What, Exactly, Do We Mean by 'Democracy' Anyway?

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.”

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