Published July 9, 2021
America is in the grips of an epistemic crisis—an assault on reality, a rising inability to distinguish fact from fiction, an effort to shut down free inquiry—that poses an existential threat to liberal democracy. Which is why Jonathan Rauch’s new book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, is so timely and so essential. It helps us understand this moment better than anything else I’ve read and offers insights into what can be done to strengthen what Rauch calls a “reality-based community.” Rauch’s “constitution of knowledge” is a structured system of institutions and rules that we depend on to settle disagreements and discover truth. As Rauch puts it, “Free speech is not enough; you have to get a lot of the settings right.”
I first met Rauch—an award-winning journalist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a contributing writer for The Atlantic—in the mid-1990s. I quickly came to admire his intellectual fair-mindedness and integrity, his calm disposition and generosity of spirit in public debates, the precision of his arguments and his willingness to engage with me on any topics, including ones on which we disagreed. He’s since become a close friend and part of a community of writers and public intellectuals with whom I often interact and who have imparted to me knowledge and wisdom.
I called him recently to talk about his book, and about polarization, epistemic disruption, and the blast radius of Donald Trump, whom Rauch describes as “a genius-level propaganda operative.” The Republican Party has become “an institutionalized propaganda outlet,” he argues. But we also talk about the dangers of so-called “cancel culture” and the left’s “totalistic ideology,” what cognitive psychology can teach us about politics, the writers who have shaped his political sensibilities and philosophy, his pivotal role in the gay-rights debate and his concerns about where it’s heading, his thoughts on atheism and Christianity, and his aspirations as a writer and a public intellectual.
Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Peter Wehner: What’s different and more dangerous about American politics today than before, and why is this epistemic disruption so much worse now than ever before? Or is it worse now than ever before?
Jonathan Rauch: It probably tracks polarization, to which it’s closely related. And indications are that polarization is at its worst since approximately the time of the Civil War. That’s not a sentence anyone enjoys saying or thinking about. And I think the same is true of the epistemic crisis.
There was a big one in the 1850s. The South engaged in a campaign to create an alternative reality in which the North was the aggressor and it was coming down to destroy the South and its lifestyle. And that was very effective in ginning up war fever, which was the intention. I don’t think we’ve seen anything remotely like that since that time in terms of magnitude and danger. And the present crisis, of course, is of a very different nature.
So why now? It’s been building for a long time. Polarization per se is not new, but the more polarized a society gets, the easier it is to manipulate people by hating on the other side. Polarization opens the door for propaganda campaigns. And then propaganda exploits polarization, because it seeks to further divide the society. That’s what Putin was doing in 2016 when he used the Internet Research Agency to stimulate protests, even opposite protests across the street from each other. Divide the society. That in turn weakens your opponents; weakens the society; lays the groundwork for cultism, demagoguery, and so on. So first, polarization creates a substrate that’s favorable to propaganda.
The second one is technology. We had a major information revolution in the form of internet, digital media, social media. And those turned out to be designed much better for propaganda and disinformation and “canceling” than they were for truth. They did not evaluate truth in transmitting information. They simply evaluated addictiveness, which means they prioritized outrage and enticing the false conspiracy theories over truth.
And then a third thing that happened, and I argue it must not be underestimated, and that’s the arrival of Donald Trump and conservative media, which he co-opts and exploits.
Donald Trump is a genius-level propaganda operative. He had the audacity and skill to look at Russian-style disinformation and adapt it to American politics. He used all the power of his campaign, then his presidency, then his entire political party, plus conservative media, to push disinformation and conspiracy theories and trolling through every possible channel on a scale that was never dreamed of in America before. So this is the first time America has ever been exposed to Russian-style disinformation on a massive scale from a domestic actor. And when you take that, which is just an enormous change, and you add it to the technology and the polarization, you get what we’ve got.
Wehner: Pluralism provides a context for how citizens can live together and even flourish amidst differences over priorities and values. So how does a nation like America cohere, when citizens are divided along the lines of truth and falsity, reality and unreality, and are living in different epistemic universes? How can a shared sense of reality be recovered?
Rauch: At the theoretical level, James Madison had the answer to that problem, and he had the answer both in politics and in the epistemic realm, the realm of knowledge. The answer is that when you’ve got a large, diverse society, you have to harness that diversity by putting people into managed conflict with each other so that they’re forced to come to some kind of understanding in order to get anything done and no one group can dominate in the long term.
The U.S. Constitution is basically a mechanism that forces compromise and disperses power in order to make that happen, and it forces people to follow rules. That’s the only way you can run a large society with a lot of political diversity. It requires that individuals and institutions commit themselves to those rules and those values. If they don’t commit themselves to those rules and values, no paper constitution will defend them.
The same is true of the constitution of knowledge, which is not written down but is very similar to the U.S. Constitution. It’s a way of creating managed conflict about opinions, ideas, facts—forcing them into contention and making people persuade each other in order to make knowledge—and do that in a systematic, structured way. It’s a very, very similar kind of thing. To make it work, first, you need a lot of diversity, because we never see our own biases. We have to have people with different biases, however wrong-headed they might seem to me or to you. Then you need people who are committed to making knowledge by putting those into managed conflict and living with the outcome, even if it’s not always favorable and even if they think it’s wrong. So those are the values and structures you need, and they work fantastically well.
I claim that the constitution of knowledge is the greatest social technology ever invented by human kind. It’s transformed us as a species. It makes possible the global network of knowledge seekers and error checkers who put the COVID vaccine in my arm a couple months ago. It makes possible the organization of millions of expert minds in hundreds of countries, thousands of institutions who can pivot and decode a genome in two days. It’s astonishing. So the big-picture answer to your question is the constitution of knowledge and sticking with those values and defending those values and understanding them.
Unfortunately, it worked so well for so long that we forgot it was there. We decided, Well, free speech is enough. You have free speech; you’ll have a marketplace of ideas; truth will emerge from that. That’s how the internet was supposed to work. No structure, just peer-to-peer conversations. Well, that’s a disaster. Madison knew that. So we need to recommit to these rules; we need to understand what they are; we need to defend them in an active way.
Wehner: And what, specifically, can be done?
Rauch: In terms of responding to disinformation, this is the hardest part of my book to talk about because you want to be able to say, “Here are the three things you need to do and you solve it.” And it’s not like that. Major epistemic disruptions, like the development of the printing press or, in the 19th century, offset printing, require all-of-society responses, mostly nongovernmental but including many, many actors and institutions figuring out how to change the rules, revise the rules so that you can adapt to these new technologies and tactics.
So what are we talking about? Social media and digital media need systemic redesign. The press needs to get savvier about the use of disinformation and not fall for it hook, line, and sinker by repeating every conspiracy theory in order to debunk it. The public needs to be made aware of what’s going on; that’s why I wrote this book. A population that understands it’s being manipulated and understands the tactics can still be manipulated because they’re very powerful tactics, but we’ll have more resistance if they understand what’s going on.
Civic activism on matters like depolarization can make a difference. That’s where groups like Braver Angels come in. It turns out that when people actually know that the real level of disagreement is lower than they’ve been led to believe, that itself can reduce polarization. Direct civic action can help. Setting up watchdogs, monitors, and academic centers that understand this information, and penetrate the networks where the campaigns are hatched in order to disrupt them, alert social-media companies, intelligence agencies, and so on. I can go on in this vein, but you get the idea. We’ve got a long way to go, but all of those things are already starting to happen.
Wehner: Your book relies on brain science and social psychology. What do you think they have to teach us about understanding politics and this political movement?
Rauch: We’ve learned a lot from psychology, especially the last 50 years, that has been revolutionary about systemic biases. Social psychology has shown us how we can be manipulated and shown us, interestingly, that having a high IQ is not only no defense, that those people are actually even better at rationalizing falsehood, [but that] they put all that mental horsepower to work to justify their biases.
So the next step is applying social psychology, cognitive psychology, to better understand how to counter sophisticated tactics that exploit cognitive vulnerabilities. That, too, is starting to happen. There’s not going to be any magic buttons there. But it’s important that Facebook and Twitter now clearly understand how outrage hijacked people’s minds, and that even though it can make them a lot of money, it’s going to toxify their environment and make their business model unviable. So we’re starting to see these ideas spread in important ways.
Wehner: What do you think is the most important legacy that Trump will leave?
Rauch: In the world I’m thinking and writing about, it’s that he has modeled for all time to come how to apply Russian-style disinformation in U.S. politics. And although he may have particular genius at doing that, this is an art that lots of people can practice. The KGB practiced it very successfully for a long time, not because they were geniuses, but because they had technicians who knew how to do it.
So it’s not just Trump anymore. I think he’s transformed the Republican Party into an institutionalized propaganda outlet; I think he’s had the same effect on conservative media, and that’s very hard to pull back in. Because once people start doing that, and they know it works, they continue to do it. And also the Republican base is in on it. They like it.
Disinformation is a participatory sport, not a spectator sport. It’s fun to tell yourselves narratives about how you really won; the other side cheated; you’re heroically taking back democracy; you’re in an existential fight against evil; you’re saving the country. This is way more fun than the boring truth. So the base now has picked up this style of spinning conspiracy tales, telling them to itself, acting on it; and the base is now leading the politicians. I don’t know how you put that genie back in the bottle. I think that’s maybe his most important contribution.
Wehner: I know people who believe the threat from progressivism, whether we’re talking about cancel culture or “wokeness,” is vastly overstated. You clearly see it as a concern. What’s the nature of the threat posed by the progressive left today? And how is cancel culture a type of informational warfare?
Rauch: The tactics are not ideological. The left can use them; the right has used them; anyone can use them. So the tactics are distinct from the politics.
The right has latched on to disinformation, conspiracism, and trolling because they have the power to do those things. And they’re really good at them. The left has latched on to canceling because the left has the power to do those things and is really good at them. But they could swap tomorrow, and they probably will. So we mustn’t think of canceling as a left-wing phenomenon. It’s a weapon; it’s an information-warfare phenomenon. And if one side gets it, you can be sure [that] eventually the other side will get it too.
Having made that distinction, I said the second big point of my book is: You’re being manipulated. People tend to think of cancel culture as this bad thing that goes on online or it’s because of repressive ideologies. I want them to say, “No, actually this belongs in the same bucket as the stuff Trump is doing.” Maybe the ideological goals of the people using it are different, but they are also waging information warfare. By information warfare, I mean organizing and manipulating the social and media environment for political advantage in order to divide, dominate, disorient, and ultimately demoralize the people on the other side.
One way to do that is to flood the zone with falsehoods and conspiracy theories, and to cause mass disorientation. Another way is trolling: using outrage to hijack people’s brains. But another way to do that is use social pressure to silence, demoralize, isolate, and shame those who are your targets. And anyone can be the target. It turns out probably the most frequent victims of canceling are progressives who are canceled by other progressives. This is about dominating the information space by shutting down, chilling a whole sector of that space.
So how do they do that? Well, you say something they don’t like, or say anything at all. This really can be quite random. And almost instantly, a campaign of outrage is stirred up. They’re usually organized as swarms. They frequently go after employers so that people’s jobs are endangered. They frequently go after friends and professional associates of those targeted, saying, “If you agree with this person, you’re in trouble too.” They certainly go after the self-esteem of the people who are targeted by saying that they’re just horrible, awful people. They use out-and-out lies; they strip context; they reduce entire careers and reputations to a single word and a single tweet; they organize secondary boycotts; they seek to punish and silence—all of these things are completely hostile to the constitution of knowledge, which is about forcing us to debate other people’s arguments instead of trashing them as people and demolishing their careers. And canceling is effective because no one wants to get on the wrong side of this, and so people are widely chilled.
Surveys now find that 62 percent of Americans and 68 percent of students are reluctant to share their true political views for fear of negative social consequences, and a third of Americans say that they’re worried about losing a job or job opportunities if they express their true political views. Very significantly, that third is about the same across the entire political spectrum. Progressives are just as worried and frightened as conservatives. That’s a really bad information environment. That’s like a town that’s so polluted with smog that you can barely breathe.
Wehner: You did a podcast with Andrew Sullivan, who seemed to think that cancel culture was an equivalent threat to that of MAGA world, whereas you don’t think that they are equivalent threats, though both are threatening.
Rauch: There is an interesting argument on which is the greater threat. One side says that Trump, MAGA world, has control of a political party; they had the presidency; they might soon have it again; there’s nothing like that on the left, which, every time they face an electorate, they lose, the extreme left.
Another view says, no, the culture precedes the politics. The left has the cultural commanding heights; they’ve got academia; they’ve got newsrooms; increasingly, they’ve got employers. They’ve marched through the institutions and are imposing a totalistic ideology. Trump doesn’t have a totalistic ideology. He’s just an opportunist demagogue. But the left does, and they’re out to impose it. So that’s a debate, which is interesting and important.
When I wrote the book, I thought it was a horse race. I finished the book before November 3, 2020. I thought I was writing for a world in which odds were 2-to-1 that Joe Biden would be president and Trump would quickly fade away and Republicans would move on and people would see a chapter about Trumpian-style disinformation warfare and think, Well, that’s yesterday’s newspaper. That threat’s gone. So there’s actually probably more words in the book about the canceling side of things.
I had no idea what was about to follow on November 4. I should have seen it, because Trump clearly signaled his intention to run the biggest disinformation campaign that’s ever been tried by far in the U.S. against the election, starting on November 4. He told us he was going to do that. And he started that in April 2020, with the campaign against mail-in voting.
But since the election, we’ve seen the “Stop the Steal” movement, which I argue is kind of the 9/11 of epistemic warfare. It’s the moment when a threat that’s been emerging and developing for a long time bursts into full public view, showing its true capabilities. It’s now convinced 70 percent of the Republican Party that the election was stolen. That we’re no longer a democracy. It’s convinced 47 percent of independents that Trump won the election or that they don’t know who really won. This is astonishing. There’s no precedent for this. So now I don’t think it’s a horse race at all. In June or July 2021, I don’t even think it’s close. I think we’ve got an emergency on our hands.
Wehner: I want to shift to the intellectual journey of Jon Rauch. Who were the key figures in your intellectual evolution, the people who most shaped your mind?
Rauch: I’m going to try to divide the world into people I’ve read and people I’ve known. Among the people I’ve read, my earliest big influence, when I was a teenager, is probably Bertrand Russell, because of his skepticism and his incisive writing. And then, when I got to my 20s, it was George Orwell, whose essays I gobbled down at the age of 23. That was a transformative experience.
Rauch: His unflinching commitment to truth at all costs. The kind of honesty that he used about himself and others, and because of his ability to see broadly across categories, to write about Shakespeare with a kind of political brilliance and to write about politics with a kind of literary brilliance.
When I got into my 30s, it was probably Karl Popper, the 20th century’s greatest philosopher of science. Popper figures out that knowledge is an organized search for error, and that it evolves like the ecosystem. You don’t have to have finality to have knowledge. Those are also transformative ideas, and they apply in politics, as well, by the way. Popper’s great insight is that something as great as knowledge really comes from trial and error. That trial and error is incredibly powerful, if you get the incentives right. And that’s informed everything I’ve written.
On the personal side, George Will. When I was about 15, my older brother got a subscription to Newsweek, and there was this columnist on the back page. I was too young to know if I agreed with him or not—I was, in those days, a Naderite liberal—but I knew there was something about the kind of writing and the kind of thinking and the depth that he brought to it that was new to my experience of journalism. And I later got to know him, and all of that is absolutely real.
The late economist Charles Schultze was one of the first people I encountered when I came to Washington. He had a way of looking at things that was wise—that way of looking at the world, urging us to step back, calm down. An equally big personal influence is Bill Galston, who has the same sort of wisdom, and to me that constitutes a balanced view of the world, an ability to transcend the moment and one’s own prejudices to the extent that’s possible. Be tough-minded with oneself.
Then there’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan. When I was a sophomore in high school, I won an essay-writing contest in my school, and the prize for that was a paperback called Coping: Essays on the Practice of Government, a collection of essays by Moynihan. I was too young to understand it, but I knew there was something about the way he was thinking that I wanted to emulate. Of course, later I understood what that was, which is the complete resistance to cant and the deep grounding in empiricism. I’m very happy to say that thanks to George Will, I was able to meet Moynihan a few months before he died and tell him that story and give him a copy of a book I had written. Moynihan and Orwell are the two I’d emphasize as transformative.
Wehner: You were a key figure in the same-sex marriage debate in the 1990s. How did you see your role in the same-sex-marriage debate at the time?
Rauch: One is that I thought I had the right answer. I realized right away that this was an issue for me because I was, by that point, a social conservative and said: This is a conservative movement. This is gay people saying, “We’ve had it with being isolated individuals who live in our own separate world and are alienated from norms like marriage and family. That failed us in the AIDS crisis.” And I said, Here’s a case where all my core beliefs come together—equality for gay people; better lives for young people, who need the prospect of marriage; and joining, upholding, and strengthening possibly society’s most important nonpolitical institution. So I saw myself as having something to say that only a few other people were saying, and doing it in a more systematic way.
Another thing I thought I was doing was just more political, which is helping the public understand that the case for gay marriage is a conservative case. That’s why progressive gay and lesbian people and leaders were at best ambivalent about marriage, especially at first. A lot of them were against it because they perceived it, rightly, to be an embrace of this bourgeois norm that they didn’t want. So I thought I could have a public and political role in explaining that this was a conservative movement.
I also co-founded a group call the Independent Gay Forum, which was a network of conservative, center-right, and libertarian writers and thinkers who are gay, and we wanted to take back at least the gay intellectual world from the monotonal progressives, extreme leftists in many cases who had basically commanded it to that point. These were people who thought if you were gay, it meant you had to be pro-choice and anti-capitalist. And we thought that was nonsense. Marriage was also a good way to open up a new front and take back the agenda from the left. And it succeeded in that, but unfortunately only for a while.
Wehner: What do you mean by that? What’s happening now?
Rauch: For 15 or 20 years, the focus of gay and lesbian equality was more about responsibilities than rights. It was about service to our country in the military, service to each other in our communities in marriage, and service to children as mentors and parents. And that was a transformative thing for how the world saw gay and lesbian people. It allowed the flourishing of a gay center. But then we won all those things. And so people like me said, Okay, good, we can hang up our spurs and focus on something else. I went off and did polarization and now the epistemic crisis, and other people went off and did other things. And meanwhile, the progressives hadn’t gone anywhere. If anything, a lot of them got even more rabidly left-wing, and they just swooped down from the hills and retook all the villages. So unfortunately, with very important exceptions, intellectually speaking, the movement is now very left-wing and a lot of the people in the driver’s seats are gender radicals. Which is a very different point of view than gay and lesbian marriage advocates had. So it’s a different world now.
Wehner: As a gay man, what would you most hope to convey to Christians that you think they miss and need to hear? And what would you most hope to convey to the gay-rights movement about Christians that you think they don’t see or need to hear? Another way to put it is: What are the main misunderstandings on each side that would help both sides better understand the other?
Rauch: I would like Christians, especially evangelicals, to understand that we are not a threat to your moral order. That the Bible, properly understood, does not condemn the loving, permanent, binding commitment of two same-sex individuals to each other and to their community. I want them to understand that vast numbers of gay people are religious. I want them very much to come to grips honestly with the fact that the evangelical world and much of mainstream Christianity turned its back on gay people, not only condemned us and singled us out for condemnation as if homosexuality were the worst sin in the world—they did that, of course, for centuries—but when the AIDS crisis came, they turned away. We had to open our own churches in order to do the job of ministering to the spiritual and physical needs of the gay community. That’s disgraceful. And we still haven’t seen the Christian world face up to that. So I want them to look into their souls and do better.
On my side, I’d like to see better understanding that freedom of religion and religion are the founding precepts of this country and of our liberal order. And that freedom for gay people must mean freedom for everyone, including religious people. And that would be true even if religion were not specifically carved out in the First Amendment as something of special importance. And so I would want gay people to understand that religion does have a special role in American life, and it’s entitled to that role and we should accommodate that to the greatest extent that it’s possible to do so without handicapping or severely inconveniencing ourselves. This is not an area where we should be insisting on total purity.
Wehner: You once told me that you’re “color-blind” when it comes to faith. What did you mean by that?
Rauch: Among my very earliest perceptions was this idea that there’s some great daddy in the sky that in addition to looking after the entire universe, cares about us, performs miracles, lets all kinds of evil happen but blames us for that—I just thought that was ludicrous. And it didn’t get less ludicrous as I got older; it got more ludicrous. So I knew in my heart from a very young age that I could not be religious. I did try at one point in my early teens at a Jewish religious camp. I was fooling myself and I knew it, so I gave up. So my early attitude toward all that, coming out of reading Bertrand Russell, is: Religion is irrational; we’d be better off without it.
Partly as a result of meeting some people—including you and my freshman-year college roommate, Mark McIntosh, and others who opened my eyes to a kind of faith that, although I can’t participate in it, a kind of faith that is rational and quite deep and quite profound—I began to realize that the person who was missing out was not them; it was me. And that most people are wired to receive the frequencies of faith and to do that in a way [that] for the most part is good for them, good for their lives, good for their communities.
You know, it may not be objectively rational, but Francis Collins can be a Christian. Wow! Well, he’s certainly smarter than I am. So that’s when I realized I was missing a faith gene. I wasn’t receiving the frequencies that some other people could receive. And I began to think: I’m perfectly functional this way. In fact I love it; I wouldn’t trade it, the same way I wouldn’t trade being gay or Jewish. Whatever burdens and difficulties it has, there are many offsetting benefits from being different.
But that said, I do recognize that your life and Francis’s life are in some ways richer than mine because you perceive those frequencies. And for that reason, I liken my condition to color-blindness. I function perfectly well, everything works, but there are hues in life that I don’t perceive and depths that I can’t participate in.
Wehner: Last question: What have been your aspirations as a writer and public intellectual? What have you strived to achieve in terms of the characteristics of your work—and what would you like to be said when it’s all done?
Rauch: I’ve given it a lot of thought since probably the age of 26 or 27. I wrote down an aphorism, which is “I don’t want to be a big shot. I don’t want to be a hot shot. I want to be a deep shot.” I realized that the people I admired the most were the people who had a quality that I think of as wisdom. And that wisdom had certain qualities, like balance, fairness, objectivity to the extent an individual can be, a certain kind of integrity. And above all, I had a desire to be useful, to be constructive.
There’s a whole scientific literature on wisdom. It’s not intelligence; it doesn’t even correlate with intelligence. It’s not skill; it’s not experience, though it does involve those things. The main thing it involves is that it’s helpful to society, to individuals and the people around them in navigating complex social environments and solving problems. And I knew that was what I wanted.
If I can’t contribute in a constructive way in some kinds of conversations, I’m not very interested. So you don’t find me writing polemics about the culture war, you don’t find me doing cultural criticism, a genre that I pretty much detest. I’m looking for areas throughout my whole career where I can figure out a right answer or a better answer or make a suggestion about how to look at things that will actually be constructive. So that’s what I want to be known for. I would like people to say that I figured out some ideas, some suggestions, maybe even some truths that helped solve some problems for some people.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.