The People Versus the Truth: Democratic Illusions

  • Glen Newey

The truth, said Winston Churchill, is sometimes so important that it needs to be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.1 How far can the value of truth be sustained in democracy? That raises a further question, well put by John Gray in his book Straw Dogs, about whether we can discover “invincible illusions” (Gray 2002, p. 83) — including that of living with the truth itself — and what, if anything, is to be done about them. I shall suggest some ways in which democracy inevitably gives rise to illusions. Ultimately my concern is whether we can live with democracy as a theatre of illusions, and what that might involve politically.

Accordingly, this paper will argue that the value of truth cannot be sustained very far in democratic politics. This is not merely a matter of bad luck: it is woven into the institutional fabric of democracy itself, especially where it relies on the value of truth. However, this is far from saying that democracy is the only system which falls prey to this infirmity. It is, as I shall suggest, a central irony of Plato's radically anti-democratic political philosophy that the truth-seeking contemplation of the forms, which is perhaps the sole activity which he regards as worthwhile in its own right, has to be supported by a bodyguard of lies. Nonetheless, the illusory nature of democracy poses a particular problem for us (as it did not for Plato), since virtually everyone now endorses democracy. Here, as elsewhere, he casts a long shadow over the theory of practice, and the practice of theory. He was right to think that the life of politics was, invincibly, life of illusions. But he was mistaken — or so I shall argue — to infer that by escaping politics, one can live free of illusions.


Public Interest Civil Disobedience Political Trust Democratic Politics Democratic Theory 
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  • Glen Newey

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