Although worries about the fragility and death of democracy are probably as old as democracy itself, they have, once again, become pressing and fashionable.Footnote 1 While not wanting to downplay the dangers of the rise of authoritarianism at home and abroad, in this chapter I try to call into question the familiar story that locates the end of democracy in the breakdown of democratic institutions and their replacement by authoritarian ones. My goal is not to convince you that democracy is more robust than it currently appears, or that there is nothing to worry about, but to offer an alternative approach to thinking about democracy that shifts how we understand what makes democracy fragile and what that tells us about the end of democracy, as well as its futures.Footnote 2
The bulk of the chapter contrasts two pictures of democracy: one that depicts democracy as closed, and one that depicts it as open.Footnote 3 The first picture focuses on democracy as an institutional form that enables collectives to legitimately rule themselves. The second picture starts from the idea of democracy as a social form in which people work out together the rules under which they live together. Shifting from the picture of democracy as closed to the picture of democracy as open changes how we think about the relationship of democracy to its possible end. Exploring that space generates three thoughts about democratic fragility, as suggested by my title. First, from the point of view afforded by the open, social picture, the closed, institutional picture is wrong about what constitutes the death of democracy. Even when democratic institutions are subverted or overthrown, these events need not constitute the death of a democracy. This is not how democracy ends. Second, democracies need not end this way because even when democratic institutions break down (or when they never get fully up and running in the first place), democracy does not end as long as people remain committed to continuing to work out together how to live together. So, the demise of institutions is not how democracy ends. Third, once we begin to think of democracy as a way of living together, we will also see that democratic politics is an activity that is in principle ongoing: it is not the sort of action that can be completed or finished. If we picture democracy as a way of living together, then our work as democratic citizens is never over and done with. Thus, democracy doesn’t end.
Though the questions and circumstances driving this chapter are practical and political, the chapter itself is a work of philosophy. It thus deals primarily with ideas, and how they might be described, fit together, and be contrasted with one another. Nevertheless, my approach to philosophy is broadly pragmatist in the following sense: I do not take myself to be involved in a theoretical or metaphysical investigation into the true nature of democracy. I think of concepts as tools we use to make sense of the world around us. The value of a tool comes in what it allows us to do: here, how it allows us to think about some part of the world or our lives. The concepts with which we think are useful when they illuminate features or possibilities we might otherwise overlook, or when they show their connections to other, seemingly unrelated, ideas or phenomena. Altering the shape of those concepts can thus reveal features of our world that would otherwise remain obscure. My aim in laying out the two pictures and bringing out how they shape our thoughts about the end of democracy is to help us see both where our vision is blinkered if we insist on one picture and what possibilities for action emerge when we think differently. By seeing how familiar thoughts about the end of democracy draw strength and plausibility from the first picture, and seeing how a different picture refocuses our attention, we can begin to see the possibilities hinted at in my title that the first picture obscures.
Democracy as Closed
Democracy, like any social, political, or governmental form, offers a solution to a problem. We can thus begin to describe each picture of democracy by laying out the problem it takes democracy to solve and the particular features that make its picture of democracy a solution to that problem. What I am calling the picture of democracy as closed takes democracy to be a solution to a problem about collective action and decision. In particular, it starts from the question of how a large group of people can make and enact truly collective decisions in ways that give those decisions authority and thus make the actions that follow from them legitimate. Among the many things that make the problem of collective decision-making hard is the problem of dissent. A genuinely collective decision should be one that even those members of the collective who disagree with it can nevertheless regard as legitimately theirs. The picture of democracy as closed offers a solution to this picture by, centrally, describing a set of procedures and rules protected and enacted by institutions that serve the function of legitimate decision-making. At the heart of this picture of democracy, then, are things such as free and fair elections, representative legislative and executive institutions, and the rule of law. Among the features of these institutions, rules, and procedures that make them democratic (apart from enabling collective self-government) is that they treat citizens as both free and equal. Citizens are equal because the procedures for collective decision-making give them (in principle) equal say in the decisions. Citizens are free because, by giving them the capacity to issue authoritative commands to themselves, democratic institutions allow them to be self-governing, which is a form of freedom. It offers a solution to the problem of dissent and disagreement insofar as citizens can accept the authority and legitimacy of the procedure, and thus its results, even if they otherwise disagree with those results.
Starting from this basic outline, a number of familiar features of democratic institutions follow naturally. First, for democratic institutions and procedures to be mechanisms of legitimate collective decision-making, they must be fixed and settled before the decision in question is made. Consider the design of elections in this regard: elections are able to bestow legitimacy on their winners only if, among other requirements, it is not open to officials or others to change, after the fact, how votes are counted or what decision follows from the votes cast. What renders the decisions and actions taken through these procedures democratic is precisely that they result from following these procedures and working within these institutions. This is why violations of election law, whether through voter fraud, ballot tampering, voter suppression, or post-election reinterpretations of what counts as a valid vote, are thought to strike at the heart of the democratic character of a society. But notice that it also lends force to judgments that are dismissive of protests, marches, and other extra-electoral activities in a well-functioning democracy that aim to change policy or demand that duly elected government officials step down. Although such actions can be understood as attempts to change the views of elected officials or the voting public, they are also always the action of a small minority of that public. Since it is only by following established rules and procedures for decision-making that the entire public can make legitimate decisions, acting to change such decisions by other means will appear to be democratically suspect.Footnote 4
Of course, the actual procedures and institutions adopted by a given society need not be perfect. So, this picture will accept that democratic procedures and their outcomes can be criticized at any time for being neither free nor fair. But such criticism, on this picture, will only be legitimate if it points out how the procedure and institutions fail to yield legitimate collective decisions and acts of self-governance, and its “proper” use will be to reform how the next election is run, not to “overturn” the results of the previous one.
This is, I hope, a familiar line of thought. It sketches out, for instance, the terrain on which a number of central debates in democratic theory take place: between aggregative and deliberative conceptions of democracy, among various theories of deliberative democracy, and among institutional approaches over the place of representation in democratic institutions. In fact, I suspect that for some readers this characterization of democracy appears not to be a particular picture of democracy at all, but merely a basic description of what democracy is.Footnote 5
Note, however, how starting from this basic picture highlights some issues and obscures others. First, it leads us to focus, as we assess the democratic nature and health of a society, primarily on its procedures, laws, and institutions, rather than on the actions of its citizens. We need not take this point too starkly. A focus on institutions need not deny or ignore that the well-functioning of institutions depends on the proper behavior of those who run, maintain, interact with, and inhabit them, just as a focus on the behavior of citizens need not deny or ignore that citizens interact in large part via various institutions. The difference, rather, shows itself in two ways. The first is the order of priority we assign to the well-functioning of institutions in contrast to various good civic behaviors. On this picture, we see the value of good civic behavior as allowing for the properly democratic institutions to continue to function, rather than seeing the value of democratic institutions as enabling and easing certain forms of civic interaction. The second is whether we look to elites and office holders or ordinary citizens as the source of democratic health or fragility. On the picture of democracy as closed, the health of democracy lies primarily with elites and officeholders and, to the extent that the actions of the rest of us matter, insofar as we hold the office of citizen (primarily as voters).Footnote 6
A perhaps less obvious but for my purposes more important feature of the picture of democracy as closed is that it supports an attitude of what I will call “gatekeeping.” If the health of a democracy lies in the health of its institutions, rules, and procedures, then those merit protection from forces that might undermine them. On this picture, those forces interfere with proper democratic principles governing who is allowed to participate in collective decision-making and on what grounds. Protecting democracy then involves making sure that the various boundaries laid out by our democratic principles are respected and protected. This follows from the thought that our procedures, rules, and institutions must be fixed ahead of time in order to properly render and legitimately generate truly collective decisions. In addition, breaches of well-drawn boundaries compromise and corrupt the procedures that the boundaries safeguard by allowing those procedures to be hijacked or turned away from their basic purpose of generating legitimate collective decisions of those properly understood to constitute the demos.Footnote 7 Setting up those boundaries incorrectly or allowing them to be porous can allow undemocratic elements into or exclude certain legitimate voices from our politics. In either case, we risk threats to democracy. Thus, working within the picture of democracy as closed leads us to understand the work of protecting democracy, keeping it from coming to an end, in terms of defending those boundaries.
The focus on boundaries is not merely a question of geographical borders and immigration, although immigration is one terrain on which this gatekeeping orientation manifests itself. Nor is such a focus merely the position of those who want to keep others out or draw the boundaries narrowly. Many advocates of greater democratic inclusion are also arguing about where the gates and boundaries should go: they just want them further out. They are no less interested in and concerned with patrolling the boundaries once they are properly drawn. The orientation to gatekeeping shows itself not in the wish to draw the boundaries narrowly, but in the thought that the basic questions to be answered in working out a theory of democracy are where to erect those boundaries and how to protect them.
The first and most prominent set of boundaries separates the members of the demos from those outside of it: it determines who gets to participate in the collective decision-making. Debates about this boundary include debates about immigration, but also about the extent of the suffrage within a given territory. Historically, these have included arguments about expanding suffrage to the poor, women, and formerly conquered or enslaved peoples. In political theory these days, a more common debate concerns whether fair principles of inclusion should extend to various resident noncitizens as well as both citizen and noncitizen nonresidents. Thus, debates between advocates of an all-affected or an all-subjected principle for determining the demos are debates about this kind of boundary.Footnote 8 Although these recent debates appear to go beyond where and how to draw geographical or demographic boundaries, they nevertheless rely on the same picture. They assume that it is only once we have properly established the membership criteria for the demos, and thus properly drawn the boundaries between those who constitute the demos and those who are outside of it, that the procedures that allow the demos to make collective decisions can be properly legitimate and authoritative. They merely acknowledge that, in an age of mass migration and global interaction, the demos need not form a geographically cohesive set of individuals.
One of the more perverse effects of taking the question about the constitution of the demos as fundamental in these ways is how it shapes discussions in settler colonial states, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, about how to secure justice for Indigenous peoples. Its model of treating others as free and equal involves their inclusion in the demos, and thus their subjection to the principles and institutions of a given democratic state as citizens. Treating colonized people who wish to maintain their own sovereignty as full members of the colonial demos does not, however, undo the injustice of colonialism. It finalizes it.Footnote 9
The second boundary concerns the inputs to the democratic procedures: the types of speech or action that can contribute to the collective decision-making process. Many debates over the proper definition of “reasonable” or over the criteria of public reason aim to settle the proper place of this boundary. Thus, both those who draw those concepts narrowly and those who argue for a more capacious understanding of appropriate methods of civic discourse and action are oriented toward gatekeeping along this boundary.Footnote 10 In both cases, the underlying assumption is that, in order for democratic procedures and institutions to serve their purpose, we need to work out ahead of time a set of criteria to determine their acceptable inputs, and thus distinguish the inputs that are necessary for the procedure to be democratic from those which would pose a threat.
Finally, there is the boundary that sets the legitimate scope of the outputs of democratic procedure: the scope and limits of democratic authority. Debates about where to locate the boundary between private and public, or the extent of certain basic, fundamental, and inalienable rights, often take this form. In each case, we are working out and trying to institutionally establish the terms under which our collective decision can be legitimate, and where the authority of that process runs out. From this perspective, we can see one role of the individual private rights often described as the liberties of the moderns as placing a gate beyond which democratic action cannot proceed.Footnote 11
It is this orientation toward gatekeeping and boundary-drawing questions that leads me to call this a picture of democracy as “closed.” It also supports the familiar picture about how democracies end: democracies die when they can no longer maintain their boundaries. Depending on which boundary is breached, we get a different form of concern about the fragility or end of democracy. Breaches of the membership boundary are the particular concern of nationalists, who worry that hitherto foreign people may enter the decision-making process and change its results (“undermining our way of life”). Breaches of the input barrier tend to concern institutionalists, who worry that democracies end when prominent agents within democratic institutions (again including citizens qua voters) fail to safeguard them against antidemocratic ideas or behaviors.Footnote 12 Finally, breaches of the output barrier tend to concern libertarians, who worry about state overreach: democracy ends when the state starts to meddle in the lives of individuals or the market.
A second broad feature of this picture of democracy is the sharp distinction it draws between the civic action of democratic citizens and the background structure of institutions and laws in which those activities take place, and thus also between what might be called constitutional and ordinary politics. The point of basic democratic institutions and laws is not only to identify the class of citizens, but also to enable them to engage in action that counts as legitimately political and thus democratic. My actions count as legitimately political and democratic as long as they are carried out within the established boundaries and via the various institutions and procedures that have been established for that action, since it is through such institutions that my individual action can contribute to legitimate collective decisions and actions. And while those procedures and institutions can be challenged and changed, this picture leads us to hold them fixed in our thoughts when we are thinking about what might be called ordinary democratic politics. The model at work here is of a stable container that is sharply distinguished from what it contains. The actions we take and the speech we engage in within the boundaries of these institutions make a difference to what those institutions do but not to what those institutions are. We do not, on this picture, shape the institutions that contain our ordinary politics (electoral campaigns, legislative debates, regulatory hearings, etc.) through our ordinary politics. On this picture, it is, after all, precisely the ability of democratic institutions to contain our politics that renders our political actions democratic and thus capable of being legitimate.
This sharp distinction is what leads those working with this picture of democracy to think that the health or death of a democracy is to be read from its institutions, laws, and procedures – its constitutional structure – and not in the behavior of its citizens. On this picture, democracies die when their boundaries no longer hold and their institutions collapse or are corrupted and transformed into nondemocratic ones, not when their citizens stop acting like democratic citizens. Note, however, that this means that if we are trying to figure out whether a democracy is healthy or coming to or at an end, our attention will be drawn toward institutional and constitutional features, and not the manner in which we conduct our ordinary political lives.
This has two consequences that I note briefly here but return to when discussing the contrasting picture of democracy. The first is a reformulation of a point I made earlier: on this picture, the death of democracy is primarily an institutional and elite affair. It happens when elections are subverted or ignored by officials, when leaders put themselves above the law, find ways to change the law without following established democratic procedures, or use their authority beyond its established limits, and no one else in authority (including, of course, citizens in their office of voter) rises up to stop them. When these things happen, it is somewhat irrelevant what ordinary citizens do outside of the voting booth. Their main role is through their participation as gatekeepers in prescribed institutional procedures.Footnote 13 The second concerns what this picture obscures: it makes it hard to see how the manner in which we conduct ourselves politically as ordinary citizens can itself mark the end of democracy, as well as how it can work to preserve a democracy even as its institutional structure breaks down. As we turn to the picture of democracy as open, I hope to bring into our vision how such actions can change how we think about how democracies don’t end.
Democracy as Open
What I call the picture of democracy as open sees democracy as a solution to a different problem than the picture of democracy as closed. Here, we start with the problem not of collective decision-making but of living together. Specifically, how can a group of people live together under conditions of pluralism in a manner that treats them all as free and equal? The rough democratic solution to this problem is that we can do this if we also work out together the terms on which we live together.
By focusing on several aspects of this formulation, we can see why it generates a different picture of democracy – as open. First, the emphasis is on living and doing things together. I mean to signal here a more robust form of interaction than mere coordination or a procedure to which each has an input. We can begin to see the force of the idea of “acting together” if we contrast it, as I have done elsewhere, with “acting side-by-side.”Footnote 14 Acting and living side-by-side requires us to coordinate our actions to avoid running into each other or getting into irresolvable conflicts, and thus requires that each be aware of others and what they are doing. But that coordination can be achieved without there being anything that we see as our action by, for instance, a procedure for collective decision-making that pools our individual choices in a fair manner. In contrast, when we act and live together, we undertake a more robust form of sharing, where we not only coordinate our actions but understand those actions as ours, as what we are doing (together) that is not reducible to what each of us does. We act together when we act in a way that is governed by shared norms, rules, or goals that don’t merely coordinate our behavior (lay out what each of us is to do) but make our action intelligible to us as our action (as what we are doing).
This feature of acting and living together generates a particular problem under conditions of pluralism, given that pluralism involves precisely not agreeing about particular values, norms, and meanings. If we are united by a single faith, worldview, or mission, acting together may be psychologically difficult, but it is more or less clear what it would entail. The problem that democracy aims to solve is how to act and live together, given that we are not so united. It does so by giving us a task to do together that turns out to be possible under conditions of pluralism: working out together the terms of our living together.
To genuinely work out together those terms, we need to treat one another as free and equal: we cannot impose those terms on others. And this, in turn, generates a surprising result. My continual acceptance of what we do as done in my name means that I need to always have a way of challenging and criticizing the terms on which we act together. If I am prohibited from raising concerns about or criticisms of what we do, or if these concerns and criticisms are not taken normatively seriously,Footnote 15 then I am no longer working out with others how we live together or what we do, and so I am no longer interacting democratically with them. But, of course, this also means that if I am not open to hearing and taking seriously the criticisms and concerns of others, then I am not engaging democratically with them. So, on this picture, the activity of working out together the terms on which we live together requires continual openness to criticism, challenge, and contestation. In fact, it is this constant remaining open to criticism, challenge, and contestation that comprises, in large part, the activity of working out together the terms on which we live together. Moreover, since among the things we need to keep open to challenge are the very institutional forms through which we engage in this activity, we cannot preserve or sustain this activity by locking it into a fixed institutional form. Instead, we preserve this openness by sustaining an ever-shifting pluricentric conversation, wherein we engage with different people in different situations and for different purposes, but in which from any of them we can raise challenges to and criticisms of those different people. This, then, is the basic outline of the picture of democracy as open. Rather than being built around a set of fixed, fair procedures, it is modeled on a set of ongoing conversations. And so, preserving the health of a democratic society will not be a matter of patrolling its boundaries, but of widening the scope and enlivening the quality of its various conversations.
In fact, on this picture, establishing and patrolling fixed boundaries will serve to undermine rather than protect the democratic character of our interactions insofar as it cuts off certain avenues of criticism and contestation from democratic legitimacy. Giving up on the gatekeeping function of boundaries also dramatically changes how we think of the demos. Rather than thinking of this as a group whose membership is determined ahead of time and then given a certain status within various institutions, we can think of it as one whose membership is always open: my being a citizen is a matter of whether I engage with others about how to live together in this open fashion.Footnote 16
That a democracy is not marked by firm boundaries also gives us a way to rethink what democracy might look like in colonial societies. Challenges from Indigenous people to settler colonial societies’ practices of occupation and colonization do not, generally, come in the form of demands to integrate more fully into the colonial society. They more often take the form of wanting the colonizer to withdraw and recognize the sovereignty and dignity of the colonized society to run its own affairs in its own ways and relate to its land in a manner it might not share with the colonial society. Such demands often include insisting on borders and erecting barriers to entry, and so seem to involve a rejection of democratic relationships between settler and Indigenous peoples. However, if we think of these demands and these borders from the perspective of the picture of democracy as open, we can make, hear, and respond to these demands differently. One way to think about how to do so is to use an image from early attempts to work out such relationships between Indigenous peoples in North America and European settlers: we can hear them as a demand that each side paddle its own canoe while acknowledging that we share the same river. That is, we can interact democratically without all sitting in the same canoe (sharing the same institutions) so long as we can continue talking with and listening to one another as we work out where we are vis-à-vis each other.Footnote 17 Because democracy on this picture need not be contained within and protected by fixed and solid boundaries, we can develop means of democratic interaction that take place across borders. A demand to establish or respect a border, then, need not involve a rejection of continued democratic relations across it.
Because this picture of democracy does not require a fixed set of institutions, rules, and procedures to contain the action of its citizens and render them democratic, it also need not insist on a sharp divide between constitutional and ordinary politics. Among the things we do in the course of democratic living together is working out the terms on which we live together (as well as, as we have seen, who we are). The terms of living together are not something that is, in principle, to be set up, worked out, and nailed down prior to our democratic interaction. These terms also require openness to challenge and contestation from within the activity of living together; the form of the container is shaped by the activity of what it contains. To turn that around, the mere fact that a group of people are challenging the very terms on which they live with others does not put it outside the boundaries of proper civic action. In fact, it is precisely that they are challenging those terms that makes it properly democratic civic action. This means that the democratic quality of our life together is in part a function of how we conduct that life and the ordinary politics that we undertake along the way. We can erode the democratic features of a society by erecting gates and failing to be open to other voices, criticisms, and contestations, and we can revive and bolster it by taking seriously those criticisms and contestations and taking each other normatively seriously.
This blurring of the line between ordinary life and politics and constitutional politics then changes the place of law and other democratic institutions on this picture. Although laws and institutions continue to provide a framework for our interaction, they are also the outcome of that interaction, and it is precisely their being vulnerable to the effects of that interaction that make them democratic, insofar as this vulnerability is what it means for them to be open to contestation and challenge. Because the role of laws and institutions is not only to enable legitimate collective decisions but to provide a framework for and an expression of our mode of living together, they cannot be thought of or justified by their gatekeeping function. Serving such a role would be a sign they were not fully democratic on this picture.
Adopting a picture of democracy as open has several implications for our thinking about democracy (for what we notice, see, and pay attention to) that are important for addressing the questions with which I began. First, the democratic character of society lies not merely in a set of fixed laws and institutions, but in how we live together or fail to, and thus in our ordinary interactions as well. A society with representative institutions in which citizens no longer engage with each other in the project of working out together how to live together, or are no longer invested in that project, is not merely a democratic society burdened with bad or apathetic behavior, but one whose democratic character has frayed. In contrast, a society in which people genuinely work together in an open fashion to determine the terms of how they live together but do so without the traditional institutions of representative democracy is one that displays signs of democratic health. A society in which we are concerned to delineate and enforce various boundaries, to ignore or silence certain voices, or to cease to interact in a way that counts as genuine engagement will, to that extent, be undemocratic, while one where we work to make ourselves intelligible to others and strive to understand them and their criticisms and concerns will be democratic, possibly independently of the form of the institutions in which we take these actions. This means that when we are assessing whether a society is democratic or whether its democratic character is imperiled or at an end, we need to look beyond the health of its formal institutions. Note that the focus of the open picture on civic practices does not deny the importance of institutions. Institutions play a central role in making it possible for groups of people to live together democratically, and some sorts of institutions do this better than others. Some institutions and other large-scale social dynamics obstruct or block attempts to work and live together. Adopting the open picture, then, does not entail an anti-institutional orientation or an exclusive focus on civic practices and virtues. Nevertheless, on the open picture, what constitutes a society as democratic is its civic practices, not its institutions, and so the institutions will be justified to the extent that they help to enable those practices and proper targets of criticisms if they erode or block those processes. So, for instance, it might be more important for state institutions to be trusted and trustworthy than for them to be formally democratic as defined by a set of fixed criteria.
Second, picturing democracy as open in this way shifts us from thinking of the ideal democratic citizen as one who faithfully patrols various boundaries toward one who displays attitudes and practices of hospitality, inclusion, and neighborliness. That is, it suggests that, as citizens, we should be less concerned with which people, behaviors, or topics are a threat to various democratic norms, institutions, or values and how to protect ourselves and our institutions from them. Rather, we should learn to see our democracy as supported and sustained when we strive to be open to everyone’s contribution to how we live together: when we treat others not as outsiders and threats, but as neighbors and potential civic friends. The idea of hospitality I want to invoke here is not one that makes a sharp distinction between residents and guests and works out a special set of norms for the treatment of those who are mere guests, but one which welcomes those who cross various boundaries and treats them not as outsiders at all, but as welcome members of society. That is, it is an attitude which approaches those who might be taken for outsiders and accepts them as full members whose voices, concerns, and needs are taken as seriously as anyone else’s, and which recognizes that each of us is also an outsider and guest to the extent that we are dependent on the hospitality of our neighbors and fellow citizens for our position within the demos. This contrasts with a view that delineates and protects boundaries by placing various burdens and conditions on those who find themselves on the other side of those boundaries before they can be admitted in good standing to democratic processes.
Third, the interactions that constitute our living together democratically on this picture are, in principle, ongoing. The actions that constitute democratic politics on this picture are not undertaken merely to achieve a fixed goal or end point, but are, in principle, such as can be continued indefinitely. Living together democratically, unlike passing this piece of legislation or electing that candidate or winning this argument, is not something we come to the end of even when we complete some particular action. There is thus no end point of democratic action: democracy does not, in this sense, end. However, actions that are in principle ongoing can only continue if the conditions for their continuation are met; these democratic actions are not eternal and their continuation is neither automatic nor guaranteed. Ongoing action must be sustained even as it is carried out. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that, in succeeding at our proximate aims in an ongoing activity, we thereby lay the conditions for continuing on beyond that point. It is thus part of the work of doing such actions well that we attend to and provide for the continued existence of those conditions. While in conversation with you, I can successfully tell a joke or argue a point in a way that nevertheless undermines the conditions which would allow us to keep conversing. Being good at conversing, and not merely telling jokes or making arguments, depends on my also attending to the conditions necessary for us to continue our conversation. Similarly, I can successfully work toward an institutional or legal reform that I regard as improving the justice of my society, but do so in a way that erodes the conditions under which we can continue living together democratically. Moreover, since the activity of working out together the terms of living together is pluricentric, both the mechanisms of sustenance and those of erosion may involve effects on other conversations and interactions. Making the ongoing nature of democratic action visible helps us see the value of acting in ways that are democratically sustaining, which support and sustain the conditions under which we can go on living together, and thus why it might be worth bearing their extra costs.
Finally, if democracy is to be thought of as open in this way, then it cannot have a fixed and settled institutional form. That is, we cannot set out ahead of time the essential institutional features of a democratic society and then ask of any given society or practice whether it conforms to that template. Since being democratic is being open to contestation, it must be that the shape of a democracy can change in response to criticism without it thereby becoming undemocratic. What will mark societies as democratic is not that they conform to a particular range of familiar shapes, but that they display a certain kind of self-preserving activity, a way of going on, and that the shapes they come to both arise out of and make possible the continuation of that form-preserving activity.
We can sum up the points noted here by saying that if we picture democracy as open, then we need to pay attention to the activities that might sustain or undermine the possibility of going on together.Footnote 18 We cannot assume, as we will if we approach the matter from within the closed picture, that the democratic character of our society inheres entirely in a set of fixed and stable institutions and laws that can persist indefinitely without any further upkeep even if they are also vulnerable to attack and subversion. Rather, on this picture, the lifeblood of democracies is how their citizens interact, and this is something to which they must both continually commit and whose conditions they must continually sustain going forward. This, then, gives us a way to understand how democracy doesn’t end as well as how it does.
Democracy doesn’t end as long as those living together continue to work out together the terms on which they live together, something they do by remaining open and responsive to the challenges and criticisms of the forms that living together takes, and do so in ways that preserve the conditions under which they can continue to do that. Since such activities and such conditions are not entirely dependent on particular institutional forms or policies, democracy need not end when democratic institutions break down or adopt antidemocratic policies and laws. Of course, acting this way can be made easier or harder by various institutions and material conditions, and so institutional break down can be a step on the way toward, and increase the likelihood of, a democracy coming to an end. Nevertheless, from the point of view of this picture of democracy, the end of democracy is not something that can just happen to us; it is something we must do to ourselves. That means, however, that it is also always within our power to forestall the end of democracy or even renew and sustain it. Actions that are in principle ongoing can be restarted even after they have been cut off or wound down if the conditions for their continuation can be regenerated.
On the other hand, it means that democracies do end when citizens stop acting and living together as democratic citizens, when we replace democratic engagement with forms of interaction that lack the features described herein, or when we neglect the conditions that make it possible for us to continue doing so. Democracies can die in this way with all of their institutions, laws, and constitutional structures intact. When that happens, although we can revive our democracy by developing and deploying new democratic habits, there is no one else, and no institution, law, or procedure, that can do it for us. In other words, democracy ends, or doesn’t, with us.
In this chapter, I focus on the relationship between democracy, boundaries, and respect in terms of the distinction between civil and civic pictures of democracy, a distinction which can be initially glossed as that between democracy as a particular mode of civil order or constituted authority and democracy as a specific mode of civic agency or constituting power. The motivation for taking up this focus is not just that I think it can help to clarify some conceptual tensions in democratic theory concerning the boundary problem, but that it can serve as a way of reminding us of the priority of citizenship as a political practice to citizenship as a legal status and the salience of that priority for reflecting on contemporary problems of democracy.
The argument proceeds as follows. In the first section, I sketch out the conceptual distinction between the civil and civic pictures of democracy, while in the second section I consider their relationship. In the third section, I turn to address the implications of this picture for reflection on the democratic boundary problem before, in the final section, elucidating the importance of the civil–civic relationship for democratization and forms of democratic solidarity. I conclude by drawing out some wider lessons of this way of reflecting on democracy for its theory and practice.
The Contrast Between Civil and Civic Modes of Citizenship and Pictures of DemocracyLet me begin by introducing the distinction between “civil” and “civic” orientations by drawing on James Tully’s contrast between the two modes of citizenship – civil citizenship and civic citizenship – which is sketched thus:
Whereas modern citizenship focuses on citizenship as a universalisable legal status underpinned by institutions and processes of rationalisation that enable and constrain the possibility of civil activity (an institutionalised/universal orientation), diverse citizenship focuses on the singular civic activities and diverse way that these are more or less institutionalised or blocked in different contexts (a civic activity/contextual orientation). Citizenship is not a status given by the institutions of the modern constitutional state and international law, but negotiated practices in which one becomes a citizen through participation.Footnote 1
Two dimensions of this account need spelling out for our current purposes.
The first is the concept of “modes of citizenship,” which refers to both “a distinctive language of citizenship and its traditions of interpretation” and “the corresponding practices and institutions to which it refers and in which it is used.”Footnote 2 Modes of citizenship are thus to be conceived in terms of praxis, where this praxiological approach is one in which “the praxis of practice” is seen as “the medium of constitution of subjectivity.”Footnote 3 Through the praxis of practice, we acquire the abilities that are, at once, the ability to perform actions that realize the goods of the practices in which we are engaged and the ability to direct our own activity as practitioners of and as participants in the practice: thus “subjectivity is the practical self-relation of self-direction that is located in being able to carry something out.”Footnote 4 What distinguishes different modes of citizenship is the orientation or, more precisely, the practical attitude with which they engage in the activity – that is, their practical attitude as participants in a practice, where such attitudes cannot simply be adopted at will, but are acquired through practice.The second is the contrast between the two modes of citizenship. In general terms, civil citizenship as a mode of citizenship stands toward citizenship “as a [legal] status within an institutional framework,” whereas civic citizenship is oriented to citizenship “as negotiated practices, as praxis – as actors and activities in contexts.”Footnote 5 On the former view, civil action necessarily presupposes an institutional structure of legal rules; on the latter view, primacy is accorded to “the concrete games of citizenship and the ways that they are played.”Footnote 6 Thus, in relation to civic citizenship, Tully stresses: “Civic activities – what citizens do and the ways they do them – can be more or less institutionalized and rationalized (in countless forms), but this is secondary.”Footnote 7 Notice that this general contrast already constructs a fundamental difference in the mode of self-relation of individuals to themselves as citizens. The mode of citizenship-formation characteristic of the civil stance is of the individual standing to themselves as occupant of an “office” specified by a range of rights and duties, whereas that of the civic stance is of the individual standing to themselves as an agent whose agency is fundamentally relational, bound up in relations of acting in concert with other agents. Civil citizens stand toward themselves as persons who are at liberty (i.e. free from subjection to the will of another) in virtue of their enjoyment of the civil rights and duties that compose the office of citizenship under law to take up opportunities to participate as political equals in determining the law to which they are subject as subjects of a given political institution of governance. We can see a version of this stance in, for example, Rawls’ characterization of citizens as bound by a duty of civility (with respect to matters of basic justice and constitutional essentials) that requires them to engage in public reasoning by standing to themselves as if they were lawmakers. By contrast, civic citizens “manifest the freedom of participation”:
Civic freedom is not an opportunity [to participate] but a manifestation: neither freedom from nor freedom to … but freedoms of and in participation, and with fellow citizens. The civic citizen is not the citizen of an institution (a nation-state or an international law) but the free citizen of the “free city”: that is, any kind of civic world or democratic “sphere” that comes into being and is reciprocally held aloft by the civic freedom of its citizens, from the smallest deme or commune to glocal federations.Footnote 8
This contrast has significant implications for how we understand rights in citizenship contexts. On the modern view, civil rightsFootnote 9 are necessary institutional preconditions of citizenship in that they comprise the entitlements, liberties, immunities, and powers which secure the liberty of the citizen, that compose the condition of being at liberty. On the civic view, rights are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions of civic freedom. Rather, Tully argues, rights are products of civic activity, are secured by such activity,Footnote 10 and can serve as enabling conditions of civic freedom and, in particular, of the effective exercise of civic freedom. The point is simply that civic citizens have compelling reasons to struggle – as, of course, historically they have – for those rights, and conditions of exercise of rights, which are sufficient to make the exercise of civic freedom effective.
With this sketch of the distinction between the two modes of citizenship in place, let us turn to how civil and civic orientations picture democracy.
Democracy is a reflexive relation of political authority in which those ruled also co-rule as political equals, and rule that they so self-rule.
There are three elements to democracy so conceived. First, it is a form of collective self-government in which those who are subjects of rule are also coauthors of the rule to which they are subject in the sense that they command and obey, whether indirectly via representatives or directly. Second, the relationship of coauthorship is one of status equality expressed in the institution of citizenship. Each member counts as one and no more than one. Third, the citizenry authorize their self-ruling as this “self” rather than another one (for example, as two distinct political communities). As a civil condition, the democratic ideal refers to a constituted political order (a polity or civil association) in which status-citizens enjoy equal liberty to pursue their projects within a framework of rules that they coauthor as equals, that is free from alien rule, whether formal or informal, and where the polity is at liberty to pursue its projects subject to reasonable norms of conduct that it is an equal participant in codetermining. Importantly, the civil picture conceives of the foundation of a polity as the act that transforms a multitude into a people; it is being ruled that constitutes a people as such.
Democracy is the practice of acting with other agents as equals to shape and contest the field of interaction between agents; those actions affect each other’s conditions of agency in order to govern matters of common concern.
Here the focus is on agency: first, on democratic agency as a particular way of acting with others (“freedoms of and in participation”); second, to address a consequent of the fact that we are agents who, in acting, may alter the conditions of agency for others; third, to acknowledge that such interactions may give rise, directly or indirectly, to the need for common rules to regulate interactions and/or their effects. As a civic practice, the democratic ideal is a constituting political activity in which those affected by and through the (non)constitution or (non)exercise of public power exercise freedoms of and in participation in constructing, contesting, and transforming institutions and practices of governance.Footnote 11 By contrast to the civil picture with its dichotomy of multitude and people, the civic picture sees peoples as self-organizing collectives who adopt particular institutional arrangements as expressions of their self-governing activity.
In sum, we may say that the civil picture of democracy is oriented around an image of democracy as a constitutional form of political authority in which, at least presumptively, all subjected to collectively binding rules are entitled to equal status in the codetermination of those rules, whereas the civil picture of democracy pivots around an image of democracy as a constituting exercise of power in which all actors whose conditions of agency interact are able to participate in shaping (or contesting) the norms regulating their relations to one another.
The Relationship of Civil and Civic Modes of Citizenship and Pictures of Democracy
Given the contrast between these two modes of citizenship and attendant pictures of democracy, how should we conceive of their relationship to one another? I want to highlight three key features of this relationship.
The first is that civic citizenship is prior to civil citizenship in the sense that it is through the civic practice of exercising freedoms of and in participation with others that civil orders and the distribution and practical expression of civil statuses are constituted, deconstituted, and reconstituted. Civic citizenship views the citizen/governor relationship as a scene of agonistic interaction in which governors seek to structure the field of possible action of citizens, to govern civic activity, not least through civil statuses – and civic citizens, as free agents, reciprocally seek to structure the field of possible actions of governors, to “civicize” governance. Both partners, ideally, “enter into and subject themselves to the give and take of negotiation in and over the relationship they share.”Footnote 12 This takes the form of social, cultural, and political struggles within and over the terms of constitutional and nonconstitutional recognition that structure the social, cultural, and political fields of interaction. It is important to stress here the point that civic citizenship is not only a matter of contesting, for example, the distribution of civil statuses within a polity, but also of enacting a mode of relationship to others as civic equals, and the former is a by-product of the latter. The second and third key elements of the relationship between civic and civil citizenship help to further clarify this point.
The second key element for conceptualizing this relationship involves grasping that the scope of civil membership is not identical to the scope of civic membership with respect to a constituted polity. The scope of civil membership concerns those persons subject to the political authority of the polity as civil association – that is, it includes all those subject to rule, to the (coercively enforceable) collectively binding decisions of the polity, whereas the scope of civic membership refers to those affected by the constitution (or nonconstitution) and exercise (or nonexercise) of governmental power. Thus, whereas the civil demos is composed of all (competent) persons who are subject to the (coercively enforceable) political authority of the polity, the civic demos is comprised of all persons whose autonomy or well-being is affected by the (non)constitution and (non)exercise of public power by the polity. As we will see, this nonidentity of the democratic people of constituted power and the democratic people of constituting power is central to the dynamics of democratization.
The priority of the civic to the civil registers the fact that those struggling for civil membership in the form of, say, equal voting rights are already, in virtue of that struggle, practicing civic membership. Think, for example, of the suffragettes or contemporary struggles by immigrants. But it also speaks to a wide diversity of other forms of civic action, many of which may be transnational in scope, such as the current Black Lives Matter protests; the rich history of worker internationalism, including workers in one state striking in support of workers in another state; or the relations of solidarity and communication between many anticolonial movements.
The third key element can be drawn out by borrowing from a recent discussion in the philosophy of law which proposes that a civil order is constituted by boundaries, limits, and fault lines.Footnote 13 Adapting Lindahl, we can say that a civil order orders behavior by setting spatial, temporal, material, and subjective boundaries. A civil order as a legal order constructs relations between places, between subjects, between times, and between act-contents – and “integrates these four kinds of relations as dimensions of a single order of behavior, such that certain acts by certain persons are allowed or disallowed at certain times and in certain places.”Footnote 14 Civil boundaries can only join and separate ought-places, ought-times, ought-acts, and ought-subjects given the putative unity of a civil order as a species of joint action with a normative point – that is, as a form of political order that constitutively involves the first person plural standpoint as “we, together.” In being bounded, a civil order is also necessarily limited, because limits (along each boundary) are conditions of collective civil identity (e.g. nationality). Limits open up a realm of practical possibilities and close down others, and this opening up and closing down is just the articulation of the collective identity – in both idem and ipse senses – of the “we” whose joint action with a normative point individuates a civil order as this/our civil order. Limits – which denote the distinction between civil (dis)order and the “unordered” (that which is seen as “irrelevant and unimportant” from the standpoint of this/our civil order) – are disclosed when civic activity interrupts civil (dis)order to bring to light the possibility of an-other civil order. Civic activity encompasses activity that makes the limits of a civil order appear by introducing the strange in relationship with the familiar. Civic activity can run from weak to strong poles where, at one end, a transformation of the civil order can be accomplished in such a way that the civil collective identifies itself in terms of continuity-in-transformation (e.g. amendments to a constitution), while, at the other end, sustaining continuity-in-transformation is not viable and civic activity discloses not simply a limit but a fault-line which marks out the conditions of (im)possibility of the civil collective as a continuing “we” across time.Footnote 15 One might note here a distinction between liberal and radical views of Indigenous self-governance. Liberals construe Indigenous self-governance as disclosing a limit of the civil order; radicals as disclosing a fault-line.
Democracy, Boundaries, and the Civil–Civic DistinctionIt should already be apparent that these civil and civic pictures of democracy each align with one of the two principles that are widely proposed for addressing the constitution of the demos. The civil picture is aligned to the “all subjected” principle, according to which the demos should be composed of all who will be bound by the collectively determined rules of the polity. The civic picture is aligned to the “all affected” principle, which proposes that all affected by exercises of collective political agency should be included in the demos that determines how such agency is exercised. What is perhaps less immediately apparent is the way in which the distinction between these pictures helps to dissolve the democratic boundary problem itself. To elucidate this, it is worth recalling that the democratic boundary problem is framed – and draws its force from being framed – in purely civil terms. Consider Frederick G. Whelan’s framing of the issue thus:
1) Democracy is proposed as the sole legitimate decision-making method;
2) Democratic norms entail that the demarcation of the demos should be democratically legitimate;
3) But that would require that the demos that demarcates the demos is itself democratically legitimate, which would entail that the demos that determines the demos that demarcates the demos is democratically legitimate, etc.Footnote 16
The regress conjured here arises from the civil picture of democracy invoked – and the debates’ captivity to the civil picture of democracy has shaped its development. A revealing illustration is provided by Robert Goodin’s argument for the all-affected-interests principle in which he proposes that the logical response to the problem is a global demos for all decisions – the logic being that the only coherent version of the all-affected-interests principle is one according to which any person whose interests are affected by any possible decision on any possible agenda is included in the demos.Footnote 17 It is notable, however, that in motivating the all-affected-interests principle as the appropriate norm, Goodin considers that a reason why we may consider territorial, historical, or national groups as appropriate units for collective decision-making is that “typically if not invariably, the interests of individuals within those groups are affected by the actions and choices of others in that group.”Footnote 18 The point here is that it is the fact (where and when it is one) that the interests of a range of persons are interlinked in virtue of the effects of their agency on each other’s conditions of agency that underwrites the constitution of civil associations.
It is worth dwelling on Goodin’s insight because this focus on “interlinked interests” suggests that all those whose choices affect each other’s conditions of agency have pro tanto reasons to exercise their powers in constituting, reconstituting, or even deconstituting the formal or informal institutions and practices of governance through which they negotiate their relations to one another. Rather than specifying who is entitled to membership of the constituted demos of a polity, the all-affected principle in its suitably capacious form identifies all those having pro tanto reasons to exercise constituent power in relation to their current condition of governance in order to sustain, reform, or overthrow it. The civic picture of democracy is one that is oriented around the effective exercise of such constituent power by all affected agents through civic practices in which agents act in concert with one another as equals in shaping and contesting the normative character of their relations to one another, whether that may take the form of establishing, amending, or abandoning a specific practice limited to a particular type of relationship, an institution regulating a general domain of conduct, or a whole constitutional order of governance.
Why does this matter for the democratic boundary problem? It matters because, once we recognize the civic picture of democracy as part of the story, we don’t get thrown into a regress argument caused by the separation of the constitution of the polity from the constitution of the demos. It is perfectly reasonable – as a general abstract rule – for all those who are subject to the collectively binding decisions of the polity to compose the demos of that polity as long as the constituted form of the polity is open to effective contestation or renegotiation by all affected by its current constitution (that is, by the full range of actions available to it as an agent). Democratic legitimacy in its civil aspect requires the inclusion in the authorship of law and policy of all subject to the constituted authority of the polity; democratic legitimacy in its civic aspect requires the inclusion in the shaping and contestation of the form of governance that the constituted polity instantiates (and the practices of governance in which it engages) of all those affected by its constitution as agents having the potential to act in a wide variety of ways.
I noted in the previous section that rights are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions of civic agency but are, typically, enabling conditions for the effective exercise of such agency. What might that mean in the context of a constitutional democratic state? At the very least we might think that such enabling conditions would include, for example, publicity rights concerning state decision-making, border-crossing communicative rights, transnational mobility rights, and rights to contestatory processes that support the ability of all persons whose interests are affected, whether they are within or without the territory of the state, to engage in action in concert, to exercise freedoms in and of participation with respect to the negotiation of their relations to one another. But, importantly, the relevant enabling conditions extend beyond rights to encompass material circumstances and forms of collective organization.
These reflections on the democratic boundary problem raise the question of how we should understand processes of democratization in the context of the distinction and relationship between civil and civic orientations.
Democratization in its Civil and Civic AspectsDemocratization denotes a relation between civil order and civic practice that:
Struggles for democratization may focus on (or foreground) either the civil or civic aspects of democratization as forms of democratic solidarity. To draw out this difference, it is helpful to distinguish between two modes of respect: “respect as observance” and “respect as respectfulness.”Footnote 19 The former denotes observing your status as a rights-bearer: I recognize the dignity of your person by not breaching your rights or undermining your ability to exercise them. The second refers to an attitude with which I interact with you: I acknowledge the dignity in your person by engaging respectfully with you.
Democratic solidarity in its civil aspect expresses “respect as observance” by, for example, holding states accountable to human rights standards and international conventions or developing and extending the rights of citizens and noncitizens through judicial, legislative, and diplomatic methods. Contemporary exemplars of civil democratic solidarity are all the local, national, and transnational advocacy groups who fight for the recognition and extension of groups subject to forms of civil discrimination, ranging from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International to groups such as No One is Illegal, as well as those organizations offering legal services and representation in defense of such groups.Democratic solidarity in its civic aspect expresses “respect as respectfulness” by, for example, empowering the voices of those marginalized and excluded to be heard within civil contexts, or engaging in mutual civic relationships and building civic communities. Here is an example. Sana Mustafa, a cofounder of the international Network for Refugee Voices (and a Syrian refugee) recently noted that
There are some organizations that are doing refugee participation well. Oxfam International recently hosted an International Refugee Congress that engaged refugee-led groups and host countries as key actors. WeWork hired refugee consultants to advise on their World Refugee Day campaign on cultural sensitivity. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has formed a Global Youth Advisory Council of young refugees. Independent Diplomat provides diplomatic advice to refugee leaders to inform their participation in global policy discussions. Some nongovernmental organizations, like the Refugee Council of Australia, that have traditionally been responsible for representing refugee views in international policy discussions are instead funding refugees to travel to conferences to represent themselves. Perhaps most inspiring, however, is the initiative refugee-led groups are taking to redefine refugee participation and inclusion. Refugees are leading by example. Next week, a group of over 70 refugee leaders from around the world will descend upon Geneva to convene the Global Summit of Refugees. The summit will be the first ever strategic-level meeting of refugees, run by refugees, in the interests of refugees. Conceived by group of nine refugee leaders from Syria, Colombia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Afghanistan, living on six different continents, Global Summit refugee participants represent 26 countries of origin and 34 hosting countries. If there is one message that echoes forth from the Global Summit it will be: “Nothing about us, without us.”Footnote 20
What is particularly significant about the example of the Global Summit of Refugees is that these practices pre-figure a world in which refugees have the standing that is currently denied them – that is, as having the democratic right to have a “say and hand” in engaging in dialogues and negotiations that work out how they should be recognized and what counts as democratically or civilly legitimate forms of inclusion and accommodation in the community of all affected by the international order of governance.It is important to note a point in relation to these two modes of democratic solidarity concerning the relationship between “respect as observance” and “respect as respectfulness.” To see why, consider the general point that although breaches of your human or civil rights may be more immediately serious than dignitary wrongs, it can also be the case that the latter is more fundamental than the former in the specific sense that dignitary wrongs act to undermine the target’s claim to dignity as equal status. As Michael Rosen puts it:
One of the features that have characterised many of the most violent and destructive acts of the twentieth century has been the humiliation and symbolic degradation of their victims. … It seems to be a fact about human nature that human beings are able more easily to engage in the most violent behaviour towards one another if at the same time they expressively deny the humanity of their victims.Footnote 21
Dignitary wrongs work by introducing hierarchy into a category that marked equality, by differentiating the dignity due to different types of persons in ways that enable the phenomenon that Didier Fassin identifies when he remarked that “whereas many European states once regard asylum as a right, they now increasingly regard it as a favor,” where this development required that “the image of refugees had to be transformed from victims of persecution entitled to international protection to undesirable persons suspected of taking advantage of a liberal system.”Footnote 22 Fassin’s point here is that the undermining of the civil right of asylum (“respect as observance”), its transformation into the register of charitable favor, involved undermining the civic acknowledgment of refugees (“respect as respectfulness”) by shifting the perception of refugees in ways that undermine their equal claim to dignity in their person.
Democratic exemplarity in its civil mode enacts respect as observance, and that is vitally important, but democratic exemplarity in its civic mode performs respect as respectfulness, and that it is fundamental. The former instantiates commitment to showing that another world is possible and understands its activity as the vehicle through which such a possible world can be brought into being. The latter enacts another world as actual and understands itself as the medium in and through which this world is given expression.Footnote 23
ConclusionWhat are the implications of this analysis for contemporary democratic struggles? Perhaps the central point is that such struggles need to be bifocal processes in which one focus is on defending, securing, and extending rights that both support relations of nondomination and enable civic practices across multiple levels of governance, and the other is on the prefigurative civic enactment of an-other civil order. However, civil struggles around rights also hang on creating or sustaining a civic ethos; the lesson of the mass killing fields of the twentieth century (and, indeed, of the prior history of imperialism) is that “respect as observance” is dependent on “respect as respectfulness.” A good example of a practice directed to such a civic ethos is provided by Refugee Tales, in which writers and poets work with refugees and asylum seekers to tell their stories, lending their cultural capital and skills to forcibly displaced persons, enabling their testimony to reach public audiences and to support a condition of hermeneutic democracy in which the dignity in their persons is acknowledged in public culture. Such initiatives are, of course, swimming against the tide of nationalist/nativist populism, whose power depends critically on undermining the social bases of “respect as respectfulness” and cultivating an attitude of othering that denies commonality, but sustaining democracy as more than a kind of formal shell whose next stage is exhibited in the “authoritarian democracy” of states such as Turkey, Russia, and Hungary (in which executive power has hollowed out the democratic substance of the state) requires precisely such civic ethos-work. The civic is prior to the civil because, ultimately, the latter cannot sustain itself without the former. Democracy requires not just that we observe each other’s rights but that we attune ourselves to each other as equals. In a recent lecture, Beverley McLachlin, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, gave eloquent expression to this process of attunement in a remark which captures its spirit:
Over the centuries, the passengers in the Canadian ship of state – the indigenous peoples, the European settlers, the immigrants, and refugees – have all contributed to the conversation in their unique ways. They have squabbled, they have vied for recognition. But what distinguishes the Canadian experience is that these passengers have not only squabbled and vied for recognition – they have listened to each other. Sometimes belatedly, sometimes incompletely. But more than in many nations, they have shared their stories in a spirit of respect, and from that respect has come accommodation and agreement.Footnote 24
Whether this is an accurate portrayal of Canada is a question that I will leave to others; for my purposes, its significance is its recognition of the centrality of the civic spirit of “respect as respectfulness” enacted in dialogues of mutual listening to the achievement of forms of civil accommodation that better support relations of nondomination between civil citizens and enable the further development of civic practices.
To start answering questions about the challenges facing democracy today and about its futures, one must first ask “what is democracy?” I want to argue that this means treating democracy in a provisional key. There are several keys here. There is, first, the fact that, because democracy is so crucial to our political imaginaries, it is crucial to understand the challenges we face also as challenges to democracy. Second, there is the fact that when we ask what democracy is – or, as I will argue, what it means to make the question “what is democracy?” part of the answer to the very same question – then we are taking a particular perspective, one that will open some doors and not others. And, third, while this perspective helps us think about how to act, I will also argue for a conception of democracy as aporetic, where aporia means nonpassage, but a nonpassage that must nonetheless be navigated and, therefore, negotiated.
With a taxonomy offered by Thomas J. Donahue and Paulina Ochoa Espejo, the key – the crucial task and the way forward – becomes to treat democracy as a question not to be solved, dissolved or resolved, but to be pressed. Democracy becomes a question, or a problem, not to be resolved by “offering an answer to the problem’s question while providing reasons for thinking that the answer is correct.”Footnote 1 Nor is it a problem to be resolved as if we could “reconcile ourselves to the problem’s eternal presence” despite all solutions to it turning out to be unsatisfactory.Footnote 2 Nor is it a problem that can be dissolved by arguing that it “is not a genuine problem [but] rather a pseudo-problem, resting on a false presupposition.”Footnote 3 Instead, democracy is a question to be pressed, which is to say “that it can never be solved [but] will press itself upon us and haunt us until the end of time.”Footnote 4 Not only that, but the question of democracy is pressing: it is not one that we can postpone, given the importance of democracy for our political imaginaries. This aporetic character of democracy is what makes it both solution and experiment, in line with the etymological roots of “key” in the Old English cǣġ.
While there is an urgency to the question of democracy, such that we cannot postpone an answer, I also argue that democracy should be treated as provisional. By provisional, I do not mean that we do not yet have the answer to the question “what is democracy?,” as if it were a difficult question that we might one day, and with skill and luck, be able to answer. Rather, I mean provisional in the sense of Jacques Derrida’s “to-come”: democracy not as a horizon or critical ideal, but as a question that will “haunt us until the end of time,” in Donahue and Ochoa Espejo’s words.Footnote 5 And yet we must face the question. To say that democracy is provisional in this sense also means that we must speak of the futures of democracy in the plural: all we are left with are provisional answers to the question “what is democracy?,” and because there is no ultimate answer to the question, all we have are a plurality of answers.
Democracy is aporetic. The etymology of aporia is nonpassage, and this is also how it should be understood. It is a nonpassage that we are forced to navigate, but one where we cannot simply proceed on the basis of, for instance, an essential concept of democracy. We are forced to proceed without “some superordinate master language, absolute foundation, or final arbiter.”Footnote 6 Aporia therefore requires negotiation and decision.Footnote 7 We navigate it without banisters, but we must be careful here. Any individual negotiation of the aporia of democracy happens by specific subjects in specific circumstances shaped by inherited conceptions of democracy. Our negotiation of democracy is rooted in these inheritances, but not in some firm root; nor is it rooted in the soil of a nation, a common image today when invoking democracy as the rule of a natural national people. Rather, the provisional democracy that emerges from the aporia of democracy is a radical democracy in the sense of the etymological root of radical: radix, meaning root. Navigating the aporia means going to the root of democracy, not in search of an ultimate foundation or to dissolve the aporia, but in the postfoundational sense that there is no ultimate foundation or root. Yet, our negotiations of democracy are always rooted in particular, partial and overlapping conceptions of democracy or political imaginaries.Footnote 8
If we are dealing with a postfoundational conception of democracy, it is because it is a nonessentialist one. In Derrida’s words: “What is lacking in democracy is proper meaning … Democracy is defined, as is the very ideal of democracy, by this lack of the proper … there is no absolute paradigm, whether constitutive or constitutional, no absolutely intelligible idea, no eidos, no idea of democracy.”Footnote 9 The question “what is democracy?” – as in “what is democracy?” – therefore becomes part of democracy as a concept and as a practice. This opens up a discussion of democracy and what it involves: rights, social equality, the role of the people, who belongs to the demos and so forth. The yardstick (“democracy”) against which we decide upon these questions is itself in question, and this extends to the discussion itself, because we can ask whether the discussion itself is democratic.
If we say that democracy means rule by the people, then democracy is defined by the two questions “what is the demos?” and “what is rule?,” which is another way of saying that it is defined by the question “what is democracy?” Any democratic discourse would have to answer those two questions, and there would be a host of different answers to them. Democracy then consists of these questions and the answers given to them. Democracy opens an argument about those two questions, and this means that democracy is a peculiar practice that puts itself into question – that puts itself at stake – because there would be no way of deciding a priori what the people, what rule and what democracy are – in short, what democracy is.Footnote 10 And so a major problem facing democracy is how to negotiate this, especially how to negotiate limits to democracy while treating democracy as provisional.
Brexit is a good example that connects the two questions about democracy. If we think about the demos as a silo, so that sovereignty is siloed, then the rule of this demos must also be siloed, and something like the EU can only be seen as a betrayal of the British demos. But if we see the demos as internally fractured and as overlapping with other demoi (and so view sovereignty more in terms of a network), then it makes much more sense to pool sovereignty. This can be done in the name of a common demos (the European people, although this is itself a potentially problematic entity), but it can also be done by stressing interconnectedness. In neither case can we say that “this is democracy” because we cannot say that “this is democracy.” Or, to be precise, there can be provisional answers that take democracy to be this or that, but no ultimate answer; there are only provisional answers because there is no ultimate answer.
Democracy is provisional because it is aporetic. Derrida makes the connection thus: “aporia: the difficult or the impracticable, here the impossible, passage, the refused, denied, or prohibited passage, indeed the nonpassage, which can in fact be something else, the event of a coming or of a future advent [événement de venue ou d’avenir].”Footnote 11 Here, provisional does not mean “not yet,” as if we will, or could, someday arrive at a final answer to the question “what is democracy?” Rather, provisional means to-come in Derrida’s sense of à venir (to come) and avenir (a future advent): “‘Democracy to come’ does not mean a future democracy that will one day be ‘present.’ Democracy will never exist in the present.”Footnote 12 Democracy is not everything, while at the same time it is nothing. It cannot be just anything because it will always consist of particular articulations of democracy, differentiating it from what it is not (for example, populism, in some discourses on democracy). At the same time, it is nothing because it has no essence. Democracy is extended between these two: between the need to rearticulate it again and again and the ultimate lack of essence, foundation or root; and that tension is expressed by making the question “what is democracy?” part of democracy. Put differently, democracy is extended between conditional democracy (because it is always articulated in particular ways) and unconditional democracy (because any particular articulation of democracy can be put into question with reference to the democracy to-come, which always exceeds our particular articulations of democracy).Footnote 13
Democracy at Risk
If the question “what is democracy?” is part and parcel of democracy, then we have no yardstick independent of particular answers to that question. We have no independent yardstick with which to judge if a particular answer to the question is democratic or not; all we have are different answers. As a result, we do not have a bedrock definition of democracy that we can use in the defense of democracy against those who will use democracy for undemocratic ends. The distinction between democratic and undemocratic is itself at stake within democracy, and to the extent that we cannot say whether we are on one or the other side of the distinction when struggling over how to define it. Indeed, it is not clear that we can struggle democratically over the meaning of democracy when this struggle also pertains to what it means to be “democratic.”Footnote 14 There is an inherent rogueness to democracy as what happens in its name cannot simply stay within a norm of democracy.
These are the aporias that Derrida tries to capture with the notion of autoimmunity.Footnote 15 By autoimmunity, Derrida means a situation where an organism destroys its own immune system, which was supposed to protect the organism against external threats: “an autoimmunitary process is that strange behavior where a living being, in a quasi-suicidal fashion, ‘itself’ works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its ‘own’ immunity.”Footnote 16 Democracy is autoimmunitary in that it is caught between a closure to protect democracy against the undemocratic and an openness to what is to-come and cannot be predicted (which could be any answer to the question of what democracy is, to the extent that it would no longer be recognizable as democratic). Whatever we do, democracy is at risk.
To illustrate this, consider contemporary debates about democracy and populism and the relationship between them. Some discourses on populism oppose democracy and populism and treat populism as an existential threat to democracy. Other discourses take populism as a correction to a form of liberal democracy that has become more liberal and less democratic. Yet other discourses take populism to be an essential part of democracy.
Jan-Werner Müller’s work is an example of the first kind of discourse opposing populism to democracy.Footnote 17 According to Müller, populism is defined by its antipluralism. Populism is a discourse that imposes a particular image of the people on the pluralism of society, thus branding those who are different as illegitimate. It is a discourse of closure: “This is the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people.”Footnote 18 Müller gives as an example Nigel Farage’s claim that Brexit was a victory for the real British people;Footnote 19 his other examples include the governments of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. However, when it comes to defending democracy against populism, things are murkier. On the one hand, Müller says that only populists who cease to be populists can be included within liberal democracy because you cannot be both a democrat and a populist at the same time.Footnote 20 That makes sense if you see populism as an existential threat to pluralism and democracy. On the other hand, he does not want to ban populist parties, and he writes that “as long as populists stay within the law – and don’t incite violence, for instance – other political actors (and members of the media) are under some obligation to engage them.”Footnote 21 That makes sense if you associate democracy with pluralism. Müller seems to equivocate because he thinks of pluralism as a zero-sum game: if we exclude populists (because they want to limit pluralism), we limit pluralism.Footnote 22 If we accept the autoimmunitary character of democracy, however, the relationship between exclusion and pluralism is much more difficult and unpredictable.
Ernesto Laclau’s and Chantal Mouffe’s works on populism are examples of the kind of discourse that takes populism to be an essential part of democracy.Footnote 23 They link populism to popular sovereignty and argue that popular sovereignty is an essential part of democracy. There is no democracy – liberal or otherwise – without the construction of a people, or a demos. There is no natural people, only discourses that performatively bring peoples into being; in Mouffe’s words, “the ‘people’ is not an empirical referent but a discursive political construction.”Footnote 24 Populist discourses provide answers to the question “what is the demos?” Laclau argues that populist discourses can move in different directions, some more totalitarian and some more democratic. He suggests that Mouffe’s conception of agonistic democracy is a fruitful way to think about democratic forms of the construction of a people.Footnote 25
Mouffe thinks of agonistic democracy as providing a “conflictual consensus.” Agonistic democratic adversaries all subscribe to the defining values of liberal democracy – liberty and equality for all – but they interpret them differently.Footnote 26 The consensus among adversaries makes it possible to draw a line and defend democracy: “A line should therefore be drawn between those who reject those values [‘the ethico-political values of liberty and equality for all’] outright and those who, while accepting them, fight for conflicting interpretations.”Footnote 27 At the same time, any consensus is the result of hegemonic struggles. Mouffe writes that “every consensus exists as a temporary result of a provisional hegemony, as a stabilization of power, and that it always entails some form of exclusion.” She adds that “any political order is the expression of a hegemony, of a specific pattern of power relations.”Footnote 28
With Mouffe’s agonistic democracy, we are back to provisional democracy.Footnote 29 The conflictual consensus is conflictual all the way down. This is so despite the consensus around the values of liberty and equality for all. That consensus should be understood as a provisional placeholder for the hegemonic struggles over the interpretation of the values, where the interpretations performatively constitute the consensus. It is a “dimension of performative interpretation, that is, of an interpretation that transforms the very thing it interprets.”Footnote 30 Put differently, the values of liberal democracy are values we have inherited – not in the passive sense that they have already been defined and we now just need to accept them and put them into practice, but in the active sense of appropriating them through a process of interpretation that should be understood as a process of performative articulation.Footnote 31 This appropriation of the values of liberal democracy is not the reappropriation of an original meaning of the values, whether understood as an essence or as a historical origin. Rather, since there is no proper meaning to the values of liberal democracy, the interpretation of them consists of tropological – or, more precisely, catachrestical – displacements that are constitutive of the values.Footnote 32
If there is a totalitarian populist threat to democracy, Laclau and Mouffe provide us with no guarantees. In their terms, populism is an inherent part of democracy, and, as such, it may also be a threat to democracy. To paraphrase Mouffe, the question becomes how we can articulate forms of closure more compatible with democratic values.Footnote 33
Major Challenges to Democracy
What are the major challenges facing democracy today, especially if understood as provisional democracy? The first thing to note is that there are no objectively major challenges to democracy, above all because there is no objective essence to democracy. Challenges must be articulated as challenges, and major challenges must be articulated as major challenges, and the link to democracy must also be articulated (why are they challenges for democracy?). This is just what has happened to what we call “the environment” and, especially “the climate crisis.” It is not that these challenges are new, but that they have entered mainstream political discussions as major challenges, including as challenges to how we think about democracy. To take just one obvious example, we must ask ourselves how we take future generations into consideration while at the same time acting with urgency here and now. Indeed, there seems to be a general tension between the futures of democracy – futures that are not simply “ours,” but also “theirs” – and the urgent need for “us” to make decisions in the present, and where it is difficult to say who “we” and “they” are.
What, then, are the major challenges facing democracy today, especially if understood as provisional democracy? I will venture two major challenges: the environment and inequality. The environmental crisis is a challenge for democracy because it raises questions about who “the people” of democracy is: how do you include those affected in the future and those affected elsewhere? Inequality – within states and on a global scale – is a challenge because, even if everyone is included in the people that rules, they will not be so equally; some will rule more than others, for instance because they have better access to representation in national and international institutions. The two challenges are linked because the effects of the environmental crisis are not evenly distributed across inequalities of class, geography, gender and so many other things. It thus matters not only who is included in the demos, but also how they are included. The latter is not only a matter of inequality, but of what it means to be part of a demos that rules – for instance, the relative role of popular participation and formal institutions. Here, too, the two challenges are linked: we need to ask what forms of politics best promote urgent and lasting solutions to the environmental crisis – for instance, popular participation in the form of climate strikes or intergovernmental negotiations in international institutions. And with regard to that question, inequality also matters, because inequalities are distributed differently across different forms of politics.
Both the environmental crisis and inequality are challenges for any regime, democratic or not. The question is whether there is anything specific about democracy – and democracy in a provisional key – in the face of these challenges. The twin challenges of the environmental crisis and inequality take on a particular importance and inflection in democracy in a provisional key. This is so because in provisional democracy, the people – or the demos, the “who” of democracy – is representational.Footnote 34 By that I mean that the people is brought into being by performative invocations of it – that is, by representative claims about the people. The people does not exist, and therefore it must be represented. There is no essential or natural people that is then represented in political institutions or in representative claims about the people. That is why it must be represented in order to be brought into existence. The people “is” what it is represented “as.” While there is no natural nation, people or humankind waiting to be represented (or misrepresented), the performative conception of representation does not imply that, for instance, “the people” is created with a single representative claim. Rather, representative claims draw on existing representations of the people for their authority, and they must be taken up by others – politicians, institutions, subjects – who are themselves shaped by existing representations of the people.
If the people – the demos of democracy – is representational, democracy is provisional. This is so because the people cannot simply be given as a fact prior to the rule of the people, because it is also at stake in the rule of the people. Yet, the rule of the people assumes the people: it assumes that once the people starts ruling itself, it is already constituted. This is the aporia that makes democracy provisional: the people is at once prior to and a result of the rule of the people, and so we never arrive at a final answer to the questions “what is the demos?” and “what is rule?”
The performative conception of representation sheds new light on current debates about the crisis of democracy and of representative institutions. This is so in particular when the climate crisis is articulated together with a crisis of representative democracy: Extinction Rebellion, protests against airport expansions, and so on all challenge the representativity of representative institutions. Likewise, school children striking against climate change challenge our preconceptions of what it means to have an equal voice in the making of political decisions, because children can claim a strong stake in the future of the polity, but do not have full political rights in the present.
Usually, when we talk about representation it goes something like this: someone (a representative) represents someone else (the represented). The represented may be a person, a group or an interest, but we start from the represented, and the question is then whether the representative really represents the represented. We would think that there is representation, and not misrepresentation, if the representative reflects the interests of the represented. In this model of representation, we move from the represented to the representative. If we think of representation in this way, we can imagine a crisis of democracy when elected representatives do not represent the interests of those who elected them, but instead represent the interests of big business. The crisis arises from a mismatch between the represented and the representatives.
There is another way of thinking about representation. We can think of representation as not simply reflecting a state of affairs, but performatively constituting that state of affairs. This is what is referred to as a constructivist conception of representation.Footnote 35 Take, for instance, the French Yellow Vests (Gilets jaunes) movement. The French political system and especially the established parties are embroiled in a crisis – a crisis we could call a crisis of representative institutions (parliament, media, police, etc.). We can think of the right-wing populism of the Front National and the left-wing populism of Jean-Luc Mélenchon as reactions to this crisis of representation: these parties claim to speak for – that is, represent – a people that is not otherwise represented by political parties. Then comes along the Yellow Vests movement, which rejects representative politics outright.
How can we understand this claim by the Yellow Vests that they are not represented by the political system, let alone the political parties? If we think of representation in the usual sense, the claim of the Yellow Vests makes immediate sense: there is no one in the political system who speaks for the Yellow Vests; or, if they do, they misrepresent them. However, what if we think of representation in a different way: as moving in the other direction, so that the interests of the represented are not given, but are constructed through the very act of representation? In that case, we have to think differently about the crisis of representative institutions. We cannot simply say that French democracy is in crisis because the political parties do not reflect the true interests of the French people and the diversity of interests and identities within French society. Put differently, if “the people” is an effect of representative claims about the people, then we cannot claim that, say, Emmanuel Macron does not represent the true or real interests of the people, because the latter do not exist independently of the claim to represent them. If we think of representation as not limited to formal representative institutions, we can then think of, for instance, the Yellow Vests as engaged in (democratic) representative politics even when they refuse to engage directly with representative institutions. What we have are representative claims about the people – some from elected politicians, some from activists in movements, some in popular culture, some from your colleagues, neighbors and friends. We end up with a struggle between different representative claims – without any way of adjudicating between them by pointing to the “true” or “real” interests of the people.
Returning to the question of the climate crisis and of how to respond to the problem of future generations in the context of the climate crisis, thinking of democracy as provisional and of the people as representational gives us a new angle on the question. One of the problems with future generations is that they are indeterminate; the same applies to the problem of how to include those affected by decisions but not included within the polity. We do not know who and how many generations to include, what their interests are, and so on. With the conception of the people as representational and democracy as provisional, we can now see that this is a general feature of democracy. Democracy should not be conceived as a transparent medium for the will or the interests of a people, but as one way of constructing the people.
This conception of democracy in a provisional key does not solve, resolve or dissolve the problem of future generations. It presses the problem because it forces us to see that, with democracy, we are (also) in the business of constructing answers to the questions “what is the demos?” and “what is rule?,” here in the context of the environmental crisis. The same goes for inequality and how to think about that in a provisional key. For instance, what do “the demos” and “rule” mean in the context of a New International (Derrida) or a Green New Deal (Mouffe)?Footnote 36 What kind of subjects, sovereignty and representation can be articulated for a New International or a Green New Deal?
Gross and systematic inequalities exist across the world. They are a challenge and a threat to democracy (among other things) because they put into question the character of the demos, whether the demos of the nation-state or a global demos. From a postfoundational perspective, there is nothing essential about equality and no natural subject of equality. From this perspective, equality is an open question. It is this lack of essence which means that all we have are particular answers to the question “what is equality?” – that is, particular discourses of equality, or particular images of the subject of equality. Since there is nothing natural about equality, it must be represented and, thus, brought into being in a performative fashion. In the context of democracy, we therefore have to ask how the demos and those making up the demos are represented: what kind of (equal) subjects are they? What kind of image connects particular subjects to a demos? Historically, this image has often been that of a nation, with everything that comes with that in terms of religion, language, ethnicity, and so on. But there is no image of the demos and no image of the subject of equality without some exclusion, without a limit. An image of European democracy also carries exclusions, and even images of humankind rely on particular images of what it means to be a human being, and some are, if not excluded, at least marginalized vis-à-vis that image. There is no equality without subjects of equality, subjects that can be counted as equals. Equality is suspended between conditionality and unconditionality. The bottom line is that because equality is provisional like democracy – because there is no ultimate answer to the question “what is equality?” – there are no guarantees that equality will be articulated in a progressive direction.
There is nothing new about democracy being challenged. The challenges may be new, or at least relatively new in the case of the environmental crisis. What is new is that democracy is a universal language. Thinking of democracy in a provisional key – democracy as provisional democracy – invites us to press the problem of democracy: to take democracy not as a problem to be solved, resolved or dissolved, but as a question. To do so is also to proceed without guarantees that a better or more progressive result will follow.