One year ago, a violent mob, guided by unscrupulous politicians, stormed the Capitol and almost succeeded in preventing the democratic transfer of power. All four of us former presidents condemned their actions and affirmed the legitimacy of the 2020 election. There followed a brief hope that the insurrection would shock the nation into addressing the toxic polarization that threatens our democracy.
However, one year on, promoters of the lie that the election was stolen have taken over one political party and stoked distrust in our electoral systems. These forces exert power and influence through relentless disinformation, which continues to turn Americans against Americans. According to the Survey Center on American Life, 36 percent of Americans — almost 100 million adults across the political spectrum — agree that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” The Washington Post recently reported that roughly 40 percent of Republicans believe that violent action against the government is sometimes justified.
Instead of showing textbook examples of democracy like voting and the White House, you choose to film black and brown faces who define democracy as the pursuit of justice and the American dream. Why?
When people think about democracy, they think typically of government and of elections. They think of the rule of law. They think it’s the protection of minority rights as a sort of principle, individual liberties. But there has to be an economic component, right? You can’t separate politics from economics.
The American dream, which was stronger in an earlier cut, is this pathological way that Americans have talked around the issue of class. It’s such an ideological phrase because it’s this idea of freedom, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, meritocracy, striving, the pursuit of happiness from the declaration of independence—but it was always founded on exclusion, founded on the dispossession of indigenous people and slavery, and a very selective relationship to immigration. Implicit in the film is the fact that there’s a critique of the American dream, but then there’s also something related to it, which is that everybody has the right to not just exist but to thrive.
In the film you go to a Trump rally in Raleigh. How do we view the MAGA movement through the prism of democracy? I did need to show this idea of popular sovereignty, but if it’s disconnected from other types of guardrails then it can be the tyranny of the majority even if they’re not really a majority. It’s more like the tyranny of a nostalgic retrograde minority. What struck me the most at those events (aside from genuine misogyny and racism) was some of the messaging on the big screens on the jumbotron. And it was all this anti-hedge fund, antibanker messaging. We cannot cede discontent to this pseudopopulist plutocrat-serving divide-and-conquer bullshit. The solution can’t be the sort of platonic idea that the masses are so moronic that we have to disempower them. It has to be “let’s engage in political education and actually try to improve people’s lives so we can pull some people to our side and marginalize those where there’s no hope.” But it is democracy. Democracy is always going to be unstable, it’s always going to undermine its own legitimacy.
Part of the message of the film is that, all the way back, Plato said the problem is the divide between the rich and the poor. Then when Madison and Hamilton were writing their Federalist Papers, they were like, “oh, democracies are unstable, but what we should do instead is just, you know, make a republic so that the natural aristocracy can shine.” The thing that we have never tried is actually just sharing the wealth. Let’s finally create conditions of relative economic egalitarianism and see how unstable things are.
Americans are disillusioned, for very good reason. Why did you bother making this film?
You can’t just wag your finger at people, because that doesn’t acknowledge the fact that people are cynical because the structure is actually really rotten. It is really corrupt. You have to hear people, you have to speak to people’s discontent. You can’t just smugly tell them that they should engage in the most baseline aspect of democracy, which is voting. And our voting system is so fucking unfair. The film is one thing, but as an activist, what we have to do is tap into that discontent and orient it in a constructive democratic direction and be strategic about how we then engage in what’s going to be a pretty brutal power struggle. Because the billionaires are going to write their little books like Howard Schultz. But when push comes to shove, they will try to kill us!
What about Trumpism? What is its appeal?
Like its antecedents, Trumpism appealed to many of its supporters as a response to perceived structural, class-based injustices. Like its antecedents, it said it would seek to shift the balance of social forces in favor of the left-behinds and underdogs. And like its antecedents, it finally couldn’t break free of the myths that are part and parcel of the American economic order and that help legitimate it.
The “American carnage” Donald Trump railed against in his 2017 Inaugural Address was the product of specific policies and a specific mode of economic governance. The symptoms of the “carnage”: stagnant real wages; pervasive health and job insecurity; the disappearance into thin air of America’s industrial base; ruthless labor, tax and regulatory arbitrage by corporations, in the form of offshoring and open borders; the corollary decline in union power in the private economy; the ravages of fentanyl; and, at the level of cultural and ideological production, the rise of Big Tech, with its power to discipline not just what workers do and earn but also what they can say and think.
* In response, Mr. Trump’s major legislative accomplishment was … a tax bonanza for corporations authored by House Speaker Paul Ryan. Mr. Trump’s China tariffs did some good, not least by challenging the Republican Party’s attachment to free trade.
The gig economy, with all its injustices and evisceration of workers as a class, roared on. Mr. Trump complained on Twitter about Silicon Valley power, but his party did nothing to reform the legal architecture that allows Big Tech to act as publishers without any of a publisher’s traditional liabilities — and then the president himself was booted from his favorite platform and could post no more.
Trumpism spoke to workers but didn’t govern in their favor, and they descended, as the American populist base too often does, into impotent rage.
The regime won another round. Whether it learned any of the lessons of Trumpian democracy is a different question.
Sohrab Ahmari is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and a visiting fellow at Franciscan University. This is portions of an essay published in the NYTimes, Jan. 6, 2022
More than voting? Everybody Counts?
"Democracy is not just a question of having a vote. It consists of strengthening each citizen's possibility and capacity to participate in the deliberations involved in life in society."
— Fernando Cardoso , Brazilian sociologist, professor, and politician
"Everybody counts in applying democracy. And there will never be a true democracy until every responsible and law-abiding adult in it, without regard to race, sex, color or creed, has his own inalienable and unpurchasable voice in government."
— Carrie Chapman Catt, an American women's suffragette leader
"The thing about democracy is that it is not neat, orderly, or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion."
— Molly Irvins, an American journalist
Politics of Listening?
What Is Democracy? doesn’t offer a connecting theory. Its attitude is entirely more Socratic, asking questions and finding possibility in the questioning. In its construction, Taylor’s film conveys the sense of trying to connect a not-at-all automatic circuit between philosophy and the politics of daily life; that listening to various people, finding the many languages and vocabularies through which problems are articulated, is the precondition for an actual conversation about ideas that is meaningful, in its widest and most transformative sense.
And as a result it feels much more empowering. You emerge from it without a master theory, but with a sense that there is a conversation about the state of democracy that you might enter into, and that is actually welcoming—even to people who have questions. What Is Democracy? does not offer the answer to the question of its title. But the way that it phrases the question is invaluable.
- Ben Davis, Artnet, 2019
Of, By, and For the People?
For those itching to take a political philosophy class or wishing they’d paid more attention in college, this documentary is a potent introductory course. Canadian-American filmmaker Astra Taylor (Examined Life) traces the idea of democracy back to its roots in ancient Greece and Plato’s Republic, visiting the philosopher’s strongholds in Athens and deftly weaving Greece’s ongoing debt crisis into her scrutiny of a corruptible system. Taylor speaks with public figures, scholars, and a wide range of citizens in several countries about their views of democracy and its fault lines, eliciting passionate commentary from all parties. Though her subject would be difficult to unknot even as a docuseries, what Taylor achieves with her feature is commendable. She presents an inclusive and necessary debate, asking whether democracy today really is of, by, and for the people, and if it ever was.
We were quite impressed with writer and director Astra Taylor's unusual and compelling documentary Examined Life in which eight intellectuals offered their perspectives on philosophical matters of importance to them. For this ambitious documentary, Astra Taylor again introduces us to thinkers and activists with varying perspectives, including Angela Davis, Cornel West, and William J. Barber. Their subject is the messiness of government of the people and by the people.
We learn that in ancient Greece both Plato and Socrates probed the flaws and potentials of democracy which to this day is diminished by inequalities of wealth, voter apathy, the power plays of global capitalism, and the narcissism of citizens who can't see beyond their own wants and needs. Taylor's hospitable purview enables her to listen to the ideas and ideals of those who have taken to the streets to speak their truths; those caught up in the financial crises of modern-day Greece, a black representative in the North Carolina state legislature, Trump supporters at a rally, a ex-con barber, and a Syrian female refugee. Framing many of the segments are Marxist scholar Silvia Federici's out-of-the-box explanations of the meanings conveyed through a fourteenth century fresco in Siena, Italy, depicting the early influence of capitalism on democracy.