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Truth and truthfulness in democracy (and the problem of Brexit)

When it comes to democracy, the cynics are having a field day. Whether it’s Brexit or Trump – it’s currently popular to be a pessimist, or – more politely – a “realist” about democracy. Let’s call this view the “tribal theory” of democracy. The tribal theory takes democracy as a contest of wills, a fight for power conducted within the confines of democratic institutions. For the tribalists, there are no better or worse, correct or incorrect answers. How to choose which tribe to join? Reflective voters choose in line with their interests, but others make identity-based choices.

The alternative is the “epistemic theory” of democracy. The epistemic theory takes democracy as the joint pursuit of correct or better social choices. Choices can be better or worse because there are plausible external standards to assess them. For example, some policies lower while others raise unemployment. Some choices reduce the risk of a nuclear war, others increase it. Some governments promote the welfare of its people, others don’t. And, crucially, the citizens are able to judge governments or policies according to shared standards. These judgements are not perfect. Still, citizens are not hopeless in judging democratic outputs and voting is a plausible mechanism to promote the public good by making the best choices.

What’s the upshot of the tribal/epistemic distinction? Your analysis of democratic decisions will diverge dramatically, depending on whether you take the tribal or the epistemic perspective. Let’s take Brexit as an example and run through some aspects of it.

First, consider the tightness of the outcome. From the tribal perspective, politics is about winning, and winning is about mobilizing the right people to vote with you. For a tribalist, the big success of the Brexit campaign was the successful mobilization of voters that allowed them to win narrowly despite the many surveys suggesting they would not.

From the epistemic perspective, tight outcomes raise questions about the confidence we can have in the result. Tight results may simply reflect the fact that the average voter is only a little better than random in making a correct choice – that would not put into question the collective result. But some probing questions are in order. Let’s assume that the 52% selected the better option. Is there something valuable about Remain that the 48% spotted? Or are the 48% systematically misled by some factor? Is there perhaps a third option that was missing on the agenda that would have been even better? And then, there is the other possibility: that the 52% were wrong. For example, if 5% of the voters were misled by incorrect claims about a “Brexit dividend”, perhaps a falsehood swung the decision. The point here is not to assert any of these claims. The point is that the epistemic theory raises questions about whether the vote took place in circumstances that allowed the facts to guide the decision and voters decide for the best option. And if it did not, the legitimacy of outcomes can be questioned.

Second, the issue of lies in politics. Both the tribal and the epistemic theory condemn lying in politics, but for different reasons. The tribal theorist is concerned about lies that make voters vote against their tribal preferences. The epistemic theorist, by contrast, worries about lies because they make it harder for voters to choose the alternative in the public interest. Many claims made by the different Brexit campaigns turned out to be false, and some were lies. If you voted for Brexit because you wanted to increase the National Health Service budget, you were probably misled by a lie. Is this bad because it frustrated your interest, or is this bad because it made it harder for you to choose the option that best promotes the public good? It depends on whether you see democracy in tribal or in epistemic terms.

Let us now turn, third, to the quality of public debate in the run-up to the vote. Most believe that debating politics is good for democracy. Tribal theorists maintain that talking achieves two things: first, finding out what is in your tribe’s interest; second, persuading others, if you can, that your interest is theirs. Epistemic theorists disagree: for them, debate is about uncovering evidence, testing arguments, and following them to their logical conclusion. Depending on your perspective, you are likely to see the public debates leading up to Brexit either as a gripping competition to win over voters or as a sorry affair driven by emotions and falsehoods.

Finally, under which circumstances is a new vote about the Brexit options sensible? “If the interests or tribal affiliations have changed,” say the tribal theorists. “If the circumstances were not truth-conducive then but are now,” say the epistemic theorists. Both sides have arguments in favour and against a new referendum. First, the tribal arguments. It is plausibly true that interests have changed, for several reasons. Some voters may have realized that Brexit is against their interests. Also, the electorate changed with young voters added and old voters dying. Tribal theorists (but not members of the tribe that won the first time!) have reasons to consider a new vote if changes in the electorate are substantial. This is a big “if”, of course, and the argument could also run the other way.

Epistemic theorists might support a second vote for different reasons. They look at the lies, misinformation and biases and conclude that the first referendum was epistemically compromised, hoping that the new referendum campaign might be less so. From the epistemic perspective, democracy is a learning system, and when learning took place, voting again makes sense.

There are, however, also important epistemic arguments against a second referendum. A new vote needs more truth-conducive circumstances, with more accurate information, better-quality public debate, less emotional bias. It is true that, three years on, people know more about Brexit. But it is also true that many voters have entered a hyper-tribal state of mind. Brexit supporters have emerged as a new tribe in UK politics and many members are sticking to their tribe. Not only that, many “Brexiters” have become suspicious of the motives of “Remainers”. Are the fancy epistemic arguments perhaps just a cynical ploy to trick the majority into a new referendum? Is the high-handed rhetoric just tribalism in disguise? In this climate of tribal suspicion, one may wonder whether a new referendum campaign would be conducted with more commitment to the pursuit of truth than the previous campaign. For an epistemic theorist, whether you want a new vote depends on how truth-conducive a new campaign will be.

When democracies have fallen into hyper-tribal traps and their epistemic functioning is diminished, the best advice is often to take a break and calm down rather than keep going. Under normal circumstances, the best course of action would be to delay the decision for a few years. But in the case of Brexit, it is hard to see how the debate would calm down, given how important the issue is and how polarizing it has turned out to be. What options are left? In uncertain times, keeping options open is often a good choice because one can change course after learning new facts. A Brexit that keeps the UK in the customs union and close to the single market would at least allow the UK to rejoin if life outside the EU turns out to be unattractive.

Epistemic democrats like me think democracies are about the joint pursuit of the public good by making the best choices. If we want our democracies to be more than just tribal competition, we need to search for the common good together. However, some populist politicians and campaign managers aim to convince voters that all politics is tribal, and that the joint pursuit of the common good is mere rhetoric. The problem with this view is that it tends to become true when voters start believing it. We must make sure that this cynical view does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Feature image credit: “European Parliament” by ChequeredInk . Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Gregory Tzanetos

    Transferring the ‘‘epistemic approach’’ to the historical experience of the international relations could we suppose that, while Europe was declining to totalitarianism under the rule of the Nazis, Britain should ask ‘‘for more time for talks’’ with the regime, in order to find a ‘‘neutral space’’ of safety, as a space of ‘’common good’’?!..

    Can we imagine, then, the British Parliament to vote again.. and again.. and again, in order to find that ‘‘safe space’’ of talks with the regime, securing democracy for the British people?!..

    I think that such hypothetical questions should be allowed in a theoretical discussion, motivating our imagination to seek for answers to practical problems, drawing the information from the historical experience.

    What I am trying to say is that the ‘‘epistemic approach’’ might lose the ‘’safe space’’ in politics, if the theory lost the ‘‘paradox’’ from its view, due to the change of the society (which could be reflected on the shift of power over the rule of governance, while democracy would decline to oligarchy and to totalitarianism, instead of consensus of the society).

    That could lead us to further observations under the ‘’epistemic approach’’:

    First, before the ‘‘paradox’’, the main goal of politics would be to define the ground to defend democracy, but not just the ‘‘talks’’ for the ‘‘talks’’.

    Second, politics should preserve the space of common good by the terms of equality in freedom for all the parts, in order to preserve the consensus of the society in the political decisions.

    Third, the political decisions should be preserved by equal terms of free will for all the parts and among states, to secure equality in freedom for people.

    After all, do we think that those purposes are met by the EU today?

    Thank you for reading this (and for your hypothetical answers).. Gregory Tzanetos.


    In British politics the notion of ‘first past the post’, to use an expression borrowed from the so-called ‘Sport of Kings’, has always prevailed.
    I suspect that the real problem with the Brexit issue is that a referendum vote which gave a clear majority vote to leave the EU has not been honoured.
    No theoretical approach to democratic practices is likely to alter the views of millions of voters who see that a travesty of suffrage has been allowed to prevail.
    I feel that the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ is in danger of undermining the fundamental basis of its existence.
    The so-called ‘Long Parliament’ of the current sitting is a sad reflection on the inability of Parliamentarians to respect a majority vote from those who elected them. Instead they have allowed themselves the right to ‘stage manage’ the Brexit process with total disregard for the wishes of the British people recorded in a ‘popular vote’.
    According to Kai Spiekermann, the writer of this article, “Reflective voters choose in line with their interests, but others make identity-based choices.
    “The alternative is the “epistemic theory” of democracy. The epistemic theory takes democracy as the joint pursuit of correct or better social choices.”
    Indeed, some people will vote according to their vested interests and others will vote according to their regard for wider social issues, as was no doubt the case in the Referendum of 2016.
    But what right has Parliament to differentiate between the two?
    Who is to decide what constitutes a ‘Tribal voter’, a ‘Reflective voter’? Who is the one to decide who considers, ‘the joint pursuit of correct or better social choices’?
    Certainly difficult issues for MPs sitting in Westminster; after all, our Members of Parliament are meant to be our representatives, not our dictators.
    Moreover, given the basic principles of the British voting system, might we not ask: ‘What is the point of voting in a Referendum, if the wishes of a majority are clearly ignored?’
    These are sad days for British democracy, and I fear that no amount of theorizing will find a way of restoring trust in our ancient and erstwhile valued system, without appropriate and mutually respectful dialogue between Parliament and the people it deems to serve

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