Democracy may not truly exist, but it's still worth fighting for: Astra Taylor

Canadian-American filmmaker and writer Astra Taylor admits that for most of her life the term "democracy" held little appeal. But when she took on the what-is-democracy question, her inquiry turned into a belief that while it may not fully exist, democracy is still worth fighting for.

'We need to reclaim this word even if it has been abused,' says the activist and author

Astra Taylor is the author of 'Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone,' published by Metropolitan Books. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)
Listen to the full episode53:59

** Originally published on October 15, 2019.

What is democracy?

That simple question is what put Astra Taylor on a quest to answer. The Canadian-American writer, documentary filmmaker has since discovered that the answer is elusive. 

"[Democracy] is not something that's ever actualized, but always something that is in motion, a kind of ideal we're reaching toward. But in practice, everywhere you look, democracy is in trouble."

For most of her life, the word "democracy" held little appeal for her — it was, in her words, "mealy-mouthed," "vapid," even "debased." 

But she says, thinking about democracy is at least as important as exercising the right to vote.


"Democracy is both something I'm reflecting on conceptually, but then I'm also trying to do in my work as an activist," she told CBC IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed while the two took a walking tour of Manhattan inspired by her what-is-democracy quest.

"I really see this as a kind of lifelong commitment to pondering what democracy could be and trying to put my ideas into practice in some way — and then pausing and reflecting again — that it's dialectic and dynamic that I now see is inherent to this word."

To provide a precise definition of democracy, at least as a system of government that prevails in the West, remains elusive. And in Taylor's view — which she expressed in a book and then a documentary film — that definition sits far beyond election day and the ballot boxes in which millions cast their votes.

Democracy as a public experiment

Taylor isn't convinced democracy even exists in its purest form. But she's certain it's worth fighting for. 

It was movements such as Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street that inspired Taylor to re-evaluate what democracy could be — people committed to directing their own way of running things, creating open assemblies and acknowledging the need for equal open participation. 

"It's an open question what democracy is and what I appreciate about Occupy Wall Street, for all of its flaws and its foibles, was that it was actually a sort of public experiment in thinking that philosophical political question through," said Taylor.

According to Astra Taylor, movements such as Occupy Wall Street were based fought for what democracy could be and why it was desirable. (Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images)

Despite the absence of a definitive answer, allowing for debate and questioning democracy left an impact, Taylor added. 

The protests also gave Taylor a new way to re-evaluate that elusive term, democracy.

"Maybe its openness is not just a flub, but a source of power and a source of potential. And we need to reclaim this word even if it has been abused."

Not just protest or electoral politics

There are many areas of our lives that democracy must carry, Taylor told Ayed. It has to include legislating, providing social services, infrastructure, cities and neighbourhoods, education, health care.

"So democracy for me is something that transcends this binary between sort of governing and being in governance of all the political system and the protesters, but actually relates to other spheres of our life. "

What makes democracy essential yet ultimately unattainable, according to Taylor, is the high bar it sets for itself, a political system in which "the people" rule — it's not clear who the "people" actually, nor how they will rule.

"Those two aspects of this concept are open to contestation and debate," said Taylor.

"Who the people are has been transformed over the last century really dramatically. We as women wouldn't be included in the demos 100 years ago. And how we rule ourselves also evolves and will continue to evolve."

** This episode was produced by Philip Coulter and Nahlah Ayed, with production assistance from Jackson Weaver.


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