Obama's "Truth Decay" is a Symptom of Democracy

  • Obama’s comments on “truth decay” are the byproduct of an unrelenting desire for freedom.
  • Such decay has been discussed previously nearly 2400 years ago by Plato.
  • There must be a check-and-balance to prevent such decay.

In a recent interview with the BBC, former president Barack Obama spoke of the phenomenon of “truth decay” and its contribution to America’s political polarisation. Though Obama was talking about information that is either true or false and, in particular, receiving such information from right-wing media, there is something to be said about deviations from truth and the choice to freely watch right-wing media. When placed into this context, the term “truth decay” recalls to mind Book 8 in Plato’s Republic.

While it may seem odd to view Obama’s words in this light, certain lines bring to mind Book 8. In his interview, Obama refers to the detrimental effects of conspiracy theories “where facts don’t matter, you know, everything is fair game. Everything goes” as well as the “millions of people who subscribed to the notion that Joe Biden is a socialist. You know who subscribed to the notion that Hillary Clinton was part of an evil cabal that was involved in pedophile rings. You know that kind of stuff is constantly circulating. What’s been interesting obviously, and sad, during this election is that that kind of lack of fidelity to the truth has consequences when it’s being promoted by the most powerful elected official in the country.”

We see that not only do facts not matter, but actually, everything really “does go.” American stands for freedom. This means that if you want to be a conspiracy theorist, you can be one. If you want to make money off conspiracy theorists, you are free to do that too even if doing so means negatively affecting society. And if you want to be the leader who is a man of the people, that is, you are the leader who lets people live the lives that they want to live (whether as a racist, sexist, narcissist, fake-news peddler), then the current state of society allows that very man to assume power.

The Statue of Liberty represents freedom, democracy, and justice. Image: Ferdinand Stöhr/Unsplash

Similarly, in Plato’s Republic, a society’s political regime is based upon its character traits. Furthermore societies can be ranked from best to worst. According to Plato, they are ranked in the following order: aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and finally tyranny. In the ordering, democracy is 4th to last, and it is one step away from devolving into tyranny. Crucial for understanding this devolution, or rather, degeneration, is the fact that even the most perfect society will eventually begin to decay. Nothing lasts forever.

Plato says that the chief characteristic of a democracy is that there are all sorts of people–people can live however they want. So if someone wants to believe that Biden is a socialist and that Hillary Clinton was part of an evil cabal, then democracy enables this because people can live however they want. Even as a white-supremacist, an equal-rights advocate, a truth-denier, or even a combination of all of the above! This is because freedom, as Plato rightfully points out, is the highest value in a democracy, and it is due to the insatiable desire for freedom that actually leads it to degenerate into tyranny. Eventually people become lawless because laws infringe upon their freedom. To maintain order, eventually someone will have to represent the people: enter the tyrant.

Gun-rights advocates in public. Image: VCU Capital News Service/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

In looking at our society, we see parallels. Gun advocates who want to own every single kind of gun in existence and who wish to parade around with their gun collection everywhere and anywhere view any law that limits gun usage in any form as an infringement upon their freedom. Even if it is completely absurd to be allowed to brandish assault rifles in a state capital building. Or while drinking coffee in Starbucks. People want the right to hear biased information and hear only such information. Hence the success of cable news networks MSNBC, Fox News, and the development of newer players like OANN and the soon to be Trump News. In the ever increasing echo-chamber that indulges the thirst for total freedom, people actually become slaves to their desires to do whatever they want.

Unlike Plato, I don’t subscribe to the view that the majority people are necessarily bad nor that democracy means freedom to do whatever one wants (even if some Americans subscribe to this view). But I do note of the dangers of what the unrelenting desire for freedom can lead to. I believe that our founding fathers recognized this threat as well, and as a result, set up our system of checks-and-balances.

However crucially missing is, it seems, the check-and-balance on unrelenting freedom (and this really is about freedom, because America IS freedom). Yet one such solution to this desire for freedom is education. We need an education system that promotes the values needed to sustain democracy in a healthy manner. Such an education system is one that, for example, promotes democratic values such as tolerance, equality, and respect for democratic norms.


What do you think? Do you think comparing democracy and its freedom to Plato is helpful? Or is Plato completely irrelevant in todays time? Drop your thoughts in the comments below!

Paul Geerligs

Paul Geerligs

Philosophy grad student on a journey to relate philosophy to everyday life. Dutch/Mexican/Californian.
Los Angeles