Truth and Politics

IAPSS Autumn Convention 2017

The relationship between truth and politics has puzzled students of politics for centuries. Does truth in politics necessarily lose its importance? Or are there different ‘kinds’ of politics, whereby in some truth plays a central role, while in others it is sidelined by an effort to reach and attain power? Alternatively, should the relationship be approached through exploring the concept of truth, instead of politics, possibly revealing that objective truths are unreachable in the societal world and to a lesser or greater extent depend on interactions between and interpretations of the actors involved?

The analysis of the role of truth in politics lies at the heart of any endeavour about the meaning(s) of politics. In political theory, the inquiry dates back at least to Machiavelli, with scholars debating the many interpretations of his work, conventionally considered to justify lying and manipulation for a certain political purpose. Social science methodologists are concerned with the (im)possibility of objectivity in social research and with new ways how to increase the reliability and validity of their scientific outcomes.

Political communication research faces the dynamically changing trends in campaigning, for which the year 2016 provided the two most visible examples of the US presidential elections and the referendum on Brexit. The largely unexpected outcomes of these events also pose a challenge for students of political behaviour, challenged by the strengthening discourse on post-factual or post-truth politics. The seemingly decreasing importance of debates based on factually correct and justified reasoning poses a question of to what extent populist strategies are part of the problem or, to the contrary, a possible solution to the ‘hollowing and backsliding’ of democratic governments in some countries and regions around the globe.

Furthermore, those working on political institutions face the need to (re)examine the relevance of various kinds of rules in navigating political actions. Those who care most about the individual and her fundamental human rights have to address what kind(s) of deficiencies of human rights protection could the deconstruction of rules bring about. Truth(s) are of no less importance for public policy analysts and practitioners, as to determine how the (in)correctness of information available can influence the design and implementation of policies in various fields.

These are just some of the puzzles that fall under the umbrella of the relationship between truth and politics, demonstrating that more attention is needed to examine the basic premises we base our research on, regardless of the specific field and theoretical and methodological traditions, and thus see how, if at all, is the Millian ‘search for truth’ possible and relevant in the contemporary world.

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