How Democracy
Doesn't End

Anthony Simon Laden

University of Illinois at Chicago

13 April 2020

Anthony Simon Laden

University of Illinois at Chicago


Anthony Laden is Professor of Philosophy, and, since Aug. 2012, Chair of the department. He is the Associate Director of the Center for Ethics and Education, a collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He received his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University in 1996. He works in moral and political philosophy, where his research focuses on reasoning, democratic theory, feminism, the politics of identity, and the philosophy of education. He also has interests in the history of moral and political philosophy, especially Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. He is the author of Reasoning: A Social Picture (Oxford University Press, 2012), and Reasonably Radical: Deliberative Liberalism and the Politics of Identity (Cornell, 2001), as well as the co-editor, with David Owen, of Multiculturalism and Political Theory (Cambridge, 2007). He has published numerous essays on the work of John Rawls, including “The House that Jack Built” (Ethics, 2003), and most recently, “Constructivism as Rhetoric” (Blackwell’s Companion to Rawls, 2014).

I wrote this piece in and for a different political era (ca. Feb. 2020), when the issue on the minds of people concerned with the fate of democracy (at least in the US) was the impeachment and subsequent acquittal of Donald Trump for abuse of power and contempt of Congress.  I offer it here as I wrote it, rather than trying to adapt it to our current situation.  I am wary of falling into the familiar trap of arguing, “everything is changed, and that just shows that we should do what I have been advocating all along!”  I hope it is nevertheless helpful for thinking through what a democratic response to this crisis might look like

How Democracy Doesn't End


Although worries about the fragility and death of democracy are probably as old as democracy itself, they have, once again, become pressing and fashionable.(1) While not wanting to downplay the dangers of the rise of authoritarianism at home and abroad, in this paper I try to call into question a 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.(2)

The bulk of the paper contrasts two pictures of democracy: one that depicts democracy as closed, and one that depicts it as open.(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 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 continue working out together how to live together.  So, second: the demise of institutions is not how democracy ends.  Finally, 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 on-going: 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, third: democracy doesn’t end.

Though the questions and circumstances driving this paper are practical and political, the paper itself is a work of philosophy.  It thus deals primarily with ideas, and how they........

(1)  Look no further than the best-selling status of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Broadway Books, 2018).

(2)  Although my focus here is on how democracies end, and thus assumes that there are (or can be) genuine democracies, and thus the pressing issue is how to sustain and preserve them, the analysis developed below can also be helpful if we reject that assumption.  If there are not (yet) any democracies to preserve, or we are not living in one of them, then the question is less about the end of democracy and more about the beginning.  But understanding how democracies don’t and do end will shed light on how they don’t and do begin.

(3)  This contrast has close affinities with and is much indebted to the distinction James Tully draws between modern and diverse forms of citizenship in James Tully, On Global Citizenship: James Tully in Dialogue (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014).


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