In January 2021, exactly six years after the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, many around the world witnessed the storming of the Capitol in Washington. Both events could be considered an assault on democracy; in Paris fundamentalist Islamists did not accept the satirical speech of a critical journal, in Washington it were Trump supporters – a “fascist mob” according to the London mayor Sadiq Khan (2020) -- who did not to agree to the legitimate outcome of the 2020 elections and the ending of Trump’s presidency. Both events emphasized that violence is used purposefully to silence other people’s voices, and to bring down the fundamental pillars of a democratic society: equality under the law, freedom of press, the independence of the juridical system, and well organised elections. Both events were (partly) broadcasted live on television, which made their societal impact even bigger.
The crisis of Democracy and media
Democracy is said to be in crisis (Brennan 2016, Sunstein 2017, Mounk 2018), and it is in an illuminating review by Shany Mohr, ‘Nobody Understands Democracy Anymore’ (2019), that several arguments are brought together in this context. Mohr stresses that the crisis is both linked to the rise of social media as to the privatization of broadcast news. “Privatizing media and eliminating gatekeepers went hand in hand with the anti-regulation market boostering known on the right as libertarianism and on the left as neoliberalism that provided an ideological justification for growing income inequality and social self-segregation” (Mohr 2019).
In addition, voters lack competence to make political decisions, and governments are not always capable to make good laws (as we have recently seen in the Netherlands in regard to the law on the Children Allowance, that as an effect accused many parents of fraud while demanding huge penalties and bringing families into debt).
According to Mohr, the most important practice of democracy is proscribing norms for the habit of legitimate disagreement. Disagreement, as we already know since Voltaire, has to be organized: “Twitter can’t replace that; cable news can’t replace that; referendums can’t replace that; liberal high courts, international organizations, pious human rights groups, and the free market can’t replace that; and authoritarian populists certainly can’t replace that” (Mohr 2019).
It is not only Trump: anti-Enlightenment populists (Maly 2018) are on the rise everywhere on the globe: Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jair Bolsanaro in Brasil, Recep Erdogan in Turkey or Andrzej Duda in Poland. They build their position of power on nationalism and the exclusion of people. As Cas Mudde (2020) argued in the Guardian, rightwing politicians and pundits are addressing the far-right electorate by defining them as “the real people”.
Democracy and the socio-economic future
For German-American political theorist Yasha Mounk, the weakening of democracy is related to stagnation of the living standards of ordinary people, the transition from monoethnic to multi-ethnic democracy, and the rise of social media that resulted in more power to political outsiders (Mounk 2018, pp. 193). Democracy could be saved if citizens united around a common conception of their nation, get real hope for their economic future, and would be more resistant to the lies and hatred on social media (ibidem, pp. 194). This seems reasonable, but recent developments such as Brexit and the riot on the Capitol, show that the situation is more complicated. The request that social media would ban hate speech and fake news is naïve, as is the idea that moderators could decide upon stopping the spread of noxious ideas. It is not only the functioning of social media, it also is their effect on us and our perception of the world that transforms the democracies we live in.
In a recent article on the Capitol debacle, historian Timothy Snyder conveyed that social media stimulate mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, with the result of “losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true” (Snyder 2020). When Trump created his “electoral fiction” and sent this out on Twitter, people believed him, because he confirmed what they already believed. Snyder argues: “It takes a tremendous amount of work to educate citizens to resist the powerful pull of believing what they already believe, or what others around them believe, or what would make sense of their own previous choices” (Snyder 2020).
Old new threats to democracy
Already in the Greek polis, the current threats to democracy were known: “Plato noted a particular risk for tyrants: that they would be surrounded in the end by yes-men and enablers. Aristotle worried that, in a democracy, a wealthy and talented demagogue could all too easily master the minds of the populace” (Snyder 2020). Democracy only works when the citizens are aware of different points of view and are free and willing to understand the disagreements.
If we would consider more thoroughly the complexities of literary fiction, the various narrative styles and techniques, then we would have more grip on the mechanisms that disturb our democratic procedures.
For Snyder, Trump is post-truth and pre-fascism. But when we give up on truth, the spectacle that comes in its place will be overwhelming and dominating, and citizens will not be able to form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. “If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions”, Snyder emphasizes. Wallow in fictions, that is the doom scenario.
Fiction and conspiracy theories
In many analyses of the current state of affairs, the notion ‘fiction’ comes up, and is related to post-truth and conspiracy theories. Fiction, however, is an established concept in Western cultures, and emerged as nonreferential narrative text (Cohn 2000, p. 1) and analysis of the real world. My claim is that we have to reflect on fiction and its development in time, in order to understand how the concept is used and functions in today’s society. Could we, by better understanding the concept, offer an alternative to the doom scenario?
Fiction, in its modern 18th - 19th century context, is a literary genre. It entails a social realist evocation or representation of the world, and is also more negatively characterized as fabulation, partiality, dilettantism and even malady (Jablonka 2018, pp. 183). Fiction as the literary novel is supposed to represent (as Darstellung (presentation) and Vorstellung (imagination) (Prendergast 2000)) the real world, to explain and comprehend it with all the cognitive operations that are involved. Fiction is an anthropology of everyday life as well as memory.
Dwelling in fiction is not the doom scenario, not understanding how fiction works is.
In the 20th century it has transformed into new forms of report, biography and documentary writing, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) that mixes real events with specific perceptions. In the 21st century, fiction has developed even more: the factual novel has turned into a radical self-fictional experiment, as we have seen in the My Struggle series (2009-2011) of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, and into the counterfactual novel, such as Ian McEwan’s Machines like me and people like you (2019) offering a fascinating anti-chronological perspective on the 1980s and posthuman thinking.
Fiction today thus is an informative narrative, and at the same time an investigation of real events. Fiction can be high literature, popular fiction or journalism, but most importantly, it is a form of imagining the world. Fiction and truth have to be distinguished but are related as well, because the aesthetic satisfaction lies in the act of acknowledging the imagination as thought-provoking and poly-interpretable.
In the 18-19th century context in which fiction emerged – at the very moment when the world was growing disenchanted (Josipovici 2010, pp. 34) – readers were trained to reflect critically on it. The famous slogan “willing suspension of disbelief” by Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is often brought up in this context and understood as advise to the reader to suspend her disbelief and go along in imagination with expressed judgements and doctrines from which she would dissent in the ordinary world (Tomko 2007). The reader will follow the writer and try to comprehend as much as possible, without the immediate rejection of ideas. In the end, however, there is the faith in truth, in the author’s ideas as reliable.
Fiction and post-truth: lessons to be learned
In the post-truth world in which we live today, we should take into account the width and consequences of fiction. Experiencing fiction implies that we are aware of the imagination, the nonreferentiality, and the 'as if' aspect of the narrative, and that we are willing to go along with the beliefs presented. Based on our reading experiences, we know that the narrator’s voice is an element of the textual world, and has to be disconnected from the author. We know that stories are invented and that we are invited to come up with an interpretation. Realizing that what someone expresses is fiction, does not mean that we do not know that there is truth as well, and that we do not notice the narrative perspective or the singularity of voice. If we would consider more thoroughly the complexities of literary fiction, the various narrative styles and techniques involved, then we would have more grip on the mechanisms that disturb our democratic procedures.
I do agree with Timothy Snyder that Donald Trump is creating a fiction and that people should be aware of this. The remedy for their too simple believe in his fiction is indeed pluriformity in media reports and more info on how other people are living and thinking. But a remedy as well would be a literary education, in which people are made aware that fictional stories can be ironical, playful, critical and undermining, and that it is the reader who should be an active respondent and interpreter. In the post-truth society we should not keep up too much with ‘the Truth’ but learn to recognize the permeability of truth and fiction. Dwelling in fiction is not the doom scenario, not understanding how fiction works is.
Brennan, Jason (2016). Against Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Cohn, Dorrit (2000). The Distinction of Fiction. Baltimore & London: The Jonhs Hopkins University Press.
Jablonka, Ivan (2018). History is a Contemporary Literature, Manifesto for the Social Sciences. Translated by Nathan J. Bracher. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press.
Josipovici, Gabriel (2010). What Ever Happened to Modernism? New Haven & London: Yale University Press.
Khan, Sadiq (2020). Many said Trump’s presidency would end this way. But the warnings were ignored. The Guardian, 9 January 2021.
Maly, Ico (2018). Nieuw Rechts. Berchem: EPO.
Mohr, Shany (2019). Nobody Understands Democracy Anymore, A wave of recent books warning about a ‘crisis of democracy’ reveals that even our experts are confused about how democracies actually work. Tablet Magazine, 13 August 2019.
Mounk, Yasha (2018). The People vs Democracy. Why our Freedom is in Danger & How to Save it. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Mudde, Cas. (2020). What happened in Washington DC is happening around the world. The Guardian, 7 January 2021.
Prendergast, Christopher (2000). The Triangle of Representation. New York: Columbia University Press.
Snyder, Timothy (2020). The American Abyss, A Historian of fascism and political atrocity on Trump and what comes next. The New York Times Magazine, January 2021.
Sunstein, Cass R. (2019). #republic. Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Tomko, Michael (2007). Politics, Performance, and Coleridge’s “Suspension of Disbelief”. Victorian Studies, 49, 2007, 241-249.