That Hannah Arendt was not only an iconoclastic thinker but also a contrarian one with a taste for slaying bourgeois, liberal pieties, is readily apparent in her 1967 essay “Truth and Politics.” For in this little essay, originally written for The New Yorker, she opens with two characteristically Arendtian claims that have been resuscitated repeatedly, if uncertainly, since the mid-2010s for our own moment of hand-wringing over the status of truth in current affairs. One of these claims is that politics and truth have never been aligned (which challenges a core democratic article of faith). The other is that the absence of truthfulness in politics might not be such a bad thing either (which is even more of a provocation).

But was she right? Or, maybe I should ask, is any of this true? The answer, I think, is yes, but only to a point.

The first issue that needs confronting is the difference between truth and truthfulness. The former is an epistemic category related to accuracy. But truthfulness is another kettle of fish entirely. This is a moral category. One can, of course, be sincere in spreading misinformation. One can also tell a truth—“overshare,” for example—without intending to or by accident. On this distinction, Arendt is slippery, but that difference is actually important to establish before we begin to address the question of just what counts as a political virtue.

Then there is the question of whether truth and politics are necessarily or even consistently “on rather bad terms with each other,” as Arendt posits. Here I feel obliged to answer as a historian. Perhaps it is true that politics and truth are rarely aligned in the most general sense. However, the more important and useful point is that, both in practice and in theory, their relationship has worked differently, and has been strained to greater and lesser degrees, depending on when, where, and in whose hands—a point Arendt herself made elsewhere, as did Michel Foucault with his talk of various “regimes” of truth.

My own conviction is that there is something highly particular (though we are so used to it by now that it can seem banal or even natural) about the way truth is understood to operate in modern democracies. That something was baked in at its point of origin, namely, the transatlantic Enlightenment of the 18th century. On the one hand, early proponents of republics like Jean Jacques Rousseau or Thomas Paine declared that whereas monarchial politics made a virtue of secrecy and deception, self-rule would encourage something different and better: the reign of transparency and veracity, as well as accurate information.  Early democratic politics is full of tributes to truth and truthfulness. But on the other hand, these same figures also insisted that most kinds of truth should be left open-ended and undogmatic in the public sphere. Moreover, rather than resting on any one authority, they would be a product of a loose and evolving consensus among experts and the public alike, all facilitated and regulated by nothing more than a) the informal norms of trust and plain speech, and b) the formal norm of constitutionally protected freedom of speech or expression.

We need to resist not only the “this is all absolutely unprecedented” position ... but also the cynic’s “there is nothing new under the sun” position in favor of a truly historical perspective on the present.    

Of course, what that has meant in practice is that not only what counts as truth but also where truth is found, who gets to determine it, and by what method have always been subject to challenge and, indeed, conflict. This has particularly been the case when either knowledge elites or ordinary people—the two critical populations who need ultimately to negotiate truth claims—try to hijack the process and gain a monopoly on truth for themselves. And though this risk has been apparent from the start, the vast expansion and diversification of both those granted the status of expert and the citizenry of modern democracies, along with newer factors like technological change and the transnational nature of today’s most pressing problems, has accelerated and exacerbated this weakness in the nature of democratic truth in our moment. Which is to say: We need to resist not only the “this is all absolutely unprecedented” position (which is prominent in mainstream media today, especially under the influence of technological determinism) but also the cynic’s “there is nothing new under the sun” position in favor of a truly historical perspective on the present.  

But is either lying or the lie actually a good thing in politics, as Arendt’s slur against truthfulness seems to suggest? And does her comment mean we should simply accept or even embrace their prevalence now? Arendt was very aware that too much lying on the part of the political classes was dangerous—the risk was totalitarianism, where everything is fictional, and the public is forced to withdraw into private life as a result. But too much emphasis on the telling of truth and the public unmasking of deceit can be oppressive too, as in the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror, she argued; for then truth too becomes despotic, as it allies itself against any kind of pluralism or even nuance. By this reasoning, some looseness in the policing of the boundaries around truth and lies is not only a way to save people from the guillotine but also an essential element of any political movement that yearns to challenge the status quo. Here again, Arendt’s refusal to be the starry-eyed idealist, though it can seem almost too knowing, is also a helpful wake-up call for democratic handwringers.

Perhaps, though, the situation in the U.S. at this moment isn’t really equivalent to either of Arendt’s examples, despite the unusual reach of disinformation right now, not to mention a major political party that is trading on this set of falsehoods to stir up partisanship and maybe an attack on democracy itself (i.e., the “Big Lie”).  What we are witnessing now is better described as a dense intellectual fog. In our cacophonous public sphere, there are so many conflicting and competing accounts of reality in circulation that it is impossible for any single “truth” to rise to the top, and epistemic positions have become a nasty form of identity politics. And here’s the problem: Not only are most of our known remedies ill-suited to this situation, so are our Enlightenment-inspired paradigms—including Arendt’s— for how to ultimately get from spin, exaggeration, and their close cousins to something like the basic consensual truths that democracy is thought to require. The Enlightenment vision of truth and truthfulness depends on both a logic and a context that make it harder to square with reality than it has ever been before. The scariest thing about the present is how few other models we can, as yet, imagine.