Charles Taylor gives us a long view of democracy as “constitutionally vulnerable” once political representation became its central feature, for from then on democracies faced the unrelenting problem of deciding just who is the demos that must be represented.
He steps in from that long view and demarcates a baseline in the 1980s when the general sense of slipping away began. In successive moves, he examines elements of democratic erosion and the dynamic of loss.
One move brings into focus the incapacity of the social democratic Left to rectify the economic condition of nonelites. Another focuses on the forces of globalization and the “mythology of neoliberalism.”
My goal in these comments is to step back from the particulars of Taylor’s anxieties and from his portrait of democracy today in order to bring out his moral temper and general outlook. I’ll say a word about the wisdom of the historian, the wisdom of the philosopher, and end with hope. I’ll do this by parsing his title: “Ways Democracy Can Slip Away.”
History“We are in the midst of changes, interpreting them as we go.”
“Slip away”: the phrase reflects the wisdom of the historian. If democracy slips away, it would be a world-historical moment. These moments don’t always announce themselves. We are in the midst of changes, interpreting them as we go. There is no owl of Minerva or master narrative here.
The phrase “slip away” captures something else that makes assessment of the historical moment difficult. Something is happening, true, but it is also true that certain political turns we might expect to witness are not. Put simply, there is no turn toward something else. A series of negatives works here: no coup; no revolution; no cynical manipulation of elections or elevation of a strong man who does not bother with legislatures or the rule of law; no military rule; no vanguard politics; no theocracy; no turn to technical expertise; no admitted oligarchy. Certainly no utopianism.
Nor do we see outright rejection of democracy’s defining institutions. There is measureable mistrust, we know, and sometimes there are charges that a particular government—its women and measures—is illegitimate. The phrase “performance legitimacy” captures it. But we are not at a point where we say that our democracy is a cynical facsimile of the real thing; or our leaders are predators with foreign bank accounts; or except as part of an intransigently conspiratorial mindset—manifested by candidate Trump in 2016—that our elections are “rigged.” We also do not hear echoes of historical polemics against the inherent weakness of democracy vis-à-vis other regimes. Democracy is not being taken over or displaced.
In new and fragile democracies, institutions and political practices are contingent. It is tenuous whether democracy will survive for a second or third election. We look for signs of consolidation, even as instability is perceptible. We talk about democratic “backsliding” toward a recent authoritarian or military past; or, given the clash between high expectations and persistent resistance to political change, we speak of angry “backlash” against democracy as a form of government.
None of this troubles the democracies that, I take it, Taylor is assessing (the North Atlantic states and much, though not all, of Europe, meaning “consolidated democracies” about which we are confident of stability and durability).
It’s of historical interest that, insofar as democracy is slipping away, it is not giving way to something else. The concept of “regime change”—applied to other nations hubristically and with force of arms—is alien as applied to us. The ancient Greek cycle of political revolution from good to perverted regimes (with democracy at the bottom) does not apply. Neither does Tocqueville’s warning that civic apathy will lead to centralization and a sort of “soft” despotism.
We have many descriptions of what is happening—“muddling through” with erratic moments of self-correction is one—but no name for the point to which we have come. In this sense, slipping away is not transformative. “De-democratization” may be the best label for the most anxious among us.
Note one thing: most citizens of democracies today came to political consciousness after World War II and have not experienced direct challenges to democracy. Their memories and formative experiences don’t include Nazism or, for the most part, Soviet communism, with their atrocities and attempts to create a heroic ethos to mobilize whole populations in opposition to democracy. Many citizens do not know and are not attracted to actual institutional or ideological alternatives. They have not had to defend democracy against ruthless antagonists.
We may be less full-throated in saying democracy is a universal value and human right. Some democratic orthodoxies are weakened. The conditions of belief in democracy are stressed. But Taylor does not say citizens have abandoned that belief. We don’t assume the pose of unbelief. We aren’t citizen equivalents of atheists.
Taylor’s stance is wary, on the alert, because something seems to be slipping away.
But what? Here “slipping away” reflects the wisdom of the political philosopher. Taylor asks us to consider the meaning democracy has for us from “inside.” What he elsewhere calls the “social imaginary” is our common understanding that runs deeper than anything we can articulate philosophically. This felt value of democracy as a political system is rooted in popular sovereignty.
No elaborate theory of popular sovereignty is necessary for us to feel it is slipping away. We don’t need to have had profound or extended experience of effective self-rule against which to judge this slippage, either. It’s enough that we sense we are not moving closer, but farther away.“We understand that the meaning of democracy for us is political engagement, collective agency, and that it escapes us.”
Things happen and we are startled into thought. Our sense of moving away starts out piecemeal: money distorts elections, but we still want free and fair elections; special interests have their way, so we want to restrain them; organizations that advanced progressive class interests are disabled, so we want to revive them. It appears inequality is increasing inexorably. These elements begin to cohere in a bigger picture. We understand that the meaning of democracy for us is political engagement, collective agency, and that it escapes us. If “representative institutions aimed to subject those who govern to the verdict of those who are governed,” 1 as Bernard Manin writes, we don’t feel that we are subjecting decision-makers to any enforceable verdict at all.
Taylor, the philosopher, gives absence of “felt citizen efficacy” central place causally and experientially. The loss of this feeling “has set in motion various vicious circles of decline.” Disengagement is both cause and effect of the seven spirals he describes.
The past 35 years are not the first time social scientists measured, and citizens reported, apathy, disengagement, anomie, or political malaise. Is this a change of magnitude? Mistrust is certainly greater. There is also a change at the level of expressed feeling: quiet resignation has given way to resentment, even rage.“Popular sovereignty is slipping away, because government is not listening to us, a sentiment that may find angry expression.”
Popular sovereignty is slipping away, because government is not listening to us, a sentiment that may find angry expression. Government extracts taxes, regulates our lives, but is otherwise remote and turns a deaf ear. Citizens face unresponsive legislatures as well as powerful executives whose instruments are sometimes unknowable and uncontrollable (think of surveillance technology). High courts act like a “juristocracy.” Add to this other, literally distant, deciders: the World Bank, the European Union, the World Trade Organization.
This crie de couer, “No one is listening,” Taylor explains, comes in two keys.
In one key, the people who feel exiled are nearly all of us, the 99 percent. The interests and values of identifiable elites dominate decisions. We discover that democracy can reduce poverty and sustain a tenuous middle class but still have immense, insufferable, unjust, and unjustifiable inequality.
We the people collectively are also impotent in the face of foreign counterinsurgency wars and terrorism. Here I offer an addition to Taylor’s story: we did not elect where or how these wars would be fought—wars without victory, taking young lives and costing unfathomable amounts of money. We feel insecurity and fear, of course, but also that most politically dangerous of emotions: humiliation. Democratic citizens suffer but also inflict spectacular human damage, or it is inflicted in our name. We lose confidence not in our innocence (long lost) but in our rightness.
In the second key, “No one is listening” is specific to our particular group. We are not being listened to or understood. We have a sense of exclusion, discrimination, and debasement. This feeling haunts minority groups; and it also haunts majorities that cast themselves as a besieged minority, imagining that others are cutting to the front of the line. “I want my country back” is a familiar refrain. I want it back from others who, we imagine, are being listened to: women, Muslims, immigrants, African Americans, gays and lesbians. Popular sovereignty devolves into “a clash of deeply felt injuries.”2 And where insult and injury shape our view of one another, no constructive accommodation is possible.
I want to underscore Taylor’s crucial observation about political agency slipping away. Some people are roused to common action; not everyone is disengaged. We have episodically roiling demonstrations and organization. But with exceptions (the Tea Party in the United States), activists fail to build links to political parties and elected officials, making the effects of their mobilization limited. They decline to build links is a better way of putting it, and seem determined to remain untainted by partisanship and the business of legislation and regulation—with its compromise, accommodation, and awkward coalitions. I am in complete agreement with Taylor here. Populism, he says, grows at the expense of parties of the political Left. I would argue that it comes at the expense of the regulated rivalry of parties and democratic processes tout court.
In any case, common action occurs outside regular political institutions: activists engage in protests, boycotts, advocacy, social movements, the pathos of demonstrations and communications around Black Lives Matter. This is not narrow single-issue organizing, and race, class, and education are vital markers. Yet, as Taylor suggests, these are not defining lines of political divisions. They are not the salient lines of division that can revivify widespread participation.
Finally, I hear in the title “Ways Democracy Can Slip Away” an iota of hope. If I could, I would sing you the chorus of Paul Simon’s song “Slip-Sliding Away,” which goes: “You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-sliding away.” That is precisely the state of things Taylor identifies. As democratic decisions get more difficult and feelings of inefficacy surge, we also have a better and heightened understanding of its meaning and value for us. We recognize, in the face of challenges, a history of real advances.“Despite Jeremiahs, we are nearer our destination because pluralism and a robust civil society remain.”
Despite Jeremiahs, we are nearer our destination because pluralism and a robust civil society remain. There we have experiences of acting together. We have places of deliberation and mobilization. The public political sphere is not stranded or arid. Its generative soil still grows things. And there is reciprocity and other democratic practices that shape the deeper stratum the democracy of everyday life.
We are also nearer our destination of an inclusive democracy. The demos is diversifying and enlarging, wildly in some places. Diversity and demands for inclusion throw up new conflicts about “our” political identity. The problem, Taylor argues, is that popular sovereignty requires a high degree of cohesion. It takes trust to participate and decide together, to lose and to come back for another round. Negotiation is frustrating. Accommodation entails compromise. Political integration is slow. Still, Taylor sees us as meaning-seeking, meaning-making creatures, and insists that “we are meant to understand each other.”3 There are moments when we seem to be nearer the destination he imagines where “people can bond not in spite of differences but because of them…the differences between them enrich each party…difference defines a complementarity.”4
To give one more example, we are nearer our destination of addressing problems whose scope and time horizon have been, until now, beyond imagination. Taylor points to global warming. Here we may be breaking some of the spell of geopolitical rivalries. The Paris Agreement is significant beyond the voluntary pledges nations have made to control fossil fuel emissions. The agreement arose from insistence on scientific knowledge against the deniers, the forces of deception and “dumbing down.” Its great significance is the emerging consciousness or “social imaginary” of a common human habitat and the threat of a “Sixth Extinction.” Climate change is pushing us towards a species-defined identity and tasks us with inventing new arrangements, some radical, to ensure human continuity.
This much is clear: whatever political identity and political structures we aspire to must be “mobilized into existence.” It’s on us. It always will be. It’s never over. Democracy may be slipping away, but it is not a lost cause.
Watch Nancy Rosenblum’s response to Charles Taylor’s talk, “Ways Democracy Can Slip Away,” hosted by Roosevelt House, here.