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.

Review: The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth

The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth

The Rise and Fall of Peace on EarthMichael Mandelbaum. New York: Oxford University Press, (Forthcoming, March 1,) 2019.

Summary: Develops the thesis that 1989-2014 represented a singular period of widespread peace marked by absence of conflict between major powers, and what might lead to a return to peace in the future.

Michael Mandelbaum proposes that the period between 1989 and 2014 was a singular period in recent history of global peace. At first glance, I want to say, “you’ve got to be kidding.” My mind goes to Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, 9/11, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, just for starters. Yet each of these represented more localized conflicts rather than globe-spanning conflicts between superpowers.

During this period, the old Soviet Union was dismantled with the Eastern Bloc countries gaining autonomy, and in some instances, more democratic forms of government. Even Russia, under Boris Yeltsin took halting steps toward democracy and more of a capitalist system. In East Asia, the opening of commercial trade relationships with China eased tensions with its Communist government. In the Middle East, for a period after the Kuwait War, most or all accepted the U.S as a “benevolent hegemon” (at least until our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan).

Why did it all change? Mandelbaum traces the rise of autocratic nationalist leadership in Russia, China, and Iran, and argues that the ambitions of these leaders have brought us into a new era of global conflict, along with the added factor of North Korea in East Asia. With Russia, the economic setbacks of Boris Yeltsin’s tenure in office combined with the expansion of NATO to incorporate most of the Eastern Bloc but not Russia in a united Europe paved the way for the rise of Vladimir Putin. With the transition to Xi Jinping, and following the Recession of 2008, China took steps to strengthen its military presence, threatening other nations and the region and bringing it into increasing conflict with the U.S. North Korea’s young ruler, particularly feeling threatened by the U.S. presence in South Korea, also pursued a military buildup and nuclear program, one difficult to counter. Shia clerics in Iran seized on the weakening of Iraq and Afghanistan after U.S. intervention to extend influence on behalf of Shiite Muslims throughout the region and to pursue a nuclear enrichment program which could allow them to become a nuclear power in the region.

Mandelbaum considers the possibility to a return to such peace. His fundamental thesis is that peace is fostered by the rise of democracy, accompanied by economic capitalism, which discourages conflict with trading partners. He points to democratic movements in all three of the major powers (not so much in North Korea) as offering potential.

Mandelbaum’s thesis seems to rely on continued American greatness and “benevolent hegemony” combined with skillful relations that make it advantageous for these autocratic regimes to become more democratic and less belligerent. I have questions of whether such a continued role is sustainable for the U.S. given its burgeoning debt, fluctuating foreign policy and internal divisions. I also wonder whether democracy depends on worldview and cultural factors that cannot be addressed simply by implementing democratic processes, even if these powers were inclined to move toward them.

I’m far less sanguine than Mandelbaum and think we are in for some “heavy weather.” It seems to me that this new dangerous world order is a challenge for the United States to get its own economic house in order, to address the structural inequities that weaken its own democratic institutions, and to take the measure of these other powers in our diplomacy and military strategy for what they are rather than what we would like them to be. This will call for singular political leadership and national resolve–clearly absent in our currently divided political processes and national life.


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

Review: On Tyranny

On Tyranny

On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

Summary: A Yale historian draws twenty lessons from fascist and communist movements of the twentieth century and applies them to the American context.

This has been an unexpected book for me in several ways. I selected it in one of the review programs I am a part of expecting to receive a standard size book that was a treatise on tyranny, particularly given the academic background of its author, a Yale historian. Instead, what I received was a “pocket book” sized paperback with twenty pithy lessons on tyranny summarized in titles of six words or less, with a short paragraph summary at the beginning of lessons, the longest of which was nine pages.

The other unexpected thing about this book is that it is currently selling like crazy. At one point it was a number one bestseller in the Washington Post listings, and is currently at number three in the latest New York Times paperback non-fiction category. It is plain that this book has appealed to the apprehensions of many.

The author’s research is on Nazism, fascism, and communism, particularly around the Holocaust. What he has done here is distill all that down into a slim book that can be read in an evening, but will leave one thinking, “can it happen here?” It is clear that the author thinks it can and he is writing so that Americans will not be taken by surprise. The epigraph quotes Polish philosopher Leszak Kolakowski who said, “In politics, being deceived is no excuse.” Snyder’s short lessons are designed both to help readers discern the signs of incipient tyranny, and to know how to act in its face.

The first lesson is a case in point: “do not obey in advance.” He uses the phrase “anticipatory obedience” to describe the kind of voluntary compliance with tyranny that Hitler and other tyrants enjoyed. In the second lesson, he argues something I’ve discussed in different posts, that we ought defend the institutions from courts to a free press to local government that are bulwarks against overweening power. Just because we have them, we can’t assume they will survive. Later on, he extends this to voluntary and recurring contributions to organizations whose work reflects our worldview.

Another of his lessons also touches on a theme I’ve written on: “be kind to our language.” He notes all the tactics of tyrants from the Big Lie to the attribution of insidious motives to all opposition. He warns against falling into the banalities and emptiness of a language shorn of its resistant edge. He writes,

“Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”

He is quite serious about limiting presence on the internet. As is clear from recent laws removing privacy protections, as he puts it, “email is skywriting.” Between the information we yield to commercial interests, the selves we reveal on social media, and other ways we expose ourselves, we provide in his words “hooks on which to hang” ourselves.

His call is not, like some, a call to withdrawal, but in the vein of Edmund Burke, who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” he argues that we, like Rosa Parks should stand out (or sit down in her case) in the face of tyranny. His last lesson is summed up in two sentences. “Be courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

The author leaves no question that his concern is the current president of the United States. While some, no doubt, will admire the fact that the author pulls no punches; others will see this as simply one more broadside against the president who they think is a bulwark against tyranny, and reject its message wholesale. The work would have had far more credibility if it named examples of recent acts on both the political left and right that are incipient acts of tyranny. One could equally point to the erosion of religious freedom protections. Then there are the ways Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure have been diminished (under both Republican and Democratic administrations). While I would agree that the current president’s actions (particularly the politics of “alternate truth”) have been especially egregious at times and are concerning, they represent what I believe is a new stage in an ongoing erosion of the democratic and civic virtues that have served as protections of our liberties.

You can probably tell that I do not think this book excessively dark or unwarranted.  I think tyranny can happen here. Pre-Nazi Germany was a center of culture, of innovation, and some of the greatest universities in the world (by the way, I also think the author is blind, or at least doesn’t mention, the tyranny of the intelligentsia, both then and now). The lessons Snyder draws are warranted and all who care about our liberties do well to heed them.

What I wish Snyder might have seen and acknowledged was that the fear of tyranny on both left and right motivated the decisions and voting behavior of many. I find myself wondering if that might open up a better conversation about how we preserve and safeguard liberty for all — rich and poor, religious and secularist, LGBT and straight, creative class and working class, majority and minority culture. Too long we have pursued a politics in which the pursuit of liberty is treated as a zero sum game, where liberty gained by some must come at a loss for others. That, too, is a form of tyranny, where the liberties of some of our citizens are dispensable. It was just such habits of thought that allowed Hitler to arouse ire against the Jews, and those with various disabilities. Perhaps Snyder might add a twenty-first lesson: the attack upon the liberty of any of us is an attack upon the liberty of all of us and must be resisted.


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