Democracy: the people rule. But who and what are “the people”? Any given group of individuals? A more transcendent entity? A more restrictive one? How do “the people” gather? How are they counted? Do they speak for themselves? Should they appoint representatives to speak on their behalf? Is such a thing possible? How are “the people” to manage disputes amongst themselves? What happens to the losers?
Two decades into the 21st century, it is plain, to borrow a phrase from Woodrow Wilson, that the world has been made safe for democracy. This isn’t to say it prevails everywhere in substance. In fact, there’s reason to doubt it truly obtains even here in the United States. But a vast number of human beings today live in putatively democratic regimes. Still more live in fully despotic regimes that pretend to democratic values. And the questions above, given democracy’s reach, have implications for all mankind—both those who’ve been invited by their governments to believe that they rule and those still awaiting an invitation.
Most of us have come to take a stock set of answers to these questions for granted. But recently in the West, we’ve seen the rise of factions offering different ones—some new, some old. And many of democracy’s defenders have been caught flat-footed by their political success. Several decades now into the end of history, the time has come, it seems, to check our work.
The Democracy Essays will be an attempt at retracing our steps. Issues of scale, majoritarianism and representation; ancient critiques; the question of political legitimacy—we and our contributors intend to touch upon these and other subjects in writing aimed at dusting off democracy’s first principles and scrutinizing them under the light of an uncertain political era.
The Democracy Essays is a series by “Premises,” a public philosophy project that brings journalists, academics, and policy professionals together for seminars and events. We come to the project from different angles—those of a political journalist and a political philosopher—but share an interest here in examining democracy and other themes with new eyes. This series will run for six months. Alongside Shadi and Damir, we’ll interview philosophers and historians, bring debates from our seminars out into the open, and contribute a few writings of our own. We’ll aim to have new content published at least every other week.
We don’t know that we’ll reach any novel insights or forge a new democratic consensus. But we’ll definitely enjoy trying.