Is Democracy Slipping Away?

Three Elements of Modern Democracy

Before I get to what I mean by our democracy slipping away, I want to make three points about the nature of contemporary democracies.

Firstly, modern democracy is constitutionally vulnerable to critique. What exactly does it mean that the people rule? Who rules is very clear in the case of a strong authoritarian leader, like Putin or Erdogan. But the demos?

Things were clear in the days of ancient Athens, because the whole people (or all those able to attend the ekklesia) voted on crucial measures. But that’s impossible today and would have been even then, if the franchise had been broad like ours. (Athens’s population at the time numbered 100,000, maybe more.) A similar point could be made about those other candidates for “real” democracy, the smaller Swiss cantons.

But in our day, the people only rule via a complex system of representatives, with the addition of checks and balances–essential to modern democracy and the rule of law. The sum of these arrangements often makes their workings opaque, allowing one to question whether the system really works as advertised.

Secondly, modern democracy, again unlike in ancient Greece, is universalist. Everyone is meant to be included. Modern charters are full of nondiscrimination clauses. And there is often great controversy concerning whether they are really honored.

Thirdly, I would like to claim that democracy as it is lived and understood today—I might say, “imagined,” in Benedict Anderson’s sense—is a “telic” concept, meaning that rule by a demos in which everyone counts is understood as a not fully realized goal. It is something we move (hopefully) towards, but frequently in fact we find ourselves slipping away from.

The thirty years after the Second World War, from 1945 to 1975 (les 30 glorieuses, as the French call it), were a period in which it was felt we were moving towards that goal; our situation since the 1980s is one where there is a general sense that we are sliding away from it.

Challenges to Citizen Efficacy

The complexification of contemporary government, along with a host of other factors, has contributed to a greater opacity surrounding democratic rule, and this in turn has led to a drop in felt citizen efficacy.

For a long time, however, either because government was less complex earlier, or because certain issues stood out as key elements of the demos’s demands, there remained a clear sense of how to bring about democracy (e.g., extending the franchise), or how to make it more effective, more real. Such a flagship issue was the Jacksonian demand to do away with the Hamiltonian state bank. This was both salient and felt aligned with other issues where the “people” were fighting for their interests against the élites.

Another issue thought by democracy’s supporters to be consubstantial with the “republic” was the cause of Laïcité (secularism) under the French Third Republic (1870–1940), prompting radicals and socialists to stand together.

But the last heyday of such issue alignment was the 30 glorieuses, where the demands of social democracy—full employment, some degree of state economic planning, and the welfare state—were central, and Left and Right polarized on them.

But such an alignment of issues that most people cared about (on one side or the other) has long since gone. Other questions, lying athwart these, have been raised by new social movements—feminism, gay rights, ecological sanity, etc.

All of this undermines felt citizen efficacy. The citizen voter doesn’t always know what parties or candidates to vote for; partly because she is pulled in different directions on different questions (do I vote Socialist or Green?); partly because the complexities of dealing with all these issues in a coherent way, and building a parliamentary majority around them, introduces an element of uncertainty. Politicians of perfectly good faith can’t be absolutely sure that they can deliver, even if they join or form a government.

Seven Spirals of Decline

This leads to a falling-off of confidence in the representative system, which in turn is reflected by a decline in voter participation since the 30 glorieuses. This has set in motion various vicious circles of decline. I want to enumerate the salient ones.

(1) The fall in voter participation, mainly on the part of nonelites, increases the influence of the better off, and also that of money in politics.

This has been worsened by (2) a rise in inequality, the gap between rich and poor, which declined between the Gilded Age and the 30 glorieuses, and then began to draw apart again at an ever accelerating rate. This increases the sense among nonelites that they have no real say in the system, lowering the vote further.

Then (3) frustration takes the form of action altogether outside the representative system: protest movements, Occupy, etc. These are often without effect, precisely because they have no impact on the vote (Occupy Wall Street); or they propose to step outside the system altogether (5-Star in Italy).

(4) The seeming incapacity of Social Democratic parties to rectify the economic and employment condition of nonelites then opens the way for a new definition of the drive towards the telos of democracy in which the “people” is now defined culturally or religiously, and its target is the “other,” but its political enemies are the liberal and “multicultural” élites. This we see virtually everywhere today in Western democracies. Of course, this is the basis of another downward spiral, because the programs of these “populist” movements can do nothing to remedy poverty and unemployment. They can only divide the demos, defined as the ensemble of disadvantaged nonelites.

On top of these four spirals, there seems to be (5) a “dumbing down” of electorates, in the sense that the grasp of the issues, and of what is related to what, declines among great swathes of the population. Am I wrong, dreaming of a past that never existed, when I say that previous cohorts of American voters in the post-War period would have laughed off the idea that stimulus packages won’t increase employment, or (even crazier) that reducing taxes on the superrich will automatically increase employment? This is paradoxical, because electorates in the West are, by formal criteria, better educated than ever before.

But perhaps this “dumbing down” is an inevitable consequence of disengagement from the representative political system: what doesn’t seem to work is not worth following closely. Yet, even those willing to engage with the system may not see how they can have an impact due to the system’s frustrating opacity. They can thus be vulnerable to savior figures who promise to restore (how is never specified) a better past.

I don’t think disengagement from the political system is the only cause here. But it plays a part as both cause and effect of “dumbing down.”

As a result, (6) the mythologies of neoliberalism benefit from the dumbing down of voters in Western societies. Having surrendered the mainstream political debate to neoliberalism the system’s ability to help nonelites is diminished.1

Linked in the downward spiral with the dumbing down are (7) developments in the media, each cause and effect of the other. At least this is true of two developments: big money’s control over media (e.g., Murdoch); and their growing irresponsibility (lately illustrated by their treatment of Trump during the 2016 presidential election: a great boost to circulation, but the media should also point out when people lie or say absurd things). A third development, the fragmentation of audiences that allows people to never encounter dissenting opinion, is related in a more complex way.

All these spirals help reduce the sense of citizen efficacy. The counterpart to this, the craving for greater efficacy among many citizens, is amply testified to by the success of such slogans as “Yes, we can;” and the fact that the most successful party emerging from Spain’s anti-austerity indignados (outraged) movement is called Podemos (“We can,” in Spanish).

On top of all this, the problems we face and their potential remedies are running ahead of the consciousness of even the most plugged-in voters, apparent in two important respects:

First, the really big problems, especially global warming, require action on a time scale well beyond the present electoral cycle, which politicians understandably focus on; and second, the problems and remedies also extend in space: controlling big multinationals, closing tax loopholes, and the like, require action on an international scale.


I’d like to finish with a comment on that annus horribilis for democracy: 2016.

This past year experienced a surge of what is often called “populism” throughout Europe and the United States. Basically, contemporary right-wing populism succeeds by weaving together two forces: a sense of identity threat among majorities directed against ethnic, cultural or religious minorities, or immigrants in general, which may often lie dormant beneath appeals for tolerance and openness; and a sense of grievance at growing inequality, or a loss of status, income, security in relation to the recent past. Populism flourishes where its leaders manage to bind together the grievance against elites among nonelites with the latter’s sense of identity threat. The discourse runs: not only have the economic and political elites scandalously neglected you, but they favor the minorities (or immigrants) over you; perhaps because they benefit from cheap immigrant labor; or just out of “political correctness.” Where this appeal succeeds, populism grows at the expense of parties of the political Left.

Many other factors determine how far this kind of appeal can transform the politics of a society, but two stand out: in conditions where the general sense of citizen efficacy is low, populism can flourish; but it also succeeds where the parties of the Left struggle in understanding and dealing with widespread senses of identity threat, and can only respond with condescending condemnation.

Defenders of democracy have a lot of catching up to do.

  1. One example is Bill Clinton’s push to “end of welfare as we know it.” I don’t know the statistics on this, but I would bet the “beneficiaries” (there ought to be a word, “maleficiaries,” for this situation) vote rarely. Why drain energy away from the daily struggle against things like eviction, when political participation could never help?
About the Author
Charles Taylor, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at McGill University, is the recipient of the prestigious John W. Kluge, Templeton, and Kyoto prizes, among other honors. Taylor’s philosophical approaches to the issues of modernity, democracy, equality, and inclusion in key texts such as A Secular Age (2007), Sources of the Self (1989), and Multiculturalism: Examining The Politics of Recognition (1994) have transformed conceptual categories in the humanities and social sciences. Throughout his career, Taylor has exemplified the crucial civic role played by university research, entwining his theoretical approaches with political participation in several domains: from the 1960s, when Taylor ran in three federal elections in Mount Royal to his key role in constitutional negotiations in Canada. He is the honored recipient of the Anxieties of Democracy program's 2016 Democracy Fellow.