Politics at the Limits of Facts

The earnest war being waged against the new regime of “alternative facts” in the United States is admirable. Facts, here defined as empirically valid claims, are important for governing and policy making. Yet, the turmoil around this admittedly bizarre phenomenon reveals certain assumptions worthy of consideration. Among other things, ours is a moment for thoughtful and clear-eyed reflection about the work that facts, and even pure reason, ought to perform in moral and political decision making.

Facts are necessary for moral and political thinking but they are not sufficient. It seems the force of so much recent outcry betrays an over-reliance on them. As counter intuitive as that might sound, empirical data simply cannot settle many of our political and moral issues.

Moral and political issues require deliberation, not just information. Facts, and even values, are not arguments, nor are they reasons. They inform deliberation, but they are poor substitutes for it. In a sense, moral and political reasoning take place at the limits of facts. Deliberation is necessary in part because of the inability and undesirability of facts alone to determine moral and political matters.

And yet, neither is pure reason an adequate alternative for deliberation, despite its obvious importance. Concerning political issues, even the most stringent rationalist feels at least the strain of limited resources and the politically possible. Political deliberation cannot be a matter of right reasoning alone; rather, it must wrestle with constraints, priorities, tradeoffs, and even the competition of goods.

A full embrace of these dynamics requires a perspective that resists the reduction of moral and political deliberation to inference and deduction. Channeling Aristotle, the wisdom of moral and political deliberation ought to be seen as a virtue, as much an art as it is a science. It involves reasoning in consideration of actions and values as well as facts. Such is the very nature of political and moral deliberation.

On the one hand, we must guard against indifference to the truth, the consequences of which are rather obvious. On the other, we must guard against facts bearing excessive political and moral weight. Undue reliance on facts can serve to smuggle potentially objectionable values under the guise of neutrality. For example, consider the implicit values of market reasoning that are promoted under the purportedly disinterested banners of efficiency and growth. Facts are not reasons, but they are used for reasons, and skepticism is in order whenever these reasons are unclear.

This brings us to alternative facts. President Trump and his advisors have made a habit of using alternative facts, and whether these are instances of lying, self-delusion, or ignorance, they aren’t simply a tendering in untruths. Alternative facts, like their valid counterparts, are used for reasons. To fully understand them is to push beyond their falsity to their motives. This entails discerning the larger political project(s) that rely on them.

Indeed, such an approach presumes something like an intelligibility behind what often seems to be thoughtless and impulsive political theater. Some alternative facts have surely been offered for purposes of egoism. Yet there is plenty of reason to seek an agenda behind them, even if it is (or appears to be) inconsistently and spastically implemented. Sometimes, as in the claim that scores of “illegal voters” have undermined our electoral process, both narcissism and political agenda – that is, if they aren’t already overlapping – can be served by the same alternative fact.

Finally, democratic politics is always at least as much a contest over interests and power as it is ideas and ideals. It is the struggle of democracies to work against the influence of certain special interests, but it seems unreasonable and undesirable for interests to fall out of democratic consideration altogether.

This means recognizing a regime of alternative facts as one of interest and power. More importantly, though, it means an appropriate response must not settle for a frenzied game of fact-checked, “gotcha politics.” Alternative facts must be exposed, and the media has an important role to play in doing so, but our political response must go further.

Effective recourse to any political situation requires a robust understanding of both the moment and the proper character of response. Resistance to Trump requires undermining his political project in the service of a different one entirely, but this relies on the ability to look through, not just at, his parade of alternative facts. Still yet, resistance must rest on the conviction that a substantive political alternative requires not just “better” facts but better government, which includes superior values and reasoning along with a more vigorous commitment to truth.

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