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Democracy: A Very Short Reading List

Osita Nwanevu
4 min read
Democracy: A Very Short Reading List

Hey all. Hope you’re having a great holiday season. There'll be one more end-of-year post next week and I’ll roll over this month’s queries for Mail Time into the new year. Send more if you’ve got any:

As you probably know, I’m at work on a book about democracy that’s about half done. I haven’t shared any of it and I don’t know that I can, contractually speaking. But I can share reading recommendations and I’ve been meaning to do so.  

One of the animating ideas behind the book is that for all we talk about democracy, public discourse doesn’t give us a particularly firm handle on what democracy actually is, how it actually works, and why it’s worth defending in principle. Those are first order issues we have to resolve at least partially for ourselves if we want to think clearly about how we might defend ⁠— and, I’d argue, establish ⁠— American democracy in practical terms. Consequently, I spend a large portion of the book as it’s written so far working through important concepts in democratic theory before I turn to the Founding and the Constitution. I learned a lot writing those sections and I’ve already revised certain ideas I held on what the democratic project is all about a couple of times over now. A lot of the texts that helped along the way were a little too dry and technical for me to heartily recommend. But some weren’t too bad and might even make decent gifts. Imagine a child in pajamas running down the stairs on Christmas morning, then hurriedly tearing the gift wrap away to reveal ⁠— Could it be? Yes! ⁠— a minor work by Richard Rorty. These are the things that make the season sparkle. Anyway, here are some picks.

Democracy and Its Critics by Robert Dahl (1989)

A classic in the field that’s a little dusty and basic at this point (and structured in a fairly annoying way, frankly ⁠— it’s a series of pseudo-Socratic dialogues with imaginary interlocutors representing different positions), but it’s an admirably accessible and comprehensive introduction to major questions theorists are still working through today. Why do we even care about majorities? What does it mean to “represent” the people? Who are “the people” we imagine are governing in democracies anyhow? A good number of holes in the argumentation, but noticing and thinking about them is worth your time.

Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone by Astra Taylor (2019)

Another wonderful intro to the basic questions, but from a leftist perspective. Taylor’s an activist and filmmaker who put out a documentary in 2018 where she asked people from different walks of life what democracy actually meant to them. Some of that material made it into this book, but there’s also a lot of history in here ⁠— the Greeks, the English Civil War, the American Founding, the Paris Commune, and much more ⁠— along with Taylor’s own reflections on our current democratic crises. A real gem.

Democratic Rights: The Substance of Self-Government by Corey Brettschneider (2007)

As readily as we’ve taken to the concept of “liberal democracy,” most theorists acknowledge that liberalism and democracy stand in real tension. What do we do when democratic majorities want to infringe upon the rights of minorities, for instance? This short book doesn’t answer that question, but it does argue very convincingly that we’re better off thinking about some of the rights we intuitively want to protect as being intrinsic to democracy properly understood rather than external rights that subordinate democracy to liberalism.

On The People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy by Philip Pettit (2012)

You’ll be a republican after reading this ⁠— the good kind. Republicanism, per Pettit, is about securing freedom from domination through political institutions and law ⁠— ensuring not only that we’re not arbitrarily hurt or exploited by others but that others don’t accrue the power to hurt and exploit us in the first place. Understanding freedom that way has radical implications ⁠— even more radical than Pettit suggests in the text, actually.

Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann (1922)

I actually read this many years ago before I’d even considered writing a book, but it’s been helpful to think about again here. Lippmann works through how public opinion is formed and what it actually means ⁠— his insights about journalism and how busy people inevitably have to process information hold up extraordinarily well for thoughts that were put to the page literally a century ago. His proposed reforms to governance definitely do not, but I think he’s one of the few modern critics of democracy as conventionally understood who’s fully worth reading.

The Concept of Representation by Hanna Fenichel Pitkin (1967)

I’ve already talked this one up, so I won’t say too much more about it, but this really is my favorite of all the books I’ve read for this project. Think about representation deeply enough ⁠— what it means to make the not literally present present ⁠— and you’ll wind up with as many thoughts about art and “feeling seen” as you will about electoral politics. I can’t think of a better starting point than this.

Achieving Our Country by Richard Rorty (1998)

This is the book that really set me on the path to writing mine ⁠— reading it was really clarifying and revelatory for me, and not just because of that section where Rorty straight-up predicts the rise of Donald Trump. Much of the book is about how progressives once saw perfecting democracy in America as a unifying, quasi-spiritual cause. There’s a bit of pretty stale anti-PC grumbling here and there, but I think Rorty’s reflections on the American left, the national pride of the American public, and how a visionary conception of democracy might bridge the distance between them are important and worth engaging with.

That’s all for now. I’ll have more to share when I’ve gotten more done. You'll be able to find most of the books on this and other lists to come on my affiliate page at Bookshop. As a reminder, a portion of the purchases made through the newsletter will go to the newsletter and me.

And don’t hesitate to send me any recommendations of your own. Candidly, it’ll be a while before I get to them, but I don’t really mind the length of my reading list anymore.

A Song

“Christmas is Coming” ⁠— Vince Guaraldi Trio (1965)

Happy Holidays. Bye.