A conversation with Jonathan Rauch about the forces and ideas that once held the country together — and are now unraveling.
Truth is under siege in America, and tribalism is on the rise. Keeping these two powerful forces in balance has been the key to what George Washington called the “great experiment” of American democracy for almost 400 years. Why are they in play so strongly today? What do they have in common, and how are trolling, disinformation, social media, and cancel culture all adding to the problem?
Why can we no longer talk in good faith about a shared reality? Why do we suddenly have to define what we mean by “truth”?
These are a few of the questions we discuss in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast with journalist, author, and Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rauch.
Rauch argues that we have built modern society on what he calls a “constitution of knowledge”: a set of rules, ideas, and institutions that inform our laws, science, social and political order, academia, and journalism.
Rauch explains how today all of this is threatened from both the right — and the left. From Trumpian disinformation on the one hand, and the extreme wokeness of academics and the New York Times on the other.
Rauch talks about the critical role of diversity in viewpoints, of people being able to test their ideas against competing views, and of a system that has, until now, determined what is and is not true. It’s how we solve or avoid conflict, it’s how we maintain social order and social peace, it’s why we’re willing to trust each other, and it’s the core of a real social network. Soon, it could all be gone. What then?
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Some days it seems that everything we’ve taken for granted with respect to the functioning of America and American democracy is under siege. Hundreds of thousands of words are written and spoken almost every day as to why. However, before we can even begin to answer that question, we must understand what it is that’s being attacked and how the system was built before we can shore it up. It’s like a building after an explosion or a natural disaster. It can’t be righted until someone comes in, looks at the blueprints, develops engineering plans, and lays out the construction work. Today, the American experience feels like it’s in exactly the same place.
My guest, Jonathan Rauch, digs out those dusty blueprints in his new book The Constitution of Knowledge. With those blueprints in hand, by looking at the way the country and its institutions have taken a beating from the left and the right, he clarifies our weak spots, our strengths, and even the mistakes that the original builders of the system might have made. Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow in the governance studies program at Brookings and a contributing writer to The Atlantic. It is my pleasure to welcome Jonathan Rauch to talk about The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Jonathan, thanks so much for joining me here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Jonathan Rauch: I’m thrilled to be here, Jeff. Thank you.
Jeff: I want to start with the fundamental idea, this notion that we have evolved through time this set of constitutional knowledge, this set of ideas and institutions and rules that really prevent us from killing each other, from killing each other, pulling apart in the most primitive tribal way that we often can do.
Jonathan: It’s our greatest human invention, Jeff. We don’t think of the constitution of knowledge as a constitution. We just have this idea that you have free speech, and then a lot of people talk and then truth somehow arises from that. We miss that, actually, that would be like everyone get in your cars, but there are no roads, no rules, no traffic lights, no driver’s ed. It wouldn’t work. The constitution of knowledge is all the stuff that Western, and now the world, has built over the last 300 and 400 years. It’s journalism. It’s academia, science, government, statistical agencies. It’s law. The concept of fact originates in law, not science.
All of these are institutions that are following very specific rules with a lot of professionals and experts to compare ideas, figure out which ones deserve to move on through the network to the next set of checkers. Out of that comes our knowledge, but when it works well, we forget about all the stuff in between. We just think free speech does it, and free speech isn’t enough. What you said in the intro nails it. If we don’t understand the system, we can’t defend it, and if we can’t defend it, it will fail.
Jeff: Talk about the way in which it has been layered onto over the years, because any system, any set of institutions are not static. They do change over time. They change in conjunction with social conventions, social mores and political changes, and the way in which where we are now reflects in many ways the things that have been layered on to that constitution of knowledge.
Jonathan: Oh, what a great question. It’s so hard to summarize that because what’s so important and impressive about the constitution of knowledge is how it has evolved dynamically over 400 years. It begins in the 17th and 18th centuries with the foundation of the Royal Society and people like Isaac Newton, and then it begins to encompass journalism, starting in the 19th century. But really, we moved to fact-based journalism in the 20th century when some people got together, found the American Society of Newspaper Editors, start promulgating ethics codes; journalism schools appear which begin training people in ethics, how to professionalize journalism prizes. And government gets on board with the Administrative Procedures Act. This is a landmark law that says government has to be fact based. It can’t make regulations based on whim. You have to have a finding to show that this is based in reality and its objective, and you have to be able to defend it in court and laws. There’s this whole process.
But it’s all this series of amazing social construction. You mentioned a blueprint in your intro. I love that analogy except it’s not just one blueprint. It’s like as you say: it’s layers upon layers of people learning from each other how to find knowledge.
Of course, now the new disruption and the new adjustment is going to be the layer we have to add to deal with social media, disinformation, canceling and the disruptions we’re seeing right now.
Jeff: Even before that, the other problem that we face today as it relates to all of this is the attack on those experts and professionals that you were talking about before, the idea that somehow they need to be eliminated.
Jonathan: Yes, nothing new there, by the way. It goes back to—Galileo was thrown in prison because he said things that the authorities didn’t want to hear, and never mind the fact that he knew more about astronomy than any other human being. But what’s happened over the last few decades, and then accelerated in the era of Trump, is very focused and targeted and deliberate attacks on the institutions and the experts and the professionals who make knowledge. First from the left, starting in the ’70s and then the ’80s with movements like subjectivism and postmodernism that said, well basically experts are just really oppressors.
Then you get it on the populist right in the ’80s and ’90s with the notion that people know better than the experts. The experts are just a bunch of left-wing interlopers. Rush Limbaugh starts talking about what he calls the four corners of deceit, which are academia, science, government, and journalism. In other words, what I call the reality-based community. Then all of that makes — it causes a reduction in trust in these institutions. Everyone attacks the media all the time. You get the rise of right-wing media, which is much less tethered to fact, and then the pièce de résistance. This will sound partisan, I’m center-right, I’ve voted for many Republicans. But Donald Trump and his movement take it to the whole next level. They start applying Russian style disinformation attacks against Americans, and that’s really new.
Jeff: It’s new, but it’s also in the context of an environment — you mentioned social media before — it’s in the context of this 24/7 information high-speed environment. One wonders whether the institutions and the rules can hold in that environment. That certainly none of this is new, even the idea of this Russian disinformation approach is not new. But take all of that and put it in our current environment, and one wonders if it doesn’t reach some kind of breaking point.
Jonathan: One sure does wonder that, Jeff. And the answer is that it’s touch and go. I don’t think we honestly know how this comes out. We know that we’ve had these massive information — I call them epistemic disruptions in the past — things that have disrupted society’s ability to anchor themselves in truth and peacefully subtle disagreements. It happened after the printing press. We’ve sent out waves of fake news and caused war across Europe. It happened after the invention of offset printing and the penny press in the US. It took decades to get that to settle down.
This one is huge, and it’s difficult. And we can’t forget that these attacks are deliberate. The first people to pick up on the power of social media were anti-vaxxers. People said, aha, we can use bots, algorithms, and strategic search engine optimization to game the system so that it looks like lots of reputable scientists think vaccines don’t work. And they were right out of the gate with that. Gamergate, which was an early trolling campaign. These guys very quickly saw on social media powerful, disruptive technologies for harassing, for trolling, which is a way of kidnapping people’s attention almost against their will. Fake news, Russian-style disinformation, they got it right away.
The rest of us are just still trying — we’re just panting, trying to think, okay, what went wrong? What are they doing to us? How do we fight back? How do we start building in some guardrails? We’re just getting engaged. I think it’s a very winnable battle. In fact, I think if we get smart about this, realize the constitution of knowledge is under attack, I think, ultimately, we crush them like a bug. But we might not get our act together, and that’s the question.
Jeff: It seems though that one of the things, as you describe it, that is part of this constitution of knowledge, part of this institutional approach, is that with free speech comes debate, the free market of ideas, putting one’s ideas out there to compete with other ideas, etc. But all of that takes a certain commitment, a certain discipline, a certain ability to be educated. In an environment where there is a war on knowledge, on fact, on truth, on education, it seems like it’s impossible to have that discussion about the constitution of knowledge.
Jonathan: It’s not impossible. It sure makes it harder. The framers of the US Constitution which — I should say, Jeff, by the way, that the constitution of knowledge it’s not just a metaphor. It’s not a literary device. The way we make knowledge is very similar to the way we make law. It’s not written down in one place and signed by some people, but other than that, tons of similarities.
The people who made the US Constitution, all of them — Adams, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Washington — they all warned us these are just words on paper. If people don’t take these rules to heart and follow them and if they don’t have what was then called civic virtue, meaning if they don’t really practice things like, you’ve got to be willing to lose an election and realize there’s another day. You can’t then take over the government. You can’t do a January the 6th, and you’ve got to be honest with each other as citizens. And you’ve got to try to be educated about public policy, at least enough so you can vote in an informed way.
They all told us if we the people don’t have those kinds of civic virtues in our hearts, then nothing on paper can protect us. The same is true of the constitution of knowledge. If a lot of people in politics, or out of politics, start thinking, ‘You know what? Let’s make stuff up,’ and blast it out there at high pressure through every available channel. ‘Let’s falsify the weather report. Let’s claim it didn’t rain during inauguration when it did rain. Let’s claim the election was stolen and put out dozens of conspiracy theories.’ They contradict each other, and don’t stand up in court, but do confuse people.
If those are the rules we’re playing by then, yes, the constitution of knowledge fails. We can’t teach it, and we can’t practice it. The burden is on you and me and those of us who benefit from this system to rebuild those, what I call, epistemic virtues. Tell the truth. Don’t just be truthy. Tell the actual truth. Don’t transmit bad information. Even if it’s fun, don’t engage in trolling and canceling. Lots of stuff like that.
Jeff: One thinks about literally redrawing the path of a hurricane in complete defiance of what it says.
Jonathan: Yes, with a Sharpie pen.
Jeff: With a Sharpie, right.
Jonathan: No one’s ever tried anything like that before in American politics. We saw that every day for four years. People say all the time, ‘Thank goodness Donald Trump is so incompetent, such a bumbler, that’s why democracy survived.’ I hear that a lot, and that’s just wrong because in the realm of information warfare, which is to say organizing and manipulating the social and media environment for political gain, in other words having conversations that are not about finding truth, but about manipulation and propaganda, he’s the greatest genius since the 1930s. He’s really that good.
He’s the one who figured out how you can adapt Russian-style disinformation, things like conspiracy bootstrapping, trolling, and the fire hose of falsehood it’s called. You can take those into American politics, which is a naive population — we’ve never hit those things before — and adapt them with stunning efficiency so 70% of Republicans think the election was stolen. This is a new and very dangerous phenomenon. We’ve got to respond.
Jeff: But does all the blame fall with Trump, or were those forces already at play within the American experience, and he simply unleashed them?
Jonathan: He did more than simply unleash them because it took a world-class innovator to figure these things out. But yes, the predicates, as you said earlier, you’re exactly right, the predicates were laid. Propaganda and polarization feed each other, because the end state that a propagandist wants in an adversary population is you want to divide them and demoralize them and disorient them so that people feel like they’re helpless. They don’t know what’s true or false. Nothing will work, so why even bother to counterattack? That’s how you establish a cult of personality, or a dictatorship.
Before Trump came along, as I mentioned earlier, we were already seeing these tactics on social media. We had already seen from both left and right consistent attacks on the idea that there’s real value in the constitution of knowledge. It’s really something special and something to cherish. We already saw the rise of polarization in politics to an extent that we were all worried about before Trump. People were really starting to hate the other party more than they were attached to their own, and that makes the ground ripe for exploitation. That’s what Vladimir Putin saw in 2016. He said, ‘Hey, these Americans are really divided. I’m going to put a wedge in that. I’m going to use my bots and trolls to get opposite sides protesting across the street from each other.’ That’s the game. We laid ourselves open to this.
Jeff: What is the nexus that you see between what we’re experiencing now and the late 1960s/early 1970s where we had similar forces at play and a kind of breakdown or the beginnings of a breakdown of social peace and social order?
Jonathan: In some ways, there’s some obvious parallels of discontent and, in fact, rioting disorder in cities, profound racial divisions. I’m old enough to remember the assassination of Dr. King when I was eight, but in other ways, it’s very different because in the ’60s you still had a mainstream media that most people felt they could rely on, and you still had a vision of science that most people felt they could rely on.
You didn’t have an alternative media. You didn’t have social media, which was able to essentially create whole alternative realities that people could immerse themselves in. So epistemically, that is to say in the world of knowledge and truth as opposed to the world of politics, I actually think we’re in uncharted territory now.
Jeff: Somebody made the point to me not terribly long ago that if we had the issues that we had in the ’60s and it played out the same way in the current environment of social media, etc, we would have blown apart. We wouldn’t have survived.
Jonathan: That’s a really interesting point, Jeff. I think that might be right. This is kind of counterintuitive, but when you think about it, the issues that divide America today, I think, are a lot more reconcilable, a lot less extreme than the issues that divided us then. Back then we were dealing with fundamental questions like how big a threat is the Soviet Union. We were dealing with an American South where racism was just endemic, and if you were gay — I’m gay, I remember that world. You couldn’t even have a government job. You were threatened in the streets. These were life and death issues. The Soviet Union had, what was it, 20,000 hydrogen warheads pointed at us.
Today we’re divided, sure, but these questions are not existential. A lot of them are solvable. A lot of Americans were divided on race, but a lot of people have goodwill and are actually looking for ways to make this better. Surprisingly, on the issues like abortion and immigration that seem so controversial in politics, the policy disagreements are surprisingly small. It’s just our politics isn’t reflecting that.
Jeff: Isn’t that an argument that the situation today is worse, that it is not about issues that one can debate and come to some kind of conclusion or compromise, but that it is about the very foundation of constitutional knowledge itself?
Jonathan: I don’t know. I don’t really know the answer to that, and the reason is I could argue it both ways. I could say that if we can get our political and knowledge systems back in gear so that Congress can once again compromise across party lines, pass legislation as it used to routinely do, if we can get a handle on canceling and disinformation and the other kinds of propaganda that are running rampant across the internet in our politics, then yes, I think actually we’re well positioned to put things back together. But as you said earlier, there’s no guarantee we sort it out. This has to be.
You put it right in your intro. You said you need conscious people to go back to the blueprints and say, okay, how do we cope with specific problems on social media? How do we redesign these platforms so that they’re less antisocial and more constructive? And people are working on that. How do we help students develop media literacy so that they know when they’re looking at garbage? They’re actually already pretty good at that. How do we make them better? How do we build support groups like Braver Angels, which I’m involved with, which is a national grassroots depolarizing movement that’s showing people that they can converse across party lines?
How do we bring the Republican party back to a place where it’s punishing instead of rewarding wholesale propaganda attacks and just massive lies? That would make a huge difference. It’s going to be solving a whole bunch of these particular problems, and the start of that is you and me working on it.
Jeff: Beyond ideas, debating ideas and institutions and the other parts of this body of knowledge, this constitutional knowledge that you talk about, talk a little bit about the importance of individuals and of leadership in this framework.
Jonathan: So important individuals in leadership. We haven’t really talked much about cancel culture. Cancel culture is also a form of propaganda, and what it tries to do is use social coercion to make people feel isolated. You say something. It could be anything. Sky is blue, whatever. But for whatever reason, some people want to dominate you and show they can dominate the conversation. They pile on.
They say you’ve done something terrible. Everyone seems to agree with them. You’re fired the next day. Your reputation is blackened, and your friends walk away. That only happens a few times before people think, ‘Gosh, I’m not going to say those things.’ They start to feel isolated, and they start to feel ashamed, sometimes resentful, but often shamed. The goal here, once again as it always is, is to demoralize people so that they’re not participating in politics, they lose their confidence.
The beginning of pushing back to that requires individuals who are willing to stand their ground and take some risk of being canceled, but also who have support from leadership in their institutions, their company, their university, their newsroom who will say, ‘I am not going to fire this editor because a couple hundred left-wing employees objected to his approving a conservative controversial op-ed piece. I’m going to stand by that person.’ Or a University of Chicago president, President Zimmer. He got one of these — some member of the faculty tweeted something that some people found obnoxious. I think it had to do with affirmative action not working.
The usual crowd of 300 or 400 people got together and online and demanded an investigation and a firing. Most university presidents in that situation say, ‘Okay, we’ll investigate it.’ Then even if the person is ultimately cleared, it’s months of hell with no due process, and their reputation is soiled, and they’re horrified and shocked and shamed. Zimmer did something else. He released a one-paragraph statement in the face of all this, just saying ‘The University of Chicago, we believe in free speech. Professor exercised that right. There’s nothing here to investigate.’ So what do you think happened to him as a result of that? Nothing. The cancelers moved on to softer targets because you had some leadership here saying, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t cancel me if I choose to protect our institution from that kind of behavior.’
Jeff: Of course, the more the fear is ginned up, and this brings it back to Trump, that the more fear becomes such a critical element, both sides are frozen in place in their positions.
Jonathan: That’s the goal. Tactics like disinformation and canceling, these are not ideologies. People might confuse them with critical race theory or anti-immigration ideas, not true at all. These are information war tactics that can be used by anyone on the left or right. They were used by Lenin on the far left. They were used by Goebbels and Hitler on the far right. They’re used by dictators of every stamp today. They’re used by Putin. I don’t know if he is left or right. You tell me. So these methods are separate.
You can have conversations about race and about immigration. And you can say these really tough things that are hard to hear about race, for example, that we need to hear. But you can do that without using tactics that try to stigmatize and coerce the other side. You can do it without saying, ‘Wait a minute, if you don’t agree with my point of view, your job is at risk.’ Or we’re going to put you through some session where you’re going to have to confess to racism and be ashamed or else there are going to be consequences. That’s a whole different thing because what you’re doing in this latter case isn’t talking about racism. It’s using methods to manipulate opinion.
Jeff: But of course, when the mainstream media itself, which should be a bastion of truth and fact in some way, is infected by this, and you referenced Jim Bennet and the New York Times before, and it is a problem in the very institutions that we need to rely on, then where do we go from there?
Jonathan: A big chunk of the book is about the forms of decay and in some cases maybe even corruption inside the reality-based community. I honestly think, Jeff, that Trump MAGA disinformation, Russian-style disinformation, is by far our biggest epistemic problem because it controls an entire political party. It has controlled the presidency and it may soon again.
But these issues of using social coercion to intimidate, isolate, strike fear in the hearts of people, close off whole debates, a problem there is that as you say, they have gained a foothold, a major foothold, inside the very institutions in the heart of the reality-based community. And that’s mainstream media, academia, to a less to lesser extent law and government, but especially the first two. That leaves people in those institutions to start, on too many occasions, putting politics above getting the right answer and following the evidence where it goes. And too often it means there’s not enough viewpoint diversity inside those institutions so that people can catch their mistakes.
Without diverse views, all the science, all the journalism comes to a halt, because we can never see our own biases. If all we’re talking to are people who agree with us, we go down these rabbit holes of groupthink and never come back in some cases. So something that we need to work on and that some people are starting to work on, including, by the way, a lot of progressives, is pay attention to viewpoint diversity. Start making that co-equal with other forms of diversity so that there are conservatives who will feel at home in our newsrooms and on our faculties.
There’s now well-documented and new literature, but a strong literature, that is showing that discrimination against conservatives in academia is quite a serious problem. It’s sometimes on purpose, but sometimes it’s because these faculties and some campuses and some disciplines are so marinated in this one particular left of center viewpoint that they don’t even realize that there are other viewpoints. They don’t know what they’re missing. So there are movements to start fixing that, and that’s just super important. The reality-based community has to stand true to its own commitment to viewpoint diversity because that’s the core of the constitution of knowledge.
Jeff: It’s interesting you were talking about the law a little better place for this. Science has always been traditionally a better place, but we saw over the past 18 months even that has been infected now.
Jonathan: Actually, I take the opposite view on this. I think the response to coronavirus has been — if anyone needed proof that the constitution of knowledge is orders of magnitude better at discovering truth, which is really discovering error, than any other system invented, just look at the fact that within days of the rise of this novel coronavirus its genome had been mapped within about a 10-day period, a vaccine had been drafted, had been blueprinted, and was in my arms less than a year later. This is unthinkable. This capacity of humans didn’t even exist. That’s what the constitution of knowledge uniquely does.
The trolls, the cancelers, the propagandists, they can tear down, but they’re completely parasitic. The demonstration that we’ve seen of the ability of science, broadly defined, to marshal literally hundreds of thousands of minds, thousands of institutions, billions of dollars to pivot and focus on solving problems, organizing those research, it’s just breathtaking. Then the media, I have these conversations all the time about what a terrible job the media is doing. I’m coming from a different place. I think the Trump period was a period of a lot of corruption that was going on, primarily in the White House, and I think major media did a fantastic job of not letting itself be intimidated and going about its business of trying to find out what was going on and getting it in front of us. Are there flaws? Absolutely. Are the flaws more likely to be corrected in the constitution of knowledge? Again, absolutely.
I point to the Wuhan lab virus theory. Everyone says, well, that’s a huge failing. There is a groupthink, and everyone went down this one road, and they forgot to look in the other.
Then I remind people, groupthink is, that’s what humans do. The real question is, why do we ever not have groupthink? In this case, it was mainstream media figures in the Washington Post and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, some reporters who kept on that story after the groupthink and said, ‘Wait a minute, let’s take a second look at the lab theory.’ They resurfaced it. It turned out to potentially have some validity. And now what mainstream is doing is falling all over itself to figure out, well, where did we go wrong? That’s how it’s supposed to work. It’s not that you never make mistakes. It’s you correct them, and you do postmortems so that you’re less likely to make them in the future.
Jeff: It’s an optimistic point of view.
Jonathan: I’m in a minority on this. I’m aware of this. I’m trained as a journalist, and I say to all our critics, and there are many, and they have many good points, ‘You know what, you’ll miss this when we’re gone.’
Jeff: Jonathan Rauch, the book is The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Jonathan, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Jonathan: Thank you for this wonderful conversation.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.