This is the companion book to Astra Taylor’s excellent documentary What is Democracy? Many of the interviews, historical references, and scenes are fleshed out here and organized around a more pointed argument than the documentary offers. Where the film pursues curiosity about the true meaning of democracy and how it is meant to function through the lenses of historical definitions and contemporary history, Taylor’s book explores many of the tensions inherent to democracy to help us understand its fragility as a concept and practice and warn us that we are at risk of losing the bits of democracy we have established in modern times.
Democracy’s contradictions and tensions, especially its modern coevolution with capitalism, allow it to be exploited easily in ways that undermine its own ideals. Its strength and weakness is its fluidity. Most importantly, it is dependent on a shared belief of its citizens that this is how we want to govern ourselves, and a commitment to collaborate together to preserve it. This all makes democracy rare and precious and, as I said, fragile.
Taylor marshals a wide range of philosophy, literature, history, and contemporary commentary to present her case. The book is erudite and insightful in the juxtapositions in provides, like the movies Taylor makes as a skilled documentarian. At times, though, it feels a bit thrown together and winding. Being organized around themes, means it often lacks the compelling, cohesive narrative that makes you want to keep reading past the parts that don’t grab you as strongly. The book seems little confused about what it wants to be—straddling the line between an academic volume and a popular press book—but not quite succeeding as either. The book would have benefited from an edit developing stronger storytelling at the book and chapter levels to structure its narrative.
I still think Taylor’s contribution here as an amateur democratic theorist and observer of contemporary society is impressive. Right now, we are all looking for some guidance on how to make sense of democracy, and I think Taylor’s book will be instructive for many, especially in helping make sense of why democracy is not “the end of history,” but is rather an unlikely dance we have found ourselves in. And if we don’t pay attention and work together, “we’ll miss it when it’s gone.”