How to Restore your Faith in Democracy
HOW TO RESTORE YOUR FAITH IN DEMOCRACY
In dark times, it’s tempting to give up on politics. The philosopher Charles Taylor explains why we shouldn’t.
Two weeks ago—when the election of Donald Trump was still, to many people, an almost comedic idea—Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, visited the Social Science Research Council, in Brooklyn, to talk about the fate of democracy with some graduate students. He had just won the Berggruen Prize, which is awarded, along with a million dollars, to a philosopher “whose ideas are intellectually profound but also able to inform practical and public life.” Taylor’s books tell the story of how some sources of value (love, art, individuality) have grown in relevance, while others (God, king, tradition) have declined. When we met, Taylor’s newest work was a lecture called “Some Crises of Democracy.” Citizens in Western democracies, he argued, used to find personal fulfillment in political participation; now, they were coming to feel that the democratic process was a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing, and that democratic politicians were con artists. Their desperation and cynicism seemed capable of turning these beliefs into self-fulfilling prophecies.
Taylor, who is eighty-five, is tall and handsome, with athletic shoulders and a thinker’s high, domed forehead. He radiates kindliness and thoughtful equanimity. Leaning back in his chair, he spoke softly, pausing frequently to cough—he had a cold—or to chuckle, in self-deprecation, at his own philosophical eloquence. (A typical laugh line: “How people understand democracy is different from epoch to epoch—that’s what the term ‘social imaginary’ is meant to capture!”) Economists, psychologists, political theorists, and some philosophers share a view of personhood: they think of people as “rational actors” who make decisions by “maximizing utility”—in other words, by looking out for themselves. Taylor, by contrast, understands human behavior in terms of the search for meaning. His work has been to make a farcically vague concept—“the meaning of life”—historical and concrete. In more than a dozen books, including “Sources of the Self,” from 1989, and the monumental “A Secular Age,” from 2007, he has explored the secret histories of our individual, religious, and political ideals, and mapped the inner tensions that cause those ideals to blossom or to break apart.
Taylor speaks like he writes—patiently, at length—and, at the S.S.R.C., he explained, step by step, how we find democracy meaningful. “Democracy is teleological,” Taylor said. “It’s a collective effort with a noble goal: inclusion.” As democratic citizens, we enjoy taking pride in democracy’s achievements: suffrage, immigration, civil rights. But, just as often, we feel anger and shame about rising inequality, insufficient representation, corruption. Democracies, often ruled by a revolving cast of élites, rarely live up to their utopian promises of inclusivity. Shame prevents us from being complacent; it urges us toward self-critique. Pride provides us with a sense of direction. The balance makes democracy a struggle we can believe in. “In some ways, democracy is a fiction that we’re trying to realize,” Taylor said.
This October, in the Washington Post, a Stanford political scientist reported that forty per cent of Americans had “lost faith in democracy”; a few weeks later, eight in ten voters told the Times that they felt “disgusted” by politics. Around the seminar table in Brooklyn, the graduate students—a chic, polyglot group from the U.S., Russia, France, and elsewhere—name-checked, in the course of their discussion, the issues that had raised feelings of shame to toxic levels: the suspicion that elections are “rigged” by lobbyists, donors, or establishment politicians (Donna Brazile’s leaking of debate questions had not yet come to light); the conviction that policy decisions are shaped by financiers (some of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches had recently been leaked); a widespread lack of accountability (for the bankers of 2008, the officials of Flint, Michigan, police officers, and others); the knowledge that Americans talk almost entirely to people who already share their political views. As each of these democratic failures was mentioned, Taylor, dressed in a down vest and hiking sneakers, nodded in recognition.
We’re used to thinking about political life as a series of battles in which different groups jockey for influence; we worry that these battles are too divisive. But in this election, divisiveness was rendered even more troubling by a creeping nihilism that made our collective behavior both more lackadaisical and more unhinged. Many people who voted for Clinton did so while “holding their noses”; others pitched in for Trump even though they didn’t really believe in him. (Sixty per cent of voters surveyed as they left the polls said that Trump was “not qualified” to be President.) As Taylor explained, during a crisis of democratic faith, we may still go to the polls. But we’ll participate in a spirit of anger, spite, irony, or despair. Some of us, Taylor concluded, will cast votes that are, essentially, “declarations of disbelief.” He laughed, softly, at this well-turned phrase, while the students took notes.
Taylor was born in 1931, near Montreal. He grew up in a household defined by religious and political commitments. His father was an Anglophone Anglican, his mother a Francophone Catholic. The household had a skeptical wing: his paternal grandfather attended Mass, but was a “Voltaireian anti-clerical” at home, he told me, in a conference room after the end of his seminar. The Second World War was the defining fact of Taylor’s childhood. “I remember every major event after the middle of the nineteen-thirties. The start of the war, the bombing of Madrid. The climax—a day I’ll never forget—was when France sued for the armistice,” he said, referring to the French surrender, on June 22, 1940. “In my family, that was the end of civilization.”
Taylor’s father was a veteran of the First World War, an avid reader of military history, and a Canadian senator. “He always had big projects going about strengthening the relationship between Canada and France,” Taylor recalled. In the sixties, Taylor helped found Canada’s New Democratic Party, serving as its vice-president and the president of its Quebec branch. He ran for Parliament four times, losing, in one instance, to Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s future Prime Minister. (Trudeau’s son, Justin, is the country’s current P.M.) Taylor is a devout Catholic—perhaps the only one to have written an eight-hundred-page history of secularism. He has raised five daughters. He loves nature and, whenever he can, works from a remote farmhouse about a hundred miles from Montreal, “in a wild area with wolves and bears.” He is the opposite of a nihilist—he believes in many things, very strongly.
Taylor often thinks that he is stating the obvious: “In moments of discouragement, I feel it’s all entirely self-evident, like two and two is four.” But some ideas, though true, are rarely stated, or need to be stated again and again. Real belief, Taylor reminded me—the kind of belief that offers some form of spiritual fulfillment—can be dangerous. Around the time of the Second World War, he said, many thinkers grew wary of such beliefs. “Joseph Schumpeter and others thought it would be better to care less,” Taylor told me. “The idea was to go to the polls every four years and elect an élite team. Don’t get excited and have mass movements of Communism and Fascism. It’s an idea that says, ‘Avoid the worst—avoid the terrible things that arise.’ “ He paused, then shrugged. “I have another ethic. I’m with Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hannah Arendt, Rousseau, Montesquieu. I believe it’s a higher mode of being to participate in your own self-government.” In Taylor view, cool disengagement is a fiction; an ardent search for goodness is the human reality. “We all seek a sense of what it would be like to be fully connected to something. We all have a sense of what really living, and not just existing, would be. We know that there’s a level of life that’s rare to attain. And whether we attain that or not can be a source of deep satisfaction or shame to us.” It’s possible, Taylor said, to live as a “resident alien” in a democracy, going to work and raising your family without “getting a charge” out of the democratic story. But something might happen to change that. “The feeling that I’m really happy to be living in this society or that I’m really upset; that I’m either living fully or being deprived of that experience—those feelings are signs that the ethic of democracy has seized you.”
Taylor’s philosophy has been decisively shaped by his political work. “His view of social and political life,” Isaiah Berlin wrote, has “an authenticity, a concreteness, and a sense of reality” unusual in philosophy; it is “generously receptive, deeply humane and formed by the truth as he sees it, and not as it ought to be in accordance with dogmatically held premises or overmastering ideology.” During one particularly formative period, Taylor served on a government commission on the question of Québécois sovereignty. (He has argued that, while the cultural and linguistic heritage of Quebec ought to be recognized, the region should remain part of Canada.) At public forums, Taylor heard from Francophone Canadians who were torn between resentment of the Catholic Church on the one hand and regional Québécois pride on the other. One man, Taylor recalled, raged at a parish priest who had “forced my grandmother to have so many children,” while also defending his Québécois heritage, or patrimoine, which was bound up with Catholicism. “At those forums, I learned a lot about how people think and why they’re scared,” he said. “I heard the same feelings expressed over and over again, and the penny dropped. I learned the nature of the fear of being changed.”
Taylor believes that, as individuals, we derive our sense of selfhood from shared values that are, in turn, embodied in public institutions. When those institutions change, those changes reverberate within us: they can seem to endanger the very meanings of our lives. It’s partly for this reason that events in the political world can devastate us so intimately, striking us with the force of a breakup or a death. (Similarly, a charismatic candidate can, like a new object of infatuation, help us find new possibilities within ourselves.)
Taylor’s calm, scholarly empathy is reassuring; his three-point program for engaging with one’s political opponents—“Try to listen; find out what’s troubling them; stop condemning”—is deeply humane. At times, speaking about Trump’s racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic rhetoric, his voice would rise in anger. Then he would pause, take a breath, and remind me that enthusiasm for Trump could be seen as a genuine and ardent, if misguided, expression of the democratic ethos. “The belief that democracy is supposed to be a system in which non-élites have a say—that principle is built right into the nature of democracy,” he said. “But there are constructive ways of asserting it and destructive ways.” Where Bernie Sanders had proposed a program that might have actually given non-élites more power, Trump proposed to consolidate power among a subset of non-élites by, as Taylor put it, “excising some populations from his definition of ‘the people.’ “
In answering the central question of “A Secular Age”—“Why was it virtually impossible to not believe in God in, say, 1500 . . . while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”—Taylor begins by quoting Honorius of Autun, one of the “scholar-monks of the high middle ages” who wrote during the eleventh century. At times, he seems to talk about present-day politics from this same distant and philosophical vantage. “As long as human beings aspire, they will be capable of corrupting the object of their aspiration,” he told me. “I’m a person of faith, and I would feel terribly deprived if I didn’t have that faith. But I also see how the corruption of faith is terrible. Think of the Inquisition. If I were Muslim, I would look at the present situation in Saudi Arabia and with the Islamic State and I would be appalled, as my Muslim friends are. There will always be modes of the supposed best that can be corrupted.” This principle, he suggested, is as true for democratic faith as for any other kind—a thought worth keeping in mind at moments like these, when the very meaning of the word “democracy” seems to be in dispute.
This week, I found myself thinking about Trump’s victory through the lens of my conversations with Taylor. Trump’s frank negativity—“We’re losing at everything”—spoke directly to Americans’ disillusionment; his emotional, unmediated spontaneity suggested, to some people, that a remote and overrehearsed political world might be made vibrant and fulfilling again. And yet it’s hard to see, in the long term, how a reality-TV host and élite megalomaniac will help citizens feel that their political engagement has meaning. Trump has created a pop-up movement—a media event built to last for the duration of a single campaign season. Similarly, many Americans felt empowered when they were actively involved in Obama’s candidacy—and then returned to being passive consumers of politics.
Plato proposed a republic run by enlightened philosophers, and Taylor has some ideas about what he might do if he were in charge. In big cities, he told me, it’s easy for people to feel engaged in the project of democracy; they’re surrounded by the drama of inclusion. But in the countryside, where jobs are disappearing, main streets are empty, and church attendance is down, democracy seems like a fantasy, and people end up “sitting at home, watching television. Their only contact with the country’s problems is a sense that everything’s going absolutely crazy. They have no sense of control.” He advocates raising taxes and giving the money to small towns, so that they can rebuild. He is in favor of localism and “subsidiarity”—the principle, cited by Alexis de Tocqueville and originating in Catholicism, that problems should be solved by people who are nearby. Perhaps, instead of questing for political meaning on Facebook and YouTube, we could begin finding it in projects located near to us. By that means, we could get a grip on our political selves, and be less inclined toward nihilism on the national scale. (It would help if there were less gerrymandering and money in politics, too.)
One imagines what this sort of rooted, meaningful democracy might look like. A political life centered on local schools, town governments, voluntary associations, and churches; a house in the woods with the television turned off. Inside, family members aren’t glued to their phones. They talk, over dinner, about politics, history, and faith, about national movements and local ones; they feel, all the time, that they’re doing something. It’s a pastoral vision, miles away from the media-driven election we’ve just concluded. But it’s not a fantasy.