Review: Democracy May Not Exist, But We Will Miss It When It’s Gone


Democracy May Not Exist, But We Will Miss It When It’s GoneAstra Taylor. New York: Metropolitan Books, (Forthcoming May 7,) 2019.

Summary: Explores what we mean when we speak of democracy, argues that real democracy has never existed, and explores the balance of paradoxes or tensions inherent in the idea of democracy.

All kinds of people toss around the language of democracy. We may contend that part of American greatness is its democratic institutions. A movement toward democracy has offered hope for many countries. The official name of North Korea is The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Astra Taylor poses the question in this book of what it is we mean when we speak of democracy. On its face, it seems simple, the word is a compound of the Greek terms for “people” (demos) and “rule” (kratia), hence the idea of the rule of the people. Taylor’s argument in this book is that a perfect democracy has never existed, that the best we have are approximations, but that striving for closer approximations is worth the struggle and something significant would be loss if we yield to the forces that diminish democracy.

Taylor resorts to an analysis of tensions within existing democracies that reflect the struggle between its ideals and its shortcomings. The book explores eight tensions:

  1. Freedom versus equality. Often some have been free-er than others, who sometimes are losers in the system, sometimes branded as inferior and marginalized.
  2. Conflict versus consensus. Rule of the people seems to imply deliberation leading to consensus, yet on many things people conflict, and “consensus” simply reflects what those in power enact.
  3. Inclusion versus exclusion. The question here is, “who are the people?” Often, supposed democracies have excluded or marginalized groups of people within a state. Women, blacks, LGBTQ persons, those of lower economic status may argue that they have lacked a voice in the deliberations of democracy.
  4. Coercion versus choice. While we speak of government exercising its power by the consent of the governed, this often results in behavior that is coerced in subtle and not so subtle ways. There are roadways I would be crazy to try to navigate on a bicycle or as a pedestrian. The rule of law reflects ways we have structured our economic life that shape our behavior in certain directions. At times, acts of civil disobedience are the only choice one has in the face of an unjust coercive law.
  5. Spontaneity versus structure. Often existing structures (for example gerrymandered districts, or restrictions of voting rights through efforts thwarting voting registration or voting) only change in consequence of spontaneous actions uprising against structures that are apparently “democratic.”
  6. Expertise versus mass opinion. Can a “Socratic mob” rule? Don’t we need experts for the complicated decisions that must be made in a society? Shouldn’t parents just defer to “trained educators” on what is best for their children?
  7. Local versus global. We live in an increasing global village, and yet, is not democracy most achievable at the local level? Do not local decisions have ripple effects all the way up to a global scale?
  8. Present versus future. What are the rights of those yet to be born in our democratic system, weighed against those currently alive, or even those who lived in the past whose influence may still be felt (for example, the limiting of inheritance taxes to all but the wealthiest estates that concentrate wealth among a few). Likewise, our environmental policies have implications for generations we will not see.

All of this is delivered in a lively style, translating political philosophy into easily understood prose, and illustrated with contemporary as well as historical examples.

While Taylor distinguishes her analysis from a strictly Marxist approach of identifying contradictions leading to the collapse of the system, her solution seems to rely on Marxian and Gramscian analysis, and in fact, a kind of uprising of the proletariat, that is a reform from below and admits that her economic vision is one of socialist redistribution of resources. There are suggestions in this book that it is time for a new form of constitution. I find all of this troubling, in some ways a modern equivalent of the French revolution of 1789. Democracy can disappear in a variety of ways, whether through nationalist plutocrats or liberal revolutionaries with their own statist solutions.

What this points up however is that these ideas become popular precisely when supposedly democratic leaders move away from democratic ideals–the importance of all of our citizens, a determined focus on social inequities and the limiting of rapacious capitalism. Books like Taylor’s are a wake up call to those who may least like what she is saying to take a hard look at how well all “the people” are served by our government. It is also a challenge to every one of us who calls themselves a citizen to take a hard look at what is taking place in our democratic institutions, and what it means for us to exercise responsible citizenship in this present time.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this an advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.