Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone

Astra Taylor

Book cover

As an aside, I checked out this book from my library on “3M Cloud Library,” which I heartily anti-recommend. On top of the annoyance of only being able to read on my phone, the reading interface is clunky and very slow, not nearly as good as even the Kindle phone app. However! This book was good enough that I persisted in reading, when I think I would have given up on many other books.

I wasn’t certain how strong of a book this would be since it seems to be a companion piece to Taylor’s recent documentary (which I haven’t yet seen, but the book made me more interested to watch). But it very much does stand on its own. The book is structured in an interesting way, with each chapter discussing the tension between two seemingly opposing principles that have to stand in tension in a democracy–for example, freedom vs. equality, majority rule vs. expert opinion, etc. Each discussion is far-ranging yet also fairly focused and self-contained. Taylor integrates a variety of interesting topics, including for example what we know about governance structures on pirate ships. She also does a good job of complicating principles that might seem simple on their faces–for example, by touching on ways that including previously excluded groups in a polity can be done in ways that are both good (expanding the vote to women) and bad (de-recognizing the sovereignty of Native tribes).

Of many good parts, I think my favorite part of this book was Taylor’s serious discussion of the Athenian practice of sortition, or assigning governmental offices by random draw. She provides a very compelling discussion of the specific reasons the Athenians had for favoring this method as more democratic than elections, and makes some intriguing comments on how such a system would completely revamp many aspects of our society (such as education). Taylor argues fairly convincingly that ancient Athenians would not recognize the current American system of government as a democracy. At the same time, she is definitely not putting Athens on a pedestal, and acknowledges the many ways that they also fell short of democratic ideals. As the title says, Taylor’s view is that no society has achieved the ideal of democracy, but many may have something to teach us as we struggle to salvage and improve our own.

I think this would be an awesome book to use to structure a college course!

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars