Nonfiction: What, Exactly, Do We Mean by ‘Democracy’ Anyway?



Astra Taylor CreditCreditDeborah DeGraffenreid

By Astra Taylor

Dismay over recent electoral outcomes — including the victory of Donald Trump in the United States, the choice of Brexit in the United Kingdom and the selection of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — has occasioned a torrent of commentary about the state of democracy in the world. Some observers fear that these developments represent not simply troublesome episodes but harbingers of tendencies that will overwhelm or corrupt key features of good democratic governance: an independent judiciary whose decisions are enforced; institutions such as schools and news media that enable voters to have access to accurate, pertinent information; fair electoral processes; and sensible, decent policies.

An impressive contribution to this anxious re-examination of political assumptions and practices is Astra Taylor’s “Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone,” an idiosyncratic rumination on problems associated with popular self-government. “For most of my life,” she writes, “the word democracy didn’t hold much appeal. … Words such as justice, equality, freedom, solidarity, socialism and revolution resonated more deeply.” A big part of the problem is a definitional vacuum that leaves “democracy” vulnerable to the sloganeering of just about anyone. After all, notes Taylor, a Canadian documentary filmmaker and author, the horrendously dictatorial regime of North Korea calls itself a “Democratic People’s Republic.” She sets out to impart some coherence and substance to the term in order to rescue it from ignorance and obfuscation. Her book, she declares, “is an invitation to think about the word democracy from various angles, looking back through history and reflecting on the philosophy and practice of self-rule in hopes that a more contemplative view will shed useful light on our present predicament.”

Taylor manages to avoid the complacencies inculcated by the unceasingly propounded message that American methods of “democracy” are, of course, the best ones. Recall that President Bill Clinton withdrew the nomination of Lani Guinier to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department because she had the temerity to argue that winner-take-all majoritarianism — a staple American practice — is, in important respects, anti-democratic inasmuch as it negates the influence of minorities.

Today, the most consequential manifestation of American political narcissism is the extent to which the United States Constitution is exempted from critique. Many observers rightly condemned Trump’s demagogic charge that Barack Obama was ineligible for the presidency because, supposedly, he was born abroad. All too few went on to question the constitutional provision on which the “birther” allegation parasitically hung — the provision that reserves the presidency for “natural born” citizens, thereby excluding from eligibility for no good reason millions of naturalized citizens.

Progressives like Bernie Sanders call for “revolution,” yet say nothing about a Constitution that, left unchanged, makes their aspirations unattainable. Rightly questioning fundamental governing arrangements — for example the uniformity of state representation in the Senate (a blatant rejection of majoritarianism) — Taylor notes that a “scant 2 percent of Americans, residing in the nine smallest states, hold the same power in the Senate as the 51 percent who reside in the nine largest; some votes literally weigh up to 66 times more than others, and urban migration trends mean that this problem will only become more extreme.” The University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson has been trying for a decade to stir discontent with what he calls “our undemocratic Constitution.” Taylor’s book suggests that a new generation of activist-intellectuals might be more inclined to press the Levinsonian attack.



Taylor displays considerable intellectual nimbleness. She abhors the anti-tax revolt in California that culminated in 1978 with Proposition 13, the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation. But she admires the skill with which tax revolt organizers managed public perceptions and manipulated the working of government to effectuate their aims. She urges her camp — the champions of feminist, working-class, multicultural progressivism — to be more attentive to the limits of protest. The illegal blocking of intersections and occupation of public squares, she writes, can sometimes be essential, “but compelling bursts of civil disobedience can also mask the fact that the left is not yet strong, strategic or patient enough to transform expressions of discontent into a force that can pull political and economic structures in a more democratic direction.”

Taylor is similarly realistic in recognizing the limits of electoral reforms — such as referendums or recall initiatives — which are subject to misuse depending on the aims to which they are deployed. She recommends systems of proportional representation, seeing them as generally superior to systems based on winner-take-all majoritarianism. She notes, though, that there is no panacea for all of the problems that beset electoral arrangements. Even modified versions of proportional representation, she writes, “make it possible for fringe parties to become influential power brokers within unstable coalition governments, a pathology most visible in Israel and Italy.”

Several deficiencies weaken Taylor’s book. She does not seriously attempt to answer her first question: “What is democracy? … What are we really referring to when we talk about a system in which the people rule themselves?” She says that she was prompted to address this question because “democracy” is typically left undefined in our conversations. The term’s meaning, she complains, “is rarely given much serious consideration. Though the headlines tell us democracy is in ‘crisis,’ we don’t have a clear conception of what it is that is at risk.”

Initially, then, it seems that Taylor is on a mission of clarification that will better enable us to understand one another at this volatile, polarized moment. Clarification, however, would require charting the many ways in which people use the term “democracy” and then positing and defending a preferred definition. Taylor is too impatient for that. All too quickly she abandons her aim of defining democracy in order to make it more than an empty slogan. Instead, she embraces the ambiguity that characterizes usage of the term, maintaining that its “disorienting vagueness” is a “source of strength.” Vagueness might be good for political actors wishing to deploy “democracy” to further their aims. It’s not good for analysts wishing to demystify political jargon.

Taylor also avoids confronting the intellectual tradition that holds a skeptical view of the ability of “the people” to rule themselves well — as Joseph Schumpeter reflected when he asserted that “the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field.” Taylor is certainly aware of this tradition; periodically she casts aspersions on it and its most influential spokesman, Plato. Marginally, she notes its force, writing that “the idea of empowering ordinary people can seem terrifying today because there is so much stupidity on display” and that “if the people are willing to vote racist huckster demagogues into office, perhaps they can’t be trusted.”

But those are throwaway lines. For the most part she stays safely within the confines of what Jason Brennan, in his excellent book “Against Democracy” (2016), calls “democratic triumphalism,” the belief that “democracy and widespread political participation are valuable, justified and required by justice.” Taylor is sentimentally deferential to “ordinary people.” When they stray, in her analysis, it is always at the hands of some dastardly oppressive or seductive elite. Hence she insists that “ordinary people have struggled defiantly … banding together against the odds to form a philosophical public, a public that may not have all the answers but that is unafraid to ask questions, learn and rebel.”

A good book, “Democracy May Not Exist” would have been even better had Taylor let go of her idealization of “the people” and responded systematically to those who repudiate the assumption that broader, more active political participation by ordinary folk is a prescription for a more decent world.

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