Democracy Is a Puzzle

Democracy is about the struggle for a more equitable world — but it’s also about grappling with the messy, contingent questions that will always confront humanity.

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece, with the Parthenon in the center, and the Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the foot, circa 1960. J. Russell Gilman / Archive Photos / Getty

Imagine if one day soon a wealthy capitalist country chooses to end all immigration, or all immigration except for the rich or for people from particular parts of the world. Imagine the decision is the result of a referendum, and the overwhelming majority of citizens support it. Could we call the outcome “democratic”? If not, why not? If so, what then? What would that mean for a principled commitment to democracy?

We don’t have clear answers to these questions. They pull us in several directions at once: to speak only for myself, I don’t want that to be democracy, but it is hard to say it’s not. And if that is indeed democracy, then am I opposed to it? Sometimes, I suppose I am — but can one be committed to democracy only some of the time? That doesn’t seem right either.

These are the puzzles, the “tension of paradoxes unresolved and arguably irresolvable” that animate Astra Taylor’s fine and valuable Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. The book is an expansive and generous look at the complexities, contradictions even, that no honest reflection on progressive politics can set aside. It is structured by a series of binaries at the heart of “democracy” — conflict/consensus, inclusion/exclusion, or expertise/mass opinion, for example. Drawing on everything from political theory to stories to interviews, Taylor shows how the struggle for democracy must always engage with both sides of each pair, and that this inevitably means the answers to a lot of important questions are not straightforward. Things get messy, unclear, and they change all the time.

The book begins in (and returns often to) ancient Athens, and ranges across time and space from Bhutan to Britain and Pericles to Piketty. There are compelling accounts of modern Greece, contemporary Indigenous politics in Canada, and the threats and opportunities generated by modern communications technology. Throughout, however, its attention constantly comes back to the United States. It is the quagmire that is American democracy, in all its hope and horror, that ultimately becomes the lens through which to examine almost every question raised.

This carries the risk of provincialism, but Taylor manages it well. Despite lengthy treatments of matters that could seem US-centric — gerrymandering, California’s Proposition 13, the Civil Rights Movement, James Madison — somehow Democracy May Not Exist remains less a book about American democracy than a book about “democracy,” set primarily in an America whose political system “was never designed to be democratic in the first place.”

What, then, is democracy for Taylor? One might be forgiven for expecting a book as wise and sharp-eyed as this to leave us with something concrete we can hold on to, but it doesn’t. That might sound like a flaw, but it’s not. On the contrary, it is the book’s greatest merit.

Taylor’s writing is welcoming and accessible, but she never simplifies. There is not a single instance where she sets a problem aside because it troubles her account, or leaves a concept hanging because it would be “too complicated” to deal with it. She looks every contradiction in the eyes, and most of the time, because those contradictions are in fact real, often-ineradicable paradoxes we live with every day, she does what we hope she’ll do: she acknowledges them, and tries to make sense of how to live with them, how to find possibility where no obvious “right” path emerges.

The title alone is something of a hint — true democracy has never existed, Taylor says, but as a regulative ideal it is indispensable to the struggle for a better world — and from the very first pages, she emphasizes democracy’s “disorienting vagueness and protean character.”

What is interesting is that despite all this, Taylor is more than willing to put all her eggs in democracy’s basket, in the hope that in the continuity of struggle, practice can come closer and closer to promise. Indeed, for her democracy is where hope lies. It is in some ways a force in itself, it “represents a profound threat to the established order, a threat they desperately hope to contain.” That hope lies in “the power of ideas to shape reality,” in the fact that by definition, the struggle for rule “of the people by the people” cultivates “people’s tremendous and mostly untapped capacity for reflection.” She shares with Rousseau, who she cites approvingly on several occasions, a “faith in human nature,” in people’s capacity to recognize that equality, freedom, and justice can only be founded in interdependence, not independence.

The great tension in this, however, is irrepressible. If we return with the questions with which I began, there might seem to be some room for doubt. While it is true that the ascent to power of someone like Donald Trump was enabled by purposefully antidemocratic electoral processes, the consolidation of forces driven by broad swaths of popular hate across so-called democracies all over the planet might give us pause. Should we really trust in the people today? At several points in the book Taylor notes the way in which neoliberalism has intensified elites’ long war against democracy, but she doesn’t really discuss the fact that a structurally similar, if differently motivated, antidemocratic sentiment is often shared by many “progressives.” I realize it is something of a caricature, but if I am honest, when I watch a mob of over-armed Trump supporters baying for “leftist” blood, I cannot help but lose some faith in rule “by the people for the people.”

Perhaps this exposes me as an elitist, but I don’t think so. I think, rather, that it is largely a product of something Taylor touches on here and there in Democracy May Not Exist: the fact that democracy (paradoxically) seems to require in advance the conditions, institutions, and constituency it is supposed to help put in place. I share her unwavering faith in people’s capacity to reflect, but it seems to me, and many others, that such capacities require a political culture in which they are nurtured, dignified, and supported. In other words, they require what I think of as a democratic political culture. And that political culture seems to necessitate some wisdom, and a great deal of time, to put in place.

One of the things all of Taylor’s books do so well is bring the lessons of supposedly head-in-the-clouds political theory to feet-on-the-ground real life. In this case she turns to Plato’s story, from the Republic, of a ship seized by ignorant sailors who dismiss the knowledge of an experienced navigator and run the ship aground. Taylor says Plato’s point is not merely an argument for technocracy before its time. Instead, she writes, “Plato objected to democracy not because the system denied technically proficient people the right to run things, but because he believed it inevitably marginalized the wise.”

Clearly Taylor does not want to endorse this position. And yet it is partly what explains the origins of Athenian democracy itself — and this is no small thing in a book that while readily acknowledging its many exclusions, holds up the principles and practice of Athenian democracy as a model. Taylor begins a chapter organized around the spontaneity/structure binary with the tale of the nobleman Cleisthenes, who in 508 BC “inaugurated Athenian democracy by breaking down traditional centers of power based on kinship and religion and binding people in new affiliations based on place.” She quotes the classicist Efimia Karatantza — with whom she visited the ancient Agora, one of the best parts of Taylor’s excellent recent film What Is Democracy?, to which the book is something of a sibling — who says that what Cleisthenes “did was completely arbitrary, but the new political time and space is now based on these new divisions.” Cleisthenes even changed people’s names to reflect this.

The question that bubbles beneath the surface of this history, for me, is how did Cleisthenes have or gain the power to institute these changes? Taylor tells us he was “empowered by a riot of the lower classes,” a “sudden burst of sustained rage at the threat of escalating tyranny.” But that does not undermine the conclusion that the story of freedom and equality begins in the exercise of elite power on the part of a wise nobleman. The origins of democracy would appear to be profoundly undemocratic.

What are we to do with this knowledge? There is a temptation to try to clean up the account here, to discover either a purer history (Cleisthenes was really a democrat whose power was embedded in the people) or a purer conception of democracy (the outcome of undemocratic politics cannot be considered democratic). I believe Taylor would tell us not to fall victim to that temptation. Democracy May Not Exist is one long exhortation not to shy away from the paradoxes — democracy’s undemocratic origin is only one more. But how do we take up this stance toward political life in a way that doesn’t just reaffirm that most fundamental of liberal legitimizers, the “trade-off”?

According to the liberal worldview, all social relationships are really just forms of contract, either explicit or implicit, and consequently, every social arrangement represents a negotiated (if power-laden) distribution of incommensurables: freedom-security, jobs-environment, work-leisure, etc. The fact that these trade-offs are deemed “inevitable” is among the most important ways that liberalism justifies the extraordinary unfreedom, inequality, and injustice that always characterizes it.

Is the undemocratic origin of democracy just one more trade-off? Is this how we should understand each of the binaries at the core of Democracy May Not Exist? Is “real” democracy about accepting that we can’t have everything, and determining the acceptable apportionment of coercion vs. choice, local vs. global, or present vs. future in our politics and political economies?

The answer, for Taylor, has to be no. That is true for me as well. The problem is, what does a politics based on something else, on a “balance of paradoxes” rather than inevitable trade-offs, look like? I don’t think Taylor would ever claim to have an answer to that question. But I do think she might tell us where she thinks that politics must begin: in the purposeful, reflective, and critical exercise of the popular power to which we do have access.

She says throughout that rights aren’t rights unless they are exercised, that citizenship must be enacted, that politics isn’t politics without the doing. All of this is stuff we must — because there is no other way — do together. And it is stuff, however much we might sometimes hope otherwise, that we will not be able to do only in the company of people who agree with us on fundamental questions. This seems to me very true and enormously important.

But it does raise the question of how we talk to, work with, and live with the company of those people who see the world otherwise. Shaming them, we are learning quickly (if we did not already know), is not an answer, and one of the impressive things about this book is the way Taylor never lets her own politics prevent her from trying to understand others’. Casting them out is not an answer either (again, tempting as it must sometimes be). Generosity of spirit, or something like that, might look like an answer — but what does that look like, confronted with a smug white face beneath a MAGA hat spewing bile? I don’t know.

It is difficult not to turn to another long-standing staple of liberal politics, the criterion of “reasonableness.” Even Taylor can’t help herself sometimes. For example, in her fascinating analysis of Occupy Wall Street, in which she participated, she describes the way that consensus-based decision-making meant “a small irascible group could obstruct perfectly reasonable proposals”; “the reckless exercise of the veto” derailing the whole process.

Contrary to the general sensibility of progressives, however, we inhabit a world in which the criterion of reasonableness is not ours alone. Opponents of immigration, proponents of market-based solutions to climate change, nationalists — all write the Left off as unreasonable too. This can, and does, produce a condition in which even the democrats (not the party) are wary of democracy.

This is where Taylor is most helpful: she refuses that categorically, and the refusal itself is an act of hopeful struggle. As her companion Rousseau also once said (she doesn’t quote it, but I am sure she knows it), “It is impossible to live in peace with those one believes to be damned,” and, it seems to me, the need to remember that is all the more reason to carry this wise book with us in the years ahead. In all the paradoxes, and in all the questions it forces us to ask without knowing how we’ll answer, it is something like an antidote to damnation.