This essay by Charles Taylor draws from a lecture sponsored by the SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy program, called "Ways Democracy Can Slip Away," on October 17, 2016, at Roosevelt House in New York City, and is copublished in The Democracy Papers. Taylor was the program’s 2016 Democracy Fellow. Speaking in the weeks before the 2016 US election, Taylor discusses the character of modern democracies and their vulnerability to what he call “spirals of decline.” He concludes with a reflection on the present populist moment.
Can representative democracies be strengthened to govern more effectively? The SSRC’s Anxieties of Democracy (AOD) program is motivated by a concern about whether the core institutions of established democracies that connect citizens and civil society to the political system—elections, mass media, political parties, interest groups, social movements, and, especially, legislatures—can capably address large problems in the public interest. The Democracy Papers makes available short essays and works-in-progress from the events AOD organizes and the broad network of scholars and practitioners it mobilizes. Previously located on AOD’s website, past Democracy Papers are available there while new ones will be published as part of SSRC’s Items essay forum.
Nancy Rosenblum’s Items contribution is based on her response to Charles Taylor’s October Roosevelt House lecture, "Ways Democracy Can Slip Away," and also appears in The Democracy Papers. A member of the Anxieties of Democracy program’s Advisory Committee, Rosenblum reflects on Taylor’s arguments through the lenses of history and political philosophy. She ends on a note of contingent hope, emphasizing that democracy’s contemporary vulnerabilities are related to genuine advances in the quality of democracy over time.