Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Democracy May Not Exist, but We'll Miss It When It's Gone

Astra Taylor

Metropolitan Books




WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? Since this deceptively simple question first came into my mind, I haven’t been able to shake it. We think we understand the word, but what are we really referring to when we talk about a system in which the people rule themselves?

The word democracy is all around us, invoked in almost every conceivable context: government, business, technology, education, and media. At the same time, its meaning, taken as self-evident, 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. The significance of the democratic ideal, as well as its practical substance, is surprisingly elusive.

For most of my life, the word democracy didn’t hold much appeal. I was of course never against democracy per se, but words such as justice, equality, freedom, solidarity, socialism, and revolution resonated more deeply. Democracy struck me as mealy-mouthed, even debased. That idealistic anarchists and authoritarian leaders are equally inclined to claim “democracy” as their own only demonstrated its lack of depth. North Korea does, after all, call itself a “Democratic People’s Republic,” and Iraq was invaded by the U.S. Army in the name of bringing democracy to the Middle East. But today I no longer see the opportunistic use of the word as a sign of the idea’s vapidity. Those powers co-opt the concept of democracy because they realize that it represents a profound threat to the established order, a threat they desperately hope to contain.

After making a documentary film, What Is Democracy?, I now understand the concept’s disorienting vagueness and protean character as a source of strength; I have come to accept, and even appreciate, that there is no single definition I can stand behind that feels unconditionally conclusive. Though the practice has extensive global roots, the word democracy comes to us from ancient Greece, and it conveys a seemingly simple idea: the people (demos) rule or hold power (kratos). Democracy is the promise of the people ruling, but a promise that can never be wholly fulfilled because its implications and scope keep changing. Over centuries our conceptions of democracy have expanded and evolved, with democracy becoming more inclusive and robust in many ways, yet who counts as the people, how they rule, and where they do so remain eternally up for debate. Democracy destabilizes its own legitimacy and purpose by design, subjecting its core components to continual examination and scrutiny.

Perfect democracy, I’ve come to believe, may not in fact exist and never will, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress toward it, or that what there is of it can’t disappear. For this reason, I am more convinced than ever that the questions of what democracy is—and, more important, what it could be—are ones we must perpetually ask.

Right now, many who question democracy do so out of disillusionment, fear, and outrage. Democracy may not exist, yet it still manages to disappoint. Political gridlock, corruption, unaccountable representatives, and the lack of meaningful alternatives incense people across the ideological spectrum; their anger simmers at dehumanizing bureaucracy, blatant hypocrisy, and lack of voice. Leaders are not accountable and voters rightly feel their choices are limited, all while the rich keep getting richer and regular people scramble to survive. In advanced democracies around the world, a growing number of people aren’t even bothering to vote—a right many people fought and died for fairly recently. Most Americans will say that they live in a democracy, but few will say that they trust the government, while the state generally inspires negative reactions, ranging from frustration to contempt and suspicion. The situation calls to mind Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s observation from The Social Contract: “In a well-ordered city every man flies to the assemblies; under a bad government no one cares to stir a step to get to them.… As soon as any man says of the State What does it matter to me? the State may be given up for lost.”1

A cauldron of causes generates an atmosphere of corrosive cynicism, social fragmentation, and unease, with blame too often directed downward at the most vulnerable populations. And it’s not just in the United States. Consider the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union, the decision known as Brexit; the resurgence of right-wing populism across Europe; coups and reactionary electoral victories in Brazil; and the rise of fascism in India. Plato’s warning about democracy devolving into tyranny rings chillingly prophetic. The promise of self-rule risks becoming not a promise but a curse, a self-destructive motor pushing toward destinations more volatile, divided, despotic, and mean.

But this book isn’t about the pitfalls of popular sovereignty, though it certainly has its perils. Nor is it about the shortcomings of current liberal democratic political systems or the ways they have been corrupted by money and power—though they have been. That’s a story that has been told before, and while it will be the backdrop to my inquiry it is not the focus. This book, instead, 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. My goal is not to negate the sense of alarm nor deter people from action but to remind us that we are part of a long, complex, and still-unfolding chronicle, whatever the day’s headlines might be or whoever governs the country.

Taking a more theoretical approach to democracy’s winding, thorny path and inherently paradoxical nature can also provide solace and reassurance. Ruling ourselves has never been straightforward and never will be. Ever vexing and unpredictable, democracy is a process that involves endless reassessment and renewal, not an endpoint we reach before taking a rest (leaving us with a finished system to tweak at the margins). As such, this book is my admittedly unorthodox, idiosyncratic call to democratize society from the bottom to the top. It is also an expression of my belief that we cannot rethink democracy if we haven’t really thought about it in the first place.

* * *

One thing I’ve learned is that the people who are most averse to deepening democracy know exactly why they despise it. (Plato, who helped invent political philosophy by railing against democracy, arguably began the trend.) A political science major told me that she doesn’t value democracy much. “The phrase that inspires me,” she said, “is the American dream and that ability to climb.” Opportunity mattered to her and her friends more than inclusion. I expected them to see democracy and capitalism as mutually reinforcing; instead, they perceived the two to be at odds in key respects: democratic demands, whether for progressive taxation or for liberal immigration policies, would diminish their social and economic distinction.

“In capitalism, there are going to be people at the bottom,” one young man enthused, confident of his place at the top and cognizant that his position was antidemocratic. Members of a privileged economic minority, these students recognized that impediments to popular sovereignty (such as the Electoral College, which handed two of the last five presidential elections to a candidate who had lost the popular vote) were necessary for the continued dominance of their class. (James Madison had as much in mind when he promoted the idea that the Senate should protect the “invaluable interests” of “opulent” landlords against expropriation by the more numerous masses.)

As much as I disagree with the students’ beliefs, this right-wing position is at least the consequence of sincere, if self-centered, consideration. In contrast, many people who say they value democracy have a remarkably difficult time defending the principle in a meaningful or substantive way. Platitudes routinely eclipse more profound or personal reflection: democracy amounts to “free and fair” elections, “the peaceful transfer of power,” or “freedom,” pure and simple. During the process of making my film, no one I met on the street suggested that democracy was a continuous process of egalitarian inclusion and power sharing made possible by tireless agitators, even though that’s a legitimate if long-winded way to define it. Nor did anyone respond with the classical description, that democracy is the rule of the people. (Though I did come across a number of men who, once they realized how little they actually had to say on the subject, told me, authoritatively, that thanks to the genius of the founding fathers America is not actually a democracy but a republic, as if that were enough to cease any further inquiry.)

We could conclude that people who struggle to speak about such an essential component of modern life are just ignorant or perhaps too distracted to be engaged, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. The problem stems, I believe, from that fact that democracy is something people rarely encounter in their everyday lives: certainly not during the media- and celebrity-obsessed, money-driven circus of national elections; nor at their jobs, where they are often treated like replaceable cogs in a machine and have to keep their heads down; nor at their schools or colleges, where they are encouraged to see themselves as consumers seeking a return on investment rather than as citizens preparing to participate in the common good. For all our lauded freedoms, democracy isn’t something we actually experience all that much. No wonder, then, that people can barely describe it.

* * *

Typically, democracy is considered to consist of one person, one vote, exercised in periodic elections; constitutional rights; and a market economy. On paper at least, there is no shortage of states that conform to this rather limited conception—by some estimates, eighty-one countries moved from authoritarianism to democracy between 1980 and 2002. Yet recent studies reveal that democracy, defined by the preceding attributes, has weakened worldwide over the last decade or so. According to one well-respected annual report, seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017, leading to an overall decrease in global freedom.2 In early 2018, the Economist warned, “Democracy Continues Its Disturbing Retreat”—this not long after the magazine’s yearly Democracy Index officially downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed” one.3

Yet democracy doesn’t retreat either of its own accord or by some organic, immutable process. It is eroded, undermined, attacked, or allowed to wither. It falls into disrepair and disrepute thanks to the actions or inaction of human beings who have lost touch with or, in some cases, sabotaged the responsibilities and possibilities that a system of self-government entails. While today it’s common to blame extremists for jeopardizing democracy, studies show that across Europe and the United States it is middle-of-the-road centrists who tend to hold the most hostile attitudes toward democratic practices, preferring strong and effective centralized decision making to messier, more inclusive processes. Less than half of Americans who identify with the political center view elections as “an essential feature of democracy” and only half of them, or 25 percent of centrists, agree that civil rights are crucial.4 Apathy, or even antipathy, toward self-government and the difficult daily work it requires is one of the stones that help pave the way to a more authoritarian society. That apathy is helped by the fact that the American system was never designed to be democratic to begin with.

Copyright © 2019 by Astra Taylor