relevant, how accurate information is, whether one is asking the right questions or seeking the right information, whether a strategy is likely to fail or succeed, and so on. We call the measure of how well these cognitive tools work epistemics. To make a sound decision, you must possess accurate information about how the world works, and how your decision will alter it. In short, you need healthy epistemics. This is true of any decision made at an individual level; poor assumptions or beliefs about the world will quickly be challenged or otherwise lead to negative consequences. Institutions also need healthy epistemics. Whether we are thinking of a startup, a corporation, or a government agency, each of these institutions will make many internal and external decisions every day. Whether the right decisions are made will decide whether those institutions fail or prosper.
Governments require healthy epistemics as well. Decisions made by a government on behalf of a country will also determine whether a country fails or prospers. Different types of governments have different epistemic set-ups. An absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia may only focus on improving the epistemics of the monarch and his court of advisors. An authoritarian party-state like contemporary China may only focus on the epistemics of the party leadership and the pipeline of new party members. It is always good for as many people in a society as possible to be making good decisions, but when power is concentrated in the hands of a few, it is much more important that those few make good decisions.
In a democracy, we cannot rely on a single monarch or cloistered politburo to make good decisions for us. Democracy is self-government at scale and, therefore, requires sensemaking at scale in the form of an epistemically healthy public sphere. In the 19th century, the English political economist John Stuart Mill made the definitive case for the importance of high-quality, rational, and open inquiry in public discourse, especially discourse including dissenting or unpopular views, by arguing that wrong views could not otherwise be “set right.” Since “the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true,” only a strict commitment to free speech would allow all true opinions to be aired in the public sphere.
The founders of the United States prefigured Mill’s argument when they founded the institutions that would govern American society. The preeminent legal status of the First Amendment was one mechanism for a healthy epistemic commons: with unrestricted free speech, new information can travel quickly and widely, and new ideas and arguments can be weighed and debated by as many individuals as possible, coming from a diverse range of social classes, geographical areas, and religious or ideological backgrounds. Other mechanisms such as a free press, public education, freedom of association, and a postal system all also served key roles in improving the epistemic quality of the public sphere by allowing individuals to learn, share, discuss, and access information, opinions, and ideas.
Have we kept an epistemically healthy public sphere in 2021? The mounting problems facing American democracy would suggest not. Whether due to economic instability, rising inequality, partisan entanglements, or a simple decline in civic virtue, the institutions that maintained our epistemic commons have floundered in their roles. The result is a fractured public unable to agree even on the basic realities of a long and growing list of consequential issues, whether we consider the COVID-19 pandemic, economic and racial inequalities, climate change, or even which institutions and viewpoints ought to be listened to at all. Moreover, this situation has resulted in a de facto erosion of American democracy as it was intended to be practiced, with permanent political and economic elites exercising power without effective input or concern from the citizenry as a whole.
The largest news conglomerates in the country, which now conform to increasingly partisan viewpoints, have fed on the collapse of local news outlets which were once embedded in now-eroded local social fabric. The university system, rather than providing widespread upward mobility and imbuing the citizens with civic virtue, has likewise stratified into a rigid system of a few elite winners and many losers, excluding the vast majority of young Americans from accessing a quality education. These patterns of institutional consolidation have played out throughout much of society, creating a growing segment of the population that is resentful of our core civic institutions. Our media and education systems, despite having grown much more consolidated and powerful in recent years, no longer command their former monopoly on consensus reality.
If an individual needs healthy epistemics to make good decisions for themselves, a democracy needs an epistemically healthy public sphere in order to identify the most important issues facing society, choose the right solutions, and implement them to preserve and improve itself and the lives of its citizens. The right representatives must be elected and the right policies must be applied. Failed public leaders or policies must be singled out and held accountable at the ballot box, and successes must be acknowledged and rewarded. The ultimate responsibility for good governance in a democracy falls to the voting citizenry, which can only exercise this duty well when it has accurate information about the world, is provided with transparency regarding decisions made by the elites above them, and possesses an authentic sense of shared identity with their polity.
The rise of political discourse dominated by broadcast media sound bites and seemingly unlimited interest-group advertising has changed the relationship between voters and their elected leaders. At the same time public confidence in Congress has dwindled, there are decisive electoral benefits for an incumbent representative who focuses on gaining publicity. Moreover, such a responsibility is poorly fulfilled by only voting and passively consuming political news, but best fulfilled through active participation in public debate, the maintenance of direct relationships with representatives, and intentional auditing of government by the citizenry.
Today, our public sphere is profoundly broken. The electorate seems to ignore or disbelieve new and important information. The truth is often buried under better-funded or more appealing intrigue, entertainment, or propaganda. False or malicious arguments often prevail over true and well-reasoned ones, an issue even more acute in the age of rapid, global, mass electronic communication. The wrong issues are identified for redress by the government and incompetent leaders get selected for public office. Important issues go unaddressed. Misinformation or disinformation negatively bias the functioning of government and spreads without correction (and what is labeled “misinformation” often depends on one’s political orientation). In such a situation, democracy has essentially failed.
Citizens must be able to learn about and understand these principles and institutions and assess whether they are worthy of governing, or whether they must be altered, improved, or abolished. To assess whether they are worthy, citizens must be capable of holding a self-chosen moral, ethical, and intellectual worldview against which to judge the granting of their consent, without infringing on those of others. The effect of ignorance or coercion in rendering inauthentic and meaningless a citizen's choice to consent are merely two instances of the fact that knowledge about the world is a form of power—and that lack of knowledge, concomitantly, is a form of disempowerment. In this we can see why an epistemically healthy public sphere is not only key to the practical and legitimate functioning of democracy, but an existential necessity.
More power and influence make it easier to acquire more power and influence. If unchecked, the results of this feedback loop are predictable; power begins to concentrate until governance no longer represents the will of the people as expressed through a functional democratic process, but the often clashing interests of those private actors with the most power to influence outcomes. Democracy effectively ceases to function. This problem was well understood by the founders of the United States, who sought to structure the government of the United States with an elaborate system of “checks and balances” between and within branches of government.
But while many democratic institutions can be designed so as to limit the power of special interests against the wellbeing of the public, even these mechanisms are ultimately subject to circumvention or capture with sufficient power. Elected positions can be captured by a minority interest if the majority is disinterested in active civic engagement. The justice system can be exploited to punish people through the legal process if there are large inequalities in financial resources between people. Government bureaucrats can become more beholden to private interests they expect will employ them in the future than to the legislative bodies that created them. Mechanisms are tools, not perfect guarantees.
The founders of the United States understood this too: they placed their ultimate faith for the maintenance of democratic government not in the system they had designed or the institutions they had founded, but in the “safe depository” of the people themselves. Per James Monroe, the “principle support of a free government” comes from “the sound morals and intelligence of the people”. To John Jay, “knowledge” was “the soul of a republic." The necessity for a healthy epistemic commons accessible to all citizens of a democracy underlied the founders’ emphasis on liberal education, civic virtue, and a free press. These things were not only ends in and of themselves, but prerequisites for an epistemically healthy public sphere, securing democracy and preventing a backslide into despotism.
Vibrant, functional, democratic society—when it has emerged in history—has in every case required a culture that believes reason, virtue, and truth—rather than simply dogma, whim, or brute force—are the basis of legitimate governance. It has also required an electorate of citizens who believe that the democratic process is more than the sum of its parts. Just as the scientific method produces more understanding of the physical world than any person can achieve alone, democracy is a political method to arrive at more perfect governance than any individual or clique can achieve alone. In a democracy, we do not want to ignore and silence perspectives with which we disagree, but rather engage them in dialogue within the cultural institutions which we entrust to endow the democratic process with collective intelligence, and produce the best governance for our society.
Such a culture came naturally to the architects of the modern Western democracies. The Age of Reason was not produced by a succession of lone thinkers who built upon each others’ work in isolation, but rather by networks of philosophers, scientists, thinkers, and statesmen who were in active communication with each other through a variety of means. Cafés and salons were popular places for intellectuals to meet, trade information, and debate ideas throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Correspondence among European and early American intellectuals was so far-reaching and voluminous that the term “Republic of Letters” was used to describe the practice. This vibrant culture of enlightenment was precisely the healthy epistemic milieu that birthed the American experiment and, ultimately, other modern democracies—and without it a functioning and flourishing democratic republic becomes impossible.
Counter-examples also serve to illustrate this necessity. Where democracy has been implemented without a culture strongly rooted in these values and without a functioning epistemic commons, often during times of war or subjugation, it has either not survived long or quickly entered a state of long-term dysfunction. The experiences of the Weimar Republic in Germany and the Second Spanish Republic serve as canonical examples. Present-day examples can also be found in Bosnia, Afghanistan, or Iraq, where previously autocratic governments were replaced with democratic institutions following bloody wars, but without the prior and necessary culture to wield them effectively. The road ahead for the United States, if we continue our decline in civic virtue, does not look good.
Is all lost? No, but action is needed.
Today we have almost unlimited means to express ourselves and hear the opinions and facts espoused by others. When the ongoing pandemic ends, we will still have coffee shops and salons, in addition to thousands of television and radio stations and the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and other social media. The problem, however, lies in the way that information is created and processed in our society today. Narrative warfare, institutional decline, and the ubiquitous yet opaquely curated world of social media have combined to erode the quality of our public sphere.
To fix American democracy, either traditional institutions will have to be remade to serve their democratic roles, or new players will have to take the opportunity to reinvigorate the epistemic health of the public sphere that underlies our system of government. New institutions cannot arise out of a vacuum; they will have to emerge from a new cultural movement that values the health of the epistemic commons, high quality reasoning, and open dialogue in an open society to the end of a more perfect democratic union.
But deep and long-standing damage to our epistemic commons, accumulated over decades, will not be repaired so easily. This will require smart and far-reaching cultural and institutional reforms—not simply a reversion to business-as-usual.
Will we succeed? Fundamentally, it’s up to all of us.
Roberto Foa, Yascha Mounk,"Are Americans losing faith in democracy?", Vox, December 18, 2015, https://www.vox.com/polyarchy/2015/12/18/9360663/is-democracy-in-trouble. ↩
Richard Wike, Laura Silver and Alexandra Castillo, "Many Across the Globe Are Dissatisfied With How Democracy Is Working," Pew Research Center: Global Attitudes and Trends, April 29, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/04/29/many-across-the-globe-are-dissatisfied-with-how-democracy-is-working/. ↩
Mark Jurkowitz, Amy Mitchell, Elisa Shearer, & Mason Walker, "U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided," Pew Research Center, January 24, 2020, https://www.journalism.org/2020/01/24/u-s-media-polarization-and-the-2020-election-a-nation-divided/. ↩
“From Thomas Jefferson to William Charles Jarvis, 28 September 1820,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-1540. ↩
John Stuart Mill,On Liberty (Walter Scott Publishing Co., 2011), 31. ↩
“Higher Education and the Crisis of Social Mobility,” The Consilience Project, September 21, 2020. ↩
Markus Prior, “The Incumbent in the Living Room: The Rise of Television and the Incumbency Advantage in U.S. House Elections,” The Journal of Politics 68, no. 3 (2006): 657–673, https://scholar.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/mprior/files/prior2006.incumbent.jop_.pdf. ↩